Minnetonka Public Schools, Minnesota

Capstone Learning Abroad Experience in Collaboration with St. Cloud State University.


Dr. Dennis Peterson, Superintendent
Joe Wacker, Principal, Scenic Heights Elementary
Stacy DeCorsey, Principal, Excelsior Elementary
Pete Dymit, Principal, Minnetonka Middle School East
Paula Hoff, Principal, Minnetonka Middle School West
Jeff Erickson, Principal, Minnetonka High School

Dr. Kathryn Johnson, Director

Immersion in Minnetonka Public Schools
The Superintendent of Minnetonka Public Schools in Minnesota made a very bold decision in strategic planning for the future of the school district that has had a significant impact on student learning opportunities. Dr. Dennis Peterson and the Minnetonka School Board agreed to have each of the six elementary schools develop an immersion language program through a “school-within-a-school model.” In the fall of 2007, four schools began offering a full Spanish immersion program, and two schools began a full Chinese immersion program beginning in kindergarten. Now over 55% of the students in Minnetonka Public Schools are growing up bilingual and bicultural with a high level of global competence. These are the future change agents for finding solutions to the greatest challenges confronting our common humanity: environmental, human rights, poverty, food and water shortages, and world health concerns.

Capstone Learning Abroad Experience in China
In the Chinese immersion programs, the pioneer group of students is now transitioning into high school as 9th grade students. In order to sustain the students’ interest and motivation in immersion classes, a Capstone Learning Abroad Experience to China was integrated into the strategic planning of the program. In collaboration with Dr. Kathryn Johnson, Director of the Confucius Institute at St. Cloud State University, the pilot Capstone Learning Abroad Experience was facilitated in March 2015. Twenty four 8th grade students participated in the pilot program. Students were responsible for paying for their international airfare. To reduce the expenses for the families, students were provided scholarships through a Winter Camp funded by Hanban that covered expenses in China. Minnetonka Public Schools is a Confucius Classroom under the Confucius Institute at the University of Minnesota.

The pilot Capstone Learning Abroad Experience was an opportunity presented to all students in the Chinese Immersion Program. Students had to be in good academic standing and willing to commit to the Code of Conduct during the entire experience. The trip was held March 21-April 4, 2015, during spring break for the school district. The learning abroad experience was held in Beijing and Changchun and co-facilitated by Jilin Province Hanban, the partner organization for St. Cloud State University’s Confucius Institute. Throughout the year prior to the trip, meetings were held with the Minnetonka principals to discuss what the student learning outcomes were; how the program would be integrated into the curriculum; what orientation materials were needed; and what the expectations were for students before, during, and after the trip. The timing of the trip aligns well with the 8th grade social studies curriculum and Minnesota state standards that focus on global learning. The first priority of the experience was to provide as many opportunities as possible for the students to use Mandarin with native speakers. The second priority was to include many diverse learning opportunities that would promote an understanding of the complexities of the Chinese society and culture, history, politics, and education. After the trip one student said, “My Chinese language skills improved so much during the two weeks in China. I learned so many new characters.” (Connor Wacker, Minnetonka Middle School).

Program Implementation
To achieve the desired outcomes, collaborative planning occurred in person, online, and in both countries during the year ahead of the trip. Having a Capstone Learning Abroad Experience for students in a full Chinese immersion program requires a paradigm shift in thinking from that of a traditional China tour group to an integrated Chinese language and cultural immersion experience. To facilitate these opportunities, the experience included: 1) a service learning opportunity with a day trip to Shepherd’s Field, an orphanage for children with disabilities in Langfang, China; 2) a presentation at the U.S. Embassy Beijing Education Center; 3) interviews with passengers on the bullet train from Beijing to Changchun; 4) participation in regular classes and activities at the sister school in Beijing; 5) a scavenger hunt in a local market; and 6) an overnight host stay with a local family in Changchun. These experiences were arranged collaboratively, so that the opportunities could be maximized for development of language and intercultural competencies.

