RIGBY — Students rushed back and forth in the home economics kitchen at Rigby Middle School on Thursday. They worked in small groups to make blueberry muffins, following a recipe their teacher handed out. They whisked eggs, measured flour and asked questions to make sure they were taking the right steps.
It wouldn’t seem different from any other middle school cooking class, except that almost none of the conversations were in English. Instead, Mandarin was the only language on the recipe cards or being spoken in the room.
Nearly 50 students are taking part in the STARTALK Chinese summer camp being held at Rigby Middle School this summer. The camp is an extension of the district’s immersive language program, the only one in Idaho that gives children a deep knowledge of Mandarin language and culture from the time they begin elementary school.
“We know these kids are giving up their summer to be here, so we want to make it’s fun and educational,” said Kevin Cowley, the language immersion coordinator for Jefferson Joint School District.
The camp is part of the STARTALK program, a series of world language summer camps funded by the National Security Administration and managed by the University of Maryland’s National Foreign Language Center. Mandarin is one of the 11 languages the NSA provides grants and classes for as a “critical need,” meaning they have a shortage in linguists and translators working for them.
The immersion camp was held for three weeks in July, running from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. four days a week. Students rotate between multiple classes and projects, playing basketball while receiving coaching in Mandarin and learning how to do tai chi or paint with ink.
Jefferson Joint School District’s immersive language program began in 2013 as a way to provide students with a different way to learn second languages. Instead of focusing on grammar and conjugation, Cowley said, the immersive program provides a normal class on reading or science that happens to be in a different language. The district chose to focus on Chinese and Spanish, which are two of three most widely-spoken languages in the world along with English.
“We let them speak in English until the January they start first grade, then it’s only the immersive language,” Cowley said.
The district moves the program up one grade level every year to keep up with the students, meaning the seventh-graders in the class are the oldest ones going through the program. Cowley said some of the students are actually becoming trilingual through the program, speaking Spanish at home while taking classes in English and Chinese at school.
The classes have become popular in the district since the program launched at South Fork Elementary School. More than 80 percent of parents at Roberts Elementary School were in favor of the program expanding lessons to their school, and students have enjoyed the deep dive into the languages.
“It makes more sense than English,” said Josie Searle, 12. “If there’s a rule in Chinese, you have to follow it. In English, you have ‘i before e’ as one sound except for this word and this word and that word.”
Lingpei Zou became the lead Chinese instructor at Rigby Middle School last year and is helping Cowley lead classes and activities during the camp. Coming from a position at Idaho State University, she was impressed by how fluent and open her middle school students were.
“Some kids are less interested in learning about other cultures but these kids are more receiving because of the language. They can push to be culturally rich,” Zou said.
Comparisons between American and Chinese culture are built into the plans for the camp. Zou had helped the students make Chinese dumplings in the kitchens last week and was providing instruction as they prepared their muffins Thursday.
Twelve-year-old Brayden Farmer said that he liked the camp more than the regular immersion classes because of the activities it offered, with his favorite being the Chinese yo-yo.
“It’s not as many kids, so we can do a lot more active stuff like cooking,” Brayden said.
The students also are still learning other topics while going through the immersive camp. The kids have been split into groups to learn about systems of the human body and on Thursday they’ll present their final projects to a panel of teachers from the Denver Language School over Skype.
If the classes continue to grow with students every year, Rigby will have a complete K-12 immersive program in the fall of 2024. Cowley hoped that high school students who pass the language AP test could even take college-level classes through the district.