Local Chinese classes gain from visiting teacher and 5-year grant

WILLMAR -- The students were so intent on designing and painting their Chinese opera masks that they hardly took notice of the strangers in their classroom.

Going strong
Maritza Ocampo, 18, a senior from Pennock, concentrates Tuesday as she works on her Chinese opera mask, a cultural activity in her Chinese I class. Tribune photo by Linda Vanderwerf

WILLMAR -- The students were so intent on designing and painting their Chinese opera masks that they hardly took notice of the strangers in their classroom.

That just impressed the visitors from the University of Minnesota's Co-nfucius Institute even more.

Director Joan Brzezinski and Assistant Director Yu Wang visited Willmar Senior High to observe and evaluate the school's Chinese language classes.

"We love for them to visit," said Senior High Principal Rob Anderson. "They've been a great partner."

Willmar is one of a dozen schools in the state which recently received five-year grants for their Chinese language programs. The original requests had been for one year. "The schools were delighted" when the grants were extended, Brzezinski said.


The Confucius Institute will visit each of the schools in the fall and spring for an evaluation, "and to give them ideas of how we can better support them," she said.

Willmar has one of the few Chinese programs outside the metropolitan area. Other programs that received the grants are in Battle Lake, Fergus Falls and Rochester, she said.

On Tuesday, the women delivered boxes of books, computer software, T-shirts and other supplies. They also delivered a large plaque declaring the Chinese program a Confucius Classroom.

During their visit, they observed teacher Todd Lynum and visiting Chinese teacher Bai Jinguo in a Chinese I class. As students worked on their opera masks, the teachers circulated through the room, answering questions and offering advice.

Willmar is one of 10 high schools in the nation to host a Chinese teacher for the entire school year through a State Department program. Bai teaches English at an elite high school in Harbin, China.

The class on Tuesday covered a combination of cultural and language instruction. They used markers to apply color to the white masks and also practiced conversations. A number of students had traveled to the Twin Cities with the instructors to attend the Chinese opera recently.

Bai and Lynum will often split a class into two classrooms, giving students more individual attention and more opportunities to speak Chinese.

Lynum said he and Bai have had fun working as a team. The longer they teach together, the more they understand each other's styles, he said.


Bai said he has enjoyed getting to know the Willmar students.

"They are so motivated," he said. "They have a strong desire for the language." Some of the Chinese classes are large, and it has been good for the students to have two teachers and two classrooms, he added.

"We have some students who have already learned Spanish," Bai said, with a smile. "They are language fans."

Anderson, who has observed some of Bai's classes, said he has been pleased to see the looks on students' faces when they speak to Bai in Chinese, and he understands them.

Students in the class said they like their Chinese classes and appreciate having Bai at the school. They were genuinely pleased and applauded when Lynum told them that Bai had passed his behind-the-wheel test and gotten his driver's license on Monday.

The Chinese program started in January 2007 with 41 students. This school year, the program will serve more than 180 students and offer three levels of classes.

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: or phone 320-214-4340
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