Benefits of the Program
The benefits of the program for the students were significant in language skills, personal growth, and global competency development. In regards to the language, having an opportunity to speak with numerous local Chinese individuals who speak various dialects, especially during the time at the orphanage, the sister school, and the family host stay in Changchun, not only developed and expanded students’ language skills but also provided an opportunity to understand the culture and different ways of thinking. “One of the best things about being here is realizing I can understand what people are saying, everywhere I go!” (Lucas Hei-Long Chow, Minnetonka Middle School) Participating fully in classes at the sister school provided an opportunity for the students to gain an appreciation of the similarities and differences between the United States and China in ways of teaching and learning and philosophies of education. Having time at the U.S. Embassy Beijing Education Center provided an opportunity for the students to learn about diplomacy and careers in the foreign services. Before entering the building for this meeting, the students were asked, “Who among you will be a future U.S. Ambassador to China?” Getting 8th grade students to start to reflect on their future career options, founded on their cross cultural and language skills, is essential for motivation to continue to develop their skills. The area of greatest impact was the time spent with local families. The students needed to fully shift into the language, cultural norms, and customs of the families. “The time with the host family was amazing, really amazing!” (Caroline Melusa, Minnetonka Middle School)

The greatest challenge in the program was working with the partners in China to make the paradigm shift from a typical China study tour, with American students who knew very little Chinese, to a full language and cultural immersion program. The partners in China required a tour guide during the time in Beijing; however, the experience for the students was not for touring. This created tension in trying to work with the tour guide, who had no experience with students from Chinese immersion programs. An example of this was in the meals during the time in Beijing. A regular “tour group” typically walks into a restaurant, where the tour guide has a pre-ordered set meal delivered upon arrival that is cooked to meet the palates of the Americans. Our goal was to have the students order their food, which would be cooked the authentic Chinese way, maximizing meals as language opportunities. Language and cultural learning opportunities were missed that we hope to strengthen during the next trip.

Another challenge was that typical student study abroad programs at the sister school required separate classes during the day for the foreign student participants to learn Chinese, because all of the previous foreign students who studied in Changchun were from Chinese second language programs and were unable to fully integrate and participate in classes. However, students who are educated in Chinese immersion programs have the language skills. We required special permission from the principal to allow the students to be fully integrated into the regular classes and only attained this permission on the day we arrived, after she met the students.

Another challenge was preparing the Chinese families for hosting American students. We provided our requirements to the administrators of the sister school, who shared that they would fully incorporate our recommendations into the expectations and orientation sessions with the families. However, when the students returned, we realized that there were a few areas that we assumed the families would know but that were “lost in translation.”

Finally, a challenge existed in the language and vocabulary of the students for daily interactions. In a full Chinese immersion program, in which all content is taught in Chinese, standards need to be met, assessments need to be given, etc., time does not exist for teaching the pragmatics of the language for daily living in the context and culture of China.

Addressing the Challenges and Improving the Program
We will work to improve next year’s experience by 1) facilitating implementation of the experience through the teachers and leaders of the program familiar with China and the students’ needs without a tour guide; 2) dialoguing with the sister school administrators about the positives of the experience of integrated learning and develop strategies for collaborative curriculum prior to the trip, so that students can work together on culminating projects started before the time together; 3) creating an orientation session for the parents and families in China that includes expectations of both school systems; and 4) developing activities and avenues for integrating the pragmatics of Chinese language for daily communication outside of the content curriculum.

Final Reflections
Other reflections from the experience will also contribute to continued program improvement. We plan to strengthen engaged learning through integration of the activities and history of cultural site visits of the trip into the curriculum throughout the year prior to traveling to China, so that students have prior knowledge and vocabulary to build on during their time in China require students to apply to the program with self-identified goals and desired outcomes for participating, which shifts our focus to an earned selection process for participation focus more on integrating understanding of China’s rich culture and history into the curriculum for all students, not only those in Chinese immersion. This will contribute to all students learning about the significance and importance of a country that is home to 1.4 billion people in the world and one of the most significant global relations for the United States. Upon return from the trip, promotion of the experience through presentations to the school and community will increase reflection on and impact of the trip for the students and promote community awareness of the significance of the experience.

In a visit to our school of visiting guests from China two weeks after the trip, one of the students ran up and said to me with a huge smile, “Dr. Johnson, will we have an opportunity to go China again next year?” This is a huge indicator of the success of the experience that strived to focus on the unique needs of students who have grown up in a full Chinese immersion experience. Upon entering kindergarten, the parents made the choice for their child. Upon returning from China, as they transition into high school, the students are now making the choice, and will hopefully be motivated, to be lifelong learners of the language, culture, and context of China.

Watch a video about this program.


  • Experts in the field of Chinese language education answer questions that practitioners working in the field ask about.