How Penn is advancing language learning inside—and out of—the classroom

This summer, the Center for East Asian Studies and the Department of East Asian Language and Civilizations welcomed 15 teachers from around the country to learn the latest in critical language teaching.

A group of people looking at photos on a table
Teachers discuss pedagogy at the STARTALK workshop, hosted by the Center for East Asian Studies in July. (Photo: David Dettman)

In 2007, Mien-Hwa Chiang, director of the Chinese Language Program in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations (EALC), noticed a startling hole in Philadelphia’s language education: There was only one certified Chinese language teacher.


When then-Director Cappy Hurst of the Center for East Asian Studies (CEAS) and Associate Director Paula Roberts informed Chiang of the STARTALK program, she was motivated to use it as a vehicle to promote Chinese language learning in K-16 environments. That national program launched in 2006 as a project of the National Security Agency, with a mission to promote the teaching of critical need foreign languages, spurred by a shortage of translators after 9/11. Grants are awarded every year for summertime pedagogical experiences that aim to increase enrollment of students in the study of these languages (like Arabic, Chinese, and Russian), increase the number of teachers, and improve curriculums surrounding the study. 

“There were very few Chinese language [options] for high school students in Philadelphia, so I said, ‘Well, I can apply [for this grant],’” says Chiang, who headed the effort to bring the program to Penn.

The University ultimately received a grant—the only university in the state to receive the award, at the time—and spent eight years teaching, for six weeks each summer, 25 high school students from Central Philadelphia and the suburbs. The objective: have students go back to their schools, emboldened and informed, and request more Chinese language resources from administrators.

After eight years, that program shifted to be more pedagogical and sustainable, focusing instead on training teachers—local and from across the country—to incorporate more culture, economics, history, and politics into language curriculums. This year, 50 teachers applied and 15 were accepted into the STARTALK-Penn Chinese Teacher Advancement Program, a two-week workshop held July 21 to Aug. 2 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day, with sessions hosted by faculty from CEAS and EALC. Ten of the attending teachers were out-of-state, with their housing expenses paid for.

The program focuses on educating teachers, showing them how to incorporate Chinese culture and history into language lessons, and also how to communicate the importance of Chinese language skills to parents and administrators in their communities. 

“Teachers come here to delve more deeply into Chinese culture,” Chiang says. “We’re not teaching dancing, food festivals, and folk songs; we will go deeper. We teach the teachers to really tell a Chinese story … using religion or an object to tell a story.”

It is, she says, more comprehensive teaching. One way they demonstrated for teachers how to incorporate culture this year was to take them on a tour through the Penn Museum’s China and Japan Galleries, discussing Buddhism’s introduction to China. 

That was in addition to this year’s main theme of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which was put in context of the Silk Road while also offering insights into Chinese minorities and ecological and environmental issues of the moment.

“We have experts there to talk about Mongolian history and the Silk Road, and an expert to teach about the environment. And they get taught music, so we have pulled a string of East Asian specialists together and worked with the Museum. The idea is not all students are able to go to China to go see something like Chinese civilization artifacts, so a museum is the perfect place,” Chiang says. “We are training high school teachers how to bring students to a museum and teach objects, design an activity, and also teach language and culture and bring them back to do task-based or collaborative learning.”

It is a way of teaching language that, she says, is “not just teaching grammar and vocabulary.” 

Teachers engage in conversation around a laptop
A scene from the STARTALK workshop held in July. (Photo: David Dettman)

“We think to understand empathy, to understand different cultures is more important,” she adds. “We’ve integrated the culture and history and music and religion, so a language course becomes everything.”

Xia Li, a Chinese language teacher who teaches at Furness High School in South Philadelphia, was one of five attendees from the region. She says she came away from the experience with a breadth of perspectives from her colleagues and from instructors at Penn, who were varied in their knowledge. 

“They have so many resources at Penn. We had a different professor talk on different topics, talking about the history of the Silk Road, another to talk about the different countries along the Silk Road who specializes on the connection of the food, and another professor from Penn who talked about the environmental policy of China—how the water is treated. So, it’s perspective, and the Penn-STARTALK Program brings all this together,” says Li, who has previously attended two other STARTALK programs around the country. “All the other STARTALK programs I went to, it was one instructor and they just give us a lecture.”

She signed up for the program because she had an interest in teaching the Silk Road to her AP Chinese Language students; the theme of the Belt and Road Initiative, then, was a perfect fit for what she was seeking. She says she plans to take her knowledge from the program and apply it to her teaching unit this fall.

Chiang was, she says, thrilled with how this year’s program was received.

“[The teachers] were just amazed at the Museum and technology in the classroom, and faculty. I think it left a good impression of Penn and, most importantly, they bring something new back to keep their Chinese program strong,” she says. 

She also wants others in the Chinese language teaching community to know the University is willing to share its resources. 

“We are not an ivory tower,” she says. “We like to share. We feel very comfortable putting everything on Canvas; you can download everything, because next year we’ll have new ideas and new teaching materials.”

As a follow-up, the program will invite students from the teachers’ classrooms, in December, to compete and demonstrate the effectiveness of the STARTALK.

“It’s fun, because I don’t have a chance to meet the K-12 students,” Chiang says, “and to see how the teacher-participants actually use what they learned at Penn to teach students.”