CASPER, Wyo. – Anastasia Lite Li is a soft-spoken woman until her students enter the Chinese classroom.
That’s when the 24-year-old Beijing native with a master’s degree in teaching Chinese as a second language comes alive.
“Ni hao, Mackenzie,” Li said one recent Wednesday morning, bending to shake the hand of a blond girl walking through her classroom doorway. “Ni hao, Braxton.”
Students in this kindergarten class at Paradise Valley Elementary in Casper know the drill: When the bell rings, the English ends. Their names are printed in English on strips of masking tape on a carpet near the back of the room, but little else is said or shown in English in Li’s classroom, which is the first of its kind in Wyoming.
It is not a special program for gifted students, nor a language curriculum like what is offered in high schools across the state.
It is immersion learning, where the program’s 42 kindergartners spend half the day learning math and science in Mandarin Chinese and half the day reading and writing in English.
Bright red Chinese dragons dangle from the ceiling. Tiny chairs circle knee-high tables. Depictions of everyday classroom instructions hang on white paper cutouts near the chalkboard. “Shh,” they say in Chinese. “Walk, don’t run,” and “Raise your hand.”
Li’s morning kindergartners sat cross-legged on a carpet near the back of room on a recent Wednesday. These students cannot read, speak or write Chinese. But to learn their numbers, Li says, they don’t need to.
“A lot of stuff they won’t be able to speak,” Li said. “But they will be able to understand.”
Li modeled actions for the students to imitate: zipping her lips, crossing her legs beneath her to sit quietly. She repeats the Chinese word for the action – or the number, or the object – day after day. Eventually, she said, they get it.
“I speak, speak, speak,” she said. “I don’t really need to tell them, like an adult, what each word means.”
That is because her students’ brains are sponges, she said. Children absorb and repeat sounds more freely than adults do, Li said, and faster students help translate for slower students. Li encourages her students to speak back to her in Chinese when they can. It starts, she said, by making partial sentences with Chinese words the students know – inserting the word “qianbi” for pencil, or “pao” for run, when acting out vocabulary.
A red-haired boy, for instance, raised his hand during class to get Li’s attention while the class cleaned up from one activity and moved onto the next.
“Miss Li, Mary Kay has a qianbi,” he said, using the Chinese word for pencil.
Starting in the spring, Li will have vocabulary lists for the students to master and specific math problems to perform. For now, she said, she lets the kindergartners explore the language – what it feels like to write Chinese characters, how the sounds are different than their native words.
“I don’t want them to lose interest in the language,” Li said. “It’s not hard. It’s fun.”
Joe Lockwood, 6, stood a few steps in front of his classmates during class, following the motions to a Chinese song while looking up at Li, who stood on a chair to instruct.
Later, Joe’s tongue stuck out from between his lips as he traced a Chinese character on white paper. He said he likes speaking Chinese, because no one knows what he is saying. Joe didn’t remember the Chinese sound for the character he was drawing, but his classmate did.
“I remember!” she said. “It’s fei.”
Joe’s mother, Megan, said Chinese and school are starting to click for her son, who is repeating kindergarten at Paradise Valley this year and was adopted from China.
“It absolutely doesn’t take away from the English learning at all,” Megan Lockwood said of the Chinese language program. “It helps with brain development to study languages, so it helps with English reading too.”
The family hopes the program will be around two years from now, so Joe’s 3-year-old brother – also adopted from China – can attend.
“I want to see it continue on,” Lockwood said. “I want him to experience proficiency in Chinese, and not just have it be a pilot project that comes and goes.”
Parent Mark Peterson said he is “tickled” that his daughter Maya can count to 100 in Chinese.
“She’s excited to learn,” Peterson said. “We hear her talking to her sisters in Chinese walking around the house.”
Peterson’s biggest concern was attracting a quality Chinese teacher to Casper, he said. Since the school year started, he said, that fear has subsided. He said he plans to keep his daughter in the program, so long as it is available.
A parent group called the Wyoming Dual Language Immersion Steering Committee formed last year to rally interest in a program. Committee Chairwoman Thea True-Wells said the program is not an extra-curricular – not just one more thing for parents to add to their kid’s plate.
“It’s not like swimming lessons or horseback riding lessons or tae kwon do,” True-Wells said. “It’s changing the way they learn.”
True-Wells visited the Casper classroom recently, and said she was thrilled with the program’s progress.
“To be able to give kids in Casper the opportunity to not only learn a second language, but to learn about a second culture, I think is critical to preparing students for the future,” True-Wells said.
Among the flowcharts and calendars dotting Paradise Valley Principal Aaron Wilson’s bulletin board is a black and white image of a single Chinese character.
It means “tiger,” and it is Paradise Valley’s mascot.
Wilson has supported the program when naysayers ask whether the school is getting ahead of itself by teaching kindergartners in Chinese. Many kindergartners haven’t yet mastered the English alphabet, critics say. Why introduce Chinese characters?
But research from immersion programs in Utah, where some 20,000 students statewide participate in dual language learning, suggests that most students who learn in a second language do at least as well – if not better – on standardized tests than students who are not in a dual language program, said Casper-based language consultant Ann Tollefson.
“We have a body of research that says they are more analytical thinkers, that they are more creative, that they deal better with ambiguous situations,” Tollefson said. “I also think definitely they’re more competitive.”
“I don’t know how many of those 42 children are going to grow up and have a job that requires them to speak Chinese,” Wilson said. “But I can tell you from kindergarten to 12th grade, the opportunities that this is going to allow them is great.”