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1st, 2nd Graders Take on Chinese at Chesterbrook

Far more advanced than the finger-painting most adults recall in grade school, first and second graders at Chesterbrook Elementary School are already learning and speaking Chinese. 905chesterbrook.jpg

The language program was introduced last October as part of Fairfax County Public School’s Foreign Language in Elementary School (FLES) program.
Chinese instructor Michael Rosenblum teaches almost 200 students, with each class lasting 30 minutes twice a week. He said he aims to make lesson plans — fully equipped with verbal repetition and visuals — much like a game, a game many students take home with them.
One parent, who has both a first- and second-grade student, said the two children often have debates at the family dinner table about how to correctly pronounce certain words.
“Their mom told me they were in Chinatown the other day and were fighting over what the signs meant. I didn’t even know they could read street signs,” said Rosenblum.
Class was in session before Rosenblum talked to the News-Press. Students frantically jumped up and down, hands raised to answer questions in Chinese that “Teacher Mike” was asking. Much like the cheese most parents use to entice children to eat their vegetables, Rosenblum’s fun-filled teaching style had the students so excited, they seemed completely oblivious to the magnitude of skills they were acquiring.
“It’s important to reinforce it like a game. I didn’t want it to be a class they dreaded or a situation where they found themselves thinking, ‘I don’t even know what he’s talking about.’ No one knew what I was talking about at first,” said Rosenblum.
That’s mostly because the students haven’t heard Rosenblum speak a lick of English since day one. Chesterbook Principal Bob Fuqua explained this is a rule imposed by the FLES program, though he said there’s been many occasions where students have playfully challenged Rosenblum to speak their language.
“I had two girls walk into the classroom yesterday and they asked, ‘Can you speak English or can’t you? We want to know once and for all.’ So, it’s a big thing for them to get me to do. For some people, it’s about driving them to drink and for me, it’s how to drive me to speak English,” Rosenblum joked.
Growing up in a heavily-populated Asian community in Atlanta, Ga., he has been speaking Chinese since the age of 11, working closely with a native family who owned a Chinese restaurant and hired Rosenblum to work at their establishment. Slowly picking up Cantonese on the job, he learned Mandarin on the weekends and after graduating high school, Rosenblum attended a teacher’s university in China.
He said the goal of the FLES program isn’t fluency, though he’d like to think he’s exceeding the County’s expectations by not only giving students mental push-ups that reinforce the curriculum of their regular classes, but also a solid language foundation paired with cultural awareness.
“Every school has its own personality and what Michael’s done is picked up our personality and while he’s meeting the goals of the county, we have the ability here with the support of the parents to go even further,” said Fuqua.
Interested parents recently joined their sons and daughters for lunch at Jasmine Garden in Falls Church, where the students helped their moms and dads order from the menu in Chinese, sang Chinese songs and shared vocabulary they learned in class.
“It allowed each parent to give their child a chance to shine,” said Rosenblum.
However, Fuqua fears unique programs like these face a grim future during county budget cuts.
“We have to keep in mind that programs like these take budget money to keep us ahead if we value remaining global leaders,” said Fuqua.
• Chesterbrook Elementary School recently began podcasting their morning welcome segment, including a Chinese “Word of the Day,” on iTunes. For more information, visit www.fcps.edu/ChesterbrookES/podcasts.html.

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