JOLIET – Chinese yo-yos, a majestic dancing lion and Kung-Fu chops and kicks filled the Joliet West High School Little Theater stage with Chinese tradition Thursday.
Students performed skits and songs in Mandarin, and one returning volunteer filled the air with his performance on the guzheng, a Chinese string instrument that mimics the flow and ripples of a river.
“So much tradition,” Fred Lu said.
Lu is the local director of the STARTALK Chinese Immersion Summer Language Program, a course created to introduce American students to Chinese culture and language.
The course ended with a student performance showcasing what participants learned.
“It’s about we teach, students learn, students use,” he said.
“The activities we got to do were so fun,” Troy Middle School seventh-grader Cheyenne Killingsworth said about learning Chinese language and culture. “It got easier. Our teacher helped us a lot.”
This is the second year Joliet West has offered the STARTALK language and culture program to area students. And school administrators are finding out students are very interested in taking the program.
“We were only going to have slots for 12 students this year,” Joliet Township High School Superintendent Cheryl McCarthy said. “But we more than doubled that number.”
Lu said 25 students participated in the program, with 22 performing at the closing ceremony.
The STARTALK program is a federally funded initiative that aims to teach uncommon but increasingly important foreign languages by immersing students in the culture associated with the languages.
Languages in the program include Arabic, Dari, Hindi, Mandarin, Persian, Portuguese, Russian, Swahili, Turkish and Urdu.
Lu directs the program for school districts in Joliet, Plainfield, Oswego, Naperville, DeKalb, Downers Grove and Northbrook.
“This program is important in the way it develops interest in learning languages,” Lu said. “Students that learn at an earlier age appreciate their own culture even more.”
Students don’t just learn the basics of Mandarin and history of China. They learn positive Chinese customs, like calling elders with a respectful name and stories that explain the importance of the individual and community.
Joliet Central High School freshman Angel Ochoa liked a story of how the color red provided protection from a blue dragon that wanted to destroy China.
“They taught us a lot of different things,” Ochoa said. “Learning the language was a good experience.”
The University of Maryland-based STARTALK is in its sixth year. Lu said 250 school districts or colleges applied for $15 million in funding. About half of those organizations received the funding.
“A lot of people learn Spanish, but these other languages are growing,” Lu said.
Sis Yu, the beginners immersion teacher for this year’s program, said at the end she was speaking Mandarin 90 percent of the time to the students.
“This is a theoretically organized curriculum,” she said. “We incorporate different elements. You don’t learn the language alone, it’s more well-rounded than other programs.”
Elwood School eighth-grader Alan Sunday took the course last year and loved the activities.
“It was similar this year, but we had a different teacher so I learned new things, too,” Sunday said.
Sunday’s grandfather, New Lenox resident Joe Lebda, said the program is a great learning experience.
“It tickled me and my wife and my daughter how fantastic the program is,” he said. “It’s a good way to learn another language.”
Tracy Theard, whose daughter Nisa Theard went through the program, said the immersion in Chinese culture reinvigorated Nisa’s interest in traveling abroad.
“When [Nisa] first started it was a little different. As she got into the program she started to really enjoy it,” Theard said. “Something like this should be offered into any school system.”