Building Bridges; Strengthening Skills
Mandarin Tutoring Program Connects Schools and Students
By Jade Chan
When my son enrolled in Portland Public Schools’ K–12 Mandarin Immersion Program (MIP) five years ago, one comment I heard a lot was that the three schools—Woodstock Elementary, Hosford Middle, and Cleveland High—needed to be better connected. We have Shu Ren of Portland, the parent organization that supports MIP students and families, but most of Shu Ren’s active members are Woodstock parents. How could we bring high school students back to the fold and help unify the program?
Another concern would come around every June, when parents would ask, “How can my kids keep up their Mandarin over the summer?” Online programs and books were relatively easy to find, but the bigger challenge was finding a way for students to continue using the language they’d been hearing and speaking every day for the last nine months.
We found the solution a year and a half later, in spring 2016, when Shu Ren launched its Mandarin tutoring program. The program pairs Cleveland High School students with Mandarin learners at Woodstock Elementary to help strengthen their language skills. It’s a win-win for all participants, as the tutors have an opportunity to apply what they’ve learned in a unique work experience (and earn a little pocket money).
Born from a Personal Tutoring Need
Enrolling in the MIP is through lottery—one that my son didn’t “win” for kindergarten. He’d attended a Mandarin immersion preschool, so he was prepared to continue learning the language, but it was a matter of if and when a space would open up. We had no idea how long the wait could be, but we knew that his language skills would start to slip away each day without Mandarin practice.
My husband suggested hiring a Cleveland High School student as a tutor. I reached out to the school’s Mandarin teacher, who put me in touch with two top students. Both were great candidates, but one seemed to be the better fit with our son. Once a week during that kindergarten year, the tutor met with him at a public library. I would give her the kindergarten homework, and she would work with him on character practice and conversation. She was fairly new to working with children, but she rose to the challenge and put a lot of thought into the lessons. We felt so fortunate to have connected with such an impressive and driven high school student.
An All-Serving Program
“Having a tutor who experienced the same Mandarin immersion program has really improved my daughter’s Mandarin comprehension. Sean is able to sympathize with Dee’s struggles and guide her through her homework because he’s been there, too. Plus, I’ll bet it helps him with his Mandarin as well. If you can teach it, you know it!” —Meghan Martin, parent of a 4th grader
A tutoring program was the answer to bridging the gap between the schools and the students, and a way to keep everyone engaged in Mandarin over summer break. The first year, four Cleveland students answered the call, and with a few guidelines and a general understanding of the program’s purpose, they assumed the responsibilities of interviewing with families and developing lessons and sessions based on their needs. As coordinator, I’m simply there to manage families’ requests and then ask two or three students to contact those families for consideration. I also serve as a mediator, should a student’s parents have trouble with boundaries (if tutoring morphs into babysitting, for instance), but, thankfully, I haven’t had to wear that hat. And the high school students who sign on have all made my job easy. They’re self-driven and motivated, and they take the job seriously. The rare students who don’t find out pretty quickly that it may not be for them (which is just fine).
Tutoring Outside the Box
“Sean is awesome! He understands my needs and laughs with me about Mandarin words but also helps me learn them better. He’s always really happy to tutor and help me.” —Dee Wintle, 4th grader
There are a variety of ways to achieve the primary goal of maintaining a learner’s Mandarin skills, and this is where tutors can get creative. They talk with families to see what they’re looking for and tailor the sessions to those needs. It could be a more traditional setup of working one-on-one with a student and reviewing characters and reading aloud. Or it could be walking to an ice cream shop together and speaking in Mandarin the entire time. It could also be one tutor working with two students or two tutors leading conversations with four students. I tell people that it’s as rigorous and structured or as loose and casual as they want it to be. It’s anything the tutors and families determine will help engage the learner best and make it fun.
Valuable Work and Teaching Experience
“Tutoring over that last few months has been a huge help to my own personal language skills and keeps me connected to the MIP community. I love finding ways for my students to use Mandarin in fun and creative ways.” —Sean Lee, sophomore
The younger students aren’t the only ones who reap the benefits of a tutoring program. It’s an excellent opportunity for high school students to apply their language skills to a job that requires organization, planning, and learning along the way. It’s a real-world job experience that they create for themselves, from the interview process to working with a child. Today’s teenagers can be too busy with sports, activities, and classes to hold a “real” part-time job. Being a tutor gives them the flexibility to work as much or as little as they want (which can be great if, as one parent told me, a teenager has to pay for her new phone).
