Tuesday, November 14, 2000

Languages this school's specialty

Lessons in other cultures also give kids a world view

By Andrea Tortora
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Students entering Peiyan Berman's classroom are greeted with a riddle. The clue is on the board. And not surprisingly in this class where Ms. Berman speaks to students in her native tongue, it is a Chinese character.

        When the 17 students respond, it's in Chinese.

        Welcome to the Academy of World Languages in Cincinnati's O'Bryonville neighborhood.

        One of Cincinnati Public Schools' 12 magnet programs at 28 sites in the district, the Academy of World Languages serves more than 700 students in grades K-8, from 40 countries. More than 35 languages are spoken in its classrooms and hallways. Like other magnet schools, it offers distinct choices for parents and students. Cincinnati Public has four other schools with programs presented in foreign languages from French and Spanish elementary education to Withrow High School's International Baccalaureate Program.

        The programs answer demands from businesses to produce students who know how to work in a diverse world and can get along with people from different backgrounds.

        Ms. Berman's class for native speakers “helps to show students that the school does not revolve around American kids,” Principal Anthony Mazzei said. “This lets the other children and their parents know they are just as important.”

        The school provides an environment in which American- and foreign-born children learn to help each other speak new languages, learn new ways of life and keep family cultures alive.

        Students choose to study one of five languages — Arabic, Chinese, German, Japanese or Russian. All of the school's language teachers are native speakers.

        The school also houses the district's English as a Second Language program, which now has 160 students.

        Of this group, the 17 native Chinese speakers make up the

        largest group.

        With Ms. Berman, the second-, third- and fifth-graders work daily on reading and writing in Chinese. They also take classes in English, math and science.

        “The parents are really happy with this because we are meeting their needs,” Ms. Berman said. “Usually, Chinese parents teach their children Chinese at night, because they want them to retain the language. Now we do it every day.”

        People of Chinese descent make up less than 1 percent of the Tristate's population, but that number is growing, according to U.S. Census figures.

        Mei Yan works at Children's Hospital while her husband takes classes at the University of Cincinnati.

        Their daughter Yan Qing Chen is a third-grader in Ms. Berman's class.

        “We've just come from China a few months ago and can speak very little English,” Ms. Yan said. “For my daughter, being in the Chinese class means she can talk to other Chinese students and her teacher in her own language.

        “She feels comfortable there, until she learns more English. But we are Chinese and I hope my child can speak Chinese very well.”

        Students whose parents came to Cincinnati for work — as doctors, professors and restaurant owners — use the class to ease their transition to American culture, Ms. Berman said. They also are a great resource for American students studying Chinese.

        “I hope it helps them learn how to make friends and understand other people's feelings,” Ms. Berman said.

        She starts the class with a traditional greeting, including a formal bow. Students reciprocate.

        Then it's on to lessons about writing. This week students worked on stories and origami, or folded paper, characters to illustrate those stories.

        Fifth-graders Sun Wen, whose American name is Susan, and Yang Yueting, whose American name is Christina, are working on a tale about a pig, a chicken and a duck.

        “They all play in the pig's house and the chicken breaks a vase with flowers in it,” Christina said. “Then the pig says he doesn't want to be friends anymore.”

        But a few days later, the three animal friends make up, Susan said.

        The girls talk to each other in Chinese before translating the story into English for a visitor.

        That's what Mr. Mazzei likes to see — preparing students to be multilingual and adapt to and work with people from other cultures.

        When Ms. Berman gives a few hints as to the character on the board, students practically pop out of their chairs to answer. Hands are held high.

        The character is the symbol for the word “tea”.


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