April 30, 2013 | Mandarin

A Chinese Class for Small Children

Mandarin in New York City public schools!

In honor of my last day of Chinese (for now), today I visited a Mandarin class for second-graders at P.S. 368, a public elementary school at Amsterdam and 146th Street in Harlem.

Approaching P.S. 368

Approaching P.S. 368

The class is part of the Speak to Succeed initiative from Global Language Project, an educational nonprofit founded by business executive Angela Jackson. Jackson’s experiences living and working abroad highlighted for her the advantages multilingualism conferred on children overseas, in terms of both educational and professional opportunities. Through GLP’s programs she and a network of partners seek to give disadvantaged public-school students the skills they need to compete in a global economy.

GLP’s first program was launched in 2009 for Harlem third-graders. Today it offers instruction in Mandarin, Spanish, and Arabic to more than 800 young students in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Providence, Rhode Island.

The teacher of the 45-minute Mandarin class I attended was Jui Shih, a stylish, graceful young woman from Taiwan. The kids have just one class a week (though GLP would ideally like three), and they began in September. Other students at the school are getting one Arabic class a week.

The first thing that impressed me in this classroom of I think 22 students was that they were so attentive, interested, and well-behaved. Led by Ms. Shih, they began the class by identifying animals on a picture board (in Chinese).

It was cute, but I was appalled to realize I could not understand a lot of what was said there. The thing is, in my Pimsleur, Fluenz, and other lessons, I have not generally learned words for animals, unless they are part of a food dish. As I sat there listening, it did not really console me to think that I knew how to talk about changing money at the bank and buying medicine at the pharmacy.

Alas, I too wanted to know how to say that a bunny jumps. 

The Hour for Mandarin Has Arrived

The Hour for Mandarin Has Arrived

Pulling myself together, I then watched the children act out the parts of earth’s various living creatures. They were preparing for a play that involved dramatizing the animals’ characteristics and lifestyles, and some of the action was quite dramatic indeed, involving swimming through the air, leaping and hopping, and sometimes culminating in small children’s collapsing on the floor in a heap.

Most of them could not have been having more fun. Ms. Shih has a quiet authority that makes kids listen, and a warmth that makes them like her and want to be good.

The neighborhood has a large Dominican population, and it was something to see a little boy from Harlem reflexively correct a little girl from Harlem—neither of them Chinese—on her Chinese pronunciation. I saw only one Asian student in the class; other than that, most or perhaps all appeared to be Hispanic or African-American.

Now, the last time I visited a foreign-language class at an elementary school, back in 2011 at a school about a mile and a quarter from this one, the students’ beloved goldfish died. That untimely event led to an unplanned and class-long discussion, en français, of ichthyological mortality. So far this Mandarin class seemed to be proceeding tragedy-free, but in keeping with what appears to be a tradition for my classroom visits, routine soon confronted the inconvenient chaos that characterizes human existence.

I was looking to the right of the room when from my left came the sound of flowing liquid. The sound of flowing liquid in a grade-school class is never a good sign. My eyes traveled left and sure enough, there stood a little girl in the middle of the room vomiting.

And then she vomited more. 

And more.

A trash can was rushed over to her, but by then there was already a generous supply of bodily fluid in the middle of the floor.

Paper Snake for Chinese Lunar New Year, Resident of P.S. 368's Ceiling

Paper Snake for Chinese Lunar New Year, Resident of P.S. 368’s Ceiling

Poor little thing. She had apparently been sick the night before, and she had apparently not yet made a full recovery. She was helped out of the room to get medical assistance.

As someone who had her own flowing-liquid incident in first grade (and never forgot it), I sympathized.

As for the liquid itself, it did not trouble me. I have spent a lot of time around small children, and I am not easily grossed out.

The teacher was the opposite of nonplussed. In fact, she was non-nonplussed. She simply turned this into a teaching moment, asking for volunteers. Hands shot up around the room.

She selected a couple of students and then calmly, and in Chinese, gave instructions for them to go get paper towels. She repeated the Chinese a few times to make sure they understood. A little vomit on the floor was not going to force a switch to English or derail language-learning activities.

Off went the kids, who soon returned bearing paper towels. Said paper towels were placed on top of said vomit. The Chinese instruction continued. A little while later a custodian arrived with a mop and cleaned things up properly.

In the meantime, the children practiced their animals in pairs at their tables. With the assistance of the teacher, they then demoed their animals for the class two at a time. They also made paper headbands for their respective animals for the play.

I was impressed by their accents and by what they had picked up in just one class a week. It is so, so valuable to begin language instruction when children are small like this, and while they are still little language sponges.

The kids almost universally appeared to love the Chinese, and that made me happy. Language skills are power—a power for good, and for fulfillment in one’s personal and professional life. I wish more people could have this gift. Kudos to Angela and her team of language-committed donors, teachers, administrators, and volunteers for giving New York City schoolchildren this gift. 

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