Ten-year-old Isreal Carpenter cycled from his home on Water Street in Waterville to the Bill & Joan Alfond Main Street Commons to meet the Colby shuttle. When it arrived, he unfolded the rack in front of the bus, heaved his bike up like a weight lifter, and safely secured it. His face lit up as he hopped on the shuttle for a ride to the Lovejoy Building at Colby.

Rain or shine, this was Carpenter’s ritual for the three weeks that he attended Colby’s STARTALK program, “Learning Chinese Through Art,” over his summer break. 

For Carpenter, this was his second stint learning Chinese at Colby. “He kept putting numbers and flyers right by where I sit,” said his father, Israel (their names are spelled differently) Carpenter. The elder Carpenter finally gave up and let him join. “I know for him it’s a big deal,” he said. 

The program’s director, Ziskind Professor of East Asian Studies Kim Besio, knows from experience the benefit of an early introduction to a language. I started [Chinese] in high school and see the importance of that early start,” she said. “To me, Chinese changed my life, and I wanted to give that opportunity to others.”

STARTALK, funded by the National Security Agency, aims to increase learning and teaching of 11 critical languages, including Chinese. The Colby program was run by Besio, Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies Andie Wang, and Ankeney Weitz, the Ellerton M. and Edith K. Jetté Professor of East Asian Studies. In its second year at Colby, the STARTALK program drew 24 children from Waterville and beyond, including Fairfield, Norridgewock, and Topsham. Two third-grade teachers from Minnesota, Qingling Mendenhall and Dilu Shi, came to Mayflower Hill to teach the children, and five Colby students aided them in classes. Concurrently, a training program hosted seven teachers from around the country at Colby. 

From colors to martial arts to music, children from Waterville and surrounding cities had their initial exposure to Chinese language and culture at Colby.

The instruction fills a void in Central Maine, where Western romance languages dominate language instruction. Although many students won’t be able to immediately continue learning Chinese at school, this summer program “plants seeds,” said Besio, “and if they have an opportunity to take Chinese in the future they’re going to do it.”

Wang, a Chinese citizen, said she feels teaching Chinese is her calling. “I come from the Chinese culture, so I always feel this kind of responsibility or mission to tell people more about what I know about the country, and the language, and culture,” she said.

Stepping inside the neatly decorated Lovejoy classrooms was enough to initiate the children’s cultural journey. Surrounded by Chinese decorations, characters, and traditional art, they learned numbers, colors, how to express their likes and dislikes, and much more. They painted Beijing opera masks, cut paper lanterns, and designed their own Chinese seal out of rubber erasers. 

The exercises weren’t confined to classrooms. 

Students practiced colors and action verbs (like writing, dancing, and reading) through a scavenger hunt at the Colby Museum of Art. In an “art market,” they bought and sold artwork to solidify their knowledge of how to count money. After learning Chinese words for different emotions, they went outside, listened to Chinese music, and danced with ribbons to the emotions evoked by each song. They learned Chinese martial arts, gongfu, and played with the Chinese shuttlecock, jianzi. The three-week camp was a full immersion to Chinese language, culture, and art. 

“Our definition of art is very broad. It included music, visual art, dance, and performing art, like puppetry, calligraphy, storytelling,” said Weitz, the program’s art programming director. “And the idea is that when students learn through that very rich environment, they not only are more engaged, but it opens their language receptors in different ways.”

Many students signed up because they love the arts, but absorb language in the process, said lead instructor Qingling Mendenhall. Added instructor Dilu Shi, “I’m really impressed about how much they can learn in a shorter period of time,” said Shi. ”It’s only three weeks. They start from zero Chinese exposure and by the end of the week they can do small presentations with nine sentences.”

Among those quick learners was Vassalboro resident and third-grader Isabel Taiyu Pfleging. She was born in the Henan Province of China and adopted by an American family when she was almost two. Before the camp, Pfleging only knew how to say “dad” in Chinese. Now she has a long vocabulary list. “I know how to count to ninety-nine,” she said.

The art component of the program was a good match for her, as she says she wants to be an art teacher. And she’s already a teacher of sorts. “She’s taking a lot of pride in these classes, in learning Chinese, and she’s teaching it to her brother,” said her mother, Jennifer Pfleging, who is an assistant director of donor relations at Colby. “I think for her it’s a celebration of her heritage.” 

Best friends Josie Ker and Gabby Johnson thought they’d develop a secret language for private communications. While they didn’t emerge fluent, they learned to write Chinese characters, became familiar with Chinese art, and experienced the fun of speaking an entirely new language. 

