The premise behind a Chinese yo-yo seems simple enough, especially to kids eager to be the first among their peers to master a new and unusual skill.
In the hands of teacher Jimmy Chiu at the summer culture camp sponsored by the Chinese Language School of Columbia, the hourglass-shaped plastic toy balances and spins on the string he controls with two wooden sticks.
The 20 children — black, white and Asian — were captivated by his demonstration of yo-yo tricks, just as they were with Go, a Chinese board game, and the dragonflies they made with paper and craft sticks and sent twirling Tuesday at Longfellow Elementary School.
What wasn't so immediately obvious, says CLSC Principal Bianca Chang, is that for four hours each weekday afternoon for two weeks, the children are being immersed in Chinese-language skills disguised as fun.
"We keep the curriculum interesting, and the kids' minds are like sponges and they soak it up," said Chang, who has just started her third two-year term. Chinese knotting, calligraphy and the lion dance are among the activities on the agenda for the second half of the two-week program, she said.
But the summer camp is only one aspect of CLSC's outreach.
For her steadfast and multifaceted support of the Chinese-speaking community, Chang was recently honored by the Foreign-Born Information and Referral Network, a Columbia-based nonprofit organization that assists foreign-born individuals. Chang's American Success Award also recognized her efforts to raise awareness about health care and immunizations, according to Jill Bussey, an immigration attorney who serves on the FIRN board.
"I think Bianca is inspiring," Bussey said. "She became involved in community service, and that helped her acclimate. She works at bridging culture … and has brought diversity to the community. That's her legacy."
Chang, a native of Taiwan whose Chinese name is Cheun Chin, moved with her husband, Chein Chi Chang, to Ellicott City in 1988. She has been active in CLSC for many years as the mother of three sons, now ages 18 to 24. She has also worked since 1995 in the nursing department at Howard County General Hospital.
Nearly 40 years ago, not long after Columbia marked its fifth birthday, a small, close-knit group of parents met in a basement to figure out how their children could get regular doses of Chinese culture and language without traveling to Taiwan, Chang said.
Today, CLSC enrolls more than 200 students each year in Chinese classes at Howard High School on Sunday afternoons.
Under Chang's leadership over the past four years, CLSC continues to surpass its original mission.
"At first, we only had a regular track that was fast-paced and suited to students with fluent parents at home," Chang said. "But there was a need and a demand for a program to help non-heritage students, which are our students with more limited language capability."
She said the school "insists on very traditional phonic training," and that younger students are shown pictures of how their tongues should be positioned.
"Our goal is for our students to have very correct pronunciation," she said. "We have blindfolded parents and asked them which speaker is the non-heritage student, and they can never tell."
Chang has also worked with the county's public school system to enable CLSC students to take the Chinese-language Advanced Placement exam, a national College Board test that formerly was offered by the county only to high school students enrolled in a corresponding AP class.
"Our students are way qualified to get a 4 or a 5 on that exam," said Chang, referring to the scores most often accepted by colleges and universities for credit. "We pulled things together and talked to the College Board three years ago, and now as many as 30 to 40 of our students take the exam each year."
Deborah Espitia, coordinator of world languages for the county public schools, said the Chinese AP exam is "an extremely high-level exam" and the only one that is administered to students not taking an AP class in the subject.
Six county high schools — Centennial, Long Reach, Marriotts Ridge, Oakland Mills, River Hill and Wilde Lake — offer some combination of Chinese 1 through 4, Espitia said. The next goal is to offer all four levels at all six schools, and ultimately to expand the program to all 12 county high schools, she said.
"Bianca is a very strong advocate for all the programs she works with," Espitia said. "She collaborates with others to make things happen in a positive way."
The Chinese language is ranked as Tier 5 by theUniversity of Maryland, College Park, which means it's one of the most difficult languages to learn, Chang said.
"Because of its difficulty, it is important to begin teaching it to kids when they're young," she said, and that's why CLSC's academic curriculum begins with 3-year-olds.
Expanding on that philosophy, CLSC is collaborating with the county in a pilot program to expand the language curriculum beyond high school. The tryout just ended its first year at Laurel Woods and Waverly elementary schools, where all students took two quarters of Chinese and two quarters of Spanish, Espitia said.
While all sixth-grade students will be offered the chance to take Spanish and French classes when school starts in August, Murray Hill and Mount View sixth-graders will have the added option of taking Chinese, she said. These classes will be phased in to seventh and eighth grades, she added.
The summer culture camp is an extended-day option for parents who have enrolled their children in another program to teach the rudiments of the Chinese language. Called STARTalk, it's a federal program that PresidentGeorge W. Bushannounced in 2006 as part of his National Security Language Initiative, which seeks to increase the number of Americans learning, speaking and teaching critical-need foreign languages.
Like its afternoon culture-camp counterpart, STARTalk seizes on popular topics to teach Chinese to students, almost without their realizing it.
This year's theme, "Searching the Seas," focuses on sea life, habitats, water sources and conservation efforts. One activity had students comparing sea life in the Chesapeake Bay with that in Bohai Bay, part of the Yellow Sea in northeast China.
Iris Chao, on-site manager at Longfellow Elementary, said students' ability to speak the language of their relatives is more important than ever as they become further removed from regular exposure to spoken Chinese.
"If you can get along with all your relatives, you can get along with anybody," she said. "It's a very precious skill. If you don't create a steady relationship with your relatives when you're young, then a lot of culture can be lost" from generation to generation.
Said Chang: "When you learn to speak a few words in Chinese, another person hears that and their eyes just light up." Speaking another language is also an important skill in today's global economy, she noted.
Emily Harvey, 9, said she's back for a second year of STARTalk and culture camp because she "really likes it." Kaela Chen, 12, said her parents bring her and her brother, 9-year-old Josiah, from their home in Catonsville to Columbia for the camp but deemed the long drive "worth it."
Miri Moreau, 9, first said, "My mother forces me to attend." But after listening to the descriptions by other students, she raised her hand again. "I have to admit that it's fun here."
"When students want to attend class and stay focused, it's a happy thing to watch children learn and grow," she said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun