Despite being an integral part of a St. Cloud public elementary school, Zhang’s classroom has the appearance of being a world away from the traditional environment of a Minnesota kindergarten room. It’s filled with flashcards and other teaching aids with Chinese characters. The dominant feature in the room is a Smart Board — essentially a giant touch-screen tablet for Chinese instructional software. Zhang speaks and sings only her native language as she leads activities that range from teaching Chinese names of body parts to engaging students in drawing Chinese characters on the board.
More SCSU teachers
Besides Congyu (Chris) Zhang, five other alumni of St. Cloud State who came as undergraduate or graduate students are teaching in the Guang Ming Academy:
Kindergarten: Xinyue (Sabrina) Lu, daughter of a professor and native of Xi’An, the ancient Chinese city that is home to the famed Terracotta Army, came to St. Cloud State to get her master’s degree in Teaching English as a Second Language.
Third Grade: Yuan Lu ’11 grew up in Suzhou, a small city near Shanghai, and came to St. Cloud State as an undergraduate in teacher preparation and is licensed in special education.
Fifth grade: Weiyi Qian ’12 is from Liyang, another small city near Shanghai. She graduated from St. Cloud State with a double major in Linguistics and Language Arts Education.
Programming teacher: Graduate student Hao Li is a native of Hangzhou along the east coast of China. His involvement with the immersion program began with volunteer work in the classrooms, and last fall he was hired as the programming teacher responsible for curriculum mapping, reading activities, enhancing cultural awareness and serving as liaison for the academy parents and teachers.
Assistant teacher: Miao Yu ’11 grew up in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi Province in northern China. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English in her home country and came to St. Cloud State for her master’s degree. After interning at Madison, she was hired to help with technology integration in classroom teaching and learning.
For these group activities Zhang’s enthusiastic kindergarteners sit in rows on a rug appropriately covered with the continents and oceans of the globe.
Except for their “specials” — classes in art, music and physical education — the children of the academy learn math, science, reading, writing and other elementary subjects from Chinese-only curriculum during their first three years. Beginning in third grade English is incorporated in language arts classes to ensure that they are prepared to meet state learning requirements. Guang Ming is part of St. Cloud Area School District 742 and housed in the district’s Madison Elementary School.
Entering a Chinese-only classroom was “kind of scary at first,” said one of the 12 girls in the class. But before long she said they could understand every word in the lessons and songs that are the same as those taught in Chinese classrooms.
Six-year-old Henry Wagenius is flourishing in this learning experience that by all accounts promises to have a profoundly positive impact on participants’ lives. Like most of his classmates, Henry’s first exposure to Chinese language and culture came when he entered the academy last fall. He quickly got used to a teacher who speaks and uses learning materials only in the Chinese language — so comfortable that at the end of every school day, he goes home and shares what he learned with his parents, Reuben Wagenius ’96 and Kirsten (Nelson) Wagenius ’97, and his 3-year-old twin brothers, Bjorn and Soren.
Binhai to St. Cloud State
Six of the nine teachers in the Guang Ming Academy came from mainland China to St. Cloud to attend St. Cloud State. Zhang was one of the first three graduates of St. Cloud State’s partner college in Tianjin, China, Binhai College, in 2008 to enter the teaching English as a second language graduate program and live in Lawrence Hall.
Zhang grew up in Tianjin, China’s fourth largest city. “Both my parents are teachers,” she said. “It didn’t really take me a long time to decide what I wanted to be.” Her mother teaches Chinese classical literature in Tianjin Radio & TV University, where students learn through a combination of traditional classroom teaching and technology. Her father teaches folk arts and Peking Opera in Tianjin Arts Vocational College.
“A lot of my professors at Binhai had study-abroad experiences,” Zhang said. “They talked about those experiences and helped inspire my interest in studying in the United States.” A director of her English degree program had worked with former SCSU Center for International Studies Director Roland Fischer, and the two helped with the process of becoming part of the first group of Binhai students to arrive at St. Cloud State.
“The program has continued to grow and strengthen as solid support continues to be provided by St. Cloud School District 742, parents of immersion students, SCSU and the greater St. Cloud community.”
Madison Elementary School Principal
“I was really lucky to have their help.”
Zhang was in the third year of her master’s program when SCSU special education professor Kathy Johnson asked if she would be a substitute teacher in the Guang Ming first grade. She took the job and the next year was hired to teach kindergarten.
It was a culture shock for Zhang to teach in a school system far different from what she was used to in China, or the style of learning in university classes. “I had no idea of how the American education system worked,” she said. And there were responsibilities she never imagined, “like helping with snowpants.”
And when those responsibilities seemed overwhelming, she remembered what professor Etienne Koffi, who taught her class in pedagogical grammar and language told her about the importance of her role in the lives of her young students. “Language is not only a tool but a resource that will help them for a lifetime.”
“I also got a lot of help from the other teachers at Madison,” Zhang said.
“And we get huge support from the parents,” she said. Academy parents are involved in everything from discussions about curriculum to fundraising for teaching materials and technology, including the Smart Board that was donated by a parent.
“The program has continued to grow and strengthen as solid support continues to be provided by St. Cloud School District 742, parents of immersion students, SCSU and the greater St. Cloud community,” said Madison Elementary School Principal Sara Nelson.
For many parents, it may seem like a leap of faith to choose the immersion program. But oh, what a payoff!
Children who’ve been in an immersion program have earned higher math scores and success in language arts. They take pride in being part of something so special. “The kids are wonderful,” said Zhang. “They’re always so excited and positive. They’re always willing to participate.”
“At this age they’re such sponges,” said Kirsten Wagenius. She and her husband, both alumni who work on the campus of St. Cloud State, have enthusiastically entered what they expect will be several years of involvement in the immersion program as Henry and his brothers take full advantage of all that it offers.
The Wagenius’s know that Henry’s immersion in a language that is so different from others he is likely to be exposed to will encourage further learning of diverse cultures and language and enhance his capacity for learning.
“This also will change his perspectives,” said Henry’s mom. “His class is fairly diverse, and having a role model from a different culture who is such a significant influence in his life is very good.”
For all the differences between a traditional American kindergarten class and the academy’s, some things are the same. Ask Henry about his favorite parts of school and he’ll name all his good friends and talk about the birthday celebrations and the cupcakes. And it doesn’t take any prodding to get him to break out in a rendition of “Happy Birthday” in Chinese, liberally sprinkled with “cha cha cha.”