Want to know what Foote’s Chinese language program looks like? Take a walk through campus on an ordinary spring day and witness the excitement of learning Mandarin.
In Middle School classroom M23, Chinese teacher Lely Evans is introducing sixth graders to their last unit of study for the school year: traditional Chinese foods. It’s a topic they’ve encountered before—in second grade and again in fourth—but now it’s considerably more challenging.
On the classroom’s interactive SMART board, the sixth graders must correctly match images of Chinese dishes such as fried rice (chǎofàn) and dumplings (jiǎozi) with the corresponding Chinese characters by dragging the images across the screen with their fingers, and then correctly pronounce them. It’s a practical skill they’ll need for an upcoming trip to a Chinese restaurant in New Haven, where speaking English will be strictly off-limits.
Down the hall from Lely, Chinese teacher Anne Lu is pumping hip-hop from a computer while her seventh graders emcee a fashion show entirely in Mandarin. As a student struts across the room, his partner describes the out t (shorts, sandals, t-shirt, belt and wristwatch). Anne listens carefully to their vocabulary and pronunciation and encourages the students to ham it up. “Don’t forget you earn extra credit for being confident!” she says.
Meanwhile, the school’s third Chinese teacher, Wenyan Witkowsky, has taken her second graders outside in the beautiful May sunshine to learn a favorite Chinese sport: jiànzi, or shuttlecock, a traditional game that dates back 2,000 years to the Han Dynasty and inspired the Western game of hacky sack.
Wenyan hands out shuttlecocks with bright pink and green feathers and students play alone or in pairs, counting aloud in Chinese each time they kick it. Two girls keep theirs aloft for five kicks—yī, èr, sān, sì, wǔ—before it tumbles to the ground amidst their laughter.
This is a snapshot of Foote’s Chinese program. It is experiential and academic, practical and rigorous, hands-on and, in the case of jiànzi, feet-on. And it’s incredibly fun.
The curriculum incorporates games, role-playing, food preparation, holiday celebrations and a comprehensive sequence of skills focused on practical applications for reading, writing and speaking Mandarin.
There’s a good reason Foote teaches Chinese through fashion shows, games and other project-based activities. It’s based on an understanding that enjoyment and academic excellence go hand-in-hand. Evidence for that came at this year’s CT COLT Poetry Recitation Contest, where Foote students won four gold medals and one silver medal in the Mandarin Chinese category—more than any other school in the state.
“We’ve seen a pipeline of wonderful students coming from Foote in the past two years,” says Carol Chen-Lin, a Chinese teacher at Choate Rosemary Hall and past Foote parent. “I am so impressed by Foote’s language program. The use of the target language in class, the richness of integrating culture into the curriculum, and just the love and joy of learning.”
Like the rest of Foote’s faculty, Lely knows from experience that children learn best from projects that relate to their own lives. That’s been a key to the success of the Chinese program, which as of last year now extends through ninth grade.
“If you want students to speak your language, you have to speak theirs,” Lely says. “And that means knowing them, and knowing where they’re coming from, to take them to where you want them to go.”
FOOTE’S CHINESE LANGUAGE PROGRAM debuted in 2012 but its roots go back years earlier.
In 2007, Carol Chen-Lin organized a trip to China through the Chinese Bridge Delegation program. Sponsored by the Chinese government, the program invited educators to visit Chinese schools and meet with education leaders as a means of encouraging schools around the world to adopt the teaching of Mandarin.
Mary Hu, then a Foote Board member, and Gail Mirza, then chair of the Modern Language Department, joined Carol
on that trip. By that point, Foote’s connection to Yali, its Chinese sister school, was well-established, and the cultural exchange had proved immensely positive. Adding Mandarin felt like a natural next step, recalls Mary.
The Foote delegation came back with a broader understanding of Chinese education and some basic teaching materials that could form the building blocks of a Chinese language program. After Carol Maoz became Head of School in 2009, the Modern Language Department, as part of its curricular review, took up the question of whether to add Mandarin as a language choice.
“We wanted to look ahead and see how we could get a Chinese program off the ground,” recalls Gail. “It took some time but it was a very thoughtful process. It was slow and steady, and I think if anything, that has been a secret to its success.”
