The first difference Catherine Haddad noticed when she saw a classroom of students too young to grasp the text, but nonetheless reading aloud “The Great Learning,” a collection of Confucianism classics, was how singularly focused they all were.
“Our kids expect to be entertained,” she said. “They want fun. I don’t know whether they think this is fun at first, but I do know that they can now sit through an entire class and their focus doesn’t waver.”
Haddad has gradually expanded the Chinese language curriculum at Country Day, from an Upper School Advanced Placement elective, to a semester-long introduction for fifth graders, to her latest class: a yearlong immersion in classics recitation, character recognition and pronunciation training for the sixth grade.
Two things differentiate Haddad’s method: The first is that it’s very old, despite falling out of popularity in China for several Cold War decades after the fall of the Qing dynasty. The second is that the source material is even older; the “Great Learning” was written around 400 years before Christ.
“My goal is to give them some human wisdom,” Haddad said. “I want them to recognize the value of the classics, but I don’t want to explain word for word to them, I want to give them the big picture.” “The same text will also be read in English in their World Civilizations course in ninth grade.” Haddad added.
Central to providing the big picture is separating the reading and spoken parts from the writing part. In Haddad’s experience, when exposing children — especially Western children — to Chinese for the first time, expecting them to listen, speak, read and write all at once often poses an unrealistic goal and the speaking is invariably the part that suffers most to accommodate the slower pace of learning to read and write in Chinese.
She pointed out that children don’t learn language by building on a spoon-fed scaffolding of grammar, but rather by listening, seeing and repeating the sounds they hear and recognize. It doesn’t matter, at least in the beginning, whether or not they understand what those sounds mean.
“It’s like painting,” Haddad explained. “You have to have the passion first. Then you can learn technique. If you have no passion, there will be no life in your painting, and writing characters is technique.”
In one of Haddad’s sections, the crinkling of snack wrappers ends as she launches into spoken Chinese without any introduction or warmup. Then, all at once and as one, the class stands and bows. They begin reading aloud in unison. An occasional voice stumbles out of sync, then catches up and restores the sonic unity.
Then Haddad starts beating a basic training-style rhythm on the desk, with the teacher as the tempo-keeper and the students echoing her words in call-and-response.
The point of this is to facilitate memorization as well as aiding pronunciation of the rhythmically dynamic Chinese language, where the rises and falls of stressed and unstressed syllables contain much of the spoken language’s meaning.
“With classics and the read-aloud method, comprehension doesn’t take the front seat,” Haddad said.
“Classics are valuable, sacred, remarkable books, the essence of human wisdom. They’re eternal and universal and their meaning transcends time, nations, philosophies and religions.”