He wants every day to be different, so today David Chen will teach Chinese with fried green onion pancakes.
It’s Sept. 20, the day after the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival. Fried green onion pancakes are staples.
“Perfect day for a food lab,” he says, holding a plate of the oily, aromatic cakes with one hand and fumbling his keys with the other.
Unlocking the door, he steps into the classroom he shares with Tri-North Middle School’s social studies teacher. Chinese characters are written on the chalkboard opposite the U.S. Constitution.
Chen is Monroe County Community School Corporation’s first-ever Chinese language teacher. At a time when budgets are tight, and Indiana education seems obsessed with teaching students to pass tests, Chen is confident he can succeed where other teachers have failed. He not only wants every one of his students to pass Chinese, but to love learning the language, too.
So far, he says, it’s working. His students are already learning at a rate faster than most high school classes.
“Compare my 12- and 13-year-olds to high schoolers, and they’ll beat them every time,” he often says.
But would they really beat them every time? He couldn’t possibly know. A first-time teacher, Chen has never taught a class of his own.
So he’s taking it day by day. Each morning, he sets a goal — learn those words, then that sentence, then review last week’s stuff. That’s what food labs are for; the students are rewarded with food if they achieve the goal. He calls it “controlled chaos.”
Last week, they cooked dumplings in class after learning how to say “I want.” Today, they’ll learn wo xiang chi cong you bing — I want eat fried green onion pancake.
The bell rings, and students crash through the door. They shout their hellos.
“Ni hao, Mr. Chen.”
There are the three boys who can’t keep still; the two girls who whisper answers to his questions; and one girl from China, who, like Chen at her age, is trying to learn how to survive as a Chinese-speaking student in an American school.
After teaching them to say fried green onion pancake and reviewing “I want,” Chen begins.
“OK, so how do you say ‘I want eat fried green pancake’?” he asks.
Chen translates Chinese in broken English. Words like “a” and “is” don’t exist in Chinese, he says, omitting them makes translation easier.
Several students attempt the phrase and stumble. A few offer no response at all.
Chen takes control. He goes to each student, offering the plate of pancakes. They won’t get one until they ask for it in Chinese.
They try sounding the syllables, many of which have no English equivalent. Some succeed the first time. Chen helps those who mumbled failed attempts.
“How do you say ‘I want eat fried green pancake’?” “Wo xiang chi cong you bing.”
Soon, everyone is asking for fried green pancakes in Chinese, and everyone eats some. Chen plays Chinese lesson videos on YouTube until class ends. The day’s goal was met.
But it’s only day 12 of 180, and Chen worries whether his methods are working. Are his students committing Chinese to memory? Can they truly learn Chinese and love it, too? He’s confident the answer to those questions is yes. But he doesn’t have proof.
There’s no proof his students are actually learning what he’s teaching. No proof the principal who hired him will have his faith rewarded. And no proof the new and fragile Chinese program will continue.
“Every day, I ask myself,” he says, “Am I going to be fired?”
* * *
When Chen first interviewed for the teaching job, Jackson Creek
Principal David Pillar didn’t know what to make of him.
Pillar had been to China. He saw students there were learning other languages faster and at younger ages than those at Jackson Creek Middle School. He feared whether his students would be able to compete in a globalized world.
So he came back to Bloomington, lobbied for and won approval for new Chinese classes, and prepared to hire a teacher. He didn’t know exactly what he was looking for, but he said he knew he wanted one thing: experience.
Then he interviewed Chen.
A 6-foot 27-year-old with a round face and barrel chest, Chen talks with his hands and looks more like a coach than a teacher when he speaks about Chinese. His voice is melodic, rising and falling with his mood.
Pillar interviewed this rookie teacher, fresh out of graduate school at IU, and listened to him talk about downplaying grades, giving out candy and playing movies every day. All that was supposed to add up to stronger Chinese classes than he’d get from anyone else.
Pillar wasn’t sure it would work. That’s why he’d asked Brian Flaherty to the interview.
Flaherty knows the field of Chinese language education. Before joining IU’s Chinese Flagship Center, one of the nation’s premier Chinese learning programs, his experience included teaching English in China for four years and teaching Chinese at
IU for about three years. Chen’s methods struck him as unorthodox.
Flaherty said Chen’s methodology is fascinating: sticking to daily goals, knowing exactly what he wants students to learn and review each day and taking calculated steps to achieve that goal while also mitigating the stress that comes with being a middle school student. Flaherty was impressed.
But what impressed him most, he said, was Chen’s obvious passion for teaching Chinese. Pillar agreed.
“You knew it when you saw it,” Pillar said. “His enthusiasm outweighed any lack of experience he had.”
Chen was hired. Every day he would drive between three middle schools — Batchelor, Tri-North and Jackson Creek — teaching four classes, about 80 students in all.
Pillar’s new fear was whether Chen could keep the new program alive.
For any language program, the first year is the most important. It’s when you retain enough students to sustain new classes. MCCSC required 80 percent of the first year’s students register for second-year. If classes are too hard, too few new students sign up, and too many first-year students drop out. If retention rates drop below 80 percent, the program might be scrapped.
