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Storytelling in action at Chinese charter school

Date Published: April 11, 2019

Author: Greta Jochem

HADLEY — “Once upon a time in China,” a first-grade Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion Charter School student told a gym full of parents and elementary school students one afternoon last week.

The microphone was passed down a line of first-graders who each read a line from a tale that explained the creation of four major rivers in China.

The story was one of several Chinese folktales told by students in first, second and third grade as part of a culminating event of the school’s two-month program with artist-in-residence Motoko Dworkin.

Dworkin, a storyteller who performs under the mononym “Motoko,” lives in Amherst and has done similar residences in other Massachusetts schools. She grew up in Osaka, Japan and, among other areas, focuses on Asian folktales. The artist has been featured on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and in the National Storytelling Festival, and her recordings have won awards including a Parents’ Choice Silver Honor Award from the Parents’ Choice Foundation.

Throughout February and March, she worked with the Pioneer Valley Chinese Immersion students, spending time in each class on storytelling-focused lessons. First-graders focused on dragon stories and second-graders looked at tales about love, the stars and the moon. Third-graders read a story about a trickster monkey, and then wrote their own pieces inspired by that tale — a few of which, like “The Mystery of the Dragon,” and “The Monkey Queen,” were read aloud at the recent event at the school in Hadley.

In addition to learning stories, first-grade students made colorful paper dragons and second-graders wrote poems about the stars and moon displayed in the school’s lobby.

“The point of this residency is to enhance their literary skills and cultivate cultural awareness through folktales,” Motoko said, adding that it will have language benefits, too. “It will make their language study more exciting,” she said.

Motoko’s residency was funded through Mass Cultural Council’s STARS residencies program, which funds programming by artists, scholars and scientists in schools.

In previous years, the STARS program has brought bookmaking and African drumming to the school, said Principal Kathleen Wang.

In addition to teaching language in the school, cultural education is also important, Wang said.

“Language and culture go hand in hand,” she said.

The residency was also a way to integrate arts into the curriculum, she added.

The folktales Motoko taught are part of Chinese culture. “Those are stories Chinese students would grow up with,” she explained.

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