CONVERSATION WITH …Lauren Drazen

Educator teaches Chinese language to West Hartford high schoolers

WEST HARTFORD nWith an eye on enhancing relations between the U.S, and China, there has been a growing interest in teaching Chinese in public schools in recent years.

In 2005, Sen. Joe Lieberman introduced a bill asking for $1.3 billion to fund Chinese language classes in U.S. public schools during the next five years.

To that end, more than 100 students at Hall High School and Conard High School, both located in West Hartford, have been studying Mandarin Chinese. The Chinese teacher at both schools is Lauren Drazen, who majored in Chinese language at Dartmouth University.

Drazen, a native of Glastonbury and graduate of Glastonbury High School, says she fell in love with the Chinese language during her freshman year in college. After graduating, she parlayed her love for the language into a job with a company in Washington, D.C. which allowed her to make many trips to China. As a private instructor, she has also taught Chinese to the employees of private companies who travel extensively in China., and has also taught Chinese at Manchester Community College.

Drazen, who also holds a master’s degree in curriculum and teaching from Michigan State University, has also taught elementary school in Michigan and California.

A member of Temple Sinai in Newington, where she celebrated her bat mitzvah in 1983, she is also principal of the Kehilat Chaverim Religious School in West Hartford.
She lives in West Hartford with her husband, NBC-Channel 30 anchor Brad Drazen and their three children. She recently explained her interest in Chinese and why she thinks it is important for our children to learn that language.

Q: What made you want to major in Chinese in college n where did that interest come from?

A: I went to the “freshman fair” the week before classes started. My plan was to major in Spanish-my favorite course at Glastonbury High School. Each department had its own table where professors answered students’ questions. The Spanish department table was teeming with students, and I was not in the mood for crowds. I checked out the “student free” Chinese table. Bai Laoshi and Mao Laoshi, two women professors, convinced me to try Chinese. By virtue of the Spanish I took in high school, I was able to skip the beginning Spanish classes, so if I didn’t like Chinese, they explained, I could take up Spanish later without missing anything. I took Chinese One, loved it, and never looked back. I was inspired by Bai Laoshi and Mao Laoshi, who became my mentors.

Q: Is Chinese a difficult language for English speakers to master?

A: Chinese is unique because the grammar rules are quite simple. For example, there is no verb conjugation in Chinese-no past tense, future tense, subjunctive, etc. Once a verb is learned, the verb is the same no matter what time period is being discussed. The general understanding of time is solely based on context. Plus, Chinese word order is very similar to English.

Of course, the difficult part to master is memorizing the characters. There is no alphabet; each character represents one word. In order to read the newspaper, you have to have to memorize approximately 3,000-4,000 characters.

Q: What is the difference between Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese?

A: Mandarin and Cantonese are two of the Chinese dialects. Mandarin is the official dialect of China; in addition, there are several other dialects from the various regions of China. The difference lies in the pronunciation of the words. The written language and meaning of the characters are the same. People from Guangzhou, who speak Cantonese, and people from Beijing, who speak Mandarin, cannot understand each other when they speak. They can, however, read the same newspaper.

Q: After graduating from Dartmouth, what did you do with your degree?

A: When I graduated, I was hired by an import company that did business in China… My boss was a former lawyer in Washington, D.C. who got fed up with his career in international law. Through his contacts in his law practice, he started a business, importing cashmere sweaters from China. He contacted me through a mutual friend who had worked in DC. When I began working for him in June, 1992, I was his first employee. He didn’t have any experience with the Chinese language, so within the first few months of working in New York, he flew me over to China to meet factory managers, negotiate prices, and inspect goods. I was 22 years old with no business experience. I was so nervous, but I acted like I knew what I was doing. Over then next few years, I went to China every other month for up to six weeks at a time. I loved it.

Q: When and how did your Chinese classes in the West Hartford high schools come about? Were they looking to offer Chinese classes?

A: The town had taken out an ad in the Hartford Courant, looking for a Chinese teacher. A friend of mine saw the ad and told me about it. I contacted Lucy Cartland, the World Language department supervisor, and we hit it off immediately. The whole thing happened really quickly.

Q: Can you describe your classes? Do you only teach the language or also things like Chinese culture?

A: The classes incorporate Chinese spoken and written language as well as Chinese culture. The main emphasis is on the language. The students already know more than 150 characters, both spoken and written. Each week, students are engaged in listening, reading and writing, plus dramatic and musical activities and games in order to enhance their learning.

We have watched movies in Mandarin with English subtitles. Based on these films, students have compared and contrasted Chinese culture with Western cultures. Students have also taken a trip to Chinatown in New York City. They ate a typical Chinese lunch, visited the Museum of Chinese in the Americas and experienced the hustle and bustle of Chinatown. Finally, students are currently engaged in a group Web Quest project. Each member of a group takes on a role as advisor to the U.S. President. The various roles include environmental activist, human rights activist, U.S. Senator, museum curator, business investor and religious leader. Each student does on-line research and completes an individual report. The group then takes the six reports and synthesizes them into a group report with recommendations for U.S. policy toward China.

Q: What grades do you teach, how many levels, and what has been the response from the students?

A: For this school year, 2006-2007, West Hartford Public Schools is offering Chinese One to all four high school grades. For the next school year, 2007-2008, Chinese Two will also be offered.

The students have been very enthusiastic about the program. I try to make the class as enjoyable as I can while making sure that the students are always challenged. The Chinese One students are motivated to learn and interested in both the language and the culture. Most students who are not graduating say they want to continue with Chinese Two next year.

Q: Why is it important in this day and age to offer our students the chance to learn Chinese?

A: Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world. Understanding the language and the culture is important on many different levels-economic, political and social. Offering Chinese in public schools is a wise choice. Learning a language, whether it’s Chinese, Spanish, French, Latin or ancient Greek, opens a new world to young minds. The language learning experience is of utmost importance in understanding our world-past, present and future.

By Stacey Dresner, courtsey jewishledger.com

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