Foundation Grants Bring the Challenge of Chinese Into High Schools

By Sheppard Ranbom — January 11, 1984 7 min read
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The students read aloud from their Chinese-language textbook to practice speaking with the right sound and tone.

The dialogue begins, “How are you, Mr. Cheng?” but the teacher--a native speaker of Chinese--substitutes new Chinese words so the students can say “Welcome, Mr. Prime Minister.”

The students are 10th, 11th, and 12th graders at Sidwell Friends School in Washington, D.C., and they are preparing to greet the chief of state of the People’s Republic of China, who will visit the class this week to observe how American students are beginning to learn Chinese.

Nationwide Programs

The Sidwell students are among several hundred high-school students nationwide who are learning the Chinese language in programs supported by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

The foundation, which allocates one-fourth of its grants each year (or about $1.5 million) for secondary-education projects, has given $450,000 this year to 15 high schools around the country to implement or expand Chinese-language programs over a three-year period. (Two other high schools received funding for such programs in previous years.) The grants range from $20,000 for schools expanding existing programs to $40,000 for schools implementing new ones.

The foundation has also provided $71,000 to Princeton University to support the writing of a textbook on first-year Mandarin, the standard language of China, to be used in schools.

The textbook, which will be completed this year by T.T. Ch’en, professor of East Asian studies, and three colleagues, is “intended to be lively, interesting, and to take into consideration aspects of daily life” and to “speak to the reality of the American teen-ager,” according to Mr. Ch’en.

The book will be accompanied by related curricular materials, including video and audio tapes.

After its initial investment, the Dodge Foundation plans to continue its support with follow-up activities and additional grants for teacher-training programs.

“Our advisors believe that a summer school organized specifically for high-school teachers and students of Chinese--drawn from participating schools and others--will need to be established at a leading school or college,” according to Scott McVay, executive director of the Dodge Foundation. He said that last year the foundation made arrangements to hold meetings and enroll teachers at the summer language school at Middlebury College.

Ample Justification

The foundation’s move to encourage the expansion of Chinese-language studies in U.S. schools is amply justified, according to Mr. McVay. One-fourth of the earth’s population lives in China, he pointed out, and it is a country with thousands of years of accomplishments in all fields of human endeavor. Moreover, now that the door to China has been opened, he said, numerous possibilities exist for establishing business ties and cultural exchange.

“As the world gets smaller, it is necessary for us to function with sensitivity and intelligence with the rest of the world,” he said, adding that “there are more people in China studying English than there are persons who speak English in North America.”

According to Mr. Ch’en of Princeton, in the early 1960’s some 200 high schools in the United States offered Chinese, but in 1982 only about 30 did so.. As government funds evaporated, the programs could not be sustained, Mr. Ch’en said.

The Chinese program at Sidwell Friends, although new, is one of the best in the country, according to Dodge Foundation staff members.

The program began following the death of 20-year-old John Zeidman, an alumnus who was studying at Beijing Normal University. His family and friends created a fund in his memory that is nearing its goal of $250,000 to support the Chinese-studies program at the school. Sidwell Friends hired Lucia Buchanan Pierce, a former teaching assistant at Yale University and public-school teacher, to coordinate the program, which includes language courses taught by Dawn Sun, a native speaker, and civilization courses taught by Ms. Pierce.

Many of the students take both the civilization and the language courses. In their first three months of study, Ms. Sun’s students learn 120 Chinese characters and spend long hours practicing their speech to master the proper sound and tone.

By the end of the first year, Ms. Sun said, students will learn 200 Chinese characters and two-thirds of the rules of grammar. By the end of the second year, they will master Chinese grammar and learn an additional 400 characters. The two-year course is equivalent to one year of intensive Chinese instruction in college, Ms. Sun said.

Students’ Enthusiasm

The students who take the course say that they are enthusiastic about the program but that it demands a lot of extra time.

“It’s hard sometimes to give as much time as you’d like with all the sports and extracurricular activities and homework in other courses,’' said Kristin Schaefer, a senior.

“You can’t learn pronunciation by sound-ing out syllables, and mastering the Chinese characters demands daily attention,” said a classmate, Jessie Selin.

Said Peter Dratz, Chinese-language teacher at Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa, Okla., one of the handful of other schools offering a course of study in Chinese: “The language requires a fair amount of time to learn characters, but students who have a full load of academic courses find it hard to devote the time they need to become proficient.” Students are also hampered, he said, by the fact that they have little opportunity to speak Chinese outside the classroom.

The Chinese-language program at his high school has been growing for three years and now enrolls about 25 students a year. Those who graduate and go on to college to study second-year Chinese--at Tufts University, the University of Kansas, and other institutions--have all had success in their courses, he said.

Some 23 students have enrolled in the two Chinese classes being offered at South Eugene (Ore.) High School, according Lai S. Pang, the teacher.

She said she encourages students to work on practical conversation and progressively complex sentence patterns as well as phonetics before they start memorizing Chinese characters. The students, who are entering the second trimester of study, have gone through all the phonetics, she said.

The school will offer a Chinese civilization class next fall, according to Ms. Pang.

Schools selected to receive Dodge Foundation grants last year underwent a rigorous competition that included on-site visits by some of the leading Chinese-language experts in the country.

Prior to embarking on the nationwide project, the Dodge Foundation made a $30,000 grant to Saint Ann’s Episcopal School in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., in 1980 to “strengthen and advance” Chinese-language instruction and a $50,000 grant to Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H., in 1982 to develop a Chinese-language program.

School Programs

Schools awarded $20,000 grants to expand existing programs this year are: Bellaire (Tex.) Senior High School, Booker T. Washington High School in Tulsa, Brookline (Mass.) High School, the Breck School in Minneapolis, the High School of Engineering and Science in Philadelphia, and South High School in Minneapolis.

Schools that received grants of up to $40,000 this year to begin new programs include: Columbus (Ohio) Alternative High School, Milton (Mass.) Academy, Northfield (Mass.) Mount Hermon School, Orange High School in Cleveland, Sidwell Friends School, South Eugene (Ore.) High School, South Shore High School in Brooklyn, University High School in Irvine, Calif., and the West Hartford (Conn.) Public Schools.

According to Mr. McVay, the Dodge Foundation, which is based in Morristown, N.J., is ready to begin a new grant-selection process to fund 15 additional programs. Although last year the foundation “invited” particular schools to apply, this year it is opening the competition to all high schools. It will accept applications until March 1, 1984.

The foundation is seeking applications from schools that have strong foreign-language departments, the support of their administrative staffs for foreign languages and social studies, a “zeal” to see the Chinese language taught to more students, and a commitment to hire the best possible Chinese-language instructors, according to Mr. McVay.

For more information, contact Scott McVay, executive director, Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, 95 Madison Ave., P.O. Box 1239R, Morristown, N.J. 07960; (201) 540-8442.

A version of this article appeared in the January 11, 1984 edition of Education Week as Foundation Grants Bring the Challenge of Chinese Into High Schools


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