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Last year, John Jay High School announced that they would add Mandarin to the World Languages offerings of French, Spanish, and Latin if there was enough interest. This fall, Mandarin I launched with 17 students—a mix of juniors and seniors—more than enough to support the new initiative.
The teacher, Chiung-Chun Chen, a native speaker of Mandarin Chinese, grew up in Taiwan and came to the states to study language education at the University of Pennsylvania. She earned a Master of Arts in Teaching from Clarkson University.
Chen mixes Chinese traditions and inventive games as well as expressive hand motions and personal attention to overcome the greatest barrier to learning any language—taking risks and speaking.
“Lǎoshī hǎo,” the students said, bowing to Chen, at the beginning of class.
"Tóngxuémen hǎo,” said Chen, bowing back.
“In China and Taiwan, people show respect to teachers,” explains Chen. “In our class, we begin by students greeting me in Chinese. Then, I greet them.”
Chen distributed cards to the students, each one printed with a movie star’s name. The white board displayed groupings of the actors. Students began walking around the class and finding their group by speaking Mandarin Chinese.
“Nǐ shì Scarlett Johansson ma?” asked one student.
“Wǒ shì Scarlett Johansson,” answered another. A match!
“Mandarin is challenging because the tones are very regulated,” said Chen. “There is a specific one for each of the characters. But, Mandarin is spoken by more than a billion people. It opens a door to the world and gives students access to a different culture.”
Every middle and high school student who takes a world language has access to their school's new language lab at least every other week.
Each is a dedicated classroom of thirty workstations that host a computer and headphones. Hard-wired network connections allow the teacher to pair students anywhere in the room together for conversation, as well as to speak and listen to each student individually.