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Teacher Talks: Yutong Chen, Middle School Mandarin Teacher

Middle School Mandarin teacher Yutong Chen inspires students to learn Mandarin by first helping them fall in love with Chinese culture. Through engaging projects, field trips to Chinese institutions, and even a trip to China, Yutong creates an environment in which students learn a foreign language within a larger cultural context. 

Sparking Interest

Students have different choices of language at Calhoun, and let's face it, Mandarin is not easy. You have to be a dedicated student who's willing to put in hard work. You have to really love it to choose it. Learning a language has to be meaningful on a personal level, and so I strive to build an attraction to [Chinese] culture.

It’s important to know what [students] are good at and what interests them. For example, a lot of my students in eighth grade are very musical, and so we do a lot of singing in my class. For one project, students work in pairs and choose a song that they like. Then they remove the original lyrics and write all new lyrics in Mandarin.

I make sure [the classroom] is a safe environment where everyone feels that their strengths are  being emphasized. Some students are shy, so for the singing project, they have the option to write out the lyrics instead of singing the song in front of the class. We also use a tool called Seesaw, a digital platform where they can share audio directly with me. In our conversation practice, students work one-on-one with me or in pairs with their peers. 

Teaching Outside of the Classroom

MS students enjoy dim sum during Chinatown trip

Whether it’s celebrating Chinese New Year at an assembly, field trips around the city, or the China trip for eighth graders, there are a lot of opportunities [at Calhoun] to teach language within a cultural context.

I frequently take 8th graders to Chinatown because it's the most immersive experience available to them in New York. While there, you see signs with [Chinese] characters and you can interact with people who speak Mandarin. It shows students that learning this language has a real use. I want them to feel like it's meaningful. 

Studying Abroad

The trip to China [with the 8th graders] is 11 days across three different cities. We travel to Beijing, the political and cultural hub of the country, and Shanghai, the financial center. The third city changes every year depending on the group's interests. 

The trip is both educational and fun. We visit the must-see sites like the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. In Shanghai, we go to a traditional Chinese acrobatic show. In the past, when in Guilin, a more remote area of China, we did a hike and saw the beautiful rice paddies. We also visit a local Shanghai middle school where students have the chance to see what Chinese middle school students are doing and interact with them. In the past [the Chinese students] taught us how to do things like paper cutting and photography. 

8th grade Mandarin students travel to China

Being in China makes students feel something. One parent actually told me this trip changed [her son’s] life. He felt very moved by the culture. Students return feeling much more confident in the language and even more interested in the culture. When they continue their studies in the future, they can say, “I've seen that in China.” In fact, one of my former students had chosen to study French in Upper School before the trip, but when she came back asked to switch back and continue studying Mandarin.

My number one goal for the trip is for students to say “Wow, I can have a conversation using what I’ve learned.” Number two is cultural understanding. I want them to build a global mindset where they understand people are different, foods are different; one is not better than the other. I want them to have an open mind. And number three is a sense of independence. For many, this is their first trip away from parents for such a long period of time. So it’s about seeing themselves as young adults, how they navigate interactions with others as respectful, kind, responsible people. 

In terms of skills, I want them to be able to hold a conversation [with a native speaker]. Most of them are not shy at all, and they strike up conversations with strangers. Many of [the students] are excited to try and once they do they say, “I just talked to someone and they understood me. I understood them!” with excitement.

On the trip I see a different side of [students]. They’re more brave and appreciative of the opportunity. We [teachers] witness them grow in every way, not just with the language but as whole people. They go into high school as mature young adults.

Teacher Talks is a series spotlighting the educators of Calhoun and their approach to progressive education.