Although neither Wei (Vivian) Li nor Yangyang Li is exactly new to The New Century School, they have each adopted larger roles within the language department for the 2015–2016 school year. Having first joined the TNCS community in summer 2015 as one of the Lead Teachers on the 2015 STARTALK team, Li Laoshi is now heading up the Mandarin department as Director of the Chinese Language Program and Lead Mandarin Elementary Teacher. Yangyang (first name used to avoid confusion with Wei Li) Laoshi’s first experience at TNCS was as Mandarin Assistant Teacher in the 2013–2014 school year, followed by teaching in the 2014 TNCS STARTALK program. She is now serving as the Primary Mandarin Teacher as well as helping Li Laoshi run the Mandarin department.
Both teachers are eminently qualified to teach Mandarin. A native of China, Li Laoshi moved to the United States and dedicated herself to personal development and education after having taught International Business at the Hunan Vocational College of Science and Technology for over 9 years. Interested in enhancing her teaching experience, she earned a Master’s Degree in Education: Teaching Chinese as a Second Language from the University of Maryland, College Park in the spring of 2015 as well as a Maryland State Teaching Certificate. Before coming to TNCS, she completed an internship at the Baltimore International Academy, a full language-immersion elementary school. Li Laoshi is experienced in program design, curriculum development, lesson planning, classroom materials preparation, and assessment.
Yangyang Laoshi is from Chengdu in the Chinese southwestern Sichuan province. She has a Master’s degree in teaching Chinese to speakers of other languages from Sichuan University, which is one of the Top Ten universities in China, as well as a Certificate of Accreditation for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language. Before she came to TNCS, she worked as a Chinese teacher in the Chengdu American Center for Study Abroad and the Sichuan University Overseas Education College for 1 year, teaching students from New York State University. She also worked as an English Teaching Assistant in a Private English Training School, assisting British teachers with their classes of preschool children ages 3–5 years. Yangyang Laoshi also has the very special distinction of being an accomplished pipa musician.
Qualifications aside, what makes them true educators is their approach to teaching. Seeing them in action is to understand that teaching is their life’s calling, not just a job. They guide, they coax, they laugh—learning is interactive play. They are rarely—if ever—not smiling. No wonder TNCS students respond to them so readily! They have these qualities in common with the other TNCS teachers, and it’s nice to see how disciplines and departments have meshed so well this year. And, to maintain continuity with what and how students have learned in past years, they have regular contact with Xie Laoshi (Jewel), who remains a vital part of the Mandarin program, albeit in a behind-the-scenes capacity.
As such, they have devised a curriculum that is:
- National standards guided
- Theme based
- Age- and language-proficiency appropriate
- Relevant to daily life
- Integrated with culture
- Student centered (what Li Laoshi considers most important)
See examples of some of their past months’ lessons in these links: September, October, and November. As you can see, body parts, family life, and food comprise a large part of these lessons, which makes sense given their criteria in the bullets above. What could be more relevant to kids this age than those three topics? And, see for yourself how easily they connect to these topics, which translates into ready fluency. This video features a Primary student, who had never encountered Mandarin Chinese before enrolling at TNCS this academic year reading Chinese characters aloud about the hours of the day. She is developing her English language skills at the same time. These students are also able to write some of the characters they read.
With only 45 minutes per class, the Chinese teachers nevertheless work in a lot of practice with the language—which is the only way students are really going to be comfortable speaking it. So, they incorporate card games and other games, role-playing, songs, and body movement, based on the proven effectiveness of Total Physical Response (TPR)*. In this video that employs TPR, you can see it in action. (I love my [insert family member.])
Older students additionally take on larger projects, such as “making” and “selling” food. This provides ample opportunity for learning vocabulary related to various foods and cooking as well as working with Chinese currency, the yuan. They “earned” their money by answering questions correctly, a built-in incentive to demonstrate their proficiency.
A similar project was test-run in last summer’s STARTALK, and it was a runaway success. The kids could not stop talking about their “Night Market” and felt excited and proud by what they accomplished. The genius of this kind of project, in which the kids completely lose themselves, is that they are conversing and interacting completely in Mandarin, almost effortlessly. Contrast this with more traditional language classrooms in which students commonly feel self-conscious and struggle to overcome their reticence. “Students feel happy in my class,” said Li Laoshi. “They are enjoying learning; they don’t feel it’s a burden—even the shy ones and those who have never learned Chinese,” she said, even confessing to nearly crying with joy at their achievements. “The Chinese language is totally different from English and Spanish,” she continued. “Because it’s so complicated, the first step is to get the students interested, to motivate them. Then, they really open their hearts.”
Yangyang Laoshi agrees. “I search for games that relate to our lessons,” she said, “but if the kids don’t like them, we find something else instead.” This ability to organize and plan outside of the classroom but adapt and be flexible within the classroom has allowed them to easily meet their goals of cultivating happy, engaged, Mandarin-speaking students. They say their Chinese friends and colleagues are thoroughly impressed by how good the students’ speech is, including some of whom have previously known these children, such as dear Fan Laoshi, who interned at TNCS last year and who remarked on their clarity of pronunciation.
An abiding love for teaching and for their TNCS students is what they attribute their current classroom happiness and success to. “That’s why I came back here from China.” said Yangyang.
Speaking for the TNCS community at large, we are certainly glad to have you both at TNCS!
*Total Physical Response (TPR) was developed in the mid-1960s by Dr. James Asher as a method of learning a second language. Asher noted that the conventional approach to learning second languages differed dramatically from how infants learn their first language. Infants learn to communicate by internalizing language, a process of protracted listening and absorbing. TPR is a technique that replicates that process for learning second languages and beyond by giving a command, modeling the action described in the command, and then having the student imitate that action. Students are not initially asked to speak, but to comprehend and obey the command. Understanding is at the root of language acquisition, according to Asher. This makes a lot of sense when you consider how babies learn to respond to increasingly complex utterances before ever verbalizing a thought.
Research demonstrates unequivocally that brains work more efficiently when the body is also engaged. In fact, neuroimaging shows that during movement, more brain areas are lit up, meaning that more of the brain is active and in use. Language acquisition via TPR takes full advantage of this “powered-up” state.
Excerpts from Exercising that Mind–Body Connection, from the Immersed archives