Chinese Movie Project Ignites the Passion of Students’ Language Learning

By Wendy Yuan

When I started to teach at my school, I found that even though most of my students were interested in learning Chinese, I felt that their enthusiasm for learning was not high enough. After doing research and much discussion with experienced teachers, I started to explore more effective ways to encourage middle and high school students to learn Chinese in a way that would be fun and motivate them to achieve higher levels of proficiency.

As a first step, I looked for opportunities to interact with my students and find out more about their interests and hobbies. I went to their soccer games and witnessed them coming to life on the playing field and finding their team spirit. I called their parents to find out what more I could do to peak their interest in learning Chinese and was taken aback to discover that most of my students already have great interest in learning beginning level Chinese. One parent told me that his children taught everyone Chinese at family gatherings. What a delightful surprise! I concluded that middle and high school students, in addition to wanting to spend time with their friends, are active and learn new things through practice and creative experiences.

One day, I heard some students complaining that the online textbook cartoons were not very good. “How would you do it?” I asked them. Many students started contributing answers to this question immediately. Some started to talk about video clips they’d like to see. All of a sudden, a meaningful and innovative activity emerged. The students and I began discussing the idea of a movie project. All of my classes were excited by the idea and their motivation to learn Chinese reached a new level.

At the beginning of the semester, the students were divided into small groups and were allocated two weeks at the end of the semester to produce their own movie. The actual preparation time leading up to the production could stretch up to several months. In class when I wanted to highlight some knowledge points, I reminded them, “You may find this useful in your final movie project. Consider how you might use this in your script.” Based upon the movie themes they picked, I linked different lessons together into a thematic unit and gave them a bigger picture of what was taught. Not surprisingly, students paid more attention to the linkage between the old, the new and the next lesson. Some shy students started to participate in personal dialogue training in front of the class. Even more encouraging they began to ask me and each other, “Can you say it in another way? Why is this word used in this rather than that way?” I could feel their interest deepen as they started to uncover their true potential.

It was rewarding on so many levels. The benefits to the language learner of this project are obvious. Through writing transcripts, they can develop their creative thinking and writing skills; through rehearsal, they can eventually gain the right habit after repeated practice on interpersonal and presentational communications; through working as a group, they can improve their team work capability. For Chinese instructors, the students’ final movie productions are ideal authentic assessment materials to evaluate students’ progress as are the interactions along the way…

This project is not without its challenges. Not every school has film shooting equipment and movie editing software available. If your school does not have flip-video cameras, see if any of your students’ families own digital cameras that have a video function. If your school has an IT teacher, try collaborating to better prepare students for this project. Because it is a group film project, coordinating group activities, rational use of allocated time and differing personalities are other challenges. I always encourage my students to work together to solve their own problems. The groups eventually succeed. I’ve been amazed as what initially started as challenges for some of our groups resulted in creative solutions which include designing computer-generated characters and developing different voices for computer-generated characters. As expected, some students will encounter technical problems such as erasing the video from the camera before transferring the content to the computer, or deleting original files before they complete the film. The teacher should constantly remind the students to save their files during the entire project.

When my students present their original work and sit back to watch the other groups’ movies in class, their hearts are full of the joy of their team work and the pleasure of having overcome the challenges they faced during the preparation and production of their movies. They are eager to have more opportunity to use their Chinese. Every year my students tell me that the “Chinese Movie is my most favorite project.”

Over the past few years, I have constantly studied ways to inspire my students to learn Chinese. This process has left me with many joyful moments. I always tell my students learning Mandarin Chinese is important but it is also fun! Since I launched the “Chinese Movie” project in the Zionsville Community Schools in Indiana, it has ignited the passion of my students’ Chinese language learning.

My students’ progress in Chinese class everyday provides me with energy and the belief that every time the students come into the classroom they expect to learn something new. I believe every Chinese language teacher is seeking an effective way to motivate students to reach higher and more importantly, to maintain their passion for learning.

I would like to dedicate this article to the new teachers who will be starting their own study of Chinese teaching. It is so rewarding!

Wendy Yuan is the Chinese teacher at Zionsville Community Schools (Zionsville High School, Zionsville Middle School and Zionsville West Middle School). In the coming school year, her total students enrolled will reach 189, which will be double the number in 2008 when she started to teach. In addition to her teaching job, she serves as Principal at Indiana University Purdue University at Indianapolis Chinese School (IUPUI Chinese School), a Sunday school to promote Chinese to heritage students and American students. Ms. Yuan also serves as President of Indiana Chinese Language/Culture Association of Secondary/Elementary (ICLASS) to work with over 40 Chinese teachers to build stronger Chinese program in Indiana. She was awarded the Rising Star in 2010 by Indiana Network Early Language Learning. She holds B.A. in International Relations from Qingdao University in China, M.B.A. from College of St. Rose in Albany, NY and M.A. in Language Education from Indiana University.