International education has arrived in western Wisconsin. There have long been international students from around the world in our classrooms, but the next step has been taken.
The Chinese philosopher Lao-tzu said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Father Lao-tzu would be surprised to hear Mandarin spoken in a seventh-grade reading class at De Soto Middle School. He would be even more surprised to see a teacher from Taiwan teaching the students how to count to 10 in Mandarin and write to 10 in traditional Chinese script, all while this teacher is in his office in Taiwan.
The magic of modern technology is no stranger to these precocious middle school students. Utilizing a large screen in the classroom, they listen to teacher Luke Lin teach on YouTube. Later, students may talk face-to-face with their pen pals in Taiwan, using video conferencing that evening. They may discuss and practice the pronunciation of Chinese and English words for counting to 10. They may talk about the upcoming basketball game or what is cool to wear to school these days.
The De Soto Area School District has initiated three sister-school relationships with rural Taiwanese schools, one with a secondary school and two with elementary schools.
The De Soto School Board met with the founder of My Culture Connect — using Skype video conferencing — in the fall. My Culture Connect is a nonprofit organization in Taiwan staffed entirely by volunteers.
My Culture Connect is dedicated to cross-cultural exchanges and education using the technology of today’s world to communicate around the globe. The first chapter in this venture has been this link between rural schools in Taiwan and De Soto. There are schools in Taiwan waiting for companion schools in Wisconsin.
Using the free Skype download, Facebook, YouTube, email accounts or old fashioned snail mail, students are developing global friendships, learning about other cultures, other languages and having fun.
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More people speak Mandarin than any other language in the world. The economy of China is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world and may overtake the U.S. in the not so distant future. For the first time, the University of Wisconsin-Madison is offering a Mandarin class online to state high schools. The UW also recently established an office in mainland China to accommodate exchanges.
It is not a stretch to suggest that Mandarin will soon be the language to learn for our college students, replacing European languages. More and more colleges offer basic Mandarin classes, and there is a steady flow of business people, engineers and scientists from the United States to China.
Guidance counselors and career counselors are noticing. It is not unusual to counsel a student to learn about the Chinese culture and to become competent in speaking Mandarin.
There is a need for native English speakers to volunteer 30 minutes, one evening a week, to work with Chinese students. A love of children, an Internet connection, a free Skype download and a webcam is all that is required. Volunteers ask the students questions and answer questions posed by students. This provides the students the opportunity to practice their English — all students in Taiwan begin studying English in third grade.
The students often tell stories, play music or do skits for the volunteers. This month, they are teaching De Soto students about the Chinese New Year.
Volunteers of all ages and backgrounds are welcome; one need not be an educator or have a college education.