Janesville Summer Institute works to build bridges between local, foreign students

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Nick Crow
Sunday, July 27, 2014

JANESVILLE —Shanyi Ming came to Janesville this summer from China to better understand the English language and American culture.

“Many of us came here to better understand English,” he said. “I like America. I think it's very beautiful.”

He had been here only two days and already had made a friend.

Jayden Leavy, 11, is a sixth-grader at Marshall Middle School.

He said he had learned a lot about Chinese culture by being able to interact with foreign students.

“They are very nice and friendly,” Jayden said. “I've been looking forward to this summer for a while.”

The interactions were a part of building bridges between cultures, Janesville School District officials said.

Students in fourth through 12th grades from both Janesville and abroad were participating in the first ever Bridges Festival. It transitions into the second annual Summer Institute from Monday, July 28, through Friday, Aug. 8.

High school students will attend courses at Craig High School. Elementary and middle school students will go to Kennedy Elementary.

“I think all of the kids will gain a greater cultural understanding,” Superintendent Karen Schulte said. “This isn't new. We've been doing international work (in the district) for over 30 years.”

Schulte said the school has worked closely with schools in Argentina, France, Spain, Mexico and Australia, just to name a few.

“It is global,” Schulte said. “It's not just China. It's countries all over the world.”

The district is hosting 138 Chinese students for the events, and 60 Janesville School District students are participating, Schulte said.

“This event has gotten a lot of attention, but there is a lot going on with our schools internationally,” Schulte said.

The Bridges Festival idea was born from a conference in Beijing attended by Harrison Elementary School staff last year.

Schulte said next year's festival with the theme Things That Fly already is being planned.

“What's important about this to me is that it causes our own students in Janesville to be active and not be observers in life,” said Jane Thompson, dean of students at the Academy for International Studies and coordinator for international programs. “Bringing everyone together causes our children to come out of their shells a little bit, I think.”

The students will be engaging in collaborative learning experiences, Thompson said.

“Our superintendent is bold and knows what's good for kids,” Thompson said. “She's constantly looking at best practices and how kids learn. And this is it.”

Thursday, elementary and middle school students alternated between learning soccer skills and making their own handmade instruments. High schoolers gave presentations about themselves to improve their English language speaking skills.

Wednesday, they helped test a pilot app called "Culture Agents" created by Josh Halpern that teaches students to be creative while broadening their global perspective.

Melissa Baier de Garcia, lead coordinator of the high school portion of the summer institute, said the College Matters portion will focus on test prep and getting foreign students prepared for high school and college in the United States.

“The purpose is to give them the tools that can help them in the application process for high school or college,” Baier de Garcia said. “We will create a digital profile they can take back that shows they are familiar with U.S. culture.”

Universities in China are crowded, and students are interested in higher education in the United States because more spot are open, she said.

“They have to master the language and have the tools to be successful here,” Baier de Garcia said. “Obviously, the language is very important.”

Nick Kliminski is coordinator for the physical events during the festival. He said it's important for the students to bridge the gap between health and athletics.

“In China, athletics are just starting to take off,” Kliminski said. “I hope the kids are able to get a little taste of what athletics mean to us in this country. They are part of who we are as Americans.”

Other activities the students will participate in throughout the coming weeks include robotics, an arts festival, weekly field trips, language arts, team-building activities and more.

Schulte said the institute is designed to engage the students in creative learning and team building, which will breed cultural understanding.

“Project-based learning seeks to engage students,” Schulte said. “The message is so good. It's about understanding each other's culture.”

Michelle Haworth has three kids in the district. Her family is hosting two Chinese girls. Last year, they also hosted two children. She said the experience for her family has been positive.

“I like helping other people and providing for them,” Haworth said. “This was an opportunity to experience a new culture and expose it to our kids.”

Haworth said it's important to her that her kids experience a world outside of Janesville.

“The kids coming from China are so gifted and talented,” Haworth said. “For our kids, the experience is something they will never forget. To meet and interact so closely for three weeks is something our kids would not have had otherwise.”

The cost to attend the activities for local students was $100 per student. The fee was waived for families hosting students and they receive $235 hosting reimbursements.

The cost for international students was $5,000, which included airfare, travel, health insurance and the host family fee.

“I want them to leave with the American experience,” Haworth said. “Some of them might come again, but this is the opportunity of a lifetime for many of them. I want it to be a meaningful experience for them. I'm hoping they can take back a memory that will live with them.”

Liu Ning, 14, said he appreciates the lessons with American students because it helps him to relate to them.

“I want to improve my English grammar, yes,” Ning said. “But I also like talking about differences of culture. I enjoy it very much.”

Patrick Finster and his family are also hosting children for the institute. He thinks it might open the eyes of his children.

“I have four children,” Finster said. “This gives them the idea there is something outside Janesville. Bringing foreign students here has been an excellent opportunity for my kids.”

He said his kids already have learned that despite a language barrier, they aren't all that different from one another.

“The walls come down, and they realize that except for the language they are very similar,” Finster said. “In my opinion, Rock County has been in its own envelope. Opening up the area can open all of our eyes that we aren't the only ones out there. If we can bring in other students that are interested in the area, it's good for the community as a whole.”

“The bottom line is that kids are just kids,” Schulte said. “I think sometimes kids understand that quicker than adults do.”

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