As the Year of the Monkey ends and Chinese people around the world prepare to welcome the Year of the Rooster, Clare Kelly and Gemma Squires of Dane Royd school in England suggest how your school can join.
Not long ago, few people would have been able to tell the difference between the Year of the Rat and the Year of the Rooster. Now, thanks to China’s rocketing economy, Chinese New Year has become a global celebration.
But beyond knowing which animal the new year represents, why should students learn about the festivities, and the culture that they draw on? In the UK, we have a significant British-Chinese population: about half a million, if one includes Chinese nationals studying in the UK. So Chinese New Year is an opportunity to gain insight into a community that is part of UK culture. As every teacher in the UK knows, understanding diversity is an important part of the curriculum.
In my school in Wakefield, in the north of England, we have been using the British Council’s Chinese New Year pack for the last three years. Here are eight (a lucky number in China) activities that we have found work well to get your students excited about the event and to make them little 中国通 (Zhōngguó tōng) – that is, little Chinese experts.
1. Make Chinese New Year the theme of an assembly
Capture students’ imaginations by introducing them to a traditional Chinese story in a Chinese New Year assembly. This year, the pack features the story of the rooster, the Dragon and the Centipede, which gives the Chinese take on how the rooster got his claws and the centipede got his legs.
You can bring the story to life by asking one class to prepare and act it out, using traditional music, costumes, and props, to make things more authentic. At our school, we have a collection of Chinese scrolls, umbrellas to dance with, and paper lanterns for decorations. These are all widely available in Chinatowns around the world. The children thoroughly enjoy opportunities to use them.
2. Make some Chinese shadow puppets
After the assembly, retelling the story with shadow puppets makes a lovely follow-up activity in class. This is easily done using a white sheet and a projector or lamp. Ask students to draw and cut characters out of card in silhouette, and attach the figures to a ruler or lollipop stick or cane. The shadow puppets can interact with each other as they tell the story.
The pack gives you a rooster stencil to get you started. You can find a dragon picture to use online, and maybe set your class the task of drawing their own centipede. Break your class into small groups and give them each a task, whether it’s making the screen or one of the animals, writing the script for the animals, or playing a part in the narration.
3. Encourage your students to go deeper into the story
For children at key stage 2 (aged seven to 11), the shadow puppet activity naturally lends itself to re-writing the story. For children at key stage 1 (aged five to seven), you can create freeze frames by stopping the action at various pivotal points in the story, and then working in groups to find out what is in a character’s mind and what their actions tell us about them.
You can also ask children to write character descriptions, using some of the details from the story. In my school, we like to ask questions that elicit more than 'yes' or 'no' answers, such as: why do these characters behave the way they do? How did the tiger get its stripes?
The story can be simplified for younger children. It can even be used for a reading comprehension lesson, as it contains many elements where the children need to find essential information in the text, and others where they need to read between the lines to understand, for example, why the rooster talks to the dragon in a particular way.
4. Decorate the classroom with Chinese paper cut-outs
The rooster stencil can also be used for paper cutting activity. This is a traditional Chinese activity that can easily be taught by a non-specialist. It can be adapted for all year groups, since the technique, once learned, can be made more advanced and intricate, but it is also a great task for younger children to develop fine motor skills. The traditional method uses thin red paper and can make an effective display. If you have a Chinese partner school, you can take this idea further by making Chinese New Year cards and sending them to your partner school.
5. Demonstrate how to cook authentic Chinese food
In England, food technology has been part of the curriculum since 2014, and food and healthy eating are also an important part of the curriculum in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. At my school, we established a food technology classroom, which is widely used by all year groups, and we actively encourage our Chinese language assistant to cook with groups of children. Last year, they made a typical Sichuan snack dessert, Tang Yuan: sweet sticky rice balls. Authentic ingredients are usually easy to find in mainstream and Chinese supermarkets. This year, our extra-curricular cooking club will follow the Chinese recipes included in the pack. Children can sample the food and evaluate the taste and texture, compared to what they had for tea last night.
6. Learn how to talk about food in Chinese
As part of our Chinese language scheme, we teach the children how to describe food and how to order their favourite dishes in Chinese. The pack contains a list of vocabulary for popular Chinese and Western food, which is a great way to start learning Chinese. It also includes the sound files, so you know how to pronounce the tones when practising with students.
In our school, we employ a Chinese language assistant to help us with authentic pronunciation, and many other things. But even if you don't have that sort of support, there are many useful study resources available if you want to learn some Chinese.
We use the Kids Way to Chinese app for iPad. It lets you listen to the pronunciation of words and see the Chinese script in tandem. We also access the Institute of Education’s Programme of Study for Primary Mandarin, which includes hyperlinked sound files and videos.
7. Compare eating cultures
The Year of the Rooster pack also includes some letters from Chinese young people talking about the food they eat at New Year. There is one particularly vivid piece, by a young girl from Sichuan, Yu Qiujin, writing about how she likes to prepare and eat a traditional Chinese hot pot with her family. She describes in detail the ingredients, method and spices used to create the dish.
In our school, students will read this letter and watch a YouTube video of hotpot being made. They can then compare it with the traditional meals eaten in the UK. We can also compare and share stories and photographs of home-cooked meals with our partner school.
8. Make a plan to keep it going
There are many ways that you can take forward your study of Chinese and make sure that this builds into something more than an annual celebration.
Creative activities that don’t necessarily need a native speaker are often a good place to start. The children at our school really enjoy lessons in Chinese calligraphy and art, and have produced some wonderful work over the years. We have an art specialist who uses authentic brushes and ink to create bamboo paintings in her sessions, and a dance specialist who uses traditional music, dress and umbrellas to choreograph pieces with different groups of children. Each class examines a certain aspect of Chinese culture for half the term, then they come together to produce a whole-school assembly. We also like to invite parents and governors to celebrate this with us.
Another idea is to arrange for native visitors to come and speak to the children about China, and perhaps teach them some of the basic Chinese characters or numbers. This often sparks the children's interest, and as a good next step, you could consider setting up an extra-curricular club for those who want to learn the language. Taking this involvement further, you can find a partner school in China via our Schools Online website, and employ a Chinese language assistant to support the school’s action plan.