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Language Learning in the Age of Common Core

As her school shifts to address Common Core State Standards, one foreign language teacher finds opportunity for greater collaboration. Heather Clydesdale reports.

By Heather Clydesdale

In evolutionary terms, it’s called a catastrophism: a sudden event forces species to adapt quickly and dramatically. Since their introduction in 2010, the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) have been adopted by 45 U.S. states, reshaping the American educational ecosystem. As schools and districts scramble to adjust, it’s not surprising that teachers of Chinese, and avid watchers of their programs, often perceive CCSS as a threat.

Some language classes are endangered as administrators hunt for more time for reading and math, and teachers may suddenly find themselves adapting to new habitats, such as assisting with math and reading intervention. Yet Yan Wang, a teacher at Dixie Magnet Elementary School in Kentucky’s Fayette County Public Schools, insists that CCSS is an opportunity for teachers to root even nascent programs more deeply in their schools, and to demonstrate that they, and their Chinese language program, are important assets in the Common Core endeavor.

Wang, who is also past president of the Kentucky Association of Chinese Language Teachers, says teachers should support the implementation of CCSS and outlines several survival strategies for embedding the standards in Chinese language curriculum and instruction. First, she advocates becoming familiar with the CCSS and monitoring how other teachers use them in their classes. Teachers can encourage colleagues in the same grade to post their long-range plans on bulletin boards in common areas. They can also create an online hub to access the plans of other grades, so that everyone can track articulation of skills and content from year to year. By seeing how others teachers at their school plan to incorporate the CCSS, language teachers can embed the same standards into their own lessons, reinforcing what children are learning in other subject areas.

Spearheaded by state governors and education commissioners to prepare American students for college and the workforce, the CCSS are clear and concrete. They cover K–12 math and English language arts, and grades 6–12 social studies, history, and science and technology. Since they are intended to progress along a meaningful arc and provide multiple avenues for exploration, Wang says they can enliven and give direction to language programs.

For instance, in kindergarten math, under “measurement and data,” the standards call for students to classify objects into categories and count and sort them. Wang mounts large poster charts and students use Chinese to group colored icons and cutouts of fruits by amount or traits. Similarly, she designs units to tell time, convert currencies, or compare weights in order to fulfill kindergarten standards related to various measurable attributes.

English Language Arts CCSS can also be integrated into the teaching of world languages. Wang leads her students as they discuss (in Chinese) the main theme and key details of books, aligning to standards for kindergarten reading. And, under standards calling for the integration of knowledge and ideas, Wang uses storybooks to discuss the relationship between illustrations and text, encouraging her students to illustrate their ideas using smart boards or pictures.

While the CCSS do not address social studies until sixth grade, Wang says Chinese teachers in elementary school can still adapt their teaching to the standards being used by their colleagues. When covering a unit related to diverse celebrations of culture, for example, Wang compares Thanksgiving with the Chinese Mid-Autumn festival. The same approach is equally effective when applied to science units.

Wang shines a flashlight on a globe and shows how the position of our planet relative to the sun casts changing shadows over the course of a day. This also allows her to show her students that, while they are in school, their counterparts in China are asleep and vice versa. For a unit on making predictions based on weather patterns, she and another second-grade teacher both use different languages, but the same visual resources.

Wang finds these techniques also present opportunities to reinforce Chinese language skills. When students describe the properties of water as a solid, liquid, or gas in physical science, Wang helps them compare “water” and “ice” radicals and their function in various characters.

Acclimatizing to new conditions is a significant undertaking, but communicating with teachers and administrators eases the transition. Wang offers language teachers three pieces of advice for surviving and thriving in the age of the Common Core:

  • Ask colleagues what they are teaching.
  • Find time to discuss ideas and plan lessons together in support of students learning across disciplines.
  • Make others aware of your own efforts to bolster the skills outlined in the CCSS.

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