Florence boy finds practical use for his classroom lessons at Chinese Immersion Charter School

Last modified: Monday, May 25, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — When 12-year-old Hunter Palm visited China for two weeks in April with his mother and grandmother, the locals, hearing him speak Chinese, asked: “How long have you been living in China?”

“Hunter was our interpreter, thank goodness,” his grandmother, Jody O’Brien, said at her grandson’s home on Maple Ridge Road in Florence. “If we hadn’t had Hunter, we wouldn’t have been able to ride the bus or order food.”

For O’Brien, 79, a nurse from East Longmeadow, the trip was her sixth assignment with Global Volunteers, a service organization that sends volunteers abroad. On previous trips, she has volunteered as a nurse in a public health clinic in Mexico and worked with children with disabilities in an orphanage in Romania. She has also worked in schools in St. Lucia, the Cook Islands, and the Chinese city Kunming.

This time, her daughter Kelly Palm and grandson, a sixth-grader at the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School in Hadley, came with her. The three generations taught English to students at the Xi’an Biomedical Technical College, in Xi’an — a city of over 8 million in central China’s Shaanxi province.

“Because of Hunter’s Chinese-speaking ability, I thought it would be wonderful for him to have an opportunity to use it outside the classroom, in a country where that’s their native language,” O’Brien said.

Hunter and his mother co-taught a class, and O’Brien taught a class on her own. Other than basic phrases such as “Hello” and “How are you?” provided by the volunteer organization, Palm and O’Brien had no previous knowledge of the language. The trip offered Palm a window into what her son has learned at the Hadley school.

“I know part of me was like, ‘Wow, it really works,’” she said.

A school choice

Kelly Palm, 45, a nurse practitioner, said that when she was exploring kindergarten options for Hunter and his younger brother Tyler — now 9 and a third-grader at the charter school — she and her husband, Jeff, thought the immersion experience would provide a valuable opportunity for their children to be bilingual. Jeff Palm is founder and executive director of the Northampton study abroad organization Center for International Studies, and Hunter has accompanied his father on business trips overseas.

Since kindergarten, Hunter and Tyler have been in Chinese-speaking classrooms, learning the language by listening and interacting with native speakers every day. From his first day of school, Hunter remembers his teachers speaking exclusively in Chinese, but starting off talking slowly and using simple phrases.

It took around two months, he said, for him to catch on.

“The fact that we were able to understand them that quickly was pretty cool,” he said.

Hunter said he can now read and write essays in Mandarin, in addition to speaking the language.

Kathleen Wang, the charter school’s principal, said that while she has students who have traveled to China, Hunter is the first she knows of who has taught English there.

“It’s great,” Wang said. “Our school’s mission is for students to be bilingual and understand not only Chinese language, but Chinese culture, and we want them to get involved in community service and have the ability to go between cultures.”

The charter school opened in 2007. In fall 2014, the school added a 10th-grade class as it expands to become what will be the first kindergarten-through-12th-grade Chinese immersion school in the country, according to the school’s executive director, Richard Alcorn.

Wang said that with the addition of the high school grades, community service is becoming a part of the curriculum, so she expects to see more students doing volunteer work.

Language comes to life

When Hunter interacted with Chinese citizens this spring, Palm said, they not only understood each other, but the locals complimented him on his Chinese accent.

His grandmother added, “Hunter was kind of an oddity in China because of the color of his hair and the fact that when he opened his mouth and Mandarin came out, they were dumbfounded to think that this little guy was speaking their language.”

Hunter was able to speak the language well enough to enjoy some jokes with his students. For example, he recalled, when some of them tried to cheat by looking up answers in the back of a textbook, he told them lightheartedly that they should at least try to hide the book behind them — and they laughed.

And during breaks from class, the students would crowd around Hunter to take “selfies” with him, his mother recalled with a smile.

“Every person that we met, once they spoke to Hunter for more than about 30 seconds, I would see the phones and the cameras come out,” Palm said.

Even outside the classroom, children would approach them on the streets wanting to practice their English. Many people asked them what they thought of China. But Palm said it was hard to determine just from experiencing one city.

“For me probably, the biggest thing I thought of China was it was a land of contrast,” she said. For example, she said she would see state-of-the-art buildings, but then see city workers using branches to sweep the streets.

With this experience under his belt, Hunter is interested in further broadening his horizons.

“I’d like to learn a third language and become trilingual,” he said. Arabic and Spanish, he said, are the “top two on my list.”

Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at gmangiaratti@gazettenet.com.


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