Mr. Yang Ai with LFLA students at the Festival of Nations in Tower Grove Park

Lift For Life Academy is unique in that it offers one of the only Chinese programs at a St. Louis city charter school. While our Chinese teacher, Mr. Yang Ai, sees his class as a way to expose LFLA students to a language and culture that can open career opportunities in international business, he also sees a more immediate benefit as they are graduating high school.

“[This class] opens up more educational opportunities for the students, like going to study in China,” said Mr. Ai. “Even the best colleges in China are much more affordable than schools here, and they would offer many scholarships to American students. Studying Chinese can really change a student’s life.”

Mr. Ai has gained this perspective on global education from his background growing up and starting his career in Wuhan, a city in central China. After receiving his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in education, Mr. Ai taught high school in China for four years before he was compelled to take the next step in his career. Two years ago, he began pursuing his doctorate in counseling at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. Mr. Ai thinks that this program pairs well with his teaching position at LFLA, as he is able to understand and overcome some of the factors that impair our students’ education.

“My teaching philosophy is that interest in the subject is the most important thing,” said Mr. Ai. “Once you are interested, you are continually pushed to learn more. Also, I remind students that failure is the mother of success. When I first came to America, I was very nervous to speak English because I was afraid I would mess up and embarrass myself. Speaking Chinese takes students out of their comfort zone and helps them find confidence in situations that they are not used to. Not only does this teach adaptability, but also respect for different cultures and lifestyles.”

With many of our students graduating and going off to college, Mr. Ai thinks that the ability to understand how to interact with and respect other cultures will come in handy when LFLA students become part of diverse student populations on a college campus. For this reason, Mr. Ai fills his class with cultural experiences, like learning the tradition of origami and going off-campus to eat Chinese food and give students the chance to speak Chinese with other people in public.

“In China, we believe that all students are a blank page of paper,” said Mr. Ai. “That page is affected by their environment. Here at LFLA, we’re rewriting some of the imperfections on these pages and making sure that students are telling a story of success.”

Lift For Life Academy is certainly seeing successful results from the Chinese program. Not only do students exhibit improved memory capabilities and literacy scores, but our young scholars have really become excited about the language and culture.

“At first glance, Chinese seemed like a hard language to learn,” said LFLA freshman, Steve Hall. “But once I started speaking it at home with my family, it became a lot easier. When I’m eating dinner with my mom, we’ll ask each other little questions in Chinese like how our day was or what our favorite color is. She’s learning, too, and every day, she’s excited to learn new words that we talked about in class. I’m her teacher, and that helps me understand the language even better.”

Not only are students becoming engaged in class, but they’re also discovering positive social results from their engagement in the class.

“We’re not just learning the words in Chinese class,” said LFLA sophomore, Victoria Moore. “We’re also learning the culture and the story behind the characters. Like, the word for ‘river’ just started as a picture of a river, but over time, it evolved and changed, and now it’s something completely different. It reminds me of how I transformed. When I first came here, I couldn’t focus and I didn’t care about doing well. But now, I always try my best because I’ve learned how to look at situations from other people’s perspective. Other people care about me doing well, and other people can benefit from the stuff I learn. So that’s my drive. I’m still the same reserved person I’ve always been, but now I care about making a difference.”

With students not only understanding and learning about different cultures, but also growing into a better understanding of themselves through the classroom environment, Mr. Ai has been happy to apply lessons learned from his backgrounds in both education and counseling. Ultimately, he says that the environment makes these student successes possible.

“Family,” said Mr. Ai, “is where there is love, trust and reliability. Lift For Life Academy has all three of these and more.”