Seven-year-old Anna Ferrebee carefully printed the letters b-i-r-d as she practiced the spelling and vocabulary words that are typical in a first-grade class.
Then she moved her pencil to a second column and began copying a symbol few other first-graders in South Carolina would understand -- the Chinese character for "bird."
Anna is a student in the Beaufort County School District's new Mandarin immersion program offered at two International Baccalaureate elementary schools -- Hilton Head Island IB and Broad River.
It's the first program of its kind at a public elementary school in the state, said Jill McAden, Hilton Head IB principal.
The district began the program with two first-grade classes this school year and hopes to expand each year so students can continue studying Mandarin through high school and graduate with the ability to speak and understand the language at an advanced level.
An institution affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education is paying the salaries for two teachers from China this year. The school district received a separate $1.3 million federal grant to use over five years to support teaching Mandarin in local schools.
Anna, a student at Hilton Head IB Elementary, said drawing characters is her favorite part of studying Mandarin. She couldn't quite contain her enthusiasm as she talked about what she has learned.
"It's really fun to get to learn Chinese because I think it's really cool!" she said. "Because I learn so much from Ms. Jin, I want to be a Chinese teacher."
Weiying Jin, one of the teachers who came to Beaufort County from China in November, said Anna's enthusiasm is shared by her classmates. Although Jin has been at Hilton Head IB less than two months, students greet her with "Ni hao" instead of "Hello" as she walks through the hallways.
They're learning fast, Jin said, and she hopes her first-graders will have a grasp of daily conversation skills by the end of the school year and be able to read Chinese at a basic level by the time they finish second grade. By last week, they knew numbers, days of the week, body parts, a few songs and other basic phrases and vocabulary.
The district's immersion program places two teachers in each first-grade classroom: one from China and a local teacher with state certification and experience in county schools. Their goal is for students to spend about three-quarters of their classroom time practicing Mandarin.
That means students study most parts of the typical first-grade curriculum in Chinese, including math, science and social studies.
Colleen Wynn, who is co-teaching the immersion class with Jin, said they work together to teach those areas in both languages. For example, part of the science curriculum includes charting temperatures to create a weather timeline. Students will create a timeline for Hilton Head Island in English and a timeline for Beijing in Chinese. Students also use Chinese numbers during math lessons.
Wynn might explain a concept in English, and Jin will reinforce what they've learned using Chinese. Or, Jin will give instructions in Chinese and repeat portions in English if students don't understand.
"I try to speak as much as I can so they pick up daily dialogue and conversation," Jin said.
Wynn said the method is effective in teaching students the language. She's trying to learn as much Mandarin as she can and has already learned numbers and how to read the calendar in Chinese. Students are picking it up much faster, she said.
"The kids are like sponges," Wynn said. "It's amazing to see what they can do."
McAden said students in the immersion program still receive the same quality of instruction as their peers in other subjects because the language curriculum is aligned to the state's standards. She said research shows students in immersion programs develop cognitive skills that transfer to other subjects. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages points to studies that demonstrate second-language learning correlates with higher academic achievement on standardized tests and that those learners transfer skills from one language to another.
First-grader Maximus Weitekamper, who uses the Chinese name Weiwei in class, said learning the language is "kind of hard" because letters sound differently in Mandarin than they do in English.
"But as I keep learning more, it gets easier and easier," he said.
His classmate Edy Ann McGoldrick explained that some letters, such as "O," are pronounced several ways in Mandarin based on a mark written above the letter. In Chinese, the pitch or tone of a sound affects the meaning.
"They are all 'O,' but you say them to different tunes," she said.
Jin teaches her students to use sweeping hand motions as they speak to mirror the different pronunciations each mark signifies.
Constance Goodwine-Lewis, principal of Broad River Elementary, said an introduction to Chinese culture is another aspect of the program. The school plans to celebrate holidays such as the Chinese New Year, and artists have visited to teach about calligraphy, koi fish and other Asian arts.
Lewis said that whenever she visits the immersion class, she's amazed by how much the students comprehend.
"It's one of the most impressive things I've seen in a while -- the command they already have on the language," she said.