Remember, we are part of something great

By Kami McMaster, Ridgecrest Elementary Council Representative

Recently, members of the Utah Mandarin Immersion Parent Council (UMIC) board met with officials from Canyons School District, the Utah State Office of Education and the Confucius Institute at the University of Utah. We were educated in detail about the guest teacher program and the state’s vision for language immersion. We will share details about the guest teacher program in a separate post. Meanwhile, here’s why I left thinking: our children are privileged to be part of something great.

What sets Utah’s language immersion program apart:

Training – As most of you know, the program relies heavily on guest teachers from China and Taiwan due, in part, to the shortage of qualified homegrown educators with near-native speaking skills. These teachers enrich classrooms culturally, but also face a steep learning curve and their own cultural adjustment. To better prepare them for the rigors of American classrooms – including classroom management challenges they inevitably face – Utah puts them through two weeks of training. For teachers out of Hanban (a division of the ministry of education in China) this comes on top of two weeks of training provided by the Chinese government prior their stepping foot in the country. Local school districts further supplement this with their own training.

Curriculum development – In America, public school teachers are typically told what to teach, but now how to teach it. In other words, they are given a scripted curriculum, but are generally responsible for developing their own lesson plans. Utah’s immersion guest teachers, however, are given the whole package, lesson plans and all. The state is currently building a curriculum that will carry students from elementary school through junior high and beyond, and publishing supporting classroom materials, including supplemental readers. If a student chooses to stay in the program throughout high school the language proficiency goal for them is in the advanced range on the ACTFL proficiency scale. By comparison, most LDS missionaries return home at intermediate high proficiency.

Sustainability – Working with area universities, Utah education officials created a special endorsement, or certification, for immersion teachers. The goal is to grow and groom a local pool of teaching candidates. This takes time and the state is just now starting to see the fruits of its labor – the first graduates. In addition, Brigham Young University just announced an immersion minor. And state officials host an open house at the University of Utah each year to show bilingual college grads that teaching at an elementary school is a viable alternative to teaching a foreign language in high school or college.

In summary, from training our teachers to developing classroom texts, Utah is making a name for itself as a national leader in language immersion. We are a state to watch and recognized by many educators as “the place” to come and teach.
“These programs are being recognized because they are innovative, they are cost-effective, they are sustainable and they produce incredible results,” said Sandra Talbot, state Chinese immersion program director. “But more important than all of these worthwhile reasons is the impact they have on the individual – the student sitting in an immersion classroom who will change our world.”

What can parents do?

We are pioneers in this effort. For those of us with children “just starting out” and parents of kids among the “first group” of immersion learners at our respective schools, it may sometimes feel that the struggle is too much, the learning curve “too high.” We muddle through, breaking in new teachers each year as the program grows with our kids, with a level of “blind faith” that can make us anxious. But I am personally confident that, in the end, we will be glad and proud to say that our child attended Chinese dual immersion in Utah.

We need to be champions for this program and contribute time and resources to our schools. While the vision at the state level is grand, the implementation at our classroom level is a challenge, but a very exciting one. Our teachers need to be told they are doing a great job. Our principals need to be applauded for maintaining the program at our schools. Difficulties will arise, and we need to face them with positive attitudes and helpful actions. Stay involved with your individual child; look for cultural events to invite their excitement, and your own. Study the broad movement of dual immersion in the country and celebrate the results.

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