Las Flores Elementary first-grader Harrison Lu walked purposefully into the school's new Chinese Cultural Center and handed teacher Monica Morrissey two boxes wrapped in red and gold--gifts from his family, he said.
"Wa, xie xie ni [Wow, thank you]," Morrissey told Harrison in Mandarin.
The gifts--ornate banners with Chinese characters printed in gold on red velvet--would be hung in the center among the many cultural artifacts that Morrissey and her colleague Steve Cook have collected during travels in the Far East.
About 4% of the school's student body is of Asian heritage. Fewer have had any previous exposure to either languages or culture from Asia. But several years ago, Capistrano Unified School District officials decided to change that. They believed exposure to Asian language and culture was critical to pupils' education--especially if they wanted to lead them down a path toward success in international business. So the district began offering language programs in Mandarin and Japanese at several elementary schools.
"The board of trustees felt the district needed to make inroads to teaching languages," said Las Flores Principal Linda Mulhaupt. "For our children to be on the cutting edge, they need to become familiar with the Chinese and Pacific Rim languages, because that's where big business is going."
The cultural center at Las Flores and its artifacts help bring the language to life, Morrissey said. It takes instruction beyond words and their pronunciation and allows the pupils to take a peek at Chinese culture and tradition through books, games, pictures, artwork and music.
White-faced dolls with jet-black hair fashioned in a bun and dressed in traditional robes grace the top of a file cabinet. Delicate lanterns hang from the ceiling. Puppets and banners dot the center's walls and bookshelves.
"Having a place where kids can come in and touch these things makes for a more rounded instruction," Morrissey said. "I think it's very important to have that."
The center, which opened in December, serves as an enhancement to the Chinese language program, which began at Las Flores three years ago and provides Mandarin language instruction twice a week to all of its 600 elementary school children. An additional 100 students in Las Flores' middle school, which operates on the same campus, receive instruction in the language once a week.
Blending culture with language instruction is key to mastering the language, said Betty Guthrie, a UC Irvine expert on language learning and teaching.
"A language doesn't exist without a cultural context. They are very closely interwoven," Guthrie said. "Learning a language in a setting where everything around you is Anglophilic winds up separating you from even some of the elementary things about the Chinese language."
For the first three months of the school year, Morrissey and Cook had been running a smaller version of the center in an office they shared with the school's speech pathology and reading instruction programs. But the space was so cramped it was impossible for students to use.
A state grant allowed the school to purchase a portable classroom, which freed space for a larger, permanent cultural center. The grant also allowed the school to buy computers, Chinese-language software, musical instruments, puppets and traditional costumes.
The Las Flores facility isn't the district's only cultural center, however. The Native American History Center at Richard Henry Dana Elementary School in Dana Point acquaints students with local Native American tribes, but it operates as an independent program and isn't associated with language instruction.
The new center at Las Flores is about 150 square feet, but that's enough room for a class of 20 students to work on crafts or rehearse for traditional Chinese festival performances such as the Lion Dance, which the elementary students performed for their families Feb. 2 to celebrate the Chinese New Year. Students also can use the center's computers after school.
Soon they will be using the center to prepare for a Chinese culture showcase in April.
Recently, the school's second-graders went to the center for a primer on a new Chinese-language computer program.
Second-grader Paige Boggess likes all the red she sees in the center. In the Chinese culture, the color red is popular for celebrations--weddings, birthdays, any happy occasion.
Classmate Chanin Naudin likes the dolls because "they look pretty."
Jordan Alvino has taken a liking to a plaque that hangs in the corner. It's painted a brilliant red with hints of orange. It's the Chinese character for fire, but what intrigues Jordan is that the characters look like flames.
There's also a poster of a Chinese woman showing her bare feet, mangled from years of binding.
And the center holds a collection of Chinese-language children's books with English translations.
Parent Sharon Miller, whose two sons are in the Chinese language program, is thrilled about the center.
"It encourages students to connect with what they're learning," Miller said. "They see that the language and the culture have value and purpose. It's not just a lot of words floating around out there."