From T'ai Chi to green tea

In celebration of the Chinese New Year this week, Perth pupils are learning as much as they can about the culture and way of life

At perth High today, all the pupils in S1 and S2 are beginning their morning with a session of T'ai Chi - the ancient Chinese martial art consisting of sequences of slow controlled exercises.

It marks not only the first week of the Chinese New Year but a day away from the normal timetable when first and second years can celebrate the culture by taking a whistle-stop tour of workshops devoted to different aspects of Chinese life.

Almost like a curricular speed-dating session, pupils have 15 minutes to spend at each workshop. Within an hour, they can acquaint themselves with the mysteries of calligraphy, Tibetan sleeve-dancing, Chinese cooking (demonstrated by the school's home economics department) and origami (which originated in China and was developed in Japan).

Meryl James, the modern languages specialist on Perth and Kinross Council's school improvement team, is the power behind a wave of themed cross-curricular and community activities that have swept the authority's schools.

She has become an enthusiast for the language and culture, which she first discovered through an interest in acupunture and T'ai Chi. Dr James is on the Scottish Qualifications Authority's steering group which is examining the introduction of Mandarin as an exam subject.

By bringing in aspects of Chinese culture, language and calligraphy, she says schools can engage pupils at all levels in everything from health and well-being (green tea), expressive arts (films), social issues (provoked by screening China Blue - a film about the employment of 14-year-olds to make jeans in Chinese factories for export to the Western world), to film-making and scriptwriting.

Perth High and Breadalbane Academy share a Chinese foreign language assistant, Yefan Gou, arranged through the auspices of the British Council.

To be strictly accurate, she is not a foreign language assistant as modern language teachers understand the term. She is an "assistant teacher" - so named because she is not a student but a Chinese fully-trained teacher.

In China, the chance to take part in the overseas programme is fiercely fought over. Ms Gou has come from Number One Middle School in Fuzhou. The only other Chinese assistant teacher in Britain has been placed in Eton - which leads to interesting comparisons between the two Chinese visitors, says Dr James.

Ms Gou splits her time between Perth and Breadalbane, each school using her abilities in different ways. At the start of term, each department was asked to "bid" for Ms Gou's time. At Perth, she has spent much of the first term working alongside the social studies departments, exploring topics in their curriculum and in the home economics department. The English department also enlisted her services to discuss issues that came up in China Blue.

In Breadalbane, Ms Gou is teaching pupils Mandarin Chinese as part of their Duke of Edinburgh awards, and spending time this term with modern studies teachers.

Next year, Crieff High hopes to have not only an assistant teacher, but also a qualified teacher who will teach Mandarin.

Dr James believes that if Mandarin becomes an examinable subject, it should start from Access through Intermediate 1 and 2, before it is offered at Higher. "We need to have a ladder of progression, rather than just having Higher," she says. "That's fine for the high-flyers, but we are in the process of making languages available for everyone."

She argues strongly that Chinese can click with all abilities, citing a 10-minute session she did with an S4 Foundation maths class. She taught them basic maths using simple calligraphy symbols. The class, particularly the boys, loved the visual simplicity and the decoding element of it.

Her programme, conducted in partnership with Perth and Kinross Council's expressive arts team and community education workers, of infusing school life across the authority does not start at secondary, however.

Children in 14 primaries have been included, too. A number of community-based events have also been held - most recently at Aberfeldy, which devoted a Saturday earlier this month to a n! hao (hello) day.

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