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Tucked away in Wendell, Chinese students improve their English through immersion

  • August Thomas teaches a world history class at the Kemsley Academy in Wendell. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Mark Kemsley of Kemsley Academy in Wendell. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Mark Kemsley has lunch with some of the students at Kemsley Academy in Wendell. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • Mark Kemsley of the Kemsley Academy in Wendell. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz

  • A World History class at the Kemsley Academy in Wendell. Recorder Staff/Paul Franz



Recorder Staff
Friday, August 18, 2017

WENDELL — Even in the mind-bending “expect the unexpected” times we’re living in, and even in Wendell, it may seem a little unusual to see a red Chinese flag flying alongside an American one.

At Kemsley Academy, it makes perfect sense, especially for those six weeks a year when the Wendell Depot Road campus is home to middle-school students from mainland China. It’s one of several iterations for the academy that, beginning at the end of this month, will have a year-round counterpart on the eastern outskirts of Beijing.

The 47 students now beginning their final week in Wendell — all from Beijing’s Number 8 Middle School — have been taking classes in world history, in science-math, and in “English Four Square” — reading, writing, speaking and listening — as the climax of a year of intensive English classes they’ve been taking.

“A lot has to do with learning English, but it’s learning English by content and context,” says school director Mark Kemsley, who oversaw a similar three-week session in July and August, with 80 post-seventh and post-eighth graders from the Experimental Middle School Attached to Beijing Normal University. Both schools are among the top middle schools in all of China, he says.

“They are very sharp kids,” says Kemsley, who bought the 15-acre former Lake Grove Maple Valley School campus in 2011 and has been working to develop his school for China’s emerging middle class to train their children for college in this country.

Fresh air

“The environment is so good. There is fresh air. The woods is awesome,” says Mark, a bespectacled 13-year-old student between a “world history” lesson about Roman and Greek gods and goddesses and a lunch of chicken pot pie in the cafeteria. “In Beijing, the air pollution! It’s better these days. In winter, it was awful. The air here is really nice.”

Although he’s visited California and Portland, Ore., unlike some of the students who say this is their first visit to the United States, his keen use of the language and outgoing friendliness is typical of many of those who seem eager to practice their English with a visitor to the school.

Apart from teaching English, which students are strongly encouraged to speak with signs that say, “English speaking zone,” the school also keys in on teaching about American culture.

Teacher Eric Newman teaches his math-science class about idiomatic English including fishy phrases such as “Like a fish out of water,” “My dog is a shrimp,” “I feel crabby today” and “I never sponge off anyone,” before launching into an experiment where he has them mix glue with borax to create a polymer.

“(In China), we don’t have experiments in class, and we don’t do these kinds of things. Our teacher is always very strict,” another student, Mike, says afterward.

“It’s more strict than this, and it’s less interesting,” adds David, who is accompanying him to lunch on this day before a field trip to New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, with a stop at Yale University.

On another school trip, the students visit Amherst College’s Mead and Beneski museums, and are free to order lunch at a restaurant of their choice and to interview people on the street on “What makes an American an American?” Getting 40-odd responses is an assignment for their Bay State Voices culture class, which they’ll have an opportunity to work on again during a visit to Boston and Cambridge — touring Harvard, MIT and the Freedom Trail.

“They see somebody and ask that question, and it starts a conversation,” says Kemsley, who’s dressed in jeans, a polo shirt and sneakers. “They find that people are very, very accommodating, and they’re surprised how ‘nice’ these Americans are, willing to take time to answer a difficult question.”

‘Passionate about education’

Kemsley, who speaks Mandarin and Cantonese, is a Los Angeles native who met his Taiwanese wife, Jenny, while they were students together at Brigham Young University, and together took a job in Taiwan right out of college.

The couple has lived there, in Hong Kong and mainland China for 20 years, raising their four children and consulting with American businesses like Yale Security and others doing work in China, and then working with English language training centers.

“When I got into training, and (teaching the) English language, I found it a lot more interesting,” says Kemsley. “Then I thought if training adults in English is more interesting, training kids will be fascinating. So we rented campuses in China, we brought in teachers from America, we had these summer camps and it’s been wonderful. I’ve never looked back since then.”

A year after moving back to the United States from China, in 2007, secondary school students were allowed to study in America, Kemsley said, and Chinese friends asked if the couple could bring their children here, and after a couple of years doing that, placing them in boarding schools and checking in on them, they decided to do it full time.

