Randi Hacker stood in front of Staci Mann’s third-grade class, enthusiastically telling various students they were either a snake or a dragon.
In some cases, a student might take offense to this sort of name-calling. But in the context of the Chinese New Year birth animals, snakes are wise and dragons are pioneering and strong.
The activity was part of the Chinese lessons Hacker, who is the outreach coordinator at Kansas University’s Center for East Asian Studies, has been teaching third-grade classes at Eudora Elementary School.
The lessons were part of Hacker’s Five Days of Chinese, which introduced the students to basic Chinese vocabulary and is funded by a federal grant promoting outreach.
Lessons included Chinese pronunciation of colors, animals of the Chinese New Year and how to sing the song “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” in Chinese.
Hacker has been taking the program into schools throughout the area and also wrote a book called “The Fastest Pig in the West,” which teaches students about the immigrant experience through a fictional account of a Chinese boy in Kansas and his journey to discover his place in both cultures.
The book, which she gave to classes in Eudora, also is interspersed with sections about Chinese culture and history, as well as an online teaching guide.
“I think learning any other language is important, whether it’s Chinese, Dutch or Mongolian,” Hacker said. “Being able to know another language, first of all, changes the way you think. Second of all, when you’re that young, it’s as easy as pie to pick up another language.”
Third-grade teacher Mann said the experience has been enriching and has opened up her students to learning about other cultures.
Though Hacker only visits the students once a week, they have been able to seamlessly pick up where the last lesson finished.
“I’m never shocked, but I’m always impressed by how well they remember things,” Hacker said. “It’s so amazing to me because their minds are completely open.”
Chyenne Kurtz, a student in Peggy Johnson’s third-grade class, said she doesn’t have a favorite part of the lessons because it all has been enjoyable to her.
“I like how it’s written and how their culture is,” Kurtz said. “In case I ever go there, I can actually have a conversation with the people.”
Hacker said she hoped to see schools begin to teach second languages to elementary-age students.
“There are always reasons to learn other languages and if you wait until high school, it’s almost too late,” Hacker said. “There’s no reason why these children should not speak two languages.”