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Short journey to another world for Rawls Byrd students

Xuan Shu in classJAMES CITY — Introducing Rawls Byrd Elementary students to a culture worlds apart from their own was as easy as forging a partnership a few miles away.

Close in proximity and uniquely suited to provide elementary students with firsthand knowledge of Chinese language and culture, the Confucius Institute at the College of William and Mary was the perfect resource for engaging students in challenging required information they'd otherwise be learning out of a book.

"They are helping us address the Virginia Standards of Learning," said Dana Margulies Cauthen, second grade teacher at Rawls Byrd. "Ancient China is one of the second-grade topics."

Rawls Byrd Principal Cathy Vazquez said the school launched two successful partnerships with Confucius last month, teaching fifth graders Mandarin Chinese and helping second graders learn about Chinese history, culture and geography. More partnerships are in the works.

Xuan Shu, known to her students as Jessica, visited with second graders weekly. A student at Beijing Normal University, she came to the United States last fall to work with the Confucius Institute.

Cauthen said Jessica has been teaching the children everything from hard facts to artistic expressions, like paper cutting and the decoration of masks in the Beijing Opera. Cauthen said after the paper cutting lesson she had a hard time curbing her students' impulses to show off their newfound skills.

Jessica said she taught the students basic conversational skills, like how to say "hello" and "goodbye" and introduce themselves, but her focus was on giving them a taste of Chinese culture. She taught them about the explorer Zheng He, who is regarded as the Chinese Columbus. She also told them the story of the Monster Year and that the bright colors and loud celebration of Chinese New Year evolved as a way to scare the monster off.

"I want them to experience the different culture of Chinese New Year because they celebrate a completely different New Year, where they watch it on TV and have a good dinner," she said. "We have the Dragon Parade."

Alexandria Otero, 8, said she's liked learning the language and seeing what the Chinese characters look like on paper. She added that syncing up the written and spoken language has been difficult because the characters often represent an entire word instead of a single letter.

Christopher Dawson, 8, has enjoyed learning something new every week. He said what he'll remember about the special lessons is the language in hopes that he can greet someone from China in their own language own day and make them feel at home here in America.

Cauthen said her students were skeptical of learning about a foreign culture at first, but their enthusiasm grew with time. She said it's been wonderful to watch them learn from someone who lives the culture rather than from her secondhand knowledge or a textbook.

"It's helped build a bridge between cultures," she said. "If they were to meet someone from China in the future, I think my kids would scream 'Hello. My name is...' I can see them doing that."