Meet Wang Yan, Kentucky's Rising Star Teacher
Editor’s Note: We had the pleasure of interviewing Wang Yan, a Chinese teacher in Lexington, Kentucky. Wang was recently awarded Kentucky's "Early Language Learning Teacher of the Year," and named "Outstanding Chinese Teacher" by the Chinese Language Teacher Association of Secondary-Elementary Schools. She has created strategies for implementing the Common Core into world language classrooms, and her instruction has been featured multiple times in our TEQ Video Series. She is also a teaching fellow of Asia Society's Chinese Language Teacher Leadership Program.
Tell us about your school and your students. What kinds of subjects interest them most in your Chinese language class?
For 13 years I have worked at Dixie Magnet Elementary School, where Chinese is one of the special classes along with visual arts, music, physical education, and library. All 600 students at Dixie receive 60-minutes of Chinese instruction in a five-day rotation. I am the only Chinese teacher, and my students range in age between 5- to 12-year-olds. Their interests widely vary. I conducted some action research on student’s subjects and instructional activity preferences at Dixie, and the results showed that students in kindergarten to 2nd grade are attracted to storytelling, nursery rhymes, and children songs. Sudents above 3rd grade prefer activities involving peer interactions and technology such as digital presentations, team competitions, hand-on activities, and group projects. The younger kids are curious about themselves, their family, and their school. They try to distinguish themselves from their peers. They are more interested in their favorite foods, animals, colors, special classes, seasons, etc. while the 3rd- to 5th-grade students are beginning to explore the world beyond their own. They are developing an interest in and awareness of cultural comparisons. They want to know about school life in China, as well as China’s attractions, traditions, and holidays.
Overall, providing authentic learning experiences for all learners makes the language learning more meaningful and effective. I cannot expect all of my students to continue learning Chinese when they move to middle and high school, but I do hope to sow the seeds of love for China in their hearts. I also anticipate they will develop the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that lead them to visible behavior and communication that is both effective and appropriate for intercultural interactions.
I work for Fayette County Public Schools (FCPS) which located in central Kentucky and is the second biggest school district in the state. The Chinese program was established in 2007 with two elementary schools and one middle school. I was very lucky to be hired as the first Chinese teacher. Currently, eleven schools (four elementary, four middle, and three high schools) are providing Chinese language classes, which amounts to about 3,000 K–12 students learning Chinese. The four elementary Chinese programs are FLES, and one middle and one high school are IB programs. There are a total of 10 teachers (seven are local certified Chinese teachers; the other three are visiting teachers from China.) Under the supervision of the district world language specialist, our Chinese program became one of the highlights of FCPS. The district joined Asia Society’s nationalwide school network for Chinese language teaching in 2011. Our district was also federally funded to provide a three-week summer immersion Chinese program for elementary school students.
How have you helped to build support for Chinese language learning in your school district and community?
It is my pleasure to contribute to the growth and sustainability of Kentucky’s Chinese programs, and I am honored to be the district Chinese lead teacher and proficiency lead. Under the supervision of the district language specialist Dr. Laura Youngworth (in the past, Mrs. Alicia Vinson, Linda Beck, and Thomas Saure served in the position), I have opportunities to organize professional learning communities (PLC) for the district Chinese teachers and the Chinese sessions during the FCPS winter world language Conference. Last year we established a mentorship program which pairs local veteran teachers with visiting teachers. The mentors guide these new teachers to become familiar with the school system and teaching methods, and they provide general support. In order to acheive articulation of the Chinese program and expand the program to secondary schools, we also arranged for the 5th and 8th graders to visit their feeder middle and high schools. The results were significant.
This was my 10th year as part of the FCPS STARTALK Chinese Summer Program. For the first three years, FCPS collaborated with the University of Kentucky. The main goal was to prepare certified teachers for the district. I was the master teacher at that time, supporting new teachers in instruction and classroom practices. I later worked as the FCPS instructional lead to create curricula, recruit faculty, supervise instruction, and arrange program events. Through this program, participant teachers received systematic professional training and became more effective in teaching. We also helped our local community prepare Chinese instructors, and hired instructional assistants from the local Chinese school.