Families pay $10,000 a year for their middle-school-age children to study here for three weeks and to get a year’s worth of training in American Course Education English immersion training every weekend.

Now in its fourth or fifth summer of these visits, Kemsley said, he and his wife still help place primarily wealthy Chinese students in American boarding schools, attending their teacher conferences, “managing them” and sometimes inviting them to stay at the Wendell campus for school holidays.

(The couple has also begun working, in reverse, to help American students to become undergraduates at Beijing’s prestigious Tsinghua University.)

High school in China

But now the couple is preparing to open a high school just outside Beijing, Kemsley Academy Panshan, “like an American boarding school in China” for an emerging Chinese middle class seeing increasing competition and cost to get into private schools in the U.S. Instead of $55,000 a year for a Chinese student to send their child to boarding school here, Panchan is charging $30,000 a year, including a month of study in Wendell, including travel.

Starting with just 30 10th-graders, Kemsley sees Panchan plans to grow to 150 students in three grades and to rotate those students, 50 at a time, for one month on the Wendell campus.

“Over the years, we’ve been sort of adjusting what we do here, so we’ll be making this a full-time campus.”

“Those who really want to learn English well are thinking about coming over to study in the U.S. in the future,” Kemsley says of China’s middle-class. “Maybe 15 percent will go to high school in America, and at least half will go to college in America.”

With a remote campus that Kemsley said is similar to what many other boarding schools offer, the academy is free of distractions and offers “not much to do except get fit and study” — especially since students’ electronic devices are kept in a locked cabinet except for a designated 30-minute period each evening when they’re encouraged to contact their families.

Shangri-La in Wendell

“The first year we had kids here, I said to some of the students, “It must be hard after being in a city of 20 million people to be here. You must feel like you’re in prison or something.”

“In prison?” responded one girl, according to the director. “I feel like I’m in Shangri-La.”

Parents, many of whom are anxious about sending their children halfway around the globe for the first time, are kept in the loop as part of a chat group of about 160 that shares photos of their children’s group activities, lets them raise concerns and answers their questions.

Kemsley, who’s writing a book, “Twenty-One Days Can Change a Kid’s Life,” says that Chinese students who are stereotyped as riveted to learning do so because they’re forced to study and let loose by playing games when they have the opportunity.

“They don’t learn self control, because they don’t have that option,” he says, “So it’s like they were liberated; they didn’t know what to do with the freedom when they came here.”

Limiting electronic distraction and allowing the visiting students to learn while having fun — with electives in drama, music and even a pirates class that includes treasure games, discussions about pirate codes of behavior, and crafts — all geared to language immersion — has Kemsley hearing from parents later that their children have become “more pro-active doing their own work. They’re only here three weeks, yet they tell me two and three years after they first coming here that it’s still happening,” Kemsley said.

Good neighbors

The school also gets good marks around Wendell, where Kemsley said town officials and residents are routinely invited to see end-of-session productions, and where a community potluck welcomed the academy when it first opened, and where he said students typically do a community service project, like moving soil for a community garden.

“They’re really good neighbors, and they’re concerned about relationships with the community,” said Nina Keller, who was among Wendell residents who attended a theater production by students on campus last year.

Kathy Becker, a resident who works part-time at the academy as a nurse, says, “It’s fun to see them at the country store, and taking walks, and they like to go to the library.”

They are expected to show up, 47 strong, marching in today’s Wendell Old Home Day parade, with their Kemsley blue shirts and carrying their Kemsley flags and Chinese flags. “This town feels very proud and honored. It’s very charming,” said Becker.

Interaction and cultural understanding

Two girls stand in the academy’s hallway during the short break before drama classes, trying to memorize the large poster depicting all of the U.S. presidents, right up to Donald Trump.

“Some are easy to remember,” one says, pointing to the more recent presidents. “Some of them we know, some of the others, maybe we don’t know.”

In addition to helping individual students learn to focus more on English learning, so they can succeed, Kemsley said there’s also a “macro side” to what he wants to accomplish.

“I feel very strongly the U.S. and China are the most influential countries in the world moving forward,” he says. “There are huge misunderstandings between the two countries. Americans completely misunderstand China, the Chinese completely misunderstand America, even at the people level. The future of the relationship between China and America is going to be an important factor in the future of this world. All I can do as one teeny little part is close this culture gap a little bit.”

On the Web: bit.ly/2wU0MUU

Reach Richie Davis at:
rdavis@recorder.com
or 413-772-0261, ext. 269