This blog post was written by Middle School Mandarin Teacher and World Language Department Chair, Jeremy Smith.
Always a pleasure to greet a friend from afar.
Confucius has famously attributed this wise dictum, to a reminder of the unique joy that can only be had through the fondness born of meeting one another after being kept apart by time and distance. Of course, even his philosophy could not divine how people in this day and age would find themselves bridging such time and distance. It seems his words have never been truer than they are now. While the gulfs between each other have seemed so vast even just here in Seattle, students in 7th and 8th grade Mandarin at Westside have found themselves connecting not only within their own community but also with new friends across the ocean.
Each year, our 7th and 8th graders participate in a one-of-a-kind language exchange with peers in Chengdu, China. I have collaborated with language and international study departments at three different schools across China and Taiwan. For the last five years, our Chinese program has laid the foundations of powerful friendships with schools like XiChuan Middle School in Sichuan Province, China, and Zhengda Middle School in Taipei, Taiwan. These schools are recognized as some of the finest schools in China and Taiwan due to widespread recognition for their commitment to providing high-quality education, based on merit, to students of many socio-economic backgrounds. In the last two years, I have spent hundreds of hours communicating and collaborating with some amazing educators at Xichuan and Zhengda, discussing educational philosophies, creating a completely original curriculum, and coordinating exchange schedules months in advance. I have been to their campuses and have even hosted a representative from XiChuan during a visit to Westside. This is more than just a novel collaboration, this has been a labor of love, building a linguistic and cultural bridge between our amazing communities.
In preparing our students for experiences like this language exchange, we have built our Mandarin program around the 5Cs of the World-Readiness Standards (WRS) (Communications, Cultures, Comparisons, Connections, Communities). These standards remind students and teachers to strive for intercultural competency rather than just learning vocabulary or grammar. In short, Communication is the river that feeds the streams of Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities. The more language is acquired, the more one wonders about cultures and begins to make insightful comparisons. The more experience and insight we have making these comparisons, the more one confidently reaches out making Connections and bridging Communities. Students acquire understanding, negotiation, and expression of meaning through real connections to real individuals that experience this world through similar but unique lenses. Our language exchange is meticulously built around these (WRS) principles.
(WRS) "Learners use the language to investigate, explain, and reflect on the nature of language through comparisons of the language studied and their own." One of the key features of how this program has been structured is that not only do our students engage in conversation in Chinese and receive feedback from native speakers but they are also expected to learn how to coach and give feedback to non-native speakers of English during English weeks. This is a powerful experience. Seeing non-native speakers’ tendencies and understanding why some mistakes are made gives powerful insight to the observant ear and eye. Knowing why words like “the,” “it,” “a,” and plural forms of words are often left out when Chinese students of the English Language communicate has not only surprised our students but has also taught them about implicit language and cultural biases and what we deem as necessary or “normal” in our language might not be necessary or “normal” in another. This translates to students when speaking Chinese, having a better understanding of why they shouldn’t just translate from their first language, word for word, when they are trying to communicate and how, when they do, this can cause considerable complications with native speakers trying to understand their Chinese. These are things you may never realize if your only method of retaining grammar is rote memorization. Westside alum, Madelyn Novick, feels that “It is very special we get to have people our age fluent in Chinese help us improve. It is special [that] we get to connect with people we wouldn’t normally if I didn't have this experience.”
(WRS) "Learners use the language to investigate, explain, and reflect on the relationship between the practices [or products] and perspectives of the cultures studied." While we often talk about the importance of culture, many people fail to distinguish between "big C" Culture and "small c" culture. Are we not "learning culture" when a student learns that people in China count on their hands using sign language like gestures? Are these cultural points less important than learning about “big C” holidays? Our students connect with their buddies in China using online text and video-based educational platforms. Conversations are guided using fundamental language structures and general culturally thematic topics. Still, students are also given the latitude to share whatever Big C and Little C cultural products and processes are meaningful to them. We have passed through Chinese and various other world cultural holidays during our exchanges. Meanwhile, students have also engaged in profound “Little C” cultural exchanges, like introducing each other to their daily routines, the structures and setups of their living quarters, and introductions to family members and friends. Through each of these conversations, students have shared and compared in ways meaningful to each of them.
(WRS) "Learners use the language to investigate, explain, and reflect on the concept of culture through comparisons of the cultures studied and their own. ‘Learner’s access and evaluate information and diverse perspectives that are available through the language and its cultures.’" We take it for granted that since many curricula across most disciplines here in the US espouse the virtues of multiculturalism and inclusive discourse, we are raising students with genuinely diverse and inclusive perspectives. This is undoubtedly true to a point, though the language is a filter for ideas and perspectives. When we are only having these conversations in our first and most familiar language, we can never have a truly holistic or inclusive perspective. Playing the same game on two different fields can yield vastly different outcomes. Having the same conversations using different languages is no different. One of the most important things that our students do each week is alternate talking about a similar topic first in one language and then in another the next week. It is fascinating to watch truly holistic conversations being formed when students see the limitations of their thought in one language while seeking to supplement those limitations with another. I have watched students share music and movie recommendations, read Chinese language newspaper articles not found here in the US as they discuss and compare different aspects of their daily lives, cultures, and communities.
(WRS) "Learners use the language within and beyond the classroom to interact and collaborate in their community and the globalized world." I think the point is clear by this point. What has been one of the most powerful parts of the experience is to see students who are a world apart and have perceived, for many and for most of their lives, a vast cultural gulf separating “their” experience from “ours” having spent the last few months watching their contemporaries across the sea grappling with all the same trials, tribulations, emotions, and frustrations brought on by this global pandemic. During the beginning of the pandemic, our students watched and shared with students who were sent to shelter in place and had their schools closed months before Westside made a decision. Even now, they are watching as their counterparts begin the slow transition back into a new type of normal in their daily school lives. Language is our most primal tool for navigating who we are and our relationship with the world around us. Acquiring new languages and perspectives is the only way to truly connect with and understand ourselves by learning to observe, listen, and synthesize. It is also a powerful way for gaining awareness of and empathy for the vast number of shared, overlapping, and unique experiences happening across the world. This is more than learning a language as a subject in school. This is true intercultural competency. As Westside alum Keira Smiley notes, “I think I became more confident in myself. I usually wouldn't be comfortable talking to strangers . . . but this experience is totally different! It made me feel confident in my skills as a student, and I built a pretty strong relationship with Cindy and Nikiy (my buddies).” Confucius had it right over two thousand years ago, 有朋自遠方來，不亦樂乎, there truly is a special joy in connecting with a friend from afar.
As any Westside Middle School student can tell you, learning is growing, and knowledge is the fruit of that growth. In the end, this knowledge only has meaning when it becomes action and is shared in some way. I am reaffirmed every day by watching our students continue to connect, grow, and share during these difficult times. They are looking beyond themselves and their situation to ask their neighbors how they are doing and about how things are going in their corner of our shared home. In doing so, students are beginning to understand just how connected each person in this world is and that only by continuing to strengthen these connections can we ever hope to find answers to the questions that we all face. While there is much uncertainty in the world, I have never been more certain that we are raising a generation of bridge builders who understand the value of genuine human connection and the importance of working together with friends—at any distance—to build a brighter future.