Someone’s finally released a full Mandarin immersion curriculum!
By Elizabeth Weise
SAN FRANCISCO – Most parents with children in a Mandarin immersion program know Better Chinese. It’s the source of a popular series of books many programs use in Kindergarten or first grade, My First Chinese Words, as well as easy-to-read books used in many grade school immersion programs, especially in California and Texas.
However beginning in the fall of 2015 the Palo Alto, Calif.-based company took its program to a new level, one that could fundamentally reshape how well, and how easily, many Mandarin immersion programs function.
Last fall, Better Chinese launched a full, soup-to-nuts Mandarin immersion curriculum called Better Immersion. In the 2015-2016 school year it was in use in 20 school districts, around 30 schools, nationwide from Kindergarten to second grade, with third through fifth grade becoming available in 2016-2017. These 30 schools range from well-regarded and fully built-out programs to brand new ones, and include public, charter and private schools.
Better Immersion gives a precise roadmap and provides extensive resources for teachers teaching Mandarin language arts in Chinese Mandarin immersion programs. It highlights content-based learning to facilitate science, social studies, mathematics and other subject matter instruction.
Curriculum? Why should I care?
As parents, it’s perhaps not that easy to see what all the fuss is about, but this is actually a big deal in the world of immersion. So to begin, what’s a curriculum and why should you care where it comes from?
When educators use the word “curriculum”, they mean pretty much the entirety of what’s learned and taught by students in a school. A school might have a science curriculum, a math curriculum, an English curriculum, etc. The curriculum outlines what topics have to be covered in the course of a year. It can be very broad (“world history”) or it can be very detailed (“Science: Week 8: Monday-Introduce the concept of friction using blocks of wood and an inclined plane.”)
For Mandarin immersion, up until now there was really only one fully built out curriculum available for schools to use, the one created by the Utah’s Flagship Language Access Network (F-LAN) consortium. This is a very successful program that’s been adopted by over 30 school districts nationwide as well as throughout Utah. However, it is only available to programs that have signed on to the consortium and is designed only for programs that teach 50% of the day in English and use Simplified characters.
Other programs have basically had to create their own curriculums, generally using their district’s regular English language curriculum and translating it into Chinese (a task most often accomplished by teachers in their “spare” time and one for which they are rarely paid.) These curricula could vary a great deal from teacher to teacher and grade to grade, as each grade’s curriculum was often developed by a specific teacher who first taught it. Sometimes, if that teacher left, the incoming teacher had almost nothing to go on to craft a year’s worth of teaching beyond a vague outline of what needed to be covered.
Given that, our Mandarin immersion teachers and staff in schools throughout the United States deserve massive credit for the programs they’ve built and the depth of education they’ve been able to offer. However it wasn’t ideal and it wasn’t easy.
Enter Better Chinese
Actually, enter a group of highly skilled educators who spent three years creating this curriculum. And let me state for the record here that I’m inclined to trust them because one of them was Angelica Chang.
Ms. Chang was one of those teachers who created a new program out of whole cloth in her “spare” time, in her case at Starr King Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District. Chang was the first Mandarin immersion teacher hired in SFUSD, and together with Helen Tong basically created the bones of our program. She was my daughter’s Kindergarten teacher and she’s a marvel in the classroom.
Better Chinese itself has a long history in the Chinese language world. The company launched in 1997 and in 2000 introduced My First Chinese Words, which consisted of 36 storybooks in very simple Chinese. That grew into a series covering grades one through five called My First Chinese Reader. The company then developed Discovering Chinese, a series of textbooks for middle and high school students who were beginning their Chinese studies. A college curriculum, Modern Readers, came next.
As these books and series were being developed, Better Chinese also worked on the technology and backend part of teaching that parents never see. For some in the field of Chinese education, Better Chinese is actually known more for its technology and pedagogy than its books.
Because of the popularity of its My First Chinese Words and My First Chinese Reader series in immersion schools, Better Chinese was in a position to see the rise of Mandarin immersion programs from very early on. As it built out its textbooks and curriculum for students first starting their Chinese studies in middle and high school as well as college, the staff realized that none of the textbooks on the market really worked for immersion schools. That’s in part because immersion schools don’t just need a textbook for Chinese, they need an integrated curriculum for teaching multiple subjects in Chinese while at the same time teaching Chinese (this is the heart of what makes immersion different from a language class—our students learn Chinese by learning subjects taught in Chinese.)Demo-BI Trial from Xuqing Zan on Vimeo.
