At Boston magnet school, high school freshmen study Chinese

Eight students in Dr. Yu-Lan Lin's ninth-grade Mandarin Chinese class filed quickly into their cold, drafty classroom at Copley Square High School in Boston.

Despite the worn carpet on the classroom floor, the peeling paint, and the graffiti-stained walls and desks, one could sense something unusual was happening here.

''Ni h ao ma?'' (''How are you?''), Dr. Lin asks her students at the start of the first-period class. Some of them, still a little sleepy looking, cheerfully respond.

This is the first year Chinese has been taught as a language at Copley High and the first year it has been offered in the Boston public school system.

Dr. Lin's format for teaching the course is strictly self-designed. ''You won't find my method in a textbook,'' Dr. Lin remarks, ''but this is the way I like to do it.'' Her method requires total student involvement. ''I see it as a piece of music,'' she says. ''I always try to make a connection from one lesson to another. You have to build on what they have learned so far.''

Chinese culture is taught, but in the form of a reading textbook that is assigned as homework. ''I do teach the Chinese culture and the history part,'' Dr. Lin says. ''We need the book, but not in the classroom.''

Dr. Lin, who was born and raised in Taiwan, came to the United States 12 years ago to attend graduate school at Boston University. After graduation, she began teaching. This past September she became head of the Copley High foreign-language department.

She uses a basket of fresh fruit and a variety of other props in class-participation drills designed to capture and hold her students' imaginations. ''My fruit have been with me for two weeks, and some of them are already getting on,'' she explains in Chinese-tinged English. ''It's hard to find a fresh plum this time of year.''

Dr. Lin's concept of teaching Chinese involves relating spoken language to a full range of sensory experiences. ''I try to bring in different things for them ,'' she says, ''to smell, to touch, to see - so the next time they really touch an apple - Oh! - they can relate: 'That's the apple we learned in school!' And they can quickly kind of remember the names.''

''N i yao bu yao yige pingg uo?'' (''Do you want an apple?''), she asks student Thomas Braxton. ''W o bu yao pingg uo xie xie'' (''No, I don't want an apple, thank you''), he responds.

One drill found student Jason Williams standing before the class on one leg. Grabbing his free ankle with one hand, and with the other hand extended over his head and his eyes closed, Jason balanced precariously while the class recited the numbers 1 through 10 in Chinese. The challenge was to see if the class could recite the numbers before Jason lost his balance.

Dr. Lin explains that it is entirely up to the students whether or not they wish to attend Copley Square High School. The school, known officially as the Copley Square High School of Communication Arts and International Studies, is a new magnet school in international relations. The communication-arts program has existed for several years, but the international-studies program was added this year.

Donald Boyd, administrative assistant at the school, explained that the magnet-school concept is ''one by which certain programs are put into schools called citywide (schools), rather than community (schools), in hopes that the programs would attract students from across the city rather than from the local community.''

Currently there are no special requirements for admission to Copley High, but there are requirements that must be fulfilled before graduating. For example, students must begin one foreign language in their freshman year, start a different one in their sophomore year, and continue both through their senior year.

Students are also required to complete several language-related courses, including global history and are asked to join school-sponsored foreign-language clubs.

Students attend a two-week language orientation the summer before their freshman year to determine the language they wish to study. Currently only French, Spanish, and Chinese are offered here, but there are plans to teach German, Russian, and Japanese within two years.

Dr. Lin believes a casual mood in the classroom enhances learning. ''Language teaching has to be done in that kind of relaxed atmosphere; otherwise some will be holding back their feelings - they're so afraid to make mistakes - and it won't work,'' she says.

''This is such a new language for them, for everybody,'' she continues, ''it is difficult to move fast. So I'd rather do it slowly and make sure they really understand without any confusion. Before I . . . (move on), I really want them to perfect the things I am teaching.''

Does Dr. Lin expect that her students will continue to study Chinese after graduation?

''I hope they can really continue,'' she says, ''but I know not everybody will be able to do that. But, if there will be a few that can do it, then I'll be very happy to see that. If they know the language, they will be able to go in there (to China) and just kind of open their ears, and that will be good.''

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