Tutoring in the Time of COVID-19
“The tutoring sessions have helped to partially fill a void that distance learning created. Our daughter has been able to obtain help with Mandarin homework that we are unable to provide at home, and it also allows her to have conversations in Mandarin, play games, and read out loud from Mandarin storybooks. The tutor has been excellent at engaging her. She was initially reluctant to participate, but the time she has spent with the tutor has been fun and creative. She now looks forward to the sessions and is fully engaged.”
—Rachel Dumont, parent of a 4th-grader
“Having tutoring online during the pandemic has been a life saver. As a non-Mandarin speaker, I have limited ability in homeschooling my child in Mandarin and was virtually no help with the homework. The regular tutoring schedule gives Dee time to work with her tutor on her weekly homework.” —Meghan Martin, parent of a 4th-grader
Until this past March, tutoring sessions were held in person, whether at a student’s house, a coffee shop, or a library. Once schools closed—and before distance learning was underway—high schoolers who were usually too busy to tutor during the school year suddenly found themselves with a lot of time typically reserved for homework, sports, and activities. And parents were seeking tutors in case schools didn’t go online. Tutors quickly figured out how to use online meeting platforms and found creative ways to engage with students in a virtual setting. Now that they’ve gotten the hang of it, they’re prepared to continue doing it this way through the summer and beyond, if needed.
Are you interested in establishing a tutoring program between your schools? Here are some tips and ideas based on what we’ve learned over the years:
Determine your Mandarin immersion program’s needs. Have families expressed that their children need more help? Is this a need that high school students could serve? Are families open to having their children work with high school students?
Have a trusted adult serve as the tutoring coordinator. It could be a teacher, a parent volunteer, or someone in the school community. The coordinator would be responsible for fielding tutoring requests (and spreading the requests where possible), identifying prospective tutors, keeping track of tutor/family assignments, and checking in with tutors and families from time to time. This person would also be someone whom tutors (and families) can talk to to if they have a problem or an issue or if they just need some support.
Remind tutors to put safety first and to trust their gut. Tutors should always do what’s comfortable for them. Encourage them to talk with the coordinator if something doesn’t feel right (e.g., with the family, the environment, any requests) and let them know that they don’t always have to figure it out on their own. Assure them that it’s OK to set boundaries and expect others to respect them.
Stick to the tutoring program’s focus. Our program was designed to serve learners in the MIP and to connect them with those who had gone through the elementary portion and are on the high school track. Families not affiliated with the program have requested tutors, which we can help with when demand is lower (e.g., during the school year), and Cleveland students have recommended classmates from China as tutors. Although serving a greater need would be ideal, our primary objective is to unite the students in the MIP, and it’s important that we stay true to the program’s mission.
Step back but stay available. Our program doesn’t have a vetting process. One part of our mission is to make the opportunity available to any high school student in the MIP, and those who sign up, know whether being a tutor is right for them. These self-motivated individuals take it upon themselves to set up interviews, establish their rates (usually less than what a professional tutor would charge—to make it affordable and accessible—while giving value to the tutor’s work), and ask the families what tutoring would look like to them, and then they run with it. Coordinators should still check in once in a while—with tutors and with the families—to see how things are going. (We tell them that it’s fine if after a few sessions it’s clear that it’s not working out for whatever reason, and we offer to find both parties a better pairing—no hard feelings.)
Give them a fishing pole. Young adults are quite capable and responsible. Almost every single one I’ve worked with has jumped at the opportunity to develop their individual tutoring programs. I prefer to work with them directly, perhaps copying their parents on emails or at least letting tutors know that their parents can contact me with any questions or concerns. The time for handholding should be over. To paraphrase a Chinese proverb my father would often quote, coordinators should give the tutors a fishing pole, not fish for them. The coordinator can let tutors know which families they should contact but not badger them to get in touch. And it’s not the coordinator’s job to make sure that tutors are placed. If a tutor is MIA or not taking the initiative, the consequence of their inaction is an important life lesson they have to learn on their own.
One of the best parts of our tutoring program is giving high schoolers a chance to shine and to serve as positive role models. Just engaging with their teenage tutors connects students with someone they could aspire to be someday. And in a few years’ time, those students may remember their tutor’s positive influence on them as they choose to become a tutor themselves.
Jade Chan is a freelance editor and writer. She and her family live in Portland, Oregon, where her children (grades 3 and 6) are enrolled in Portland Public Schools’ Mandarin Immersion Program at Woodstock Elementary School and Hosford Middle School. Reach her at email@example.com.