Chang realized that the tremendous endeavor she and her colleagues in San Francisco have undertaken to create a program was being replicated by teachers across the nation—a clear case of reinventing the wheel. So she accepted an offer to become one of the experts who would create the Better Immersion curriculum. In 2012 the company began working on a curriculum that would widen the options open to Chinese immersion programs. Three years later, it’s being rolled out nationwide.
One of them was Barnard Asian Pacific Language Academy in the San Diego Unified School District. Their program used My First Chinese Reader when they began their immersion program in 2010. They used the Mei Zhou Hua Yu textbooks with Shuang Shuang as supplementary material.
In 2014-2015 they piloted Better Immersion in their Kindergarten and First grades and this year they began to use it as their curriculum.
Barnard is a large and very popular program that now spans Kindergarten through fifth grade. It has more than 400 students, with four classes of Kindergarteners, four in first, two each in second and third grade and one each in fourth and fifth, as those were the beginning years. Class size can go up to 24 students per class, with a teacher and an assistant in the larger ones. The pioneer class, which began in 2010-2011 is now in Pacific Beach middle school and will later feed to Mission Bay High School.
It will eventually be a whole-school program, meaning that the entire school is devoted to Mandarin immersion rather than having other strands (such as English-only) in the same school. Currently there are three classes from the building’s previous incarnation. Those students receive Mandarin language classes as well, so they can be a part of the overall Chinese focus of the school.
Barnard begins with 80% of the academic day taught in Mandarin and 30% in English, moving to 50/50 in second grade and beyond.
Qiuyu Julie Li, Barnard’s lead Mandarin teacher, says the roll-out of Better Immersion has gone well and has been noticeable to parents who’ve seen both the older curriculum and the new one.
“Parents were so happy. They say ‘My child learned so much more than her sister in the upper grades did,’” she said.
“They like it because of the academic rigor. Because it’s been popular with both parents and teachers, this year we adopted it for Kindergarten through second grade.”
Li finds that the materials are “maturely developed” and that overall the curriculum is quite comprehensive. “The topics are well aligned and it covers social studies and science. They also have the small picture cards for games, so for teaching the teachers don’t have to go online and print out images and do all the work of creating materials for the classroom – they can focus on teaching,” she said.
Barnard’s staff has worked closely with Better Immersion to give them feedback, “we gave them a lot of feedback,” as the curriculum has been introduced, Li said.
Li said it was especially helpful last year, when the school had a brand-new first grade teacher who hadn’t taught Mandarin immersion before. With the curriculum, “she didn’t have to look for texts and make papers and worksheets every single day.” That left her time to focus on teaching.
“For brand new teachers it’s very helpful,” she said.
The program also lends itself to differentiation, so students whose Chinese is at a higher level can be challenged while those who need more support have materials appropriate for them. That’s made it easier for teachers to ensure that all students are appropriately challenged, said Li.
The Better Chinese curriculum follows the Common Core State Standards. These are educational standards that aren’t linked to any one textbook but instead set standards for not only what students must know but also the skills they must have in each grade. Common Core has been adopted by a majority of states. This is a big deal because Mandarin immersion programs have been scrambling to revamp themselves in line with these standards, which require more focus on developing the critical-thinking, problem-solving, and analytical skills students will need to be successful in today’s world. This curriculum does that for them.
Better Immersion is designed so that it can be used both by programs that are 50/50 Chinese and English as well as 90/10 to start. It can be used in both one-way (i.e. all English speaking students) as well as two-way (both English and Chinese speaking students) programs.
The program uses thematic units in nine-week segments which are followed by summative assessments that evaluate both how well the students learned the material and how their Chinese is progressing. At the end of each grade, there are also four project-based assessments, which focus on inquiry-based research and performance-based results. The curriculum also introduces formative assessment, which can be easily conducted daily on paper or on digital devices. The purpose is to diagnose students’ weakness and improve instruction accordingly.
For those not up on their education jargon, summative assessment means evaluating student learning and skill acquisition at the end of an instructional period. Formative assessment is meant to monitor student learning during the learning process. It’s kind of the difference between an end of quarter exam and a teacher calling out at the end of a lesson on echolocation, “So who can tell me how bats fly in the dark?”
The program is highly detailed, giving teachers day-to-day lesson plans that embed best practices and instructional strategies. This enables even teachers new to immersion to use methods and tricks that long-time immersion teachers have developed, right from the start.
