Issue: 2010: Vol. 9, No. 1

From Grits to Rice: Teaching Chinese Language and Culture in Georgia

Article Author(s)

Valerie Pepper

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Valerie Pepper has a B.A. in East Asian Studies from Indiana University. She has worked in marketing and sales management for both Chinese and U.S. companies in China and Taiwan. She will be attending the Andrew Young School of Policy Studies at Georgia State University this fall to pursue a Master's degree in Public Policy. Her thesis will focus on the recent emergence of China-based social enterprises. 
2010: Vol. 9, No. 1
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From Grits to Rice: Teaching Chinese Language and Culture in GeorgiaWhen I was a Chinese Studies major in the early 1990s, the most popular Asian language to study was Japanese. There was little interest in studying Chinese on college campuses, and virtually none at all at the K-12 level. Due to China’s economic boom over the last decade, interest in studying not only Chinese language but also Chinese culture and history has increased substantially.

Fortunately, the state of Georgia, with the financial support from China, has expanded Georgia’s ties to China with the recent establishment of two Confucius Institutes, non-profit public institutions established for the purpose of promoting Chinese language and culture around the world. The Institutes are under the supervision of China’s “Hanban” or Office of Chinese Language Council International, a division of the Chinese Ministry of Education. There are currently more than 282 Confucius Institutes in at least 88 countries worldwide, and the United States has more Confucius Institutes than any other country with more than 63.

Emory University

In March 2008, Emory University, the Atlanta Public Schools, and Nanjing University partnered to establish the first Confucius Institute in Georgia. It is also the first and only Confucius Institute to be jointly administered by a private university and a public school system. The Emory-APS-Nanjing University collaboration is comprised of the following three components:

  • K-12 Chinese language and culture learning via partnership with the Atlanta Public School system
  • Scholarly exchanges with Nanjing University, including lectures and conference such as the March 2010 conference at Emory on Chinese literature, culture and media
  • Public outreach and community activities including Evening at Emory classes on Chinese language and culture

Located in the Kirkwood neighborhood, just a few miles east of downtown Atlanta, Coan Middle School is one home to this Institute. Along with Toomer Elementary, Carver, North Atlanta and Maynard Holbrook Jackson high schools, Coan Middle School is one of five Atlanta public schools that currently offer modern standard Chinese language instruction. (Toomer Elementary has offered Mandarin Chinese for its K-5 students for the last four years.) Last summer, three Atlanta Public Schools educators – Dr. Shirlene B. Carter, principal at Maynard Holbrook Jackson High School; Tonya Saunders, principal at Toomer Elementary; and Dr. Lisa West, model teacher leader with the Office of High Schools – joined a large delegation that traveled to China to expand Chinese-language programs in U.S. schools. This trip was sponsored by Hanban, the Confucius Institute’s headquarters in Beijing, and provided the delegates with a more in-depth look at China’s educational system as well as the opportunity to learn more about Chinese culture. (APS website article, 7/23/09)

One element of regular programming at Confucius Institutes has been teacher training workshops. These workshops were established to help Chinese language teachers improve their teaching skills. In addition to sharing best practices for teaching Chinese to non-native speakers in grades K-12, the workshops also provide tools such as new software and textbooks donated by Hanban. The teachers receive Continuing Education Units through the Emory Center for Lifelong Learning, and teacher certificates from Hanban. In the fall of 2008, the Confucius Institute in Atlanta sponsored a teacher training program with the High Museum of Art and more than 180 K-12 teachers with backgrounds in the language arts, history, math and art participated. With support from China, the Confucius Institute of Atlanta also offers intensive summer training workshops for Georgia’s Chinese teachers to help them keep abreast of new developments in the field of Chinese language instruction. The Institute also organizes Chinese culture workshops for teachers who want to incorporate Chinese calligraphy, holidays and folklore into their language classes.

One of the most popular of the Confucius Institutes-sponsored educational exchanges has been the Chinese Bridge Summer Camp program, during which U.S. high school students travel to China for two weeks. Last year, 29 Georgia high school students (out of more than 1,000 U.S. students) participated in this program, and interest in the camp continues to rise this year. Students attend language classes and cultural workshops, and go on sightseeing tours of China’s rich cultural history. Students get a glimpse of their Chinese counterparts’ lives by living in high-school dormitories and spend at least one night with a Chinese family.

The promotion of Chinese language and culture at Georgia schools and universities has already begun to pay off. The Confucius Institute in Atlanta organized a Chinese Speech Contest and sent the first prize winner, Jack Kelleher, to the bi-annual Chinese Bridge Chinese Proficiency Contest in 2009, where he won third place and a scholarship to study in China.

As part of its public outreach effort, the Emory-based Confucius Institute is collaborating with The Evening at Emory program to offer both classes in conversational Chinese language and in calligraphy. The Confucius Institute has also organized and sponsored a wide variety of cultural events and activities around the city, such as the Mid-Autumn Festival Gala, the Sino-U.S. Friendship Photo Exhibit at the Emory Woodruff Library, and the Carter Center exhibit celebrating the 30th anniversary of Sino-U.S. relations.