Pillar said he’d be heartbroken if the program died in its first year. It was his baby. But securing the retention rates falls to Chen, and there were no guarantees.
“Classes die all the time,” he said.
* * *
It’s Oct. 2, week nine, and Chen is at Jackson Creek.
He doesn’t share this classroom; it’s all his. His cabinets are pantries, filled with potato chips, candy and cooking ware. Next to the door, there’s a photo of him holding the textbook. But inside, the textbooks are on the shelf. Few have their spines broken.
He teaches two classes here, with about 15 students each. Right now 12 of his 15 students are jumping around in a circle, playing Chinese hacky sack.
Screaming and flailing, they kick the feathered ball to one another, trying to keep it aloft, and count each successful kick in Chinese.
Yi ge! One.
Liang ge! Two.
San ge! Three.
Today’s goal is learning to count to 15 — shi-wu. The students sigh and frantically recall more numbers in Chinese with each missed kick and dropped pass. If they reach 15 in a row, they earn a reward more satisfying than any grade: five gummy bears each.
Chen worries less now about whether he’ll be fired. A practice test showed signs his students are retaining much of what they’d learned. Rather, he worries aloud about the projector hanging from the ceiling as wild kicks send the ball in all directions.
“If this gets violent,” he says, “no candy for a week.”
Then, shi-wu. Victory.
Cheering, the students collect their five gummy bears. After about 10 minutes of review, they’ve grasped counting by playing the game. All Chen does is reward them with candy.
Another day, another goal met. Everyone gets candy and everyone gets an A. But everyone almost always gets an A. Aside from tests, there are no grades in Chen’s classes. He thinks students’ only motivation should be to learn Chinese.
“As soon as you focus on grades, their motivation lies no longer in Chinese but in, ‘how do I get an A?’” he says. “Then you lost that student.”
For similar reasons, Chen rarely assigns homework. He says only about one-fifth of students benefit from it. The other four-fifths have hectic lives, unsupportive parents or just no motivation to do homework. Those are things he can’t change.
“I try to make school as much not like school as possible.”
Yet school is still school, a place where not every student will grow at the rate Chen wants, and Pillar still needs test results to know Chen’s classes are meeting standards.
The first real test is two weeks away. His highest achieving students are ready, he says, but the struggling students have more work to do.
He says that’s his most important job: to help the average student excel. Too often, he says, Chinese teachers play favorites with star students, leaving others feeling
dejected. Chen has seen it himself and experienced it.
For his average students to succeed, he says, it’s simple.
“They need to become Chinese.”
* * *
Chen’s first students were his mom and dad.
He was born in Munster, Ind., to Taiwanese immigrants who spoke little English. Neighbors were “unforgiving.”
For as long as he can remember, Chen was his parents’ translator, English
teacher and defender. He rebuked strangers who scoffed at their accents, explained their customs and did his best to protect them from racists.
Speaking only Chinese at home and trips to Taiwan meant Chen’s English suffered, too.
“I’d get ostracized for saying things like ‘the day before today,’” he said.
After leaving Munster in 2006, Chen studied business at Purdue, later transferring to IU’s Kelley School of Business. But the longer he studied business, the less it interested him, and the more Chinese language education attracted him.
Through studying Chinese at IU, Chen discovered a lifetime of serving as a bridge between the U.S. and China distinctly prepared him to be a teacher. Now he combines what he learned coaching his parents with his favorite teachers’ best techniques.
“My whole life, I’ve accumulated knowledge on being Chinese, being American and everything in between,” he said. “So now, I’m the fastest avenue to these kids becoming proficient at the language.”
* * *
On test day, Oct. 18., it’s still dark when Chen arrives at Batchelor for his first class.
When he flips the switch, only half the lights come on. He frowns.
The bell rings.
“They’re coming up,” he says.
One by one, the students file in silently. Usually his students are raucous and lively, but not today.
Chen’s not worried, but he is nervous. He has spent time every class working one-on-one with the most struggling students. Despite that, they’re all behind when it comes to writing. Today’s test is all about writing.
His students don’t all agree about what’s the best part of his class. As for the worst, though, it’s unanimous: tones.
Each Chinese character can represent different words, defined by the pitch with which it’s spoken. Ma might mean horse or mother, depending on its pitch, or tone.
That’s why the students are so quiet. Writing Chinese means remembering tones.
Chen passed out the test: full sentences of Chinese characters comprising almost all the words they’d learned so far. They needed to translate the sentences to English on one line, and on another spell its pronunciation, complete with tones.
The first student finishes after about 10 minutes. The other students take their time, some handing in half completed tests just as class ends.
Chen has already finished grading. Mostly A’s and B’s, a few C’s and D’s. But there are 18 students, and he had only 16 pieces of paper.
Two students had walked out without turning in their tests.
Of all his students from three schools, they were the two who struggled the most.
What if he didn’t get them back? Would this show he’s not the teacher to keep the program alive? He doesn’t know. Right now he wants only to know why they kept the tests.
Trotting past lockers, full classrooms and the front office, Chen searches in a huff. Some teachers might let it go, he says, especially considering he lets his students retake tests as many times as they need to get an A.
