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Helping Students Grow: Language and Culture with Mandarin Teacher Rui Shu

Meet Rui Shu, Mandarin teacher at Commonwealth School since 2016, who wants students to understand just how accessible—and meaningful—learning this often-intimidating language can be...

Everyone speaks a different language, says Rui Shu. Sometimes the difference is literal; other times, metaphorical. Regardless, studying another language reminds students that there are other worlds, other experiences, that they know nothing about—a lesson too often forgotten, she says. “Stay curious and stay open minded by taking a foreign language, no matter what the foreign language is,” Rui urges. “You gain access to a whole different culture. I think that's amazing and really, really rewarding.” 

Rui grew up immersed in and enamored with education. She says watching her father, a college professor of civil engineering in Beijing, and having excellent middle- and high-school teachers inspired her to consider teaching as a career. Becoming a language teacher, specifically, appealed to her because of what it represented: connection. 

“I want to be that bridge to bring two cultures together,” Rui says. “I had so much fun learning English and had it open up a new world and both in terms of interacting with real people and also being able to read a lot of things in English that I wouldn't have access to in Chinese. That was really liberating.” 

Combined with a hunger to explore the world beyond her home in Beijing and a fascination with the intricacies of language, her career path became clear, and she majored in teaching Chinese as a foreign language at Beijing Foreign Studies University. She then earned a master's at the Harvard Graduate School of Education here in Massachusetts. But the path to post-grad employment became a bit murkier, given the logistical challenges of having a student visa. 

“A lot of schools or companies don't sponsor for a work visa, so it's extra hard to find a job, but luckily I got an offer in Houston,” Rui says. There she taught Mandarin in a charter school for a year before coming to Commonwealth. (She learned of the open position from another alumna of her master’s program, Commonwealth’s then-Mandarin teacher Stacy Tan.)

Happy to return to Boston, Rui’s challenge became making the curriculum her own—and overcoming Mandarin’s notorious reputation as an inaccessible language for non-native speakers. That’s a mindset and misconception Rui would like to change. 

“I just hope that students know that even though a lot of people say that Chinese is difficult to learn to a point where it is impossible, it is not,” she says. Furthermore, the challenges of learning Mandarin can foster a growth mindset, helping students—with the keen and caring oversight of teachers like Rui—learn how to persevere. “You're not always going to be good at something or bad at something,” she says. “As long as you put in the work, you can see the results.”

Even so, mimicking Mandarin’s subtle intonations and pronunciations is not as hard as it seems, Rui insists, and it also doesn’t matter as much as one might think. It’s important for Mandarin students to internalize that message so they don’t feel discouraged, she says. “When people consider taking Chinese, they're always scared by how difficult tones [the four core intonations used across the language] are, which are hard. But I also have been teaching for quite a while now, and I've run into students who are really talented, and tones are not really a problem for them.” 

Grammatically, English and Mandarin have more in common than one might expect,Rui says. “In many cases, the word order can be very similar. If you want to say something in English, you can just translate word by word, and then you get the Chinese version.” 

Recognizing and writing characters is another common concern Rui is used to disarming. “Students have to think very differently when they're using Chinese compared to when they're using English,” Rui says. She encourages her students to change the way they look at Mandarin characters, imagining them as Lego blocks they can arrange or rearrange. “That's the beauty of Chinese: the characters are very different than [English] letters, and they all have very interesting meanings or stories behind how the characters are constructed.” 

Rui also encourages her students to make speaking Mandarin a full-body experience when they first start to learn tones. “If your body moves when you say things, that actually helps,” she says. You can use hand gestures to help remind yourself when there should be a rise in tone (second tone) or lower your head to signify a fall in the tone (fourth tone).

Building on the successes of earlier Mandarin courses, Rui offers Mandarin 4 and 5 to her most dedicated students, those with both technical skills and real passion for the language. With classes conducted primarily in Mandarin, only one or two students advance to this level each year. “At the upper level, students can suggest what they want to do,” Rui says. “I then design a course that will be the most beneficial to them.” 

Earlier Mandarin levels use the Integrated Chinese college textbook series; after reaching level 4 or 5, students usually pick a novel that reflects their interests. “I think it's really fun, and it's nice for them to be able to read a real book, as opposed to a textbook. They can know the joy of reading in another language,” Rui says. “You feel like you're actually using the language.” 

Of course, finding the perfect books for Commonwealth students is something of a challenge: the 17 and 18 year olds in her advanced classes are sophisticated readers and thinkers, but their Chinese language skills are closer to that of a 10-year-old native speaker. But Rui, herself a bookworm, has been able to identify fitting young adult books like Doudou by Window, by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi (originally written in Japanese and translated into Chinese), an autobiographical novel about a young girl trying to find acceptance in school, despite having a unique, energetic personality that puts her at odds with the rigid expectations of her education system around her. “The language is relatively simple, but then what they're talking about is fascinating,” Rui says. “Students talk about the progressive philosophy and practices—some they agree with, some they don't—and they compare those with our school [and] schools they've been to, and it's quite interesting.”

Like her students, Rui is prone to immerse herself in the subjects that fascinate her, whether it’s cycling, running, or hiking (“COVID forced me to be in a more active lifestyle.”) or portrait painting. “When I have an interest in something, I just go full in,” she says. “I'll just watch all the YouTube videos available to get to know that thing. And then I will ask people around me who are experts on those things.” For example: that “one time [she] really got into ukulele.” She particularly enjoys playing with students, though her duet of “Lava” during the fall 2021 Hancock talent show with math teacher/guitarist Rob Sherry was a highlight of the evening. 

The pandemic also led Rui to developing her green thumb and experimenting with plant propagation. (Beautiful, low-maintenance, and persevering pothos is her favorite. “They're just thriving on their own,” she says. “I think that's really nice.”) Teaching, Rui says, is a bit like her gardening hobby. “Plants will take their own time to grow roots, and there's nothing you can do to rush them. So it's similar to what I do, when you see the kids grow,” she says. And though teachers can and must guide their growth, there’s only so much influence one can exert. “You need to be patient with them and let them forge their own path and learn from their mistakes. Each person grows differently and in different ways.” 

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