My Unbelievable Journey of Chinese Language Learning and Teaching

By Denise Tatum

I have been a teacher in the Clark County School District in Nevada for 13 years. I started as a substitute English teacher in 1998, and two years later took a full-time teaching position as an English teacher at Cheyenne High School. I love my job, and at that time I thought English teaching would be my life-long career. However, five years ago when my school announced it would offer Mandarin Chinese, my life changed.

China is the world’s fastest-growing economy. For American students to be competitive in a worldwide business environment, they need proficiency in the Chinese language and a holistic understanding of the Chinese culture. During the spring of 2006, my principle Dr. Jeff Geihs came into our English department meeting sharing the school’s vision: “if any student has any inclination to go into business in any capacity, we should strongly push Mandarin Chinese.” However, the school could not find any Nevada state licensed teachers for Chinese. Dr. Geihs obtained a grant in order to pay for a teacher’s education up to the Nevada endorsement if someone would agree to learn the language and then teach it.

I volunteered!

I was born and raised in Las Vegas. To be honest, I was not very confident how well I could handle this, although I took the challenge without hesitation. Most people were in disbelief that I, a Polish American who didn’t know one word in Chinese, would be teaching kids this difficult language. In April of that year, the school already made it public that Cheyenne High School would be offering Chinese in the 2006 school year. Since then, the pressure was on, big time!

At that time, I had a part-time job as a hairdresser in a local Wal-Mart. I went to a university bookstore and purchased the first year Chinese book. On the weekends, in between clients, I would make flashcards of the characters and study them. Two months later my school sent me to Sichuan University in Chengdu, China for my first six week immersion course.

I lived in an apartment on campus. I had the first taste of “one of the most difficult languages in the world”. The teacher was looking right at me saying my Chinese name and I didn’t even know she was talking to me! In the first two weeks, I studied diligently, but to no avail. The challenges were not only from the classroom. Many times I didn’t know how to order food, so I had Kung Pow Chicken every day. I was in a panic every time I got into a cab. There were often huge misunderstandings when I gave directions for my desired destination in Chinese. When I told the people I had met there I would be back the following summer to continue my studies, they all thought I was on the right track.

Denise Tatum and John Hsu in classroom

I started teaching Chinese in the fall of 2006 while only about a semester ahead of my students in the curriculum! I was so proud to spear-head the first K-12 Mandarin Chinese program in the state of Nevada. Because of the publicity we received, I was lucky to meet two Chinese people who served as personal mentors and volunteers in my classroom. John Hsu and Pei Hsu both dedicated so much time in helping me learn Chinese. John Hsu made daily trips to my classroom and held my hand as I taught. Pei Hsu met me on the weekends for hours of tutoring.

Obviously one immersion program’s learning experience couldn’t qualify me to teach. When I returned from Chengdu, I enrolled at the University of Las Vegas for Chinese classes. In order to teach Chinese I had to earn 16 credits in Asian Studies. The classes started during my teaching day and I asked a colleague to watch my students for the last 10 minutes of my class so I could make it to the university. However, half the time, I still could not get to class on time. Because my teacher only spoke Chinese during class, if I arrived late it would take me another 10 to 20 minutes to figure out what was going on.

Denise Tatum with kids in Chengdu, China

In the summer of 2007, as I promised, I returned to Chengdu for 9 weeks of further language immersion. Out of class, I tried my best to practice my Chinese but I still had to use very strange pantomime gestures to make my way through daily routines. I was trying to tell the sales clerk in the convenience store I needed some shower soap by pretending I was taking a shower or asking where the milk was by pretending to milk a cow. But one day I was pleased to have understood a cab driver very well. Although I know being called a “troublesome woman” is by no means a compliment, I was just tickled to death I recognized the word “mafan”…troublesome.

In 2008, I spent nine weeks during the summer at Middlebury College in Vermont speaking only in Chinese. We all took a language pledge not to speak any English during the program. To speak with my kids, I would sneak out of my dorm late at night, hide behind shrubs or trees and whisper to them on the phone. It was a long summer but it was worth it. I had learned so much and upon my return I started teaching Chinese III. I was told that year, that we needed to get ready for the following year because we would be offering Advanced Placement (AP) Chinese. My curriculum and syllabus were approved and the following year offered Chinese IV AP.

