NASELLE, Wash. — At the foot of the door in a Naselle-Grays River Valley classroom lies a white piece of paper taped to the speckled tile floor. The teacher calls this her Chinese mat. Printed on the mat are three Chinese characters. They translate to “Speak Chinese.”
And that’s exactly what the students in the classroom do.
“That’s my rule from the first day,” Xia Qin, the school’s Mandarin teacher, said. “When they pass the mat, they have to say Mandarin in my class all the time.”
This school year, 73 students, ranging from kindergarten to seventh grade, will spend part of their day learning from Xia Qin, who was born and raised in China. During their world cultures class, 90% of the curriculum is presented in Mandarin, and students learn to speak, read and write in the language.
On some days, this looks like a game of Pictionary, as Xia Qin uses photos, videos and body language to help students understand her lessons and retain new vocabulary.
“You cannot just tell them the meaning and ask them to repeat it,” she said. “That doesn’t mean anything to them.”
On other days, the classroom — flanked with Chinese characters on bright, colored posters — looks more like a kitchen, where students learn to prepare Chinese food like dumplings, fried pancakes and broccoli. Xia Qin believes incorporating authentic cultural aspects in the classroom enhances the student’s experience.
This year, Xia Qin will teach students to make Chinese clothes from different dynasties.
“My classroom is going to be a mess,” she said with a laugh.
This is Xia Qin’s second year at Naselle-Grays River Valley Schools. She graduated from Portland State University in 2017 with her second master’s degree in teaching. Prior to coming to the U.S., she taught in China for five years, where she received her first master’s to teach Chinese as a second language. She’s been teaching Chinese for over a decade.
Teachers are highly respected in China, but that’s not what drew her to the field. “I love to talk so I think teacher is the best job to me,” she said. “I put my hobby in my career.”
The language program started in 2013 thanks to a grant the school district received that helped fund foreign teacher salaries. For the first five years, half of the school day was taught in Mandarin.
The program steadily expanded, and continues to add a new kindergarten class of Mandarin learners every September. However, after the grant expired two years ago, the school district had to reevaluate and decide how to continue offering the language.
The school district converted the immersion program to a world cultures class, during which students study in Mandarin for 50 minutes every school day. The switch allowed the program to reach more students than ever before, and is able to operate with just one Mandarin teacher.
“The lucky thing is every year we have new students that want to participate in the Chinese program,” Xia Qin said. “Our program is growing bigger and bigger, and that’s a good thing.”
Lisa Nelson, the school district’s superintendent, said the program provides students with the opportunity to learn and experience a world language in elementary school. “The Mandarin language is symbolic in nature, so young minds get an opportunity to explore both sides of the brain in its early developmental stages,” she said. “This can produce dividends in the long run as students learn new and unique ways to communicate, comprehend and address new information.”
Kendall Ford, the Mandarin mentor teacher, has three children in the program. “Of course I would love to have the immersion program back, but I do also think that the way we’re doing it now is very beneficial for them,” she said. “I feel like they are learning more of that conversational (language).”
Ford and her family moved to Naselle-Grays River Valley during the first year of the program, and her oldest son, Trajen, was part of the first kindergarten class to learn Mandarin. He’s now in seventh grade, and continues to study Mandarin at school.
“My husband and I figured that this is an amazing opportunity, especially in a rural area like we’re in,” she said. “Once I knew about the program, I did some research and learned how much your brain develops at these younger ages with language … there was no question.”
In Pacific County, where the population is overwhelmingly white, Ford thinks the program helps her children become more culturally aware.
“Sometimes, when we’re in these rural areas, this is all we know,” she said. “ I think kids learn … school in China is so different than us and what they eat is so different. They just become more culturally aware of other people.”
This second culture is part of daily life for the three Ford children, who can’t imagine an education that doesn’t include Mandarin.
“It’s my daily routine,” said Avrey, Ford’s 9-year-old daughter, who has a lofty set of dreams to accomplish in her bilingual future.
“What I want to do is go visit the Chinese teachers in China in the future and then learn more Chinese … and see a panda!”