If you step into Chloe Lu’s Chinese class at Edina High School, you will learn that red is the color for happiness and luck. You might discuss time zones and why a large country like China only has one. And come fall, you’ll discover the Ghost Festival and the history and tradition behind it. That’s because in Lu’s classroom, cultural awareness is an integral part of the language-learning process.
“We’re not just learning a [language], we’re trying to understand a completely different culture,” says Madison Hobbs, a sophomore in Lu’s Chinese 1 class. From catchy children’s songs to pop culture and current events, the curriculum in Lu’s class keeps students engaged, curious and receptive to the language many consider too ambitious for native-language English speakers.
Lu never thought she’d become a teacher, even though both of her parents were professors, and teaching was a popular profession in her extended family. After graduating from college in China with a degree in Chinese literacy and language, Lu plunged into a career in journalism. For seven years she held various roles in television and radio, including as morning news editor and radio talk-show host. At that time, Lu explains that journalists didn’t have much freedom of speech. It was a struggle to “have your voice [heard] but not be controlled by politics,” she says. Her work involved research, writing government reports, and interviewing all sorts of people, from officers to the people living in poverty. “I’d interview totally different people and try and understand [their story],” she recalls.
But her plans changed when she met her future husband on a trip to San Francisco and decided to settle in the United States. She quickly found herself adapting to the American culture while raising two sons, which proved to be more difficult than she imagined. Even though English was taught in China as a required class, Lu found that its focus on writing and reading didn’t provide much help in the real world. She had excellent grammar skills and could even pass the GRE, but “I remember when I went to McDonald’s [in America] for the first time I couldn’t even order,” she recalls. So she channeled her energy into refining her English and teaching her sons Chinese at home to maintain their heritage. Her interest in language soon lead her to a teaching position at a weekend Heritage School for native Chinese speakers, and finally to a job in the Minnesota public schools. She now holds a master’s degree in education from the University of Minnesota, is an assistant principal at the Minnesota International Chinese School in Chanhassen and is wrapping up her first year teaching in Edina.
As a second-language speaker herself, Lu understands the difficulties her students face and uses her own experience to shape her teaching. “With language, you have to use it, communicate it and then it becomes useful,” says Lu. Although Chinese has a reputation as a hard language to learn, Lu explains that since Chinese grammar is similar to English, “it’s actually not that hard.” By focusing on speaking and listening skills through daily conversation and Simon Says-type games, Lu makes Chinese approachable and fun. Writing Chinese is challenging because it uses a completely different symbol system than the Western alphabet and provides no guide on how to pronounce it. But Lu has brought iPads into the classroom to help teach proper writing form, and students like Hobbs are confident in their newly acquired skills. “Now when I see words in Chinese, it doesn’t look scary. Chinese culture in general doesn’t seem so foreign anymore,” says Hobbs.
That’s precisely Lu’s goal. As a language teacher, Lu’s mission is to open her students’ minds to diversity and encourage cultural tolerance. “We have this obligation as a second-language teacher to teach culture,” she says. “It’s not just that we want them to learn another culture, it’s because it brings the students awareness of their own culture and to have an open mind,” she explains. In our increasingly global world, many of Lu’s students will step into careers that require working with people across the globe. Hobbs, who is already fluent in French, decided to take Chinese because she’s interested in pursuing a career in international affairs. As she points out, about a fifth of the world population speaks Chinese, so it’s a really useful language to have under your belt. “It’s really important for their career and life to work with other people and know how to communicate,” says Lu.
From her years as a journalist, Lu understands the power of communication. “As a Chinese-American, I am proud to contribute to the field of education and help the next generation gain an understanding of China,” she says. In her few years of teaching so far, Lu is happy to report that for her students, “China is not a faraway country [anymore].” The bridge of understanding has begun to form. And as Lu says, “a good relationship is built on understanding.”