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Artists Share Chinese Culture

Visiting calligraphers, painters part of two-week Chinese New Year celebration at Potomac Elementary.

In Amy Wang’s native Taiwan, the new year brings a 15-day celebration.

“The first days we go to the relatives' houses … to wish them a happy year. The second day the woman who’s married goes back to her family. I think the fifth day is for the business people,” she said.

At Potomac Elementary School, home to the county’s Chinese Immersion Program, the Chinese New Year has evolved into a nearly two-week learning opportunity. And, lacking married women and businessmen, every day is for the students.

Wang is a graphic designer from Rockville who comes to Potomac Elementary to teach Chinese painting. First grade students watch as Wang paints a multi-colored rooster — Feb. 9 marked the beginning of the year of the rooster in the Chinese zodiac — with long brushstrokes that at first do not seem to relate to one another. The students applaud as the picture emerges and Wang writes an inscription in Chinese characters.

As part of the school’s celebrations, nine artists like Wang come to the school to teach calligraphy, origami, painting and even how to make Chinese opera masks.

“The story is that since this program opened, these people have been giving their time. They come every year, since 1997, to just, for the whole school, share their art,” said Potomac Elementary principal Linda Goldberg. “They’re real, famous artists from China.”

In addition to the visiting artists, a daytime Chinese New Year assembly and a special dinner and evening performance are part of the school’s celebrations.

At the performance, the fifth grade Chinese Immersion students demonstrate a “lion dance,” and sing several songs in Chinese. Immersion parents get involved, performing a short skit in Chinese.

And while the immersion program may be the impetus for the focus on the Chinese New Year, the activities draw in all of the students, Goldberg said.

“The Chinese Immersion Program is excellent, but [the activities are] teaching all of our kids about other countries, other traditions. We’re not so insular,” she said.

Fifth graders Courtney Ratner and Karen Buitano could attest to that. Following a class given over to origami rather than math, they said that the special activities are “really cool” and cited watching the lion dance as a highlight.

“We’re not in Chinese immersion, but every year we do a Chinese New Year celebration,” Karen said. “We learned that there are a lot of celebrations … We learned a lot.”

She added, “But after this we have a [math] quiz.”

The school is working hard to coordinate the visiting artists so that the same activities are linked with each grade level year after year, meaning that as students progress, they’ll have the chance to try each of the activities. And the pairings are done with an eye to the larger curriculum, so that kindergartners get to try their hand at painting and writing simple characters while fifth graders can try origami, which relates to geometry. Karen and Courtney’s quiz was on interior angles.

“They try to connect when they can to what the students are learning on the grade level,” Goldberg said. “It connects to what they’re doing. It’s not just out there.”

The Chinese New Year festivities — along with events like the school’s International Night — have another important role: letting students of other nationalities share their customs.

Kindergartner Rebecca Chan wore a Chinese outfit—a skirt and top of embroidered pink silk — for her class and let them try hitting a drum that she said makes the sound of a dragon. Rebecca, 5, speaks Chinese, English and Korean at home.

“We have little teachers all over this school, sharing their cultures,” Goldberg said.

And successes like that mean that students will likely have even more to look forward to when the school rings in the year of the dog in 2006.

“It used to all happen on one day. … Now, we just do it for weeks,” Goldberg said.