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Teacher from China eager to begin classes today

Willmar teacher Todd Lynum, left, and Bai Jinguo, an exchange teacher from Harbin, China, work in Lynum's classroom to prepare for the beginning of the school year. Bai will work with Lynum's Mandarin Chinese students. (Tribune photo by Linda Vanderwerf)

WILLMAR -- Chinese teacher Bai Jinguo was impressed that a Willmar Best Buy employee was able to speak with him in Chinese when he shopped there recently.

The girl is a student in the Mandarin Chinese program at Willmar Senior High. Bai is looking forward to meeting more students when classes begin today.

It will be the beginning of a year-long adventure for all of them.

Bai will spend the school year in Willmar as part of the U.S. State Department's Teachers of Critical Languages Program. A State Department grant will fund his stay here. Willmar is one of 10 high schools in the nation and the only one in the Midwest to participate in the program.

While in Willmar, Bai will work with teacher Todd Lynum in the Senior High's Mandarin Chinese program. He will also visit other classes and speak to community groups.

The two talked about their hopes for the year in an interview last week in Lynum's classroom.

Bai has studied English for years, as do most Chinese students, and he has won awards for his teaching of it. Communicating with the people he's met here has not been a problem, he said.

Bai teaches English at an elite high school in Harbin, a city of 5 million in northeastern China.

By comparison to his noisy, crowded home city, Willmar is quiet and peaceful, he said.

"I like the people around me, they always smile," he said. He has already attended a Minnesota Twins game and gone to the Mall of America. His landlady, Bev Baseman, took him to a bowling party, where he met many of her friends.

Lynum said the two of them have had interesting conversations about the differences between their school systems. "Both systems have strengths and weaknesses," he said.

Bai teaches at a school that accepts only the top students. That's a contrast to an American public school, which accepts every student that comes to the door.

He was impressed with the modern high school in Willmar, as his school was built in 1912. The computer system used by the staff to track attendance and student progress pleased him.

Bai had not heard of detention before, and he will experience his first school lockdown drill this year.

The Chinese school day is different, with students staying at school into the evening to finish their homework and work on projects. "We keep them at school, and we hope to create a positive atmosphere for them," Bai said. At home, they have the same distractions that students in America have, like video games.

"Teachers here work so hard," Bai said. In China, teachers teach two 45-minute classes a day, working the rest of the time on team projects.

Lynum said the goal is to have Bai visit other high school classes, go to other schools and also speak to community organizations.

"The emphasis is that it's an exchange," he said. "We want to make sure we take advantage of his experience and are able to learn from him."

Other teachers can see his teaching style and he'll be able to observe theirs.

"I'm beginning to know more teachers, they show great kindness to me and they treat me nicely," Bai said.

For the first couple weeks, Bai will observe classes, but later, he will have his own classroom and the teachers will sometimes split up Lynum's large classes. "I hope to do what I can do to help them know more about China," Bai said.

The few students he met in his first weeks in Willmar were proud to be studying Chinese, Bai said. He was impressed with the Chinese spoken by the student working at Best Buy.

Bai said he's found Minnesotans' English to be "quite standard" and hasn't noticed an accent.

However, he has found some differences. The English he speaks has some British vocabulary in it. He is learning to refer to time off as a vacation instead of a holiday.

Bai has already learned that Minnesota has two seasons -- "winter and road repair."

And he's beginning to learn about American sarcasm. An employee at a local restaurant dropped a tray, and Bai heard one of his co-workers comment, "Nice job."

He's bought a car and is planning to get a driver's license with Lynum's assistance. Chinese drive on the right side of the road, and many of the laws are similar, he said. There is some difference in the signs.

"We're just thrilled to have him here, and he's very eager to get started," Lynum said. "It's a tremendous opportunity these kids have."

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

(320) 214-4340
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