Updating and Upgrading Our Mandarin Curriculum

By Rui Shu

Commonwealth School teachers bring an infectious intellectual energy to their classrooms, fueled, in part, by their own innate curiosity. What happens when that curiosity is unleashed? The Hughes/Wharton Fund for Teachers aims to do just that. Named after the late John Hughes, who taught English at Commonwealth for nearly thirty years, and after recently retired Head of School Bill Wharton, who founded the original Hughes fund in 2011 and championed faculty scholarship throughout his tenure, the Hughes/Wharton Fund ensures faculty can pursue their academic passions, access fulfilling professional development opportunities, and have the latitude to create new courses and reinvigorate existing ones. 

Mandarin teacher Rui Shu has always tailored her classes to her students, often crafting her most advanced courses anew each year with their input. She was well positioned, then, to apply a Hughes/Wharton grant to revising the Mandarin curriculum, creating learning modules even more conducive to personalization—and meeting every Commonwealth student where they are. Here she outlines her work over the summer of 2022 and how it’s manifesting in Commonwealth’s six Mandarin courses today. 

The goal of my Hughes/Wharton project is to make Commonwealth’s Mandarin curriculum more comprehensive and inclusive so as to meet the needs of students with different backgrounds, learning styles, and various skill levels—whether they are non-native speakers learning Mandarin for the first time, heritage speakers who use some Mandarin at home with their families but typically don’t read or write, native speakers who had formal schooling in Mandarin in China, and anyone in between. 

Though the structures of Mandarin 1 and 2 work well, I did make some changes to Mandarin 2 to push for speaking fluency. With each textbook chapter/unit, students are introduced to new vocabulary via the pinyin [a phonetic Chinese alphabet], the English meaning of each word, and the structure and the radical of each character that makes up the word. The majority of class time is spent learning new words and expressions by using them in real-world native-speaking contexts, often by working with classmates. Nightly homework includes writing and performing their own skits (conversation) and stories (narration), taking notes on Mandarin TV shows, and interviewing Mandarin-speaking people.

Mandarin 3 saw quite a bit of change this summer! Building on what they already learned from Mandarin 1 and 2, students put what they learned into real use. They start the school year by coming up with a character (or avatar) and then learn how to navigate life as an international student attending a university in China. They solve problems in Mandarin through scenarios such as renting an apartment or interviewing for part-time jobs. Instead of traditional written midterm or final exams, they give presentations of what they (their character) experienced in their year “studying abroad in China.”

Speaking-focused Mandarin 3 classes start with students getting a real-life scenario, taking two minutes to think about what they might say in that situation, and then having an impromptu conversation for five minutes. After I offer feedback, students have another conversation responding to the same prompt—this time filmed, so they can watch it and reflect as homework. Reading-focused classes start with a story, as students try to understand and practice new words, expressions, and sentence structures with help from each other, technology, and me. For homework students rewrite the ending of the story to practice their creative-writing skills, in addition to their usual listening and writing logs. 

Mandarin 4 is where differentiated instruction is most important. Though every student is prepared for this particular level of difficulty, each class and homework assignment is tailored to their unique proficiency levels. In one class period I might focus on one student’s speaking and writing fluency, another student’s speaking and reading proficiency, and another student’s stated goal of improving their writing abilities. Students are also given the opportunity to vote for one of three topics that they’d like to discuss and/or debate; then they’ll take five to ten minutes to outline their opinions and ideas before engaging in dialogue. Homework is similarly personalized, such as responding to writing prompts regarding a memoir they’re reading with me.

Finally, for Mandarin Literature, the most recent addition to the curriculum, I assembled two new readers: an Ancient Poetry Reader, with works dating from the 11th century BC to the Tang Dynasty, and a Modern Text Reader, consisting mostly of prose selected from textbooks and supplemental reading materials used by native Mandarin speakers of 12–14 years of age. Homework includes reciting poems, prose analysis essays, and creative writing exercises.

I enjoyed the process of not only creating new courses but also evaluating and then modifying existing ones to make sure they keep meeting students’ needs. For me this summer reinforced the fact that differentiated, personal instruction is crucial—having different course levels (e.g., Mandarin 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5) is not enough. Even within the same small class, it’s our job as teachers to provide students with what they need to succeed, given their unique background, interests, learning style, and goals. And it’s a real privilege to be able to do just that.

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