The summer of 2009, I stayed in Nevada and completed the Bachelor degree in Asian Studies with a minor in Chinese. Meanwhile, I continued spending countless hours with Pei Hsu in the library to improve my Chinese. While I was teaching Chinese I through Chinese IV AP, my learning journey didn’t stop. With the school’s support, I attended an immersion program in Shanghai, China for 6 weeks in the summer of 2010.

That summer was my turning point of being assertive in Chinese out of the classroom. I was at a Coffee Beanery at Xin Tian Di and two youths had just cut in line in front of me. I was able to spontaneously ask them “how come you are not standing in line” in Chinese. They were shocked that I spoke Mandarin and immediately stated they were sorry, and got behind me. After two previous summers of always being the last person to receive any service in China, it was pretty monumental for me. More importantly, I was confident enough to use Chinese to communicate with native speakers in any real life scenario.

Last summer, I was selected and sponsored by the American Council for International Education for another 6 weeks immersion program in Changchun, China. After returning, I decided to work with my former principal Dr. Geihs who had changed his position to the Liberty High School in 2010. I worked with Dr. Geihs and other colleagues to open a new Chinese program at Liberty High School.

I have learned so many things about the Chinese language and culture. I am in awe of Chinese people’s values when it comes to education. I remembered being in a bookstore my first summer in Chengdu and seeing mobs of young people sitting on the floor in a bookstore on a Saturday morning reading. There were not enough seats to accommodate all. I regularly share this scene with my US students to encourage them to read more and to study hard.

The Chinese program at Liberty High School has nearly 100 students and we expect that number to keep growing. From my personal experience of being a language learner, I know how important it is to encourage students to speak. I use many multimedia approaches in my classroom to allow our students to practice dialogues. I also know how hard it is to learn writing characters. When I introduce the characters to my students, I use online applications to capture the stroke order and project the images on the board. I also use individual dry boards for repetition. I know what my students learn in the classroom will be tested and used in real life settings. When I teach directions, I create a scavenger hunt and all the clues are directions written in Chinese. The students have to be able to read directions to find the next clues, which are located all around the school.

“If I can do it, you can do it.” I never forgot the helpless feeling when I started to learn Mandarin, and I use these words to encourage my first-year students. I also believe a good way to motivate the students is to make learning enjoyable.

I integrate lots of games and activities into my curriculum to make my classroom fun. I have taken American games and turned them into Chinese. For example, when I am teaching dining, I use the American card game Go Fish and instead of using a regular deck of cards, I use index cards and make four sets of each entrée. The students still abide by the rules of Go Fish, however, they must be able to pronounce the entrée and make sets of each entrée in order to obtain points. Another American game I use is Clue. When teaching “Renting an Apartment”, I change the American Clue board into a Chinese game by labeling all the rooms in Chinese and changing each of the cards to Chinese. The object of the American game is to guess the murderer’s identity. Instead of guessing the murderer’s identity the students change the weapon cards into hobbies and we guess the person’s hobby. The game is played all in Chinese. The students have to be able to make guesses in Chinese.

It has been an unbelievable journey. After five immersion programs and an additional college degree, I am proud to say I am a Chinese language teacher. I am able to speak Mandarin, write simplified characters and teach my students about Chinese language and culture without being worried of someone doubting my capability and effectiveness. I was told I am at an intermediate level concerning Chinese language proficiency. I have surpassed the level I teach but this is not good enough. I want to master this language and so do my students. Therefore, I have already begun the search for my next summer’s adventure.

Denise Tatum is an Chinese teacher in the Liberty High School, Las Vegas, Nevada. She played a pivotal role in developing the first K-12 Mandarin Chinese program in Nevada at the Cheyenne High School. Ms. Tatum helped the Liberty High School to open its new Chinese program and she also worked on a grant task force that made it possible for the Clark County School District to open a Confucius Classroom. Ms. Tatum obtained her BS degree in Secondary Education at the University of Las Vegas in 2000, MA in Teaching English as a Second Language at Nova University in 2002, and BS in Asian Studies in University of Las Vegas 2010. Ms. Tatum was the Northwest Region Kiwanais Teacher of the Year (2007) and Myra Greenspun Teacher Excellence Award recipient (2010).