Spanish, German, French, Italian ... these are all languages that might typically be taught in a public school setting, as part of an advanced learning or enrichment program.
But students in the Lake Park-Audubon school district are learning to speak — and write — in Mandarin Chinese this year as part of their regular curriculum at both the elementary and high school buildings.
Through a partnership between the LP-A school district, St. Cloud State University, Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), Beijing University and the Chinese Ministry of Education, the district is employing the services of language arts instructor Yang Song to teach K-12 students the Mandarin language, according to Superintendent Paula Henry.
"Yang came to us through the Confucius Institute at St. Cloud State University and MDE," Henry said. "She may be here for up to three years."
Though she only arrived on Sept. 5, living with a Lake Park host family, this is not Yang's first experience living and working in Minnesota: A 20-year veteran of teaching English in Chinese schools, she was admitted in 2012 to the Overseas Chinese Language Teaching Program, co-sponsored by the Office of Chinese Language Council (Hanban) of China and the American College Board.
From 2012 to 2015, Yang worked as a Chinese teacher at both East High School and Denfeld High School in Duluth. During her time there, she said, "I carried out a wealth of Chinese cultural activities that allowed American students to fully immerse in Chinese culture."
Since starting her work in the LP-A district two months ago, Yang says she has been dividing her time about equally between the high school building in Lake Park and the elementary building in Audubon.
Yang said her teaching methods differ for the high school and younger students.
For the younger students, Yang says, she has been teaching them a familiar song, "Are You Sleeping," as well as how to count from 1 to 10, all in Mandarin. The sessions are much shorter, at about 20 minutes each, than the high school classes, which last about an hour.
For the high school students, she employs more of an immersion technique: On this particular day, she had her students greet her and converse with her in Mandarin to start the session, then asked them to fill in the blanks of some Chinese conversational phrases she had written on the white board at the front of the classroom.
Of the two, Yang says, she finds teaching the younger students to be the most challenging thus far, but added, "they are so smart" when it comes to picking up on the new words and phrases. "I'm very proud of them."
Though all of her students have done well so far, she added, it will take a long time for them to become truly fluent in the language, which is why she plans to continue working in the district for the next couple of years.
Next summer, Yang says, she will be returning to China to renew her visa, and to spend some time with her family. Though she had initially planned to bring her 16-year-old daughter to the United States with her this year, it didn't work out with her daughter's educational plans.
"It's hard to be separated," Yang said, "but I can talk to her, and my parents, every day online, so it's OK for me."
When she's not working, she added, she has enjoyed seeing the sights, cooking meals for her host family, playing basketball and other physical activities. Over the MEA break, she went to see Mount Rushmore and some other national parks in the Dakotas.
When asked to describe her fellow teachers and students at LP-A, Yang said, "They're awesome." As for her host family, the Hows, she added, "They are so kind to me, and very helpful if I have questions. They said to just ask for whatever I need."