Designing a “Win-Win” Mandarin Storytelling Program between Schools and Museums

By Elaine Connell (Photos by KazTsuruta)

The two-year-old Mandarin Storytelling Program developed through the collaboration of the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco has been an exciting and thoroughly rewarding success.

The inspiration for the program was the Museum’s 16 year old Storytelling Program where the museum’s storytellers bring the galleries to life by telling tales from Asia’s most beloved myths and folktales. From “How Ganesha Got His Elephant Head” to the “Inch High Samurai”, visitors of all ages can delight in the richness and wonder of these classic stories. The Storytelling program has grown in popularity, annually attracting 5,000 second and third grade students and their teachers.

With the idea of integrating Mandarin Chinese learning into the Museum’s storytelling program model, the Education Staff and Story Corps officers at the Asian Art Museum approached Maria Martinez, a multi-lingual language specialist from the SFUSD. The immediate goal was to gain the district’s endorsement and its assistance in finding a high school and elementary school Mandarin language teacher to help develop and participate in the program.

The high school teacher would train students to master in Mandarin a small collection of classic Chinese myths and folk tales researched and selected by the Storytellers’ resource committee and approved by an Asian Art Museum staff educator. The elementary teacher would prepare her/his students for maximum comprehension of these stories by showing them images of art the objects described in the stories and by providing an introduction to the Asian Art Museum. Upon completion of their classroom training, both sets of students would rendezvous in the Asian Art Museum. Ms. Martinez responded with great enthusiasm and committed to finding two language teachers with whom the Museum could collaborate.

With the involvement of Ching-fen Huang of Washington High School, the Museum not only had a dedicated partner but one who would creatively contribute to the development of the program. Instead of preparing each high school student to independently tell one of the 4 stories supplied in Mandarin by the Museum, she decided to divide her class into teams each of which would prepare a story to be presented in Mandarin as a play with a narrator and actors in the speaking parts. This had the obvious advantage of involving many more students with each playing an individual role.

Wendy Cheong, SFUSD’s content specialist for Mandarin decided that 4th graders would best comprehend and enjoy this new learning experience and so enlisted the collaboration of Starr King Elementary School Mandarin immersion teacher Helen Tong. She and Wendy showed the children slides of the art objects they would be seeing in the Museum and read aloud in Mandarin the stories related to each object.

Each high school storytelling team was stationed in the gallery where an object relating to their story was on display. The younger students, having been divided into groups equal to the number of stories being told, began a rotation until they had heard each story. This process prepared the 4th graders to be an enthusiastic and receptive audience for the High School Storytellers and at the same time to be minimally overwhelmed by the Museum setting.

Beneficial outcomes far outweigh the potential difficulties in developing and executing such a program. For the high school students there is an original learning experience that will build their Mandarin vocabulary and reading and speaking skills, enhance their personal poise and self confidence and provide an introduction to Chinese art history. For the younger students, there is the opportunity to build their auditory language skills, be inspired by role models and be introduced to the Asian Art Museum as a place of beauty and wonder. And, for some of the students of both age groups, there is inevitably an awakened pride in their own personal cultural heritage.

“In addition to the student participants being able to apply, extend, and practice their Mandarin skills in a real setting with the local community, ” Wendy Cheong says “the storytelling program with the Asian Art Museum definitely heightened the language and culture connection for our students. Not only did they get to perform and visit a gorgeous museum, they also internalized the concept that language is culture”.

For the Asian Art Museum there is the satisfaction of offering students a totally unique and valuable learning experience while building a potential future audience among the participating students and their families. The Mandarin language collaboration between the San Francisco Unified School District and the Asian Art Museum is a “win-win”, providing value for all who play a part.

Not surprisingly, plans are being made for the expansion of the Mandarin Storytelling program into other San Francisco high school and elementary schools where the Mandarin language is being taught. Teachers wishing to bring their students to spend an hour in the galleries with an especially trained volunteer storyteller can make advanced reservations through the Asian Art Museum Education Department. As with all the Museum’s school programs, there is no charge.

On April 15, the Asian Art Museum in collaboration with the Mandarin Institute, Asia Society and the College Board, will host an exclusive reception for all participants of the 2011 National Chinese Language Conference. In addition to enjoying a showing of the acclaimed collection and exhibitions, all attendees will have the opportunity to be entertained by the Museum’s Mandarin Storytelling program as SFUSD’s Washington High School students act out stories in the Chinese galleries. Not to be missed!

Elaine Connell graduated from the Asian Art Museum’s 3-year, college accredited docent training program in 1981 and subsequently served as the Chair of its Docent Council and then of the Joint Councils of the Fine Arts Museum and the Asian Art Museum. She has enjoyed appointment as an Asian Art Commissioner by four successive San Francisco mayors beginning with Mayor Art Agnos in 1990 and served as Chair of the Commission’s Education Committee. Mrs. Connell is the founder of the Asian Art Museum’s Storytelling Program created for second and third grade students, an audience not then addressed by the museum. The Mandarin Storytelling Program has been an outgrowth of the Storytellers’ work.