Our Chinese community is the foundation of the public-school Chinese program. I used to work at the Lexington Chinese School as its Chinese language teacher, educational coordinator, and vice principal; I currently serve as a board member. I helped the school to organize a speech competition, create curricula, and host HSK tests, and I sought out local media to cover the benefits of learning Chinese language and culture. Each semester, I provide a teacher training workshop for teachers, focused on literacy and writing. Our relationship with the local Chinese school is a win-win situation. I invited their specialty teachers to teach my Dixie school students Chinese music and dance, and I volunteer for the school and district Chinese events. I asked the heritage learners in the Chinese school to write letters and make multimedia for my students. I brought my students to perform at the Chinese New Year celebrations hosted by local Chinese communities.
I am proud to say I work with the most dedicated group of Chinese teachers. As a unit, FCPS Chinese teachers collaborate and support each other. Together we can make a difference for students and make our Chinese program stronger.
When have you collaborated with teachers in other subjects to create cross-curricula instruction?
Integrating content into Chinese instruction and making a connection with other disciplines are both very important. Language learning can reinforce the learning of other disciplines. The school I worked at is a magnet school — half of the student population enrolled by lottery; the other half are neighborhood kids. Our school magnet status is personalized learning, and teachers in different subject areas collaborate well. The special area team I belong to has implemented arts integration teaching strategies for six years. The art teacher used to be the professional development coach for the arts integration. She met the grade level classroom teachers periodically and lined up the core content for each grade level, then shared the content with our team. Each special area teacher designed their instruction to integrate the content based on the subject-specific standards and curriculum map. We share our lesson plans via Google Drive so we all can reinforce the same vocabulary and material, sometimes even using the same slides. This way, students learn content in a well-rounded environment and reach their highest potential.
The kindergarten class planned to learn Eric Carle’s books and see a production of Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? at the children’s theater in October. Thus, the October Chinese instruction for kindergarten was about material found in the book. At the end of the lesson, students were able to name and identify the animals and colors from the story. They also can ask and answer questions about the animals, using memorized phases. In the art class, student painted animals. The music teacher directed students to mimic the animals’ sounds accompanied by instruments. In the library, students checked out Carle’s books to read and made book character pumpkins. The science teacher asked the students to categorize the animals by species. It was amazing to hear the little kindergarteners saying all the animals and colors in Chinese beyond the Chinese classroom. This is the beauty of making connections.
To collaborate with teachers in other subjects doesn’t mean to teach the content in English, nor use the same unit plan as other subject teachers. We should keep the communicative goals in mind when integrating the content for learning Chinese.
Can you share a successful classroom project and its outcomes?
In the 2016–17 school year, I organized a pen-pal program for my 4th- and 5th-grade students. The previous year, the language therapist at my school brought a visitor from China to my classroom—the principle of an English language learning school in Jilin Province. Together we came up with an idea to organize pen-pals between students of our schools. That summer, we made a detailed plan and decided to integrate the project into our daily instruction.
The project included three phases. In Phase I, students wrote a self-introduction letter in their native language to initiate the project. The letter introduced themselves with their name, age, birthday, grade level, family, personalities, hobbies, and questions. A family picture was attached to each letter too. The package of the letters was mailed to both schools via express mail. The next step was to pair each pen-pal. My students could not easily read the Chinese letters yet, so I summarized the information and made a name card for each Chinese student. My students then chose their pen-pal based on their age, gender, and interest. Once the pen-pals were determined, my students received a copy of the original letter and saved them in their notebook as resources. In Phase II we used the pen-pal letters as authentic material to learn new content. I used the Chinese song "A Family Letter" 一 封家书 一 to introduce the letter format. Then I designed three units: About Me, My Family, and My Hobbies. After students learned the vocabulary in each unit, they interpreted the learned information from their pen-pal’s letter. Through the authentic letters, my students learned variations of language structures. Both sides arranged video or audio chats via WeChat, wherein each side had 10 minutes to ask and answer questions about learned topics in their target language. Then students wrote a string of sentences about learned topics in letter format and we shared their letters digitally via WeChat. Some of my students even sent holiday cards to each other! In Phase III, students wrote response letters to their pen-pal in the target language. Due to the shortage of instructional time, it took about an entire school year for my students to finally write a beautiful respond letter with detailed information.
