How to Make Learning Fun for Your Students

West Hartford Public School students play Chinese Jianzi (shuttlecock) at Hall High School. (Lauren Drazen)

West Hartford Public School students play Chinese Jianzi (shuttlecock) at Hall High School. (Lauren Drazen)

By Lauren Drazen

This is Lauren Drazen's tenth year teaching Chinese at Hall High School, one of the two public high schools in West Hartford, Connecticut. Hall offers Chinese in grades 9–12, in levels I through AP. This year, of the 1,450 students at Hall, 230 are studying Chinese. Next year, West Hartford will offer Chinese in the middle schools for the first time.

"How do you attract, and keep, so many students in your Chinese program?"

"What's the secret to your program's success?"

These are the two questions I am asked over and over again.

Any success I achieve as a teacher has little to do with my lesson plans or the specific curricular activities in which students are engaged. Much of what my students do is just like any other Chinese language classroom around the country. Students are speaking to each other, listening to audio files and watching videos, completing workbook exercises, writing characters for homework, taking dictation quizzes, doing projects, and taking tests. All too often, we teachers get caught in the trap of worrying about delivering a prescribed curriculum, teaching a minimum number of characters, and giving a certain number of tests.

My success in the classroom, and the growth and success of our Chinese program, is not from our curriculum, test scores, or characters learned. None of these things fulfills me as a teacher. They are certainly not what propels students to study Chinese in high school and beyond. Instead, success in the classroom is related to a concentration on building relationships with my students and creating a sense of community in the classroom.

A lot of the reasons why students get hooked on Chinese are due to the lessons I teach them that are NOT Chinese. I try to guide them toward success in life, which translates into success in Chinese as well. Many of the "lessons" are based on my experiences studying Chinese and being in China. These include:

  • Appreciating nature and the outside world by disconnecting from technology
  • Inspiration and intrinsic reward
  • Finding a passion 
  • Happiness and balance as life objectives
  • Connection with others, especially with those older and wiser
  • Empathy
  • Connection with, and appreciation of, family
  • Introverts versus extroverts and their places in the world
  • World citizenship

One lesson I teach is about balance as a life objective. I explain that students do not have to be Taoist to understand the concept of yin and yang, or balance in the universe. Our ultimate goal in life should be happiness and that does not equate with wealth. How people around the world define happiness varies wildly, and wealth does not define that happiness. Food, shelter, protection … that’s all we really need. I suggest that as students make decisions, they do not undervalue happiness for the sake of affluence and overabundance. There is such a thing as too much wealth.

Many will argue that the success of the program is not just about connection and community. They will say it's partly because of my weekly "Fun Fridays." I always bring something to eat on Fridays. I bake cookies, make dumplings, and bring in Goldfish or fruit snacks. I also will play a movie or teach a Chinese art, like calligraphy, dance or knot tying. Sometimes I show an inspirational YouTube video. This gives students an opportunity to decompress from their busy schedules and enjoy school in a stress-free atmosphere.

I used to worry about being judged for my teaching style. But here's the thing: students are learning. They go on to study Chinese in college and the professors ask where they went to high school. They are amazed at students' foundation, character base, pronunciation, and command of language. Students of ours place out of all the available courses at colleges.

In the end, this tradition in the Chinese I classroom at Hall High School is not just about the food, or the fun activities and games we play on Fridays. When we are having fun together, we create a community of learners and the students are motivated to excel.

Anyone can deliver a curriculum, but to get students to "buy in" and become passionate, we must create a strong community built on trust and connection. When we do this, the students care about succeeding. They work hard. When we open our hearts and get to know our students, they want to succeed.

Some might wonder why so many Hall students are learning Chinese. The simple answer is: “Because it’s fun.” And that’s just what learning should be.