(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)
The Academy of the Pacific Rim Charter Public School was built around the idea of combining the best of Asian and Western education styles, and for this Chinese New Year, the school has made a special effort to expose its students to aspects of another culture.
This week, the academy celebrated an annual visit by students from Beijing Number 80 School — a large secondary school on the outskirts of China’s capital city — by exposing its students to aspects of Chinese culture that include cooking, writing, visual art, music, and fashion. And it will cap its Chinese New Year celebration with its third annual gala supporting its student exchange program.
The visit from Beijing Number 80 students is part of an 11-year partnership between the two schools in which students from Boston visit Beijing each year to experience the culture and improve their language skills, and students from Beijing come to Boston to do the same. Mandarin language classes are mandatory for all students in grades 7 – 12 at the academy, and are the only foreign language classes taught there.
In a visit to the school last week, Kimberly McClure, deputy director of the US State Department’s 100,000 Strong Initiative, told the students they were “national leaders” in a nascent “movement of American students across the country who understand more about China, who have opportunities to study abroad in China, who are learning Mandarin.”
Announced by President Barack Obama in 2009 and launched by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2010, the 100,000 Strong Initiative is a nationwide effort to encourage students from all backgrounds to learn Chinese language skills and study abroad in China. Currently, McClure said, less than 1 percent of American students study abroad.
“I’ve worked in India. I’ve worked in Afghanistan. I worked in Egypt,” McClure said. “And for people of my generation, having global skills was kind of a nice-to-have thing, but I think that for your generation it’s going to be absolutely critical, and that for people of your generation who don’t have global skills, they’re actually going to suffer, be held back because of that.”
To help build those skills, the school devoted a full day on Wednesday to experiencing aspects of Chinese culture firsthand through workshops and assemblies.
In cooking workshops, students learned how to make traditional Chinese pork, chicken, and turkey dumplings, as well as handmade noodles. In other workshops, they explored Chinese music, calligraphy, and paper cutting, and teachers who had spent time living in China described their experiences and the differences between the cultures.
In the afternoon, students competed to see which American student could most deftly draw Chinese characters and also held an international fashion show and a talent show featuring both local and visiting students.
Susan Thompson, the school’s executive director, said the exchange program had grown and matured over its 11-year history and the school hopes to see that continue. From just under 20 students who currently make the trip each year, she hopes the program will grow to include as many as 40 per year, about the same size as the school’s average graduating class.
“We commit a lot of funds and a lot of time and energy to making all this happen, but we have vision to do more, given the funds,” she said. “You can’t replace it. I mean, when you talk to the students who’ve been there, nothing replicates it.”
Thompson said she often hears from graduates of the program who have gone on to study Mandarin in college as well. Sometimes they tell her that they’re safely in the middle of student ability in their courses — neither the best nor the worst student in the class. “Except in Mandarin,” they tell her. “In Mandarin, I’m at the top of the class.”
Thompson went on the trip to China herself for the first time last year. “I watched students who I knew on this end who left in good shape, ready to go, but came back so much more confident and taller, because they walk straighter somehow,” she said.
To cap off their celebrations, on Friday, Feb. 3, the school will host its annual Chinese New Year Gala at the Hei La Moon Restaurant in Chinatown from 6 – 9 p.m. A fundraiser that supports the school’s China exchange program, the gala will include a multiple-course banquet, a keynote address by Jackie Jenkins-Scott, president of Wheelock College, and other programming, including musical performances by the exchange students from Beijing.
For a gallery of photos from the Chinese students’ visit and the Chinese Heritage and Chinese New Year Celebration Day, click here.
For more information, visit http://www.pacrim.org/.
(Jeremy C. Fox for Boston.com)