Mandarin Immersion at PKS

Student art.

Student art.

To kick off the 2016-2017 school year, we are presenting a series of posts about the PKS approach to learning. The second installment features a conversation with Matthew Cochran, a fourth-grade teacher at PKS. Read the first installment.

Q: How did you learn Mandarin? 

When I moved away from my parents after graduating from high school, I learned Kung Fu and read a lot of Chinese philosophy, especially Daoist texts. I wondered what reading them them in Chinese would be like, so I started taking Mandarin as an undergraduate student at the University of Oregon. I had to work really hard to keep up with my classmates, the vast majority of whom were ethnic Chinese international students from Indonesia. At the time they were not able formally to study Chinese in Indonesia for political reasons. They were all fluent speakers of Mandarin and many were fluent readers and writers as well. I spent almost all of my free time at home studying, often more than 8 hours each day.

I studied abroad in Beijing and then returned to start an M.A. program in the Department of East Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Oregon. I focused on classical Chinese rhetoric, philosophy, and poetry. After I got my M.A. I started a Ph.D. program in the department of Asian Languages and Cultures at UCLA, where I worked for several years but eventually stopped. I decided I loved teaching and wanted to focus my energy there. 

Q: How do students in your class grow their Mandarin vocabulary? 

As older students, the kids in my class have a clearer sense of the internal logic of both spoken and written Chinese than they did as kindergartners. They make connections between words and characters based on shared parts of characters and between words that get reused in predictable ways. Our fourth grade students have a great deal of say in the learning they do. Their interests drive their inquiries and so they are invested in learning the words they need to go deeper. Being interested and invested allows them to learn more, faster, and better than if they were simply given a list of words to memorize.

In my experience children learn a second language best at school when they feel safe and that they belong. PKS teachers spend a lot of time helping to set up classes as loving communities of learners to make this happen. In elementary school, students build class agreements instead of having teachers simply give them a list of rules. In this way our classes are fundamentally democratic.

In the progressive environment, teachers describe what they see in the classroom instead of praising. This has at least two powerful effects: primarily, it allows students to make self-evaluations. For example, teachers might say, "I notice that you used green to draw the leaves and pink to draw the flowers," instead of "that's beautiful, good job." Students are free to evaluate their own work because we have not evaluated it for them, and we provide further encouragement to do so. Adding to the above example, a teacher might then ask, "what colors do you think you will use to show difference between the ripe fruits and the fruits that are not yet ripe?" This kind of question encourages a student to take stock of where they are in their process. We might also say something like this: "I notice that you've taken great care to show exactly where the flower emerges from the plant. How did you manage to do that?" We might also say, "You've really been working hard this week to make your flowers look just like the real flower on the table. How do you feel about your efforts?" The other powerful effect of using descriptive language is that it introduces and reinforces authentic language that students need.

Student art.

Student art.

Q: What challenges are presented by learning math and units of exploration in Mandarin, and how do you work to overcome these challenges?

When students are so excited about their learning that they have lively conversations at home with their parents about it, or do research on their own, they might come back to school wanting to share ideas and discoveries that they made outside of school using English. This will occasionally present some challenges. However, when they become comfortable enough using Chinese, they can switch between languages with ease, as their ideas reside in a pre-linguistic state in their mind.

Mandarin is very well suited to communicating mathematical ideas, especially some of the most basic ones. For example, fourteen is "ten four" (十四 shísì), and forty is "four ten" (四十 sìshí). Forty-four is "four ten four" (四十四 sìshísì), and so on. Questions such as "how many tens are in forty" quickly become trivial because the very word for forty already embeds the answer: "four ten" (四十 sìshí). There are four tens in forty. We find that students have a strong number sense in Mandarin, and number sense is notoriously difficult for second-language learners to have with ease.

Q: What are the benefits of learning Mandarin in a progressive environment?

Very briefly, the progressive education framework means that students will connect more personally with their learning because they have more choice about and say in what they learn. Learning is organized around projects and so is open-ended and personalized. Students who are interested in what they learn end up learning more and what they learn sticks around longer. 

Because we do our inquiries in the target language, the acquisition of that language is reinforced all day. The open-ended nature of our inquiries and the fact that we work with math and science and literacy all in Chinese, and that we solve problems of all types using Chinese, and that students get into arguments in Chinese, and make up in Chinese, and that teachers have heart-to-heart conversations with students in Chinese, and that all of the interactions that we can and need to have are in Chinese --  all of this means that students learn a lot of authentic and vital Chinese. They want to learn it and in many ways it becomes incidental to the deep dives we all make together. I often tell people that I teach fourth grade and that I just happen to do it using Chinese rather than saying that I teach Chinese to fourth graders.

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