Yizhi Wang

Mandarin Chinese Teacher, Ansonia Public Schools

Yizhi Wang is in her fifth year teaching Mandarin Chinese at Ansonia High School, and she’d only been in her position – the first teaching assignment of her career – for three years when the global pandemic struck.

Wang like so many educators and students across the state was suddenly thrown into the new world of online learning. A sense of uncertainty lingered across the state even as some school districts took a hybrid approach – with some students learning in-person and others online. Ansonia was one of those districts.

Wang said the administration noticed during Ansonia High School’s hybrid phase last year that students were disengaged. Students were not participating as much, especially if they were distance learning, she said. 

“There’s a whole pandemic going on, people are losing their lives – it was rough for everyone,” Wang recalled.

The administration challenged teachers to develop creative and engaging lessons to help students regain focus and interest in the learning process.

Wang said when she thinks about it, she probably has among the best teaching arrangements in a high school setting. She’s teaching students who are already highly interested in learning Mandarin and becoming more familiar with Chinese culture.

Their motivation sparked an idea for a project that she believed would bridge the gap between her then online learning students and her in-class students. That project became known as the Ceiling Tile Project.

She tasked students with creating meaningful designs that revolved around specific characters in Mandarin.

“All these characters are auspicious characters,” Wang said. “They all have significant meanings in Chinese culture.” These designs would then be painted on ceiling tiles and installed at the end of the year.

Students learning from home were responsible for the design research and contributed to design ideas to help students in-person develop a visual representation for Mandarin words like “luck,” “happiness,” “beauty,” “prosperity,” and “longevity.” The students learning in person were responsible for making the design ideas come to life, she said.

Any image or symbols used in the designs needed to be backed by research and properly represent the word they were attempting to illustrate on the tile, Wang said. The students worked in teams of three to four and produced 10 tiles total filled with dragons, koi fishes, bamboo, lanterns, and more.

“It was just a lot of fun for students to be able to get up out of their seats and collaborate on something,” she said.

For the students learning online, it was fun for them to work with their classmates to figure out what certain symbols meant and to add their input on what would become the final designs. The students worked on the Ceiling Project for a month and ultimately it was their final project of the year.

“The students really enjoyed creating a really beautiful design and leaving their mark in the school,” she added. “They all feel proud of their legacy.”

At the end of the school year, the ceiling tiles went up, but Wang said most students didn’t get to see them in her classroom until the following school year when everyone returned to in-person learning.

“They all stopped by and they’re like, ‘Oh my goodness, it looks amazing,’” Wang said. “They just love coming by and looking at it, and it really brightens up the room as well.”

Wang said because the students had to paint the Mandarin characters on the tiles she now uses them as a teaching aid that she often references during class.

“You know, just to be able to look up and see the character designs … it's a huge tool for me as well,” she said. “It makes the school look beautiful, and the students feel proud of their work because they're like, ‘Oh, you know that's mine.’”

The Ceiling Tile Project has left such an impression that her new students want to know if they’ll get a chance to add to it. She said she even had a student transfer into her class specifically because of the project.

Wang hasn’t decided whether the project will remain a unique, one-of-a-kind, calm-in-the-middle-of-the-chaos-of-a-historic-global-pandemic thing, but she loves how the project has sparked her students' interest in learning and creativity.

She also loves that it’s a reminder to her of why she became a teacher and how she’s creating her own path in the profession. Ever since the project, Wang strives to introduce her students to more Chinese culture through its literature, writing, and food and they are always eager for that introduction.

She said she now brings Chinese culture to her students through numerous hands-on learning projects like lantern-making and even collaborating with the professional cooking teacher to learn the art of Chinese dumpling making.

Wang’s students developed a lesson to teach their fellow students about the history and cultural significance of making dumplings; Wang purchased the ingredients for dumplings. Both classes worked together for a delicious lesson.

In the future, Wang hopes to incorporate more cultural lessons into her curriculum. She has planned various learning activities ranging from learning ancient Chinese instruments to traditional tea brewing.

I love sharing my culture with my students, and it makes me proud when students make connections to their own culture. I am grateful for this experience for bringing the love of learning back into my classroom.

Yizhi Wang