I am a Spanish-bilingual second grade teacher in an urban, high needs, public school. Yet, I find that 42% of the school’s student population is not Latino, they are either Chinese American or newcomers from China.The Chinese bilingual families in my school and community speak Cantonese. In addition, the majority of my colleagues, as well as my principal, are also Chinese American. Since taking a position at my school, I have been eager to better understand Chinese culture and language. This summer, I did it.
Learning about Chinese culture while spending four weeks traveling through China and studying Cantonese on my Fund for Teachers fellowship provided me with needed skills to serve and empower the other half of our school.
My goal was threefold:
- Take an in depth tour of China to learn about its rich culture and history.
- Create an authentic curriculum about Chinese culture to bolster knowledge and pride of our Chinese American students about their family’s culture and educate Hispanic students about the culture of their Chinese American peers.
- Study basic Cantonese at Hong Kong Language School and live with a Chinese family in Hong Kong, acquiring some basic Cantonese phrases to engage students and parents often marginalized.
Through Global Exploration for Educators Organization (GEEO), I experienced China with a small group of intellectually-curious academics like myself. We toured the most important cities and historical sites, observed schools, collected artifacts and met daily with an assigned curriculum discussion group to develop lesson plans. Afterwards, I took private basic language classes.
As a teacher, I give information all year. In China, there was a change: I was given the chance to absorb as a student the history and culture that was foreign to me. Another thing that changed about me was my language proficiency. After working hard with my teacher Abbe at the Hong Kong Language School, I can now say complete phrases to parents like, “How are you today,” and “Your child is very smart.” Further, one of the biggest shifts I’ve experienced since the trip is in the relationship I have with my Chinese-American colleagues. Now back from China, I have noticed a shift in how they interact with me. It’s as if they appreciate me more.
It was vital for me to pursue my fellowship to expand my knowledge of China and Cantonese thus bolstering connections with my community. I have lived in my community for 20 years and was always intrigued by Chinese customs and cuisine; however, I felt alienated by my ignorance. After the fellowship, I feel more connected. In sum, I set out to help desegregate my Hispanic and Chinese-American students and in the process integrated myself.
As a career educator, I constantly strive to improve my teaching craft. After studying Cantonese, I have evolved in my empathy and understanding of my Newcomer students. I can relate to what it feels like to be surrounded by people speaking a language that is incomprehensible. I will do everything I can to help them feel comfortable, make their acculturation process to the U.S. smooth, and employ strategies that will bolster their English Language skills in a fun way. In addition, I will grow my teaching through implementing a unit on China to share my impassioned new knowledge with my students.
When I planned out my school year, I wanted to begin sharing my China experience right away. Our school provides breakfast in the classroom and during the time while the children eat, I show them pictures from my trip and tell them about what I learned. They love it and always ask for more.
My second graders are learning in a new way through a unit I developed about China. Over the seven years I have taught second grade, I only touched on Chinese culture through a few lessons around Lunar New Year. The lessons did not go deep or broad enough. Upon my return, I created an integrated unit on China that teaches the children about Dynasties, the Great Wall, the life cycle of the panda, writing Chinese characters and folktales. My youngsters research and do an oral report on one of China’s wonders such as the Terracotta Warriors, panda bears, or The Forbidden Palace.
Most importantly, I’m incorporating English lessons that emphasize the similarities between Hispanic and Chinese cultures. Students from the two cultures interview each other and share their information about each other’s culture with their class. The Latino and Chinese American students don’t really mix due to the language strands at our school. To remedy that, I began in January implementing a unit in China and Chinese culture with my Latino students. As the Lunar New Year approaches, we will take a field trip to China Town when the Cherry Blossoms are full to learn about Chinese American History, eat food in an authentic Chinese restaurant with chop sticks and shop at a Chinese herb market. Throughout all of these lessons, I’m helping my students see a bigger picture – how much they have in common with their peers and, hopefully, forge new bonds.
For seven years I have felt something was missing for me at my school. I felt held back by a lack of understanding of the Chinese cultural events at our school and couldn’t connect with all of my colleagues. Thanks to Fund For Teachers, I feel a part of my entire school community, enriched the lives of my students, experienced first hand the magnificence of China, and have improved my craft as an educator. What a gift! “M goi” Fund for Teachers.
Courtney Cook has been passionate about teaching in bilingual classrooms for 19 years. She teaches second grade Spanish bilingual at Spring Valley Science School in San Francisco. Courtney has aught in Mexico and Columbia, holds a Masters in Teaching and is a National Board Credentialed Teacher in the area of English as a New Language.