LINCOLN – Sitting at an all-red table with the “Longevity” symbol painted on the top in black, art teacher Susan Kolenda and language teacher Becky Regan peruse this “Confucius Classroom” at Lincoln High School in awe.
One wall is devoted to a colorful painting of a mammoth Chinese dragon, that achieved by LHS Special Education instructor Chris Jones. Above a window is a bright red cornice with gold trim and a black Chinese symbol, courtesy of the talents of Kolenda herself.
Inside the room stand six such tables, each surrounded by five or six all-black, cushioned chairs.
The “Confucius Classroom” was dedicated almost a year ago, on Oct. 4, 2010, all in an effort to expose students to additional world cultures, stated Principal Kevin McNamara.
“This is a district initiative, not just within the high school,” he noted. “We have another one at Northern Elementary; they're all about exposing the kids to the Chinese language, art and culture. This isn't a classroom per se, but more of a focal point, a meeting place, for a special event, our annual Expo Night, etc.
“We call it a classroom, but it's also a space we use for kids in all sorts of different programs,” he added. “This is a showpiece for us, so, naturally, we like to show it off when we can.”
Most importantly, according to McNamara, educating students on “everything China” is something above and beyond what most schools offer.
“I'd say we're part of the vanguard revealing these types of programs to the kids,” McNamara said. “There are schools out there – Smithfield, Shea, North Attleboro and the collaborative at Westerly High School – who have such programs, but I'm most familiar with the one out of Bryant University.
“We finally were notified in August 2010 of when our grand opening date for this room was going to be, so everything had to be ready,” he continued. “That opening coincided with a group of performers visiting from Inner Mongolia; there were Mongolian throat singers, and, trust me, that was something to behold.”
It's in conjunction with Bryant's “Confucius Classroom” and other curricula, not to mention computer programs, that Lincoln High provides information to those who choose to enroll in its electives.
Kolenda, who teaches the “Asian Art” course at the high school, admitted she's still learning the system, but claimed she's having as much fun as the students in producing Chinese characters and other native art.
“Asian art is much different than traditional Western art,” explained Kolenda, who has 22 students enrolled and has taught at least 50 over the last year. “It's a different way for us to use the paintbrush, a different way to look at nature and to print-making. The artistic techniques are different than the traditional methods they were taught.
“We just finished Chinese scroll paintings; that was their first project,” she continued. “In our language, we have the A-B-C's, but – in the Chinese language – each character is created by the way the calligraphy stroke is made.
“I asked the kids to pick a word that inspires peace within themselves, and among the choices were 'river,' 'sunset,' 'dance' and 'music.' The kids loved it. It definitely has grown, and the reason for that is it attracts the interests of other students. They'll see some of my students, 'What's that painting?' or “How did you do that?' and they become intrigued.
“What I'm teaching right now, I mean, some students have never before taken high school art before, so they need to be introduced to the subject matter. Last year in 'Asian Art,' I asked them to develop 'pagodas,' a type of Asian architecture. They had to design their own pagoda, figure out how to use positive and negative space.”
She referred to a “Chinese paper cut” completed by current senior Vanessa Ribeiro a year ago, and it was – in a word – magnificent in its detailing.
“This is a semester-long course, so I'm teaching new students right now; they're quite inquisitive,” Kolenda offered. “They don't know what to expect. Like I said, I have some first-year students who've never taken an art class before. I think they're just as excited as the seniors who are taking art classes because they want to major in it in college.”
As for Regan, she revels in teaching both Mandarin and II, though admits her education at Assumption College focused mostly on the French language.
“Over the last two years, I've had 21 students, and the majority of them were and are interested,” Regan said. “They just love the Asian culture. Pure and simple, it's because they want to learn something different. Not everybody takes Mandarin; they'd rather take French or Spanish, which are much more common.
“This is my ninth year of teaching, and second teaching Mandarin here,” she added. “At first, I was hesitant, but I was excited about it. I chose to teach the class, and it's because I love all languages.”
She instructs via a computer program entitled “PowerSpeak,” though she's also blessed in having Bryant students make the short trek to LHS to work with teens about pronunciation, grammar and culture.
McNamara indicated they currently have enlisted a Bryant student and two professors, those from “Han Ban,” which is the Chinese Office for Culture & Education, to instruct students.
“The 'Han Ban' is a huge organization that recruits Chinese teachers to come to America, and Bryant has these two at their disposal,” he stated. “They come out three times a week to be those resources for those studying what they know.
“These are classes we're hoping to cycle in here,” he continued. “For instance, when the Early World History class of ninth-graders come in, we'll use this room as a resource.”
Regan maintained she's amazed at how much information Mandarin II students have retained since their previous course.
“On the simulated computer program, a kid follows a fictitious exchange student with a Chinese family,” she noted, “and our student journals his life living with the Chinese family. In so doing, my students learn not only about about the culture, daily life and Chinese family traditions, but also basic vocabulary, grammar and phrases.
“Mandarin II is an extension of the first, and it's set up the same way, though it delves deeper,” she added. “They learn how to use Chinese characters, and how to write a sentence using those characters … Honestly, they're doing great. It's very impressive to see the Level 2 student be able to help those on Level 1.”
With a giggle, she insisted, “No, they don't complain about it. They enjoy it.”
Stated McNamara: “Becky creates a truly positive classroom environment. The students want to be there, and it's because they're really good at what they do. They buy into it due to the fact they're so interested in it.”
Regan admitted she's learning, too.
“Every time I meet a student who has a very rich, international background, it thrills me, as I know I can learn from him or her,” she mentioned. “I seek out that information.”
She's not alone, as Kolenda – who graduated from Rhode Island College – does the same.
“I didn't expect to be teaching (the) 'Asian Art' class, but it's great because the kids are so intrigued,” she noted. “They'll see a project we did, and those not taking it will say, 'Which class did that?' Word spreads from students seeing the art in the hallways or classrooms, and a friend asks those questions. It's all word of mouth.
“I've got students who have learned to create a 'chop,' which is a traditional Chinese signature used by individuals,” she added, holding up one teen's artwork. “This boy – his name is Kendrick – created his own signature; that is, the design for it. It placed a 'K' in it, and now has his own stamp. That's how they all sign their artwork.”
She also explained grading those creations can be difficult, but has developed a system to do so.
“If a student forgets to put his or her name on the back in English, I have a list of the student's signatures I can refer to so I know who I'm grading,” she chuckled. “Seriously, students I've had have a passion for the Asian culture, so for them to have the opportunity to explore that passion is an amazing thing. I think they're very fortunate.”
Superintendent of Schools Georgia Fortunato re-enforced that statement.
“This is a wonderful learning opportunity for the students at Lincoln High School,” she said. “Our partnership with the Confucius Institute has proven to be a rewarding and enriching experience for our students.
“Both Susan Kolenda and Rebecca Regan have done an outstanding job with this initiative; they are both true assets to this program, and I'm proud of what they do with our students on a daily basis. I am excited to think what lies ahead for this wonderful program.”