River Falls School District and UW-River Falls are preparing for a visitor to arrive. She’ll be staying from Aug. 12 to Jan 29. Her name is Chunyan Jiang, and she’s coming to River Falls from China to teach at the River Falls Public Montessori Academy as a part of a pilot program organized by the RFSD, UW-River Falls, the UW-System and Heilongjiang Province in China.
The pilot program
Through the pilot program, Jiang will teach Montessori students about Chinese culture and language. Jiang will co-teach with a River Falls teacher in the mornings, working with lower elementary students and the subjects they’re studying. In the afternoon, Jiang will do language education for all students in the school.
Montessori Principal Nathan Wells, who has a Master’s degree in teaching English to speakers of other languages, said there are benefits to learning another language.
“Second languages in general, offer benefits beyond just exposure to different cultures,” said Wells. “When children have a certain level of proficiency in a second language, it just increases math and reading scores, just academically it benefits them.”
He said River Falls students won’t likely gain large levels of proficiency in Chinese from this partnership.
“But they’ll definitely learn some basic vocabulary,” he said. “They’ll have cultural experiences, gain a better understanding how we’re similar and different from the people in China.”
Wells hopes Jiang will be able to bring a Chinese perspective to students on the various subjects they’ll study throughout the year. For example, he said, students learn about different ecosystems around the world. He hopes Jiang will be able to teach students about ecosystems in China.
Before Jiang leaves, a new teacher, also from China, will arrive to teach for the second half of the year. Jiang’s time in River Falls is scheduled to overlap with the new teacher, so she can help the new teacher transition into the role.
This is a pilot program, Wells said, but if all goes well, the district would like to expand the program to other schools.
How it all began
This pilot program was developed in response to the “Wisconsin Language Roadmap,” a federally-funded initiative looking at the workforce and community in Wisconsin, to assess the proficiencies and needs for languages across the state, according to Dianna Murphy, Director of the UW-Madison Language Institute.
Murphy, who coordinated the Language Roadmap, said she heard from employers that they need multilingual talent.
Murphy said the project work was presented at a language summit in Madison in January 2018.
After that summit, Carolyn Brady, International Partnerships, UW-River Falls, began working to develop the pilot program. River Falls School District expressed interest in it, and the Public Montessori Academy was chosen for the pilot, partly because Wells volunteered but also because school’s structure made a good fit for the program. Wells’ background in language instruction was a factor too.
UW-River Falls and the UW-System are partnering with the River Falls School District and Heilongjiang Province to bring this program to River Falls.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to partner with the University and with the Chinese government to promote international education,” said RFSD Superintendent Jamie Benson. “There’s a cultural exchange and that all helps us to mutually understand different people in the world. And maybe we’ll learn a little language along the way as well.”
“As part of our focus on global education and engagement, UW-River Falls has an active relationship with Wisconsin’s sister state of Heilongjiang Province,” said UWRF Chancellor Dean Van Galen, “and we are happy to be part of facilitating the pilot program at the River Falls Montessori Academy.”
“We have placed our sister state relationship with Wisconsin as a priority for cooperation in education,” said Dazhu Zhang, Director of the Division of International Cooperation and Exchange for the Heilongjiang Province Education Department. “We firmly believe that this kind of collaborative teacher exchange will promote better understanding and a stronger friendship that will be of significant benefit to the citizens of Wisconsin and that of Heilongjiang Province.”
Heilongjiang Province has agreed to provide =teachers for this pilot program. The teachers will be paid by Heilongjiang Province; UWRF and RFSD will provide housing in the Gao House on campus and transportation for the visiting teachers.
Zhang said that the Heilongjiang Department of Education administers all levels of education in the region, from early childhood through graduate college and university programs.
“A key responsibility of the Department is to provide training for all teachers working throughout the province,” said Zhang. “We are interested in participating in the pilot program because we hope to create a new way of training the English language teachers working in our schools.”
He said the pilot program will be beneficial for the teachers as well as their students.
“We hope that the teachers we send to River Falls can learn more about second language acquisition from their American colleagues while sharing their experiences of teaching Chinese language to English speaking children,” Zhang said. “An added benefit to our teachers will be the privilege of complete exposure to English language and culture which is of great importance to English language teaching. Seeing how their American colleagues prepare lessons and manage classrooms will be an invaluable experience for our teachers.”
Murphy said she has heard of other local follow-up projects to the Wisconsin Language Roadmap, but the one in River Falls will likely be the first to actually start a pilot program. She said other programs are “in the early stages.”
River Falls School District Director of Academic Services Jennifer Peterson said the program will benefit students in multiple ways. For one thing, it will support the district’s character education.
“As a district we desire to have our students prepared for global opportunities,” she said. “Learning any language at an early age creates ... educational opportunities for them to pursue in the future, and it gives them choice.”
Peterson said it gives students more choices in academic planning and a better understanding, a better sense of inclusivity.
“Our socioeconomic breakdown of this area, and the lack of diversity that we have in River Falls,” she said, “to have those exposures at a young age, I think is very beneficial to students.”
Brady said this can also set up students to meet workforce demands for workers who speak other languages, as they get older and start working.
Brady and Peterson said when students start learning a second language at a young age, they are more likely to continue with that language as they get older, which can open greater opportunities for them in the future. They are also better able to develop a good accent in the second language, Peterson said.
Brady and Peterson said Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang Province, is known for having the most pure Mandarin accent, in the way that the Midwest, in the United States, is thought to have the most pure American accent.
Jiang, the first Chinese teacher who will come to River Falls, teaches in Daqing, which is near Harbin, in Heilongjiang Province. She teaches at the number one ranked middle school in Daqing, and has received recognition for her involvement in language learning and training.
The second teacher has yet to be identified, but is expected to come from Harbin.
If the pilot program is successful, River Falls School District hopes to expand to it’s other schools. Heilongjiang province has expressed interest in this, Brady and Peterson said.
Brady said she hopes this program can open the door for more, similar opportunities in the future as well, for example, bringing River Falls teachers to China, and allowing Chinese students to visit River Falls, and River Falls students to visit China.
“I believe there are many opportunities for further partnership that support education and cultural understanding,” said Van Galen, “and UWRF is working with Harbin University of Science and Technology on programs that would include student and faculty exchange.”