I once had an elementary school student who avoided learning Mandarin at all costs during class. “This is boring,” he’d say, as he stormed off. Or, “Why do I have to learn this?” as he’d crumple up his handouts.
It’s a common tale for many kids. If the material isn’t relevant to their lives, they become disengaged and frustrated when learning feels forced. If disinterested for too long, these kids can fall behind. Over my 15 years of teaching, I’ve learned that this boredom barrier is my main enemy, not a disruptive student.
So instead of lecturing, I took the approach I take with most disruptive students: I got to know him.
I pulled him aside for a one-on-one conversation. I asked about his interests. I listened. I soon discovered his love of expensive sports cars— Bugattis in particular. His whole being lit up as he showed me pictures and described different models. I gave him a special project: “Why don’t you put together a presentation and teach me everything you know about Bugattis in Mandarin?” He excitedly accepted the challenge.
Though his language skills were low, he started learning advanced vocabulary. He learned the anatomy of a car; he studied geographical terms and where Bugattis were manufactured; he learned about price and how to count with large numbers… all in Mandarin. When he gave his final presentation, it was hard to believe that this confident speaker was the same student who struggled with basic grammar just two weeks before.
Breaking the boredom barrier and building motivation
A wall of boredom can build when students can’t convincingly answer the question, “Why am I learning this?” And studies show that this wall kills motivation. That’s why I have changed my approach from ensuring every student has mastered the same material at the same time to instead fostering excited, active learners.
Today, I have found that three things inspire a love of learning in my class: connecting and bonding with each individual child, fostering authentic learning experiences through passion projects building wonder by letting children guide the class, and inspiring awe through real-world experiences.
1. Connecting and bonding with each child
Many find it surprising when I say that Mandarin is not the focus of my class. I tell parents that social and emotional strength comes first, then Mandarin. I’ve found that building a child’s confidence and resilience helps them take on more challenges and progress more quickly.
The first thing I do in each class is connect with each individual learner. I want to know what they like to eat and what their favorite toys are. I try to understand what makes them moody, angry, and happy. I try to get to know each student as a whole person, beyond the scope of our class. That way I can help them approach Mandarin on their own terms.
This builds trust. When my students feel I am their biggest fans, they are more likely to take risks.
2. Fostering authentic learning experiences through passion projects
I often start beginners or transfers with a passion project, like my student who loves his Bugattis. Starting with their interests invites students to express themselves through content that excites them. They learn vocabulary that they will actually use and therefore remember. And projects are often interdisciplinary, inviting learning across math, social studies, history and more. By bonding emotionally with the material, children learn to use language to meaningfully communicate their own personality and interests.
3. Building wonder by letting children guide the class
A student makes a joke and the whole class laughs. What do many teachers do (or have to do to maintain order)? They may briefly laugh themselves and then quickly try to calm things down, directing students back to the day’s agenda.
What a missed opportunity! That’s a rare magical moment where everyone is engaged. Sometimes tying the joke with the day’s plan can inspire even more connections.
For example, in one of my lower elementary classes, we were practicing describing our emotions in Mandarin. One child yelled, “I am afraid of shots at the doctor!” The class erupted in laughter. So, I had each child line up for a pretend “shot,” and shout: “I’m not afraid. I am strong!” before I gave them a fake “shot” with my finger.
The class was in hysterics. Yet, with such high excitement, they retained and remember the lesson to this day. The lesson has become an inside joke that we frequently reference in subsequent classes— each time we practice those language skills.
A personalized approach builds a love of learning
It has taken years for me to develop a new approach to teaching Mandarin — one that focuses on engaging my students through their interests rather than following a textbook religiously. Not only are my students not bored, but they love coming to class and they progress more quickly.
Jamie ChiaHui Gao is a the World Languages Lead at AltSchool and teaches Mandarin for grades K-8. With 15 years of teaching experience, she believes in providing a 360-degree learning experience that creates a safe, non-judgmental zone for learners to freely investigate and explore the world around them. Her ultimate goal is to foster lifetime learners through their passions.