Dispatches from "Guangdao Elementary School"
June 22, 2011

In addition to my regular identity as a professor of medieval Chinese literature at UCLA, I'm also the proud parent of a child attending what I shall thinly disguise as "Guangdao Elementary School," which is part of the Los Angeles Unified School District and houses a pilot program in Mandarin Chinese. This is an immersion program, which means that the students spend half the day in Chinese and the other half in English.  All subjects are taught in both languages, from math to science to reading/writing.  The program is beginning with two kindergarten classes and will add on a grade each year, up to sixth grade.  What I'd like to start doing is to chronicle the trials and triumphs of this program and the community of families involved from the point of view of someone who's spent much of his adult life studying and teaching Chinese culture.

First of all, I should mention that the school is located in a lower-middle class neighborhood of mostly Spanish speakers.  Some of the families who live in the neighborhood have been sending their children to Guangdao for at least two generations.  In the recent past there was a weekly Mandarin Chinese taught to all the students, supported by the Confucius Institute, but for reasons unknown to me, the school has ended their relationship with the Confucius Institute.  

Second, parents like myself are from outside the neighborhood, which means that we need to have permits (waivers) from our respective home districts.  I've been thinking of ourselves as "carpetbaggers."  A number of the carpetbagger parents are in the Industry (LA's term for those who work in the film biz).  There are a few with ties to UCLA, though my wife and I are the only ones who teach in China-related areas.  It goes without saying that the majority of the carpetbaggers are middle class or above.

The principal is from China but has lived in California since she was a teenager.  The two kindergarten teachers are native Chinese speakers, though only one of them (originally from Hong Kong) is currently acting as the Mandarin immersion instructor.  

There are three kindergarten classes, two of them part of the immersion program.  Prior to the implementation of the Mandarin program, the school jumped to an API score in the mid-800s, which speaks to the dedication and success of both the teachers and students.  However, the school is also faced with a problem of declining enrollment, and a charter high school has already claimed a portion of the school property under Prop 39. The Mandarin program looks likely to reverse this trend -- next year's kindergarten class will be four classes, not two.  In fact, there will likely be space issues at the school if the program continues to attract interest.  What the relationship between the Mandarn and non-Mandarin parts of the school will be is a problem that has not yet been publicly addressed.

I hope that this serves as an overview of the terrain that I'll be trying to cover in the coming posts.  From what I've outlined above, I think that these posts should address a number of more academic issues in language pedagogy, child development, and, well, sociology.  I'm not an expert in these fields, so I'm attempting to chronicle my own education as my son makes his way through the program.

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