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INTRODUCING CHINA

HOLLYWOOD, MD. — HOLLYWOOD, MD.-- --Zhijun Peng, the new teacher from China, spins a large world globe to show two first-graders just how far her country is from the United States. Halfway around, Ashley and Ethan find it.

Only two weeks ago Peng was in China, but today she is standing in front of a rapt class of 6-year-olds in a St. Mary's County elementary school, earnestly trying to bridge the miles and make the Chinese culture seem fun.

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"You see we are so far away on the Earth," she says.

Peng has been brought here by the Chinese government, which is paying her a stipend to teach in an American school for 18 months. She is one of 38 teachers who arrived in the U.S. recently to teach in 19 school systems across the country as part of a partnership between China and the College Board, which produces the SAT and Advanced Placement exams.

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The Chinese are betting that exposing American children to 5,000 years of rich history and an exotic language will help bring about a new focus on their country.

But the experiment rattles those who fear the Romance and Germanic languages will diminish in stature if the Chinese elbow their way into American classrooms. And it angers others who see the Chinese government as pushing its language to gain an economic advantage.

Putting Chinese teachers in U.S. public schools is a "dreadful" idea, says Chester E. Finn Jr., president of the Fordham Foundation, a Washington-based educational think tank.

"I see this not as a humanitarian act, but a very clever campaign to dominate the world," Finn said.

The Chinese program is of particular concern to teachers of other languages, especially French, who fear the subsidized teachers will drive out other offerings.

"We support the teaching of as many languages as possible in a school but not at the expense of other languages," said Jayne Abrate, executive director of the American Association of Teachers of French.

Montgomery County, for instance, has decided to phase out French at Ridgeview Middle School and introduce Chinese. The school system says it makes such decisions based on which languages students want to take.

Supporters of the Chinese program argue that there is little harm in importing teachers for a brief time to get a language program started that gives students an advantage in a competitive global economy.

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For Peng, who has left a young son behind to come here, the joy of this experiment is her role in helping to break down misconceptions about her country and in learning a different way to teach. "We want to show that we are trying to make a harmonious world with others in the world," she said.

She will spend the rest of the school year at Hollywood Elementary, helping to expose young children to a little of the culture. She taught the first-graders how to say "hello" and "school bus" this week and what to do when you are greeted on the street in China.

In the fall, she will teach Chinese language classes at Leonardtown middle and high schools.

The project began in the summer when Laura Carpenter, the director of gifted and talented programs in St. Mary's County, was invited to be part of a 380-member delegation of American school administrators who went to China. The trip was paid for by the Chinese government and offered the visitors a look at the educational system and culture of the country.

Some of those administrators have returned and begun introducing Chinese to schools in their district. At the same time, the College Board has added some cachet to the study of the language by adding a Chinese Advanced Placement exam.

Each summer, more administrators will be invited to China, and more Chinese teachers will begin arriving next year to teach in schools for up to three years. By 2009, 250 Chinese teachers will have come to the U.S. to begin teaching language classes, said Selena Cantor, director of the Chinese language and culture initiative at the College Board.

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School districts that take the teachers must begin looking for full-time classroom teachers to take over the program, she said. Cantor and school district officials see nothing wrong with the Chinese underwriting the program and say that it is much like the Peace Corps.

St. Mary's County is the first in Maryland to accept a teacher from China. Howard, Montgomery and Baltimore counties, and Baltimore City already offer Chinese at one or more schools.

The issue the country should be focused on is how to expand foreign language instruction across the nation, said Rita Oleksak, president of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

"It is important to support any language that a school system would consider important for its community and for which teachers are available," she said. But she says teachers who come from other countries must be given enough training on how to teach in American classrooms.

Peng would agree. She said she must learn to adjust her teaching methods to give more individual attention to children. In China, she said, classroom space is tight and students sit at small desks in rows with 50 students in a class. Because the classes are so large, teachers teach to the majority and do not concentrate on individual needs.

"Here I think individuals are highly valued," she said.

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When a small, shy boy in the back hid his face during her lesson, she seemed concerned and wondered later what she might have done to help him.

She said she is eager to learn different approaches to teaching.

That is what her government is hoping will happen, said Andrew W. Corcoran, executive director of the Institute for the Teaching of Chinese Language and Culture in San Francisco.

English is widely taught in Chinese schools, and the Chinese hope their language will become a world language. They are also hoping their teachers will import American teaching techniques "that are needed to improve their own educational system," Corcoran said.

The barriers to speaking Chinese are not small. The Defense Language Institute, which trains people in the State Department and military for oversees assignments, says it takes 63 weeks of five-day-a-week, eight-hour-a-day instruction in Chinese to become fluent.

That compares with 25 weeks for Spanish or French.

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Corcoran argues that schools should start Chinese in the first grade, adding another language in middle school.

But other foreign language experts argue that it is best for American students to begin studying French, German or Spanish, languages that are similar in structure to their own and increase their vocabulary and grammar in English. And, they say, students will find the classes useful.

"The need for those languages continues to exist around the world," Oleksak said.

liz.bowie@baltsun.com


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