When a group of Downes Elementary School students gathered at the Newark Free Public Library to chat with their peers Tuesday morning, they engaged in a dialogue that spanned languages, cultures and timezones.
The group of students – who were in grades two through five – are part of the Chinese immersion program at Downes. They spoke with six students from Best Learning English, an after-school English learning program based Beijing.
The video conference was coordinated by County Executive Matt Meyer’s staff, as Meyer is spending two weeks in China with a bipartisan delegation of officials from around the United States.
For about 20 minutes, the two student groups spoke with each other, alternating between English and Mandarin. Topics included video games, pets and hobbies. The students even performed a song for one another.
For Ryan and Lindsey Bachman, two students who have been in the program since kindergarten, it was a fun experience to talk with the Chinese students.
“It’s good learning new things so you can go other places and you know what you’re going to say,” Lindsey said.
Ryan added, “It’s good to be able to interact with people on the other side of the world.”
Both agreed that the experience was worth taking a break from summer vacation for a morning.
“They’re fun to talk to,” Ryan said.
After watching the chat between the students, Downes Principal Trish Prettyman said she was impressed and proud of the students.
“I’m proud of the fact they were so excited to do it,” she said. “It’s a scary thing, when you think about the fact that you’re on stage, in front of strangers, talking on a camera. I thought they were really amazing; I was very impressed.”
Prettyman explained that county spokesman Jason Miller reached out to her about Meyer’s impending trip and suggested they set up communication between the students. While he set up a place for them to video chat, Prettyman gathered the students with the help of Kelly Bachman, the communications manager for Newark who previously worked for former Gov. Jack Markell when he rolled out the language immersion initiative in 2012.
Because the kids are on summer break, they didn’t have an opportunity to prepare, so everything they said and asked was all up to them with no previous rehearsing and only a little bit of help from Li Li Lin, field agent for the Chinese immersion program.
“I think this is an awesome start,” Lin said, who added that she would like for the two groups to continue conversation during the video chat. “Because a student only learn[s] in a classroom, eventually they’re going to lose that enthusiasm because, ‘What are we learning for? We’re never going to use it.’ [To] take the learning out of the classroom, connect with authentic culture, native speakers, so that can cultivate that intrinsic motivation because, ‘Oh I have to prepare for next time, I want to speak more, I want to ask more questions.’”
“They get to see that their learning of a language, the purpose behind it, the ability to communicate with another country, another culture and also to see the learning of their own language and the importance of being able to speak at such a young age,” she continued.
Learning Mandarin helps students connect with and better understand a different culture, Lin said. But the school’s recent scores in math – landing in the 89 and 91 percentile for the two grades that were tested – are also an “undeniable fact” to the benefits, she added.
“When you’re learning this language, you use both hemispheres of the brain. That’s why when they’re thinking, they’re thinking differently than the regular student who was never exposed. So subconsciously, it improves their capacity [of] critical thinking and problem solving because you have to negotiate a meaning of what you learn,” she said.
For the 2019-2020 school year, the Mandarin immersion program will matriculate to Shue-Medill Middle School, where work is already underway to prepare for the program and the students.
“Chinese have a saying, ‘A thousand miles starts with a single step.’ The first step always the most challenging,” Lin said of Downes’s effort leading the Chinese immersion initiative.