St. John's High School rolls out Chinese and Arabic

Teacher Hong Zhu weaves lessons about Chinese culture into her language classes.
Teacher Hong Zhu weaves lessons about Chinese culture into her language classes.
Abeer El-Gharbawy teaches Arabic at the school.
Abeer El-Gharbawy teaches Arabic at the school.

Be sure to watch News 11's Tanieya Lewis' video report, attached.

TOLEDO -- "It's awesome!" says Nick Paat about the first year Chinese language course he's taking as a junior at St. John's Jesuit High School (SJJHS) in south Toledo. "You just learn so much. It's so much different from our own language."

Embracing the notion that the world is much smaller -- because of commerce and the Internet, largely -- than it used to be, St. John's started offering Chinese in the 2006-2007 school year and introduced Arabic this school year.

"The government has cited languages it considers to be critical," explains Cherie Bischoff, academic assistant principal of St. John's High School. "Two of these languages are Chinese and Arabic."

Actually, Bischoff says, it was St. John's Jesuit Academy Principal Chris Knight who pursued the idea of introducing Chinese into the curriculum. "He met our Chinese teacher a few years ago. She'd been teaching for Toledo Public Schools, which then let the language program go," Bischoff explains. "So, she was available. She started teaching here in the fall of 2006, teaching Chinese to 7th and 8th grade students."

Before choosing which language they will study, the 7th grade students of the Academy must take an exploratory class, which exposes them to French, German, Spanish, Latin, Arabic and Chinese. At the end of their 7th grade year, they choose the language they will study during the rest of their time at St. John's.

"But they really do have to commit to Chinese early," Bischoff says. "It's a complicated language."

Reasons students choose to study these languages vary, Bischoff says. "Some are interested in the novelty while others are looking at the global economy and ahead to their careers," she explains, adding that students may also take an East Asian Studies course for one semester to enhance their language experience.

"You really can not study a language without studying culture," Bischoff explains. Indeed, Chinese teacher Hong Zhu is committed to presenting different aspects of Chinese culture in various ways to her 62 students.

"It's very important to relate the language to the culture," Zhu says. "For example, the Chinese characters have a long history. They come from pictures, and if you don't know the history, how do you know what the characters mean and where they came from?"

Zhu gives an example from her days of studying English. "I didn't know anything about American culture, so when I was asked to identify a hot dog, I said it was a dog in a hot bath," she says, laughing. "I tell my students that story to show them how important it is to study culture."

In her classes, Zhu introduces lessons on calligraphy, painting -- and food. Of course, this last item is pretty popular with the students, she says.

"Food is the best part," admits freshman Adam Studer, now in his second year of Chinese. "She brings it in about once a month, and we get to eat it."

Freshman Toby Hills, also in his second year of Chinese, likes the food, but he's also thinking pragmatically. "I thought it would be more useful," than some of the other languages, he explains. "But it's also just fun."

Arabic was introduced into the Academy this school year, Bischoff says. All 7th and 8th grade students are taking the language within the context of the aforementioned exploratory course. Next year, the course will be introduced into the high school and will be taught by Abeer El-Gharbawy.

The courses are part of a broader initiative St. John's embraces, and that is to introduce young people to as much of the world as possible, Bischoff explains. For example, the school began its World as One program four years ago to "bring students from other countries to visit us here."

"Students usually stay here for one year and live with the families of our students," Bischoff explains. St. John's has hosted students from Russia, Haiti, Rwanda, Germany, China, Korea, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Japan, Switzerland and Spain.

"We are hoping to have students better prepared for the global world," Bischoff says, explaining the school's commitment to its various international programs. "Teaching language is another way to do that."

Arabic and Chinese will be part of the mainstream culture at St. John's, Bischoff says. "We try to keep flexible and keep looking at what's out there for our students. We're always asking ourselves, 'Are we offering what students need now?'"

by Kate Oatis for