On a cool afternoon in the gymnasium of the First Congregational Church in Winchester, Massachusetts, Ruiming Huang is supervising a vacation-week class of children as they learn to make vegetable spring rolls. Part handicraft, part lunch prep, the students sit around a long table filling thin flour pancakes with a mixture of slivered cabbage and diced vegetables and folding them into plump envelopes, sealing them shut with a dab of water. Ruiming’s co-teacher Betty Jaw carries trays of finished spring rolls into the kitchen to fry them up. The children, ranging in age from five to twelve, are attentive, excited, calling for more pancakes, more filling, asking for help sealing the unwieldy parcels. Teachers and students chat in a seamless mix of English and Chinese.
This is the Winchester School of Chinese Culture, which was started in 2007 as an after-school program designed to teach both the Mandarin language and Chinese traditions and customs. Though the school is open to students of all backgrounds, the primary students are children of Chinese immigrants who want their children to retain a connection to Chinese culture. The program incorporates arts and crafts, cooking lessons, art, science, and sports; through the year there are different activities focused on holidays like Dragon Festival and Chinese New Year.
Ruiming was born in Guangdong, China and came to the U.S. in 2004. “My mom passed away when I was seven, so I had a really hard time at school—I kind of got lost. In fifth grade, my principal was really nice and encouraged me to work hard in all my subjects and I got moved to an advanced class for middle school. In seventh grade I had another good teacher who gave me a lot of work to do and paid a lot of attention to me. I did so well—I think these two teachers influenced me a lot. When I think back, I know what a good teacher should be.”
“We started the after-school program with only about 10-15 kids. Now we have 54 in five classes on two sites. A lot of families moved to Winchester because they heard about us—they moved here because they want their kids to learn Chinese.”
The early years were challenging for Ruiming. “It was a hard time for me. At the time when the school started, I lived in Chinatown. My husband had to drop me off and pick me up after work and I had to take care of my son—he was a year old at the time—but I really enjoyed it and did a lot of preparation at home. We work really hard—we put our heart here and the parents can feel it, the kids can feel it.”
At the time she was taking courses at Bunker Hill Community College in biology and business management, but as the after-school program expanded, she shifted her focus back to early education. “After I graduated from Bunker Hill with an associate's degree I went back to take a few more early education courses and the chairman emailed me about looking into Lesley’s program at Bunker Hill. The time was right for me—Friday night and Saturday morning classes, and the location was really close, so it saved me a lot of time to travel and I decided to go back and finish my degree in Early Education.”
A pathway to teaching
The pragmatic, hands-on approach of Lesley’s education classes proved to be useful, giving her new insights into how to use hands-on activities in the classroom and how to create a cozy, welcoming learning space. It was also her experience with other Lesley students that made a difference. “The best thing for me was that it opened my mind—how to create an inclusive classroom, how to understand the students, how to understand people from different cultures. Lesley was a great experience for me.”
For Ruiming, teaching Chinese language and culture to Chinese-American kids is important. “For me their heritage is very important to help them to identify themselves, that we should be proud of what we are, of what our cultures are. My son is sometimes confused—“I’m American!” So yes, you’re American but you’re Chinese-American. He complained about learning Chinese before, but after we took a trip to China he stopped complaining. He can read; he can communicate with people in China—that’s a good experience for him.”
She enjoys her daily life at school and praises the peaceful, supportive work environment that teachers and parents have worked to create. Ruiming hopes to open a preschool program to further nurture the Chinese traditions her school family holds so dear. “We really want to have our own place where can have a preschool and after-school together. With the knowledge I gained from Lesley, I’ll be able to help the school open a preschool program in the future.”
As she guides the class of vacation schoolers through cleaning up and moving on to the next activity, Ruiming radiates a serene confidence. “I am a teacher who is really caring and open-minded. I think any kind of student can learn from me so that they remember that there’s a teacher like me in their life, and they’ll remember what I’ve done for them.”