What if I’m the Worst Student in Class?
by Woo Yen Yen
An English teacher’s journey towards getting her daughter to learn Chinese.
In this four-part series, former New York-based professor and “ang moh pai” (Western-Educated) English teacher Dr. Woo Yen Yen went from being that student who ripped up her Chinese textbook to writing Chinese comics and a giant musical that toured 25 cities in China. She shares her journey and how she got her American-born daughter with zero Chinese to thrive in an all-Chinese instruction Taiwanese public school.
This series of lectures was produced for the Singapore Ministry of Education’s Mother Tongues Languages Symposium 2020 and supported by the Speak Mandarin Campaign.
#speakmandarincampaign #bilingualism #chineseeducation #comics #multicultural #bilingualeducation
What can I learn from being the worst student in class?
Why we need to let kids fail.
My daughter’s nickname is “Yakuza Baby”, which we gave her because she arrived unexpectedly when my husband and I were watching a Japanese gangster movie. We often call her “YB” for short. In YB’s very first school sports day after we moved to Taiwan, she had to run and compete with her classmates. She ran valiantly but came in last in class!
At that time, I was regularly posting about our new experiences after moving from New York to Taiwan. It struck me that it was her first sports day in a new school and a new country, and yet I didn’t post about it on social media. Was it because she came in last? If she had come in first and won a medal, would I have posted it for the world to see?
We are a success-oriented society. On our Facebook pages, we post continually about our children’s successes, “first in class”, “medals for running or swimming”, “look at my child’s art, singing, math achievement”, etc, etc.
We almost never post about failures.
Do we ever say, “Yay, my daughter was last in class in her race today!” Would we even know how to respond to such posts?
Yet, failures are the most important moments in our lives for learning. Dr. Carol Dweck, professor of psychology at Stanford University, in her work on the “growth mindset”, talks about failures and mistakes as the creation of new neural networks in our brains, and they actually trigger learning and improvement.
Simply put, if we welcome mistakes, we can learn and grow from them. If we are not open to mistakes, we are “fixed”, don’t grow, and become defeated by them.
On that sports day when YB came in last, a few things struck me as important.
(1) She never stopped running even though she was the slowest.
(2) She told me after the event that she wanted to try and get a medal for running at the next sports day.
I was quite touched by her earnestness but felt it would take a superhuman effort for her to win a medal. Two years later, she still hasn’t won a medal, but she got picked by her classmates for their sports day relay team because was one of the faster runners. Progress!
YB was also definitely last in class in Chinese when she arrived in a Taiwanese classroom after her monolingual school experience in America. She knew only how to write一，二，三 (one, two, three) and she didn’t even know how to write her own name in Chinese (yes, I am that derelict a parent). She was, what in Taiwan is called a “菜鸟” (noob).
She was new to not just language but the norms of Taiwanese culture. I remember her telling me with amusement that her classmates were counting from one to ten during PE by saying “一，二，三，四，滷肉，西瓜，九，十” (one, two, three, four, braised pork, watermelon, nine, ten) and how her classmates would chant (in Hokkien) when making groups “黑白黑白，我是你老爸“ . It was all new, strange and novel to her.
YB would spend her days that first year mostly staring into space, as Chinese language classes were way too difficult for her and English language classes were too easy.
I was quite worried that YB would give up completely and just resign herself to being “bad in Chinese.” But I have never heard her use those words, and fortunately for her, she met good teachers that also never made her feel that way too.
I have had educational experiences that were quite the opposite, such as a math teacher saying that “arts” students aren’t going to be good at math. That’s what Professor Dweck would call imposing a “fixed” mindset. We rationalize our current ability as something innate—that it’s just something I am just naturally bad or good at rather than something I need to spend time with and get better at.
How do we encourage the growth mindset in language-learning?
(1) Can we celebrate failures and mistakes as much as, or even more than we celebrate successes?
We can tell our kids stories of our own failures and how we dealt with them. We can show rather than hide our mistakes even as adults. When our kids make mistakes, instead of attaching to the “fixed” mindset with statements like “you always make that mistake” or “you’re so careless”, can we instead change to growth-focused statements such as “You almost got it, but you will get there.” Can we focus on “growth” rather than “achievement”?
