New Beginnings for Elementary Language Instruction

In 2012, Shaker partnered with a Chinese government organization to teach Mandarin in the elementary school in order to qualify for IB certification. The district’s decision to end the Mandarin program is due to issues with staffing as well as the difficulty of the curriculum.

In a Jan. 31 email, the district announced that Mandarin instruction in grades one through four would be replaced with Spanish instruction beginning with the 2020-21 school year.

This decision marks the end of an eight-year long elementary Mandarin program.

In 2012, Shaker decided to become an IB district. One requirement for IB certification is teaching a foreign language in elementary schools. Shaker chose to teach all elementary students Mandarin. David Glasner said that Mandarin was chosen because it is a unique language that most schools do not teach at an elementary level. 

To establish the program, the district partnered with the Confucius Institute, China’s Ministry of Education’s organization that promotes Mandarin and Chinese culture education around the world, from elementary to collegiate levels.  One hundred U.S. institutions use the Confucius Institute. 

From 2012 to January 2020, the Confucius Institute supplied the district with Mandarin teachers. The Confucius Institute contributed $13,000 toward each of their salaries. The district paid the remaining salary of $30,000 and helped them find housing. The teachers spent one- to three-year terms at Shaker, then returned to China.

According to Glasner, the rotation of teachers posed difficulties. “We found that over time it was hard to build up a consistent and cohesive and aligned curriculum,” he said.

The district decided to end the program after the 2019-2020 school year because the current Mandarin teachers’ term ends this year.

Glasner said that creating a new Spanish curriculum for the elementary school will not be difficult because the district can rely on the district’s Spanish teachers to help plan the curriculum and find new instructors.  

Glasner stressed that the decision to end the elementary Mandarin program is unrelated to the current nature of U.S.-China relations. China has become the target of President Donald Trump’s criticism for its trade policies and practices. 

“It seems to fit into a context of broader political trends with America’s relationship with China. I will say, from my perspective, that it is purely coincidental. We made this decision because of what we saw as an opportunity to strengthen and reshape our world language program, not because we are trying to make a broader statement,” he said. 

Executive Director of Communications Scott Stephens added, “We’re just trying to do the right thing for the most number of students here, and what seems to be their preferences and desires.”  

Spanish teacher Amy Fogerty said that the Mandarin teachers’ English skills inhibited relationships between them and their students. “I think it would be very challenging to come in as a non-English speaking teacher from another country and to teach their language and their culture which they are passionate about, obviously, but to American students that had no exposure to [the language] before,” she said.

Fogerty added that teaching elementary students has its own set of difficulties. “You need to have someone in that role who has a dynamic personality, who can really engage the students, and build relationships with the students,” she said. Because elementary school teachers teach more students than high school teachers, Fogerty said that it is harder to build relationships with elementary students.  

Fogerty also said that Spanish is an easier language for elementary students to learn because they are exposed to the language and the culture early on in life. “Some students here will have had exposure to Spanish — they have Dora, so they will have some exposure to it, so hopefully that will make the transition a little bit easier, and the buy-in a little bit stronger,” she said.   

Jasmine Collier, who is a high school Mandarin student, said that the difficulty of Mandarin leads students to decide to stop taking the language after elementary school. Collier said that Mandarin letters are pictures. “If you don’t know what the picture is, you cannot sound out a picture, and you cannot try to figure out what it means with the prefixes or suffixes like in European languages,” she said. “You either know it or you don’t.”

Collier also pointed out that less enthusiasm for the language at lower levels negatively impacts higher-level Mandarin classes. “If there are less kids in a program, then it is harder for it to grow because there is less flexibility between the classes and the scheduling, which hurts the program stemming upward,” she said.

Because of the difficulty of learning Mandarin, Collier said there is an overemphasis of Chinese culture lessons over Mandarin language instruction, which also contributes to students feeling unfulfilled with their Mandarin knowledge. “I think they focused on the cultural aspect of the language in the younger lessons, and focused less on the language itself. The problem with that is that kids thought they did not learn enough about the language in kindergarten through fifth grade, so they decided to take other languages,” she said.

Fogerty said that there will not be a struggle with balancing Spanish culture and language lessons. “I do think there will be more of a focus on the language than the culture because the students may have opportunities to experience hispanic culture outside outside, even in Shaker,” she said.

Junior Pratyay Bhattacharyya said that learning the Spanish language and culture is important for Americans now. “Because of the tensions that are with immigration from Spanish speaking countries, I think learning Spanish would be a good way to unite people and let kids understand more about that culture,” he said.

However, Bhattacharyya said one language is not more important than the other. Bhattacharyya said that Spanish is easier to learn, and that Americans have a closer connection to Spanish than Mandarin. “You can watch Spanish TV on regular cable,” he said. 

To build confidence in Spanish at a young age, Fogerty said that lessons will have to revolve around songs. “Some sort of fun song, whether it be a traditional song, or whether it be a song they already know that exists in Spanish — just to get them to start hearing the language and being excited about it.” Fogerty said that songs are also the most effective way to teach young kids the proper pronunciation of letters and words.

Glasner said that he is excited to implement the new Spanish program, and he said that the program will add practical learning to elementary students. Glasner said, “In this country the number of Spanish speakers continues to grow exponentially, so we want to prepare our students for life internationally, we also want to prepare them to be active citizens here in this country.”

Web Managing Editor Lauren Sheperd contributed to reporting.

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