New York City film crew visits Willmar Schools' Chinese class to film footage for DVD

On Tuesday morning, Willmar Senior High teacher Todd Lynum led his Chinese I students through a counting exercise and talked about the words used to describe different members of a family.

A lesson in Chinese from a local source
Camerawoman Juli Manser records student Willmar Senior High School student Tony Roberts, center, and two other students in Todd Lynum's Chinese I class. A video crew from New York City recorded students taking the popular Mandarin Chinese program to be featured in a documentary. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

On Tuesday morning, Willmar Senior High teacher Todd Lynum led his Chinese I students through a counting exercise and talked about the words used to describe different members of a family.

It was a fairly typical lesson for the fifth day of class since the new term began last week, but it was anything but a typical day. As teacher and students worked together, a video camera, a sound technician and a newspaper photographer moved about the room. Other observers came and went.

Willmar's popular Mandarin Chinese program will be one of the featured programs in a documentary being produced by the Asia Society in New York City. The DVD produced will be a companion to the society's handbook for establishing a Chinese language program.

The handbook has been helpful for schools, said Dr. Shuhan Wang, executive director for Chinese language initiatives for the Asia Society.

However, it is still just a book. "We need to have people see how a good Chinese lesson looks," she said. That's where the DVD comes in.


The DVD will focus on the Chinese education program in Chicago schools and on Chinese education in Minnesota. Willmar will be the only rural public high school featured in the DVD.

Film crews visited Willmar and the private Breck School in Golden Valley on Tuesday. They will be interviewing state officials and visiting the Yinghua Academy, a K-5 Chinese immersion public charter school in St. Paul.

Wang said the society is not saying that all students should study Chinese, but it is a proponent of language education.

"Having the ability to converse in other people's languages and understand other cultures is imperative," she said. "It opens the door for you."

Joan Brzezinski, acting director of the Confucius Institute at the University of Minnesota, helped the Asia Society find schools to visit in Minnesota.

She suggested Willmar because they wanted to visit a rural school. Senior High Principal Rob Anderson has attended programs at the Confucius Institute, she said, so she knew about the program.

"This gives Willmar national and international exposure," Brzezinski said.

The documentary will show what it takes to get a program going in a rural community, she said. Some of the things that have helped the Willmar program are a supportive principal who is open to the program and students who show a growing interest.


Anderson watched the filming for a while and said he was impressed at the diversity of students in the classroom. Hispanic students tended to shy away from French classes, he said, but growing numbers of them are signing up for Chinese.

Wang said another attraction of the Willmar program was to show the work of a teacher who is not a native speaker of Chinese. After watching Lynum at work, she was impressed.

"He provides a lot of rich cultural information," she said. She was pleased with his use of hand gestures in conjunction with numbers, something that students in China would learn.

She also liked that Lynum helped students learn strategies for remembering Chinese characters. "He's very encouraging," she said.

When Lynum taught them Chinese characters, he explained what the characters meant. He said later that students tell him that helps them remember what they learn.

Lynum and Anderson said they are pleased that the Willmar program is getting so much attention.

The film crew told him to act like they weren't there, Lynum said, so he did that. He had been pleased that the students were able to do the same and pay attention in class, despite the presence of the cameras.

Lynum said he tries different ways to help the students stay focused during class. He tries to make sure they are up on their feet a few times during the 90-minute class period. They tasted a traditional Chinese New Year cake on Tuesday. His desk has a Beanie Babies collection of animals representing the years in the Chinese calendar, and a variety of traditional decorations decorate his room.


His visitors were impressed, too, that he had the Pledge of Allegiance translated into Chinese and posted on the wall for students to learn.

"It's wonderful exposure for our school and community, for Todd, for our program," Anderson said. "It's good reinforcement that we're doing something unique and well."

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