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Authentic Performance Opportunities for World-Language Students

In global education, we talk about avoiding the 3 "Fs": Food, Flags, and Festivals. But what if a night of performances is actually a chance for students to authentically demonstrate their skills to an audience of their peers and community members? At Gig Harbor and Peninsula High Schools in the Peninsula School District of Washington State, Heidi Steele organizes an annual China Night. The event allows students to integrate what they have learned in their Chinese classrooms and share their knowledge with the school community. This model could be used for students of other languages as well. It is also a great way to showcase the benefits of world language learning to the community and the school board.

By guest blogger Heidi Steele

Six years ago, we began holding an annual China Night (Zhōngguó zhī yè) performance for friends and family of the students in our Chinese language program and the wider school community. China Night is a great opportunity for students to showcase their knowledge of Chinese language and culture through performances and artwork.

This event serves the following purposes:

  • Gives students an opportunity to demonstrate what they are learning in class.
  • Gives administrators, parents, and community members a window into our program and a chance to experience Chinese culture.
  • Provides a venue for students to integrate their other passions into Chinese class.
  • Gives students a welcome break from the usual routine in the middle of the school year.
  • Inspires and motivates beginning students as they work alongside more advanced students.
  • Strengthens students' sense of community as they work together to produce a show.

This is no easy task and therefore I wanted to share with you the model my students and I have developed. Please use these ideas as a jumping-off point to create, modify, or extend performances that you are planning in your own programs. With strong support from parents and from your school administration and a good amount of creativity, putting on an annual performance should not be cost prohibitive.

What Our Performance Looks Like
China Night varies greatly from year to year, but has generally included both popular and folk songs, modern and classical poetry, rehearsed and improvised skits, tongue twisters, nursery rhymes, instrumental pieces, story telling, speeches, videos, flash mobs, martial arts, and dance routines, among others. Many pieces are also accompanied by original artwork created by the students. At intermission, the students serve tea and Chinese snacks that they have prepared themselves. And some years, students choose an overarching theme for the performance. The entire performance runs for approximately an hour and a half.

The acts may be performed by one or two students, a small group, an entire class, or all of the students in the program. Each year, two advanced students volunteer to be the MCs for the evening, giving opening and closing speeches and introducing each act.

Students speak in Chinese for the entire performance. This gives the audience a chance to see that their students can function in a Chinese-only environment. During the performance, I stand on one side of the stage and interpret what the students are saying in English. For short poems, we write the English translations on big posters that are displayed on stage as the students are reciting the poetry. For songs, we project rolling lyrics in English for the audience to read as they are listening to the music. The printed program is also bilingual, listing the names of each act in both Chinese and English.

Every year, students come up with new ideas. For example, one year we sang the school fight song in Chinese. Another year, a student demonstrated his ability to solve math problems on the abacus. This past year, students played an instrumental piece by the band Shanghai Restoration Project while the audience viewed a photo montage of candid photos of students in class.

The content emerges organically as a collaborative effort between my students and me. Sometimes I invite particular students to share talents I know they have, but more often students come to me with their own ideas for pieces to perform. By the second week of the mini-term, we have a pretty firm list of the pieces we will include.

We hold our performances in early to mid-February. This way, the Chinese 1 students have learned enough that they are able to actively participate.

PHS China Night 2014-Full-4370.jpegIn order to support students in using the target language in preparation for, and during, China Night, we begin the term by learning the vocabulary and phrases that are essential for discussing, planning, and rehearsing a performance. These language items range from verbs, such as "rehearse" and "recite" and "publicize" to nouns such as "opening speech," "intermission," and "decorations." In order for students to internalize and use this language, they must use it consistently from the very beginning. While there are times when I allow students to speak in English, we maintain the target language most of the time, which means that at the end of the term, students' Chinese level is higher than it was when the term began, and the students feel a great sense of accomplishment when they discover that they can use Chinese to do the real work of getting ready for a show.

Additionally, I do not assign grades for any part of China Night. This creates a culture in which we all participate as a learning community. For many students, it is the highlight of the year and something they remember vividly after they leave the program.

Despite the huge amount of effort required to produce two annual shows (one each at Gig Harbor and Peninsula High Schools), I am repaid in full for my efforts every time I see the sense of ownership my students feel for the performance and witness the exhilaration on their faces as they take their final bow. And on the first day of class after the performance when I hear students excitedly chattering about ideas for next year's show, I am rejuvenated once again and find myself eagerly anticipating next year's China Night right along with my students.

Connect with Heather and Asia Society on Twitter.

A version of this piece originally appeared on Asia Society's website

Image caption: A Peninsula High School Chinese 4 student gives a speech about the life lessons she learned in high school. Credit: Heidi Steele

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