(2) I often catch myself making statements like, “Oh, I can’t read it because I’m so bad at Chinese.” Can we, as parents, change our self-talk to shift to a growth mindset from saying “I’m so bad at math” or “I’m so bad at Chinese” to, “Oh, I don’t know this, so let me find out.”
(3) Can we set high standards—not dumb down the curriculum, but provide support and different ways of accessing the knowledge? We shouldn’t make things “easier”, but we can make them more “accessible.”
And, humor definitely helps!
Last semester, I taught an experimental English class in Taipei City with second graders, where we tried out the Dim Sum Warriors books, apps and curriculum.
One of the activities in class was for the kids to make food that they enjoyed using clay. They would then have to introduce their food to the class in English.
There was a little boy who made a baguette and asked me what to call it in English. He described it in Mandarin as the “long French bread”.
English was already hard for these Taiwanese kids, never mind using the proper French name—BAGUETTE. I considered, very briefly just telling the kids to call it French bread.
Instead, in a moment of “translanguaging” inspiration, I told the class a silly story around “baguette”—that in Singapore, when Singaporeans see this word, we break it up, instead of 2 syllables, into 2 syllables:
(BA – GUET – TE （肉骨茶 or pork rib soup）
The kids laughed and laughed because most of the kids spoke Hokkien and they knew what the words “Bak kut teh” in Hokkien meant. And that semester, every kid in the class remembered “baguette”! I didn’t have to cop out by teaching the kids, “Just say French bread”!
We don’t have to make things “easier”, but we should find ways of making things more “accessible”, using whatever hooks and landmarks, in whatever languages we know.
For example, YB loves drawing and sees the world in different shapes and pictures. This became her way into the Chinese script, which both her teacher and I encouraged. Often, she told stories around characters in her own way and I would join her in creating these stories.
(立 (upright) looks like a trash can to her
瞪 (stare) – comes with a story, “Look! There’s a bean sitting in 7-11!”
爽 (enjoyable) – what you feel when someone tickles your armpits
夾 (grab) – the action of grabbing two kids under your arms
學 (learn and the first word in school) – when you have to brush your hair to go to school and you have to go under a roof to write words
力 (strength) – flexing your muscles like a bodybuilder
(4) Can we make a habit of actively accepting ourselves as moving from a state of “not knowing” to “knowing”?
(That’s what learning is—going from “not knowing” to “knowing”. And with this orientation, we open ourselves up to learn anything. And if we practice this every day, we become more and more familiar with the learning process, and the emotions and effort involved. We begin to build our own toolkit for learning.
(Do you or your children have a toolkit for learning? Do you know how to learn without attending a class or have someone else structure your learning?
(When I asked YB, who’s now 11, about what learning is like for her, she told me:
“I always get frustrated. I have to be a bit calmer. If I want to learn something, it’s got to be fun for me, otherwise I don’t want to. I feel curious, that’s the first step. It starts from the inside, and then I become engaged, and then almost “ensnared”, like I’m kidnapped.
(You want to learn more and more. But of course that means you get frustrated. … if you get to a state when you’re really, really frustrated, then you leave it for a bit and then you come across it again, and your interest will be piqued again. You will keep going back to it because you want to challenge yourself.”
(From learning the monkey bars, to learning to draw, to learning to speak in different accents, to learning to play the ukulele, to learning Chinese, YB has been learning, but more important, she is also learning about learning—the feelings to expect, the steps to take, the struggles and pleasure that come with learning. This learning toolkit will take her much further in life than a score on a test.
We can and must encourage learning, and the practice of learning, even if sometimes the learning goal appears to be “useless” (eg. learning to write with your left hand) — because we are building the tools and the habits of learning that will allow us to learn anything.
I have come to know that whenever I am the last in class, it’s actually a good position to be in—because then, there’s an opportunity to learn so much! In trying to equip our children for a future of continual learning, whether it’s Chinese or neuroscience, we have to ask ourselves these four questions:
1. Can we celebrate failure as much as if not more than successes?
2. Can we change our self-talk to focusing on growth rather than achievement?
3. Can we make learning content more accessible, and not easier?
4. Can we make learning a habit?
I am also hosting The Dim Sum Warriors Doodle Date, a FREE bilingual chat-and-draw-along session which is run via Facebook on select Saturdays at 10.30 am (Singapore time (UTC+8). If you are interested, check out this introduction to Dim Sum Warriors.