It’s hard to teach and manage a group of 1st graders for a whole day, let alone teach them in a language the children are still learning: Mandarin Chinese.
But when you walk into any target language classroom in Lower Division at Avenues, that’s what you see. Not only do students learn the content in their respective target language, Chinese or Spanish, they also ask for a second serving of the day’s snack, excuse themselves to the restroom and sometimes even argue with a peer in that language. All students are living in that language. They communicate in a language they are learning without necessarily realizing they are doing it.
How do we do this at Avenues?
Right after the school year starts, in the second or third week of September, the Lower Division holds a language pledge assembly. All kids pledge in a song, sign a written copy of the pledge and bring home a copy that says, “From today on, I promise I will try my best to speak Chinese [or Spanish] and I will help my friends to speak Chinese as well.” The young students understand that when they are in their Chinese classroom, teachers will communicate only in Chinese. The teachers will do everything they can to make things comprehensible. As a student, they can always rely on a useful phrase to get help. They ask, “怎么说___？” when searching for an unknown word or sentence. For example, they will ask: “怎么说 (I want a second pretzel)?” or “怎么说 (Can I erase the whiteboard for you)?” Day by day, we help them understand that not only can they communicate with each other in Chinese, their communication skills in Chinese get better and better the more they use them.
Then one day, about two years ago, we stumbled into an even better way to encourage students to speak more in Chinese.
It was a regular Monday morning in the 1st grade Berries classroom. Snack started after morning meeting. Kids were sitting at their table eating yogurt or carrots. A girl came up to the teacher and said, “I brought a shell I found over the summer vacation. Can I show it to the class?”
Why not? We let her speak to the class about her shell. It was a gigantic shell almost the size twice of her fist. She told the class she went to the Bahamas over that summer and she found the shell on the beach. Mom helped her clean it and they brought it home. The class exploded with questions: Was there an animal living inside the shell when she found it? Did she find anything else that day? Where did she put the shell when they were flying on the airplane? Then came the comments: I once found a shell as big as this one; my brother found a shell like that; I once found a shell like this but didn’t bring it home.
The spontaneous “show and tell” went on for almost eight minutes! It first started in Chinese, but when kids got really excited and engaged, they slipped back into English. We witnessed this and thought, how about we officially start a “show and tell” period in our class, with only one requirement. If you want to share, you are going to speak Chinese.
We began to hold this show and tell every day after snack in the beginning of the school year two years ago and never stopped. First there were only one or two kids who would share for that day. They either brought a toy they got at their birthday party or one that had been with them since they were born, or they’d share a photo that they found interesting. As we neared the end of the third year implementing this practice, the list of kids who want to share had grown. Sometimes there are so many we have to divide them into a “morning share” that takes place right after snack, and an “afternoon share,” which happens right before dismissal. Because of the audience’s enthusiasm, we started to develop a better and fairer system for sharing. Each share should take no longer than two minutes. The person who shares introduces their item, then the class can ask three questions or make comments. Everyone who wants to share will need to approach a teacher to learn how to say the name of their item in Chinese and give the basic information in the first minute in order to avoid mundane and repeated questions such as “Who gave it to you?” or “What’s its name?”
The items we share are also growing into a spectacular pool to show not only our kids’ hobbies and interests, but also talents. One girl brought in a “paper robot” she made that can dance, another girl showed off the robot car she made with wood, wheels and a “secret circuit board” hidden inside the body. The share started with tangible items, most commonly toys, slime, a special picture or the magnet shape they make during free choice, to interesting video clips of their lives after school. Once, the whole class was greatly entertained by a clip of a boy who played golf and hit a birdie. Quite impressively, we also have had students come up to share reading a book in a language other than Chinese! So far, we have had kids read their books in Hebrew, French and Japanese. Of course, the introduction to the reading is, and can only be, in Chinese.
As excited as the students get, we are guiding their learning in some subtle way. As mentioned, we require the ones who share to give the basic information, so time would be allowed for better questions such as: Is your robot operated by a remote? What are the materials you used to make that? Was anyone helping you? Why do you like this item so much and why did you want to share it? How does it feel? Can we touch it?
In order to help students foster the habit of speaking Chinese and feel proud of their skills, we also allow kids to share a reading of a Chinese book. Usually, this kind of share would “win” some points for their group on our “class points chart”. What’s interesting is, almost every time after a student shares a Chinese book, a fellow student would ask, “How do you know [that hard word] in that book?” And, the answer is usually, “I used the Pinyin at the back of the book!” There you go, a reading skill we have been teaching in class.
As we celebrate our young students’ achievements in learning the language and using it, we keep it in mind that language is best learned or acquired when you need to communicate with it. Through our daily show and tell, these 1st graders manifest it clearly. We believe you can learn and master a language in this way as well.