If you spend any time in vinyl shops or have a fondness for classic progressive rock from the 70s, then the picture to the right should look comfortingly familiar; it’s the cover of Pink Floyd’s 1973 album The Dark Side of the Moon. But the purpose of this message is not to talk about classic progressive rock music (though I’m happy to do that with anyone who’s interested when I’m off the clock). Rather, this iconic picture of light being refracted through a prism is an image that I have continuously recalled as I speak with parents and faculty about their aspirations and fears as we develop our next strategic vision for CAIS.
Imagine that the single beam of light in the image is your child. The triangular prism through which the light passes represents immersion education. And the spectrum of colors in the refracted light on the right side of the diagram are the many and various outcomes of an education in which children are asked to “embrace Chinese.” What specifically do the colors in the refracted light represent? For context, I’d like to share an excerpt from our school’s philosophy statement on diversity, equity and inclusion:
心怀中华 Embrace Chinese
Immersion in a new language and culture requires humility, curiosity, empathy, connection, and a true appreciation of difference…. The attitudes and aptitudes that are cultivated through Chinese immersion at CAIS extend far beyond language and prepare students to engage respectfully with a diverse world.
Humility, curiosity, empathy, connection, appreciation for difference, respectful engagement with a diverse world; these are some of the observable outcomes of deep immersion in a world language and culture. Imagine each strand of refracted light representing one of these outcomes. Many of our CAIS parents and teachers are living examples of this process; if you were born outside of this country, as many of our parents were, then you came to the US and had to immerse in a second (or third, or fourth) language and culture. In addition to an understanding of and sensitivity to English language and American culture (whether NorCal, Midwest, East Coast or somewhere else), I would bet that you carry with you many of the attitudes and aptitudes listed above. Or perhaps it was your parents who came to this country, and as child you had a front row seat to the process of their own immersion process. To these attitudes and aptitudes, I would add the ability to take linguistic and cultural risks in unfamiliar situations with imperfect or incomplete semantic tools—meaning making and problem solving all day long every day, without much of a safety net. This requires a tremendous capacity for perseverance and resilience. So for me, the refracted light looks like this: red—empathy, orange—appreciation for difference, yellow—humility, green—perseverance…and so on. These are the colors of the true global citizen.
Twenty-first century schools place an appropriate amount of emphasis on social emotional learning (SEL) and on issues of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). These are the skills and attitudes that will enable kids to use the solid academic learning at CAIS in prosocial ways (we want them to become superheroes, not supervillains). In the past, and perhaps even now, there has been a perception for Chinese immersion in general and CAIS in particular that the time required by language and cultural immersion is an obstacle to achieving the social, emotional, equity and inclusion outcomes of non immersion schools. Well, not only do I disagree with this, but I think that language and culture immersion (the prism) give us a unique mechanism for achieving SEL and DEI outcomes (refracted light beams) that our monolingual peer schools do not have. As a CAIS parent put it to me the other day, “with this kind of education it is impossible to see folks as ‘the other.’” I’m not sure if we are there yet, but we have the tools.
In my conversations with parents, it is clear that they get this. In one way or another they convey what our DEI statement says, that “the attitudes and aptitudes that are cultivated through Chinese immersion at CAIS extend far beyond language and prepare students to engage respectfully with a diverse world.” I remember when I first arrived at CAIS in the summer of 2010, common questions I would hear were “how many Chinese characters will my child learn by eighth grade?” or “will my child be able to read a newspaper in Chinese?” These concerns remain important, but of equal importance is “how will Chinese immersion prepare our children for the world into which they will graduate?” The answers to this question are as varied and as brilliant as the color spectrum of refracted light.