Before hopping on his bike for the trip home, Carpenter said he felt learning languages would help him communicate when he travels to other countries, which he hopes to do in the future. But he also appreciated the experience in the moment. Languages, he said, “are exquisite.”

Patterns Shining Through

Cheerful singing of 20 fourth- and fifth-graders took over Albert S. Hall School’s cafeteria. I’m using place value, ones and tens and hundreds too, it’s so easy yes it’s true. Now it’s easy for me, too. In my brain there is now more room, to see patterns shining through. Every day discovering something brand new, see the math that I do, oh I oh I oh I oh I. 

This math parody, written to Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You, was part of their “Math and Movement” session in a four-week Sum Camp, directed by Associate Professor of Mathematics Scott Taylor and funded by the Davis Family Foundation. 

“Kids learn the best when they’re having fun,” said Taylor, who was all in when he was approached with the idea of having a summer camp, combining arts and mathematics. As a father and a mathematician, he has been observing that his children’s classmates in Waterville public schools were having a hard time with math.

“It’s not a reflection of the teachers at all,” he said. “But a lot of it is that kids don’t get it because there’s so much pressure on them to pass the tests, and so much pressure from home with various kinds of living situations, some of which are really quite unsafe and not great. The kids don’t have the chance to really experience the fun, creative, playful side of mathematics.” 

At Sum Camp, fourth and fifth graders from Waterville public schools consolidated their math knowledge through creative games, music, arts, and theater. Photo: Sum Camp

Rather than teaching new mathematics at the summer camp, the team of teachers and counselors from various area schools reinforced what students have already learned in a fun and engaging way. The goal, Taylor said, was for campers to develop a deeper understanding of math and numbers. Students played math games inspired by board games, invented a creative theater piece about all four operations of math, and learned math through solfege as musical fractions. In art sessions, they made piggy banks out of their transparent plastic lunch boxes. No learning opportunity was wasted at the camp.  

The transition from fourth and fifth grade is key, said Taylor; at that age, the kids either decide to keep learning math or shy away from it. “When we interviewed them, all the kids loved math, but they didn’t necessarily understand it very well. And when they started to think about struggling in math they got really uptight and upset.” And when math anxiety kicks in, it’s very hard to correct it at a later age. Besides math skills, Sum Camp also focused on conflict management and emotion management as well as emphasizing to learn from mistakes.

“I would say most of the children, at the beginning, if you gave them a two-digit addition problem, were very slow with it. And now they’re much faster,” he said. He also observed that the campers are more willing to do math now. When the school year starts, Taylor will also be able to see how campers perform on state exams. “I’m really interested to see if we have made a detectable impact.”

The Sounds of a Painting

A group of six- to seven-year-olds gathered around A Militia Parade to explore what kinds of sounds they could hear from the painting. Marching, chattering, trumpets, they said. Abby Newkirk ’03, Linde Family Foundation Senior Coordinator of School and Teacher Programs, noted children’s responses on her laptop. Later, she would use those descriptions to create a soundscape for the painting.

“It was really great to see them feel really comfortable in galleries because museums are very prohibitive spaces,” said Newkirk, who ran Colby Museum of Art’s three-week summer camp, Lively Spaces, funded since 2015 by a generous grant from the Linde Family Foundation. But the program has been in place for 14 years. “I came into it really wanting to focus on helping the kids connect with the objects in the galleries and finding different ways to express themselves in ways they’re comfortable.”

From engaging with the museum’s collections to writing odes to creating clay sculptures, 25 third through seventh graders engaged with various forms of arts. “When people say ‘arts is not my thing,’ I always think that it just hasn’t been taught the right way,” Newkirk said. “We really tried to provide as many opportunities to show that art and writing and expression can live in many forms, and they’re all valid.”

In the future, Newkirk hopes to develop another program, perhaps with a technology aspect, for seventh to ninth graders as well.

Music was one of the many forms of art introduced to Lively Spaces campers at the Colby College Museum of Art.

Art can be personal, too, she said. “Some of our kids were dealing with a lot at home, and that agency can be very important. So we encourage them to create and participate, but whether it hung on the wall or other people saw it that was a personal decision. It’s like a journal. Art can be therapeutic and sometimes you do it for yourself.”

She gave an example of one participant who is going through difficult times and began doing art at home. “She wanted to do some art on her own, self-directed, and that was relatively new, and so for her to find that outlet is amazing,” Newkirk said. “That’s kind of exactly what we wanted to do.”