For Chinese teacher Wenyan Witkowsky, language is the key to cultural connections. Since joining The Foote School in 2014, she has built a robust 2–9 program that each year takes a fresh approach to teaching the Chinese language while opening doors for her students to become productive citizens of the world.
“I hope that through teaching, I am helping students discover something new about each other and about themselves. I hope I am opening their minds and hearts to explore different cultures,” she explained. “These experiences shape their lives.”
What makes Wenyan’s classes so meaningful is that they are never just about the words. Each class incorporates projects and activities that are designed to engage students, but also to connect with other disciplines like history, science, math, art, and physical education. Her classroom activities have included constructing a mini replica of the Great Wall of China; playing hopscotch using Chinese characters; making yummy moon cakes; labeling the body parts and life cycle of a frog; designing tangram Zodiac animals; and learning to dance in a traditional Chinese dragon costume, among many, many others.
“I love introducing students to different things than they would normally get in a classroom,” she said. “The students get excited about it, but so do the parents.” In fact, she said, it was a parent who donated the Chinese dragon costume for her to use in her classroom.
These projects are truly unique — she tries to avoid repetition whenever possible. She will also turn to her students to see what they would like to learn. For example, the Great Wall of China project, also called the Great Wall of Foote, was born out of a student’s inspired vision. Of course, changing up the activities means a lot of work on her end, and much of her free time is spent preparing for upcoming projects.
“I’m always doing research for projects. My lesson plans need to be flexible and based on student interest and reactions,” said Wenyan. “Each group is different, and they might have different things that inspire them.”
Their inspiration is what feeds her passion. “I feel like I’m learning new things every day. This profession has pushed me to explore new things all the time, and I didn’t see that coming.”
Learning a language can be an intimidating experience, and the first days of classes are often quiet — many students hesitate to participate for fear of making a mistake. Wenyan reassures her students that mistakes are not just OK, but that they often turn into some of the most meaningful learning experiences.
“If you can help kids build that confidence, it is a good thing. I feel very proud and happy that so many people are willing to learn about Chinese language and culture,” she said.
Wenyan began her teaching career in 2006, working at the Chinese School of Connecticut. She later taught in area public and private schools before coming to Foote to launch its Chinese language program.
“When I started, everything was a ‘first,’ and that has been exciting. Foote is a school that has given me a lot of space to be creative,” she said.
Much of what she incorporates in her teaching was actually inspired by her experiences as a student learning English — she often reflects on what seemed to work for students, and what didn’t work. As a student, Wenyan and her peers would learn words or phrases, but not always develop a meaningful connection to real life and the culture. As a teacher, Wenyan constantly seeks ways to create personal connections to the language. Each year she will solicit from her students a list of what they want to learn about. In addition to providing project ideas, the responses have also inspired topics that are not in a standard textbook, yet are incredibly important to the students. For example, “How do you say, ‘I have a food allergy?’” and “How do you say, ‘I am a vegetarian?’”
“I still teach the basics,” Wenyan explained, “but it is important that the students connect the language to their own culture and their own experiences. I want to be the person to open that door for them and lead them in the direction of becoming global citizens.”