Tarwater students use science to grasp Mandarin SanTan Sun News

Tarwater students use science to grasp Mandarin

March 25th, 2021 SanTan Sun News
Tarwater students use science to grasp Mandarin
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By Kevin Reagan
Staff Writer

Chris Yao’s fifth graders are assembling miniature space vehicles out of macaroni noodles in a classroom at Tarwater Elementary.

They piece together pieces of rigatoni with hot glue in an attempt to create something resembling the rovers seen exploring Mars.

Such a science project could be probably seen in most schools, except Yao’s students have an additional challenge: they must communicate entirely in Mandarin.

As one of Chandler’s dual-language schools, Tarwater requires its students to spend at least half of their classroom time learning and speaking in Mandarin, one of the world’s most spoken Chinese languages.

To complete his science lesson, Yao asks his students to get up and attempt to explain their project without relying on English.

One by one, students stand in front of the class and describe pieces of their vehicle while trying to remember the Mandarin vocabulary. A couple of pupils get caught up trying to remember the right word for “wheels.”

Yao writes down the proper translation on a white board for the rest of his students to memorize.   

The students will hopefully better remember the new vocabulary, said Principal Diane Hale, because they now have an experience to associate with the language.    

Over the last few months, Tarwater’s teachers have been utilizing grant funding to introduce more science-themed activities in their Mandarin classrooms.   

The goal is to use science as a tool for getting students to speak more confidently and casually in their second language.

“We wanted some more authentic conversation among kids,” Hale explained.

It’s often been a challenge nudging students to use their Mandarin without asking them, the principal added, or to get to them to organically talk to each other.    

But a science project gives students a unique opportunity to use their Mandarin in a creative, collaborative environment.   

“It kind of forces kids to talk when they’re working in teams,” Hale said.

A $5,000 grant from Salt River Project has enabled Tarwater to purchase supplies for various science lessons at each grade level.

Kindergartners have been learning how to build bridges. Third graders have been studying lights and sounds by constructing shadow puppets.

The school’s fourth graders have been learning about magnetism and using their knowledge to create electric gameboards.

A sixth-grade teacher had her students pretend to be tech entrepreneurs and make a business pitch for a new invention in Mandarin.    

Hale said these activities allow the students to apply their Mandarin vocabulary in scenarios that aren’t always common in a regular classroom setting.

Young students can’t really absorb the language by reading a textbook, she said, and they need an engaging task that pushes them to put words together on their own.

“Whatever that can give them an opportunity to do something where they touch an object and have to describe it,” Hale added.

The school’s recent emphasis on science topics will also tie into a special event that Tarwater plans for later this year: put students in radio contact with the International Space Station.

Tarwater students will have the chance to communicate with astronauts and ask them questions about space travel.

The students exhibit a relentless curiosity about the world and other cultures, Hale said. She belies that is the result having spent so much time learning a foreign language.

Tarwater is one of a handful of schools in the Chandler Unified School District to offer a dual-language program and one of the first to focus on Mandarin.

In addition to having teachers instruct in dual languages, the school hosts several extracurricular activities that celebrate China’s history and cultural traditions.

The program has been popular since its inception seven years ago and CUSD is planning to offer dual-language courses in junior and high schools for the Tarwater students.

The elementary school is also expected to expand its program for preschool students in the coming years.

For all of the program’s successes, the COVID-19 pandemic has still made learning a second language increasingly difficult this past year for Tarwater’s students.

The school’s health guidelines have forced students to keep a safe distance from each other, stifling their ability to have spontaneous conversations.

Students aren’t allowed to sit face-to-face with each other and their face masks can sometimes muddle their pronunciations.

Some of Tarwater’s teachers have resorted to teaching with a small microphone strapped to the front of their mask so students can hear the Mandarin more clearly.

“The person-to-person dialogue has been really hindered by COVID-19,” Hale said. “So we’re trying to find ways to stay further apart but still have that person-to-person dialogue.”

Tarwater’s science curriculum has been particularly helpful in offering more opportunities for dialogue practice during the pandemic, she added.

The school’s emphasis on language appears to be impacting its overall academic performance in other subjects.

According to the school’s standardized testing results from 2019, Tarwater’s students have collectively scored higher in math, science and English composition than the district’s averages.   

“Our data shows they’re gaining because that’s how the brain works,” Hale added.

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