Robert A. Davis Jr. leaned back in his chair in the big room that is the Confucius Institute in Chicago and laughed. "I think we are proving that if I can learn Chinese anyone can."
Davis, a tall, affable educator, is director of the Confucius Institute located in downtown of Chicago. He also is the manager of World Language & International Studies, the Office of Language & Cultural Education, for Chicago Public Schools.
With a population of about 3 million, Chicago is the third largest city in the United States, with some 250,000 students in its public schools. But with more than 12,000 of those students in 43 schools, Davis, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, and educators in Chicago and China, have created the largest program in America for teaching Chinese.
As a testimony to its importance in teaching Chinese, Chicago will be the host on April 30-May 2 to America's 2009 National Chinese Language Conference. It is organized by the Asia Society and the College Board, two leading institutions promoting education. One highlight of the conference will be visits to classes in the Chicago schools to see how students are taught. The conference will be attended by Chinese educators, including delegations from the Chicago schools' partners in the Confucius Institute, the Office of Chinese Language Council International (the "Hanban") and Shanghai's East China Normal University.
Chicago pioneered teaching Chinese in 1999, beginning with three schools. Chicago Mayor Daley noted that it was important to understand the role that China plays in the changing global economy. He has observed that "Chinese is as important as English as a language of commerce."
Davis was seated at a table in the Confucius Institute, explaining to journalists how the Chicago program had grown to become a model for schools elsewhere. The institute is housed in Walter Payton College Preparatory High School deep in the heart of the city. The institute walls were festooned with Chinese art, there were rows of tables with computers for accessing teaching materials and around the walls were shelves holding more than 5,000 books in Chinese and DVDs, study materials for educators and students of all ages.
"The institute opened in May, 2006," Davis said, "and here we have workshops for teachers and parents, for courses on introductory Chinese for travel and business. The institute is a resource for the City's teachers, parents and students."
Davis said the institute's partners were very supportive of the Chicago program. "Hanban encourages us to think big, and East China Normal University takes about 20 of our students each summer for six weeks intensive study and exposure to China's culture."
After the institute opened, Mayor Daley led a delegation to China to further relationships. "The mayor has visited China three times and explains to everyone how important it is that our students understand the Chinese language and culture. Shanghai is a Sister City to Chicago and its Mayor Han Zheng and Mayor Daley worked out a program where we recruit teachers from Shanghai to teach Chinese here.
"We have great teachers," Davis said. "They are among the best in the world." The institute is a resource for teacher. One of them, Wenya Lu, has taught Chinese in Chicago schools for nine years. She notes that "students are very committed," and that they like to learn by seeking opportunities to discuss lessons with teachers and "to have fun."
In her classroom, some 20 students from different ethnic backgrounds sat attentively at their desks as she drilled them in pronunciation, sometimes laughing at themselves as they spoke a wrong vowel. But when they were asked to draw characters on the white board the tall 16-year-old student Jordon Sawyer, who was wearing a shirt with names of the Grateful Dead musical group written in English and Chinese, gave careful attention and smiled broadly when Lu nodded her approval that he had written well, and the other students nodded at him with smiles.
More schools and students every year are seeking to be part of the Chinese language program, he said. "Students are interested in the culture. They were delighted with the Olympics, they know that China is a superpower, and their parents see that China is important for the students' future."
As Davis spoke to the journalists, the 12,000 Chicago students studying Chinese were getting ready to vie for scholarships provided by the US Department of State that would take them to China for six weeks study this summer. Living in China, Davis said, would "change their lives."
"We want them to study for 10 years or so, and with their Chinese facility, get accepted at universities and find opportunities in business," Davis said.
(Xinhua News Agency April 21, 2009)