There’s also a stand-alone 31-lesson Pinyin Program, which allows teachers to introduce Pinyin at any grade suitable for their students. Some programs begin with pinyin early on, others not until third or fourth grade. The online e-books offered in conjunction with the printed materials allow teachers, students, and parents the choice of having pinyin turned on or off. Starting at the third grade, the curriculum incorporates pinyin in the printed textbook to enhance reading proficiency.
Better Immersion was piloted in multiple schools in the 2014-2015 school year and in 2015-2016 was used in 20 districts and 112 classrooms. They encompass a variety of school types, including urban public schools, suburban schools, magnet schools, strands, all-Chinese schools, private schools and charters.
For parents and teachers, the curriculum makes several things a lot easier. One thing I really liked were the customizable Home-School Connection Letter set up for every two weeks of classwork which explain what’s happening in the classroom, what’s coming next and what parents can do at home to support and strengthen the learning their kids are doing at school. Instead of having to labor over composing these letters in their second language of English (try to write your next work report in a language that isn’t your native one and see how it goes…), teachers can instead customize them for their classroom and send them out. A clear win-win! There’s also a template for teachers to create a parent newsletter that lets them update what’s happening class- and school-wide.
Reading, writing and differentiation
The curriculum also focuses heavily on literacy, not just in English but also in Chinese. That’s important because in too many of our programs students spend very little time reading in Chinese, so they don’t get the habit of it.
“Our kids need to be empowered,” said Chang. “We find that by the time they’ve learned to read (in Chinese), they’ve lost faith in themselves.” The Better Immersion curriculum starts them reading the simplest of simple books as soon as they come back from winter break in Kindergarten.
The readings include many different types of writing, not just the Chinese folk tales and stories which can sometimes pale after a couple of years. “We include a lot of content learning in the reading,” said Chang. The books also come with QR codes (those squares of black and white squares that can be ‘read’ by a cell phone) which switch on audio files, so students can read and then read and listen.
It’s also got differentiated instructional support built in, so students who are advanced academically, or advanced in their Chinese, can be challenged. Each lesson addresses four levels of proficiency, beginning, intermediate, advanced and native, so the needs of all learners in a classroom can be met without the teacher having to go through super-human effort to differentiate the curriculum (try writing a new lesson for four different levels of students, every day for a year, and then ponder how much our teachers are paid…).
For teachers, there’s a 1,000 page teacher’s manual for each grade that covers in exact detail what’s being taught, how it can be taught, how to differentiate each lesson and how to expand the material. That alone will be a God-send to many younger teachers who can feel adrift in districts which don’t have much support for their immersion programs. These teachers frequently have no one to turn to as they figure out how to teach in an immersion classroom—exactly the type of teaching every educator agrees is the most demanding there is.
There is a price
All of this sounds so wonderful, what’s the catch? As with so many things, it comes down to money. The curriculum must be purchased. As most public school districts have already paid for an English language curriculum, there often isn’t money to pay for a Chinese one on top of that.
The cost varies depending on the number of students in each class and the number of classes in each grade level, as each class gets a teacher’s manual, student texts, readers, reproducible assessments, flash cards, posters, etc. Schools that are interested should contact Better Chinese to get a sense of what pricing would be for their program.
Some districts will be able to buy the curriculum because they realize in the long term it will save them money—their teachers won’t be so overworked trying to both create materials and teach at the same time, families will be less demanding because they’ll be getting more information via the newsletters so staff won’t get burned out and have to be replaced (which, in turn, burns out principals and takes away valuable time that might have gone towards making the whole school better.)
Other districts won’t be able to afford it. This is a place I can see program-based parent groups stepping in to do fund-raising. It’s not something that a single class can do, it has to be for an entire school’s Mandarin immersion program, or an entire district if there are multiple immersion schools. But it would be an excellent and very concrete support if the District wanted the curriculum but couldn’t afford it.
Please note I said, “If the District wanted it.” This is a decision that’s got to be made at the school or District level, it is not one parents can make. Though certainly bringing the existence of the curriculum to the attention of staff wouldn’t be unreasonable,, this is a program decision, not a parent one. They, not us, are the experts. Please be respectful of their professional expertise.
So, there you have it. Better Immersion should prove to be an asset for Mandarin immersion programs as it rolls out. Even in districts that don’t use it, having more multiple options available will raise everyone’s game. It’s a welcome addition to the tools our teachers will have to bring a new generation of bilingual kids into being.
*Jiāyóu = literally “Give it the gas!”