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Provo storyteller helps students’ Chinese language; kids travel to Taiwan

By Keri Lunt Stevens daily Herald - | May 27, 2015
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Amanda Conklin reviews a card that Tennyson Jackson made for her Taiwanese pen pal in her fourth grade Chinese immersion class at Wasatch Elementary in Provo on Tuesday, May 26, 2015. SPENSER HEAPS, Daily Herald

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Students look at cards made by students in Taiwan for a fourth grade Chinese immersion class at Wasatch Elementary in Provo on Tuesday, May 26, 2015. SPENSER HEAPS, Daily Herald

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Jacob Jones, Catcher Christensen, Tennyson Jackson, Grace Jensen, Savannah Rollins and Daniel Nevers check out cards made by Taiwanese pen pals during their fourth grade Chinese immersion class at Wasatch Elementary in Provo on Tuesday, May 26, 2015. SPENSER HEAPS, Daily Herald

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Isaac Hill puts the final touches on a card for his Taiwanese pen pal in his fourth grade Chinese immersion class at Wasatch Elementary in Provo on Tuesday, May 26, 2015. SPENSER HEAPS, Daily Herald

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Amanda Conklin collects cards local students have made for their Taiwanese pen pals in a fourth grade Chinese immersion class at Wasatch Elementary in Provo on Tuesday, May 26, 2015. SPENSER HEAPS, Daily Herald

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Students put final touches on cards for their Taiwanese pen pals in a fourth grade Chinese immersion class at Wasatch Elementary in Provo on Tuesday, May 26, 2015. SPENSER HEAPS, Daily Herald

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Chinese characters on post-it notes hang on the wall of a fourth grade Chinese immersion class at Wasatch Elementary in Provo on Tuesday, May 26, 2015. SPENSER HEAPS, Daily Herald

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Amanda Conklin reviews cards that fourth graders in a Chinese immersion class at Wasatch Elementary in Provo made for their Taiwanese pen pals on Tuesday, May 26, 2015. SPENSER HEAPS, Daily Herald

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Amanda Conklin shows off a card made by students in Taiwan for a fourth grade Chinese immersion class at Wasatch Elementary in Provo on Tuesday, May 26, 2015. SPENSER HEAPS, Daily Herald

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Amanda Conklin distributes cards made by students in Taiwan for a fourth grade Chinese immersion class at Wasatch Elementary in Provo on Tuesday, May 26, 2015. SPENSER HEAPS, Daily Herald

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Daniel Nevers and Colin Michie check out cards made by Taiwanese pen pals in their fourth grade Chinese immersion class at Wasatch Elementary in Provo on Tuesday, May 26, 2015. SPENSER HEAPS, Daily Herald

It started as a simple idea — she’d host a Chinese storytelling time in her home.

Though Amanda Conklin had lived in the United States since 2004 — and in Provo since 2006 — the Taiwanese native still didn’t feel quite at home. Her children’s knowledge of their heritage was lacking, and she was worried about their Mandarin abilities.

Her kids were enrolled in a Chinese immersion program at school, but she felt like there had to be more she could do. Like many moms, she wanted to give them the best chance at life.

In came the storytelling idea — a summer activity she thought could benefit them and other neighborhood children.

Nearly three years later, Conklin’s club has grown from her living room to classrooms in several local schools, including Wasatch Elementary and Timpview High School.

At least three times a week, the mother of three leads a Chinese storytelling time, complete with activities based on students’ language abilities.

With first graders she may read a story about getting to and from school and then ask them to draw a picture of an animal they’d ride to school if they could. Only 6 or 7 years old, children already show personality, she said, and draw pictures of turtles and ducks with simple sentences — written in Chinese characters — stating “I’d ride a snail to school.”

She may read the same book to third graders but ask them to do a little bit more. In addition to a drawing, they may be asked to reason. Why did you choose a horse? How does the dog feel about giving you a ride?

“There is no limit to what children can learn,” Conklin said. “They are just like a sponge.”

Her older students, starting in about fourth grade, write letters back and forth with Taiwanese students their age. With the help of friends back home, Conklin has coordinated multiple classroom connections, giving children an opportunity to converse with native speakers.

“Because of the pen pal program, students want to be better,” she said. “They challenge themselves to work harder.”

When the letters arrive, the students excitedly open them and learn new vocabulary words and proper grammar, Conklin said. They’re given assigned topics — such as introductions, holidays or favorite books — to write about in order to keep relationships from growing stale.

Starting this week, Conklin will lead a group of students and some of their parents on a four-week trip throughout Taiwan, stopping off to meet many of their pen pals along the way.

The group will visit multiple schools, many of which will provide host families for the students to stay with and events for them to attend. Additionally, the group will visit national parks, museums and even participate in the country’s annual Dragon Boat Festival.

The students will experience a mix of modern and traditional culture, Conklin said, and they’ll have an opportunity to practice their Chinese in a real-life setting. In February a pen pal group from Taiwan visited Provo, which spawned the idea of this trip.

More activities — and maybe more trips — are hopefully in the club’s future, she said.

Conklin, whose birth name is Su Hsiao Wen, calls herself (and her club) Su Ma Ma. It’s a cultural term of endearment that’s less formal, she said.

When talking about the club’s future, she’s hopeful. Her goal is to make it a nonprofit, whereas right now most funds come out of her pocket. She also dreams of opening a Chinese library full of Mandarin books for the community to enjoy.

“My father passed away when he was 40. I’m going to be 40 this year,” she said. “If my life is just like my dad’s — short — I want it to be meaningful; I want to live every minute. That’s why I do the things I love,” she said. “I don’t want to waste my life. And if I live one day extra, every minute I live is extra and so I’m very rich, so I feel very lucky.”

She gives a lot of her time and money, but Conklin claims it’s her who has benefited the most.

“Ever since I started doing this I feel more engaged with the community,” she said. “Before I felt like this wasn’t my home yet. I felt lost.”

Now, that’s not the case. As a volunteer, Conklin confidently walks the halls of schools, calling teachers by their names.

“I never planned to get into education, but I guess I can do it,” she said. “And I’m not bad.”

To learn more about the club or to donate to it, visit https://www.facebook.com/SuMaMaChineseClub or http://www.gofundme.com/trva5k.

Native Mandarin speakers Amanda Conklin and Chen Ma Ma, a Taiwanese storyteller, will host a Chinese immersion summer camp at Wasatch Elementary in Provo. Held during three weeks in July, camp activities will be based around Chinese storybooks. Children will learn language skills through storytelling, science experiments, music and games. Students will be grouped by ability. Registration prices vary based on attendance.

For more information or to register for the camp, contact Conklin at (801) 404-6642 and amandasuconklin@yahoo.com or Celeste Kennard at (801) 377-5918 and celestegk@gmail.com.

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