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Sisters teach English to Chinese
Jul 2011 06

Chinese children get a lot of art and language instruction in schools where learning doesn’t seem to suffer from large class sizes, said the three Clark sisters from Carmel Valley, who spent two weeks there last month.

Elizabeth, 18; Madeline, 16, and Julia, 14, daughters of Stuart and Lena Clark, volunteered as basic English instructors in kindergarten and elementary school classrooms and an orphanage in the industrial city of Jiangmin a few hours’ drive from Hong Kong.

The girls’ trip stemmed from a brainstorming session with fellow members of the Express volunteer service club at Santa Catalina School, founded by junior Norma Poon of Sacramento, whose hometown is Jiangmin, as well as schoolmates Elaine Sheu of Taiwan and Joyce Lee of Hong Kong, all boarders at Santa Catalina.

The six got together in China beginning June 4 to work together as student volunteers.

Jiangmin is situated among “lush, green rolling hills,” Elizabeth said. “It’s a small city for China, but it was big for us.”

The kindergarten where they taught, Madeline said, had more than 700 students, the elementary school 2,000 and the high school 3,000 to 4,000.

Their Santa Catalina schoolmates teamed with each of them to translate and the Clark sisters said they all got up to say a few sentences in Mandarin, greeting the children “Glad to meet you and I want to learn from you.”

Their main effort, Madeline said, was teaching vocabulary. “Grammar would have been too much.” The teachers she said, wanted their students to hear how Americans spoke English and to learn “American” words. Some of the teachers didn’t speak English well. “They wanted to hear us.”

“We went to the major bookstore in town and got stories to read,” Madeline said.

“We’d take five to 10 sets of flashcards,” Julia said, naming the objects in English, “and played games in English: Hangman, Pictionary and charades.”

The elementary children, she said, “knew a lot of vocabulary for their age.”

They also liked songs, Madeline said. “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” was a favorite, and she was showered with cutout paper art and other creations as gifts from her kindergartners.

The three tried their hands at Go, and the elementary students trounced them, they said. The Clark sisters also attempted, with little success, to play the Chinese guitar.

The Catalina students got a tour of Jiangmin’s 400-year-old watchtower, built to watch for invaders and often used as a backdrop for Chinese filmmakers, and spent weekends “eating and shopping,” Elizabeth said.

“We got really good,” Madeline said, “with chopsticks.”

They were given a talk on the experiences of Chinese from the Jiangmin area working and studying abroad, Elizabeth said: the jobs they held, oppression they dealt with and rights they eventually won.

The Clark sisters also visited a nearby hot springs spa with the Poon family.

They also visited the local high school and found every student they talked to fluent in English.

“They all learn it,” Madeline said.

Elizabeth Clark graduated this year from Santa Catalina and plans to go to Middlebury College in Vermont.

Her sisters will return to Santa Catalina, Madeline as a junior, Julia as a sophomore.

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