Chinese elementary school students learn, stay with Evanston classmates

Students from Dr. Bessie Rhodes Magnet School of Global Studies welcome their Beijing pals at the airport. The Chinese students are visiting the Evanston school for a two-week exchange program.

Courtesy of Wendy Woodward

Students from Dr. Bessie Rhodes Magnet School of Global Studies welcome their Beijing pals at the airport. The Chinese students are visiting the Evanston school for a two-week exchange program.

Jia You, Assistant City Editor

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, sixth-grader Zhang Yichi packed toiletries for homeless people in Highland Park with his fellow classmates.

Unlike most of his other classmates, Zhang just arrived in Evanston on Saturday.

Zhang is one of 10 primary school students from Beijing, China, visiting the Dr. Bessie Rhodes Magnet School of Global Studies in Evanston. The Chinese students and three of their teachers are spending two weeks learning with their American classmates and living in their homes.

“I signed up for the trip because I want to learn more about American culture and practice speaking English,” Zhang said.

After introducing a global studies focus two years ago, Rhodes is using the program as its latest effort to develop a globally-oriented curriculum, said Wendy Woodward King, a parent member of the Rhodes Advisory Committee. The school already started offering Chinese last year, she said.

“We’re just doing it to make our kids global citizens and open their eyes to new cultures,” said King, who is also director of NU’s technology support services.

Rhodes’ Chinese counterpart, Huajiadi Experimental Primary School, also has a global focus, said Jiao Shuhua, one of the teachers traveling with the Chinese students. The primary school has previously organized exchange trips to Turkey and Japan, and its students learn English since first grade, Jiao said.

“These exchange programs help the students understand the world,” she said. “They can’t learn that in school.”

The two schools connected through the travel organization Adventure Homestays Abroad. Jiao said her school chose Rhodes because of its capacity and willingness to host the Chinese students.

Since arriving in Evanston, the Chinese students have been attending classes at Rhodes and living with American host families. At school, they carry notebooks around to write down new words.

Despite jet lag, language barriers and occasional homesickness, the students are doing very well, said Tracy Hubbard, Rhodes’ exchange program coordinator.

Zhang said he has adapted well to the school, thanks to help from his American classmates.

“My American classmates are very friendly and treat me very well,” he said. “They help me and explain things to me when I don’t understand something.”

The arrival of Chinese students also made kids at Rhodes more excited about classes, Hubbard said.

King’s daughter, Mackenzie, has been practicing Chinese with these native speakers during recess and learning paper cutting from the Chinese teachers, who prepared a cultural lesson. Mackenzie also teaches English and basketball to Jiao, who is staying with the Kings.

“She loved that kind of interaction,” King said. “I think it’s a real confidence booster for our kids as well.”

Jiao said the Chinese parents are enthusiastic about the exchange. And when a 10-year-old Chinese boy felt homesick, Jiao said his dad back home encouraged him to persevere.

“The parents really want their kids to learn to be independent and overcome challenges,” she said.

King has a waiting list of parents who want to host the Chinese students, some asking her to reserve a place for them next time.

Rhodes plans to send a group of students to the Beijing school next year, King said.

Hubbard said she could not have imagined visiting China when she was a student.

“It’s really the recognition that our world is this small,” she said.

Editor’s Note: Interviews with Jiao Shuhua and Zhang Yichi were conducted in Chinese and translated to English.