Kennesaw State University

Georgia’s second Confucius Institute is a partnership between Kennesaw State University and Yangzhou University that was formally established in August 2009. The director, Ken Jin, had developed a strong academic exchange relationship with China many years ago. According to Mr. Jin, there are five programs associated with Kennesaw State University’s Institute that are simultaneously promoting Chinese language and culture in Georgia:

  • The Chinese Language Education is a statewide program that provides support and training for Internet-based Chinese instruction in collaboration with Georgia Virtual Schools, as well as Chinese language instruction for Pre-K students.
  • The Study in China program develops overseas study opportunities for high school and university students, as well as for teachers and education administrators from all over the state.
  • The International Business Education program develops Georgia-based programs for Chinese business executives and MBA students to learn from top business leaders in Georgia.
  • The Chinese Cultural Events program sponsors Chinese New Year celebrations and the Lake Lanier Dragon Boat Festival, as well as other cultural events.
  • The Life Enrichment program provides classes for the general public covering a variety of topics such as Chinese cooking, calligraphy, painting, martial arts, and Chinese medicine

The KSU Confucian Institute has most recently focused on Chinese language education at the Pre-K level. There are already numerous K-12 programs throughout the state, and now the directors of both the Emory and KSU Confucius Institutes are responding to requests from Pre-K administrators and offering Chinese language classes to their pupils. According to Mr. Jin, there are approximately 82,000 pupils in Pre-K classes throughout the state.

One of the most exciting and potentially far-reaching of programs is the collaboration between Georgia Virtual Schools (GVS) and KSU’s Confucius Institute. Since 2005, GVS, a department of the Georgia Department of Education, has been providing technology services to middle- and high-school students. Although GVS already had been using a first year Chinese-language software program for the past two years, they were interested in improving this software. Last summer, GVS teachers and administrators went to China as a part of the Education Leadership program sponsored by the Confucius Institute at KSU, and they are now working with software developers in China to develop a new language learning program that will include three versions: online, CD-ROM and LAN. This new software (called “Great Wall”) will be launched this fall, according to Jay Heap, program developer for GVS. Third- and fourth-year Chinese language learning programs should be ready for the 2011 school year.

The dearth of qualified Chinese language teachers in Georgia, as well as lack of funding for in-school language programs, is the driving force behind this new educational software. On the bright side, the availability of Chinese language software that can reach thousands of school children all over the state of Georgia at minimal cost is an exciting prospect. Without this technology, Chinese language instruction would not be available to most of Georgia’s students. In one notable exception to this general situation, KSU’s Confucius Institute is working with the staff development program for Cobb County (Georgia) schools and has placed Rong Li, a KSU graduate and Chinese language teacher, at North Cobb High School, where he teaches Chinese language and culture.

Shirley Davis, assistant professor and director of North Georgia Colleges and Universities, met Ken Jin at the World Language Academy in Hall County to discuss the possibility of her students, a group of educators known as “North Georgia-Pioneer Rising Stars Leadership Collaborative,” going to China for their yearly international trip to study best practices. In July 2009, 12 education leaders went to China and over 13 days, they visited middle schools, Yangzhou University and the Hanban Institute in Beijing. This summer, Ken Jin and Shirley Davis will return to China. About 60 educators from Georgia and neighboring states already are interested in joining them. Due to the overwhelming interest in the program and the target participation of 30 educators, all interested participants are required to submit a written proposal stating how they will use the knowledge gained from this experience.

The Study in China program known as “Chinese Bridge” began last year with 28 Georgia high school students and 3 teachers spending 2 weeks visiting Chinese students and sightseeing in Beijing and the Shaolin martial arts school in Henan Province. This summer, more than 100 students have expressed interest in attending the Chinese Bridge study abroad program. The Coca-Cola Foundation, a supporter of youth leadership programs, has reached out to KSU’s Confucius Institute to discuss plans for a specialized program to send a smaller group of high school students to China.

Dr. Binbin Jiang, associate professor of Educational Leadership at Kennesaw State University, recently developed and implemented a “Multicultural Education and International Education” graduate seminar and in conjunction with this course, led a group of 8 students to China last summer. The Confucius Institute helped to organize and provided some financial support to the students participating in this overseas educational exchange.

As part of the graduate seminar, the students are required to write a paper about what they learned from their trip to China and how they will use that knowledge in their teaching plans. After completion of this assignment, Dr. Jiang’s students presented their papers at the 2009 Southern Regional Council Education Conference held in Atlanta last fall. One student who works as a school counselor wrote about how this trip helped her empathize more with non-native English speaking students and another who teaches high school level Spanish has already spoken with her school’s principal about collaborating with a Chinese high school to establish a sister school relationship. Another graduate student wrote about how principals worked with teachers in forming “distributive leadership” whereby the teachers are involved in school leadership activities.


It is impossible to learn a new language without learning something about the culture that utilizes those words and expressions. With the support of the Chinese Ministry of Education, Georgia educators and modern technology, Georgia Virtual Schools is providing students a unique and cost effective opportunity to learn Chinese. Through Chinese language and culture courses as well as study abroad opportunities, Georgia students are broadening their horizons by learning about the world’s most populous country and fastest growing economy. The two Confucius Institutes recently established in Georgia present a wonderful opportunity for both students and educators to learn more about a country with a people, history and culture very different from their own.