The success of this project led me to believe that novice young learners also can learn in authentic exchanges like this one. The backward design of instruction and the scaffolded lesson secured our desired results and guided students’ achievement. Students were very excited to interact with their peers in China through authentic learning. They applied learned knowledge and skills into real-world communication. It motivated them to write in Chinese in a meaningful way. They were very proud of themselves. Their parents were also surprised by their child’s language proficiency.
Please tell us about a mentor who has influenced you and supported you along the way.
I am very lucky to encounter many experts in my teaching career. Because of them, I stay on track. If there is a mentor who has influenced and supported me along the way, this person must be Dr. Wei-ling Wu. The first time I met Dr. Wu was May 2007 when I was hired as the Chinese teacher. At that time, I hadn’t started teaching yet, and had no idea about the American education system and American world language pedagogy. I had no experience teaching Chinese to young kids. Lucky for me, I was sent by my district to pilot a K–2 Chinese curriculum project organized by the Center for Applied Linguistics. Dr. Wu was one of the consultants for the project. I bet Dr. Wu still remembered how clueless I was back then. I then met with Dr. Wu periodically for about three years. It was a crucial time for my professional growth. Dr. Wu demonstrated to me how to engage younger kids, how to keep the pace of the instruction, how to deliver a lesson in target language, and the list goes on.
After two years, I became more independent in designing lessons and felt more confident to run my class in the target language. When the curriculum project finished, I still found chances to attend Dr. Wu’s sessions at various conferences. In 2011, when our district applied to the Asia Society's nationwide school network, I was delighted to meet Dr. Wu again. Later, I participated in Asia Society’s TEQ Instructional Videos project and Chinese Language Teacher Leadership Program. Each of these programs are under direct guidance of Dr. Wu. Form her I learned how to become a life-long student, never feeling my knowledge and skills are enough. She encourages me to make changes in my teaching all the time and to think outside of the box. Her passion for teaching, her enthusiasm for work, her wisdom, intelligence, and patience for new teachers have influenced me forever.
What brought you to your profession, and what advice would you give to a new Chinese teacher just starting out?
Before I came to the U.S., I was a Russian instructor at a university in China. Following my husband, my family moved to the U.S. in 2002. In 2007, FCPS received a federal grant to establish a Chinese program in two elementary schools. I was hired as the first Chinese teacher in the district and our program was to start from scratch. As mentioned above, I was lucky to participate in the K–2 Chinese curriculum project sponsored by the Center for Applied Linguistics. I began my Chinese teaching career by standing on the shoulders of giants such as Dr. Nancy Rhodes, Dr. Marcia Rosenbusch, Dr. Shuhan Wang, and Dr. Wei-ling Wu. They all are my mentors.
My advice for new teachers is to put your heart, head, and hands together when you teach. Your heart is where the passion for teaching comes from. When you love what you do, and love all students, you will have the desire to do better. Your head is from where you teach toward proficiency. Engaging activities are fun, but not all fun activities lead to the learning goals. I would suggest that new teachers learn how to design their lesson using backward design theory. Once you get used to it, it will make your teaching goal-oriented and make learning more effective. Finally, your hands are how you execute your dedication as a teacher. If you want to be an effective teacher, you must plan ahead. The success of your lessons depends on how well you are prepared. Teaching requires complex skills such as high expectations for students, well-designed lessons, and classroom management skills. New teachers will encounter many difficulties in the beginning; I still face challenges every day. However, if you have enthusiasm for the field, you will overcome your challenges eventually. Meanwhile, we all need to take care of ourselves, keep heathy 一 both physically and mentally 一 and don’t take work-related situations personally.