, Muskogee, OK

September 30, 2013

Learning, teaching Chinese culture

— Hui Zhang claps three times, and a class of chattering Fort Gibson Middle School students stop and listen.

“She gets people’s attention,” middle school math teacher Karlee Ritchie said as she watched the visitor from China lead a class. “The students like listening to her.”

Zhang, who lives in Beijing, is getting Fort Gibson students of all grade levels to listen to her and learn about Chinese culture. She is spending the school year at Fort Gibson through an exchange program sponsored by the Confucius Institute of the University of Oklahoma. Fort Gibson has been participating in the program since 2009.

Back in Beijing, Zhang teaches English and geography at the Beijing Secondary Experimental Primary School, Yihai Campus. She said her students are 12 and 13 years old.

In Fort Gibson, she teaches children from elementary school through high school. Students and teachers call her “Miss Grace.”

“I want high school students to learn oral Chinese, like ordering in a restaurant,” she said. “I want them to know about our culture. I want them to become interested in China. I want the elementary kids to learn about the culture.”

Friday, she taught sixth-graders how to make Double Happiness paper cuttings.

“Double Happiness is for wedding ceremonies,” Zhang said.

The students copied her movements as she delicately turned the red construction paper, cutting along the patterned lines.

Zhang said the main difference she sees between Fort Gibson Middle School and her school back home is how students attend classes.

“Here, they move to different classrooms,” she said. “In China, the teachers come to the classrooms. Here, they have textbooks here and textbooks at home, and the textbooks are big. In China, we get new textbooks every semester. And they are thinner.”

To Zhang, China is a different culture American students need to learn about.

“I want them to know there is another big country that has a different lifestyle and culture,” Zhang said.

Early Learning Center kindergarten teacher Sally Lehman, who is hosting Zhang, said she is learning just how different their cultures are.

She said one big difference is “the way we talk to each other.”

“They speak more directly,” Lehman said. “She is very direct. It’s just different. But she’s real nice and easy to get along with.”

Lehman said Zhang cooks for her family and wants to learn how to cook western style, “especially baking.”

She said she has things Zhang wants to learn about America.

“I want her to go back to China thinking our education system is good and that most Americans like to be with family,” Lehman said. “I feel like a lot of American families like to be together. She thought we were an unusual family in that we spend time together.”

Reach Cathy Spaulding at (918) 684-2928 or cspaulding@muskogee