He found the first student in another class. When he sees Chen standing in the doorway, he immediately stands to hand over the mostly unfinished test.
Chen asks him why he didn’t turn it in.
“I don’t know,” the student says, shrugging.
Chen learned as a student teacher not to weigh too heavily on your students, but also not to be too doting, lest you make the student think you’re pretending to be a parent.
“Well, don’t do it again,” Chen says.
Continuing his search for the second student, Chen finds him at his locker.
Like the other, the student gives up the test without argument.
“Why didn’t you turn it in?” Chen asks.
“I didn’t know the answers,” the student replies. Only half of one sentence was translated.
“That’s OK,” Chen says. “You know you can retake it again, anyway.”
“Thanks, Mr. Chen.”
* * *
It’s Thanksgiving, and most students have retaken their tests four or five times. Eventually, they all scored A’s, including the students who walked out.
A week goes by, and they’re already preparing for the semester’s final exam: translating and reciting about 200 Chinese characters. For the students, it’s just another test. For Chen, it’s another opportunity to prove how quickly his students are learning.
He no longer worries about whether his methods are working. He said he stopped when one of his students came to him and asked, What can I do at home so I don’t need you anymore?
Days before the final, snow fall prompted a two-hour delay. Chen took the extra time to tidy his room at Jackson Creek.
“I almost had a student drop out,” he said while bundling calligraphy brushes.
When he asked the student to participate in an activity, the student refused. Chen said he asked the student if he wanted to drop out of Chinese.
Yes, the student replied.
He walked the student to the office, prepared to help the student drop his class. But the student changed his mind, admitting he didn’t want to leave.
“He cried. I cried. We hugged,” he said. “And he’s still learning Chinese.”
With only one week remaining in the first semester, not a single student has dropped from Chen’s classes.
Soon after next semester begins, students sign up for classes. Chen doesn’t know whether they’ll achieve the retention rate needed, but he’s confident they will.
He dreams of what the second year will look like. Maybe classes at both high schools, another Chinese teacher to work with. In time, Chen says he could grow MCCSC’s Chinese program to the largest in the nation.
Maybe then, he says, Chinese teachers around the nation will look at his program and see every student can successfully learn the language. But it all starts with the classes relying on him now.
“After 10 years of this, I’ll probably be jaded and forget students’ names,” Chen says. “But not this first year, I’ll remember them forever.”
* * *
For Chinese New Year, Chen gets to teach Chinese to all of about 550 of Jackson Creek’s students.
It’s Feb. 4, five days after the start of the Chinese New Year, and Pillar has called the entire school to the auditorium for a celebration. Chen’s the star of the show. He’s in front of the stage, at a table topped with cooking ware from his classroom and ingredients from Kroger. This time it’s dumplings.
As students take their seats, some who he doesn’t recognize walk by and say, Hi, Mr.
The school’s band — some of Chen’s students are performers — is here to play China-inspired songs that sound like what you’d hear at a Chinese restaurant. Brian Flaherty’s here, too, dressed in traditional Chinese clothing to demonstrate Tai Chi. Pillar takes the mic and starts the show.
He introduces Chen.
“Mr. Chen is a very accomplished and good cook,” Pillar says.
Most know the Chinese teacher. But they don’t know Chen and Pillar heard the program was a success. They don’t know the three classes at Batchelor, Tri-North and Jackson Creek will continue, and two more will start at Bloomington North and South high schools.
Chen’s not worried about all that now, though. He’s worried whether his dumplings are too salty.
“Not too much soy sauce,” he says as he mixes the dumpling filling. A camera broadcasts his cooking to a white screen on the stage.
Pillar’s controlling the camera with a laptop. While Chen was setting up, Pillar said his classes at Batchelor and Tri-North retained all but two students, and his classes at Jackson Creek retained every one. He said such a high retention rate in a first-year program is rare.
“It’s a testament to him,” Pillar said. “That just doesn’t happen.”
Chen finishes making filling, satisfied with the saltiness, and the band takes the stage. By the time it finishes playing songs with names like “Chinese Folk Fantasy,” Chen is ready to show his 550 students how to wrap dumplings.
When Chen was young, Chinese New Year meant making dumplings with his mother, grandma and family. The number of folds is up to you, he says, while he wets the dough and presses.
Though his program will continue, Chen has learned he can’t make every student learn Chinese, let alone love it. There were the two students who didn’t sign up for year two, and others who, despite one-on-one coaching, never seemed able to catch up.
Scooping more filling to another doughy sheet, he tells the crowd the portion is the most important part. Not too much, not too little.
“If you try to overpack it,” he says, “you will never close this dumpling.”
After Brian Flaherty’s demonstration and a performance of traditional Korean drums, Chen serves his dumplings to his fellow teachers. There’s the math teacher whose classroom is across the hall from Chen’s, and the Spanish teacher.
Then the celebration ends. All the students and teachers leave the auditorium, until only Pillar and Chen are left. Pillar will go on to facilitate the growth of the Chinese program, and Chen will continue doing what he does best: cook and teach Chinese.
But there’s one dumpling left. Pillar eats it. It’s good, he says.