Chinese was introduced in the fall of 2012 with Lely as the first teacher. That year, all second and third graders took Chinese, along with 14 fourth graders who elected to try the language.
If you want students to speak your language, you have to speak theirs.
Lely Evans, Chinese Teacher
Lely created the curriculum from scratch, drawing from her years teaching in New Haven Public Schools and at New Haven Chinese Language School, a parent-teacher cooperative that provides Mandarin instruction on Sunday mornings on Yale’s campus to children as young as 3.
She built the program by combining Foote’s experiential learning approach and its rigorous standards for reading, writing and speaking a second language.
In the early grades, Foote’s Chinese program is exploratory by design, emphasizing exposure to the sights and sounds of Mandarin and the culture of China. Instruction centers on listening and speaking through units based on topics that children can relate to, such as family, pets, home, body parts and hobbies. “Our goal is to help students sustain interest in Chinese while developing foundational language skills,” says Lely.
In sixth grade, the first year of Middle School, students return to the topics they studied in second grade but with increased structure and challenge; by year’s end, they are able to write 100 characters from memory and communicate using basic sentences. Seventh through ninth graders learn almost entirely in Mandarin, with a focus on situational topics: the language needed to make phone calls, order at restaurants, bargain at a shop and discuss the weather. Honors classes begin in seventh grade, giving students the option for more challenging work.
AS WITH OTHER LANGUAGE CLASSES at Foote, food plays an important role in supporting the Chinese curriculum. Classes make dumplings for Chinese New Year, rice-flour mooncakes for Mid-Autumn Festival, tāngyuán (rice balls with a sweet red-bean lling) to celebrate the Lantern Festival, as well as fried rice, multiple varieties of tea and other delicacies.
Cooking not only gives students a chance to try new foods, says Lely, it helps them to gain an appreciation for the rich culture and history behind a wide range of Chinese dishes. “Cooking creates a real-life connection for students. There’s also a great linguistic element in food prep. You have the vocabulary of ingredients and directions, which offers a different way to learn language structures.”
Games are another staple of the Mandarin curriculum. Wenyan sees games as a great way to teach vocabulary and establish a classroom atmosphere that’s both fun and challenging.
Her students play many games throughout the year. One of her favorites is a “cowboy duel game,” wherein each student holds a picture card of a fruit, stands back-to-back with another student, takes five paces and then turns around. Whoever names their opponent’s fruit first is the winner. For an end-of-year celebration in June, Wenyan taught her students to play mahjong (with its attendant vocabulary) using a set her mother gave her.
“I want them to become curious so they want to learn more about Chinese culture and people,” says Wenyan. “My hope is that their curiosity carries on to ninth grade and when they go to China they use the language they’ve learned to communicate with people.”
IN FACT, WHEN NINTH GRADERS traveled to China this past March, it was the first class to include students who studied Mandarin at Foote. Eight students on the trip used their knowledge to order at restaurants, bargain in marketplaces, ask for directions and converse with their host families.
During a post-trip discussion of their experiences, the ninth graders described it as both thrilling and challenging.
“I was determined to use the vocab I’d learned over all these years in class,” says Patrick Curran ’18. “I hoped it would work and it did.” On the first morning with his host family in Changsha, Patrick chatted with them in Mandarin about the weather. “They gave me a little round of applause,” he recalls.
People in China spoke fast, the students say, and frequently used vocabulary they didn’t know or couldn’t catch. But that didn’t deter them from trying to communicate, which frequently pushed them outside their comfort zones.
While touring the Summer Palace in Beijing, the students found an elderly man writing Chinese characters along a path. He would dip a long brush in water and write on the concrete. He offered the brush to the students, who used it to write their names in Chinese characters. For the students, the encounter was a communication breakthrough—a brief but meaningful example of authentic learning in action.
That’s exactly the goal of Foote’s Chinese program, says Wenyan, and that of the language program more broadly.
“I want to open a small window for them to see the big world outside through language,” she says. “Not just China, because they may not stick with Chinese. But the bigger idea: to know there are so many different experiences out there.”
In fact, many of the ninth graders do intend to stick with Chinese. When asked how many would pursue Mandarin in high school, all eight hands went up.