Fang Martin's students already had their speeches written and rehearsed when she found out over the holiday break that the contest for which they were preparing would not take place this month.
So Martin, the Chinese language instructor at Thomas Jefferson Independent Day School in Joplin, did what she believes any teacher would have done in her position — she decided to organize and host her own competition for students from across the region.
"If we can have quiz bowl and math league, why can't we have Chinese speech contests?" she said. "It's going to be a lot of work, I know that, but I think it's going to be worth it."
Thomas Jefferson will conduct its inaugural Chinese speech competition from 8 a.m. to noon Saturday, April 25, in its concert hall, 3401 Newman Road. It is open to all Chinese language students in prekindergarten through 12th grade; there are categories for nonnative speakers, fluent or bilingual speakers, and students who have some Chinese language exposure but who aren't fluent.
Martin's students were originally to have competed this weekend at the annual Chinese speech contest conducted by the Confucius Institute at the University of Kansas, a competition they have attended for the past five or six years. That program, like other Confucius Institute programs at universities around the nation, provided K-12 Chinese language instruction and cultural enrichment to schools, offered training in Chinese language and culture to businesses and coordinated cultural events for the public.
But the university announced last month that its institute will close by the end of this month.
"The decision to move forward without a Confucius Institute is related to the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018, which restricts access to U.S. Department of Defense funds for universities that host Confucius Institutes," said Carl Lejuez, interim provost and executive vice chancellor, in a statement on KU's website. "It does not reflect an end to our academic commitments in China or represent a shift in KU’s institutional view of the importance of research and teaching related to Chinese language and culture."
Like KU, schools around the country are ending their Confucius Institute programs as critics voice concerns about possible political influence in academics.
A bipartisan report from Congress in February 2019 urged U.S. colleges and universities to cut ties with the institutes, concluding that the partnerships give Chinese authorities too much control over U.S. programs. FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to Congress that the agency was monitoring Confucius Institutes, saying they had displayed "a fairly significant pattern of espionage."
The University of Missouri in August will end a nine-year partnership with its Confucius Institute, university officials announced earlier this month.
The U.S. State Department had notified Missouri in July that it would begin requiring state-certified teachers in Mandarin to be in every classroom with Confucius Institute staff. An audit of the Missouri program found no evidence of espionage or wrongdoing, the UM System president said.
But Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican who has been one of the leading critics of the institutes, tweeted that he was pleased with the University of Missouri's decision.
“As the State Department warned Mizzou in July 2019, and as I have repeatedly stated, this program presented security risks for students and the university as a whole,” he said.
'Help the melting pot'
Politics aside, Martin and her students were disappointed when they realized that the speech competition toward which they had been working was a no-go this year. Martin researched similar contests she could take her students to, but they were being offered in places too far away to easily travel to, such as Boston and New York.
So she decided to take matters into her own hands, making Thomas Jefferson one of the first Southwest Missouri schools to offer a Chinese speech contest of its own. She will invite judges from Missouri Southern State University and other schools, and she envisions students from school districts as far away as Kansas City, Tulsa and Northwest Arkansas to register.
Martin said she wanted her students to continue to have the opportunity to compete. It gives them confidence in speaking a foreign language, helps them set academic goals and trains them to respect and appreciate their competitors, she said.
It also is a way to boost cultural events in Joplin, she said.
"It's nice to let the community know the Chinese program is important, and the students enjoy what they do," she said. "I think it's very important for me to promote my own culture in this area and help with the melting pot."
Luke Goodhope, a 17-year-old senior at Thomas Jefferson, said he admires his teacher for organizing the contest for him and his classmates. He has been enrolled in Martin's Chinese classes since he was an eighth grader, and he believes it will be a useful language to know in the future.
"I just thought that Chinese was super interesting," he said. "(In college) I want to double major, with one of them being business. I really wanted to learn Chinese and make things easier in the long run."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.