Chinese lessons, for many students here, are a painful experience. Their parents also probably have painful childhood memories of learning the language. Surprisingly, though, there is a place in Singapore where children positively enjoy their Chinese lessons because they promise so much fun and laughter.
EduNation interviewed the Principal of Han Language Centre, Mr Ann Jong Juan, who has many years of experience in crosstalk and the theatre, and championing the cause of local culture. We learnt how he has incorporated these influences into Chinese teaching so that lessons are lively, interactive and rich with culture, producing students who make immediate and rapid improvement in the language.
Crosstalk and Drama — Educational Entertainment
Because he is a firm believer that each student represents a living link to Chinese culture, Han Language Centre Founder Mr Ann sets a high requirement for his teachers. “Every lesson, I want to hear the students’ laughter so I know they are enjoying their lessons, and not feeling that the language is boring or that sitting through the lessons is a form of punishment.
“Why does there need to be laughter? I believe that as long as children are happy when learning they will look forward to the next lesson. When students attend my classes they often ask, ‘Mr Ann, what joke do you have today?’ My jokes have become a kind of reward.”
Mr Ann was trained to be a teacher in 1968. 45 years spent teaching have led him to the conclusion that the more one learns the more one realises how little one knows, and that it is only through teaching that one appreciates the difficulties of learning. In fact, one needs to keep learning to be a good teacher.
“In Singapore, the environment is not conducive to the learning of Chinese, but as an educator it is my responsibility to make my students love the language instead of rejecting it. Therefore, for every lesson I teach, I will rack my brains over what I can do to better engage my students so that they will learn to like the language. From writing course materials to teaching, my starting point is to guide the students into loving the language,” said Mr Ann. Chinese lessons that are taught by a veteran theatre practitioner and an experienced crosstalk artist who has also been awarded the Cultural Medallion must be fascinating.
Mr Ann has been interested in theatre since his own secondary school days; later he also fell in love with crosstalk.
These influences have given him a strong sense of cultural heritage, so much so that his words and gestures are infused with a distinct charm. At the start of the 1970s, under the pen names of Tan Tian and Han Lao Da he wrote a number of very popular crosstalk scripts. Unsurprisingly then, as a teacher, he has always tried to bring both the humorous elements of crosstalk and the storytelling elements of the theatre into his teaching so that his lessons are uniquely engaging. “Not every teacher can learn my teaching methods. In every class I teach I incorporate elements of theatre and crosstalk, making the lessons lively and interesting. In this way students will better remember what is being taught,” said Mr Ann.
“After their examinations, I will let my Primary 6 students view crosstalk master Ma Ji’s videos to allow them to pick up more vivid vocabulary. Ma Ji has a crosstalk Cheng Yu Xin Bian in which he uses idioms indiscriminately which makes for amusing material. After my students are entertained, I ask them to list down the idioms they can remember, and it becomes a little competition. In this way, we learn Chinese via the arts.”
Mr Ann not only incorporates the elements of crosstalk in his lessons but he also includes elements of the theatre, often improvising in class to guide students to think and come up with their own ideas. It is only after watching one of his performances that the students realise Mr Ann is actually teaching them about picture compositions. Later, when they come to write their compositions they will remember Mr Ann’s performance and having fully grasped the ideas he was trying to give them they will be that much more confident and able to write well.
Mr Ann’s vivid performances have often made things difficult for the teachers who have trained under him. They will say, “Mr Ann, we don’t know how to perform.” Mr Ann will comfort them by saying, “You don’t need to perform. As long as you narrate your stories with liveliness in a way the children will enjoy, that’s enough.”
Curriculum Based on 30 Years of Teaching Experience
Mr Ann is both an artist and an experienced educator with more than 20 years of experience in primary and secondary teaching. He also has more than six years of experience writing curriculum materials and supplementary reading materials for the Ministry of Education (MOE).
30 years ago, the Principal of The Chinese High School (TCHS), Mr Tooh Fee San, had a lot of foresight when he seconded Mr Ann, a primary school teacher, from the MOE to teach Chinese and promote theatre in TCHS. Mr Ann had no experience of teaching at the secondary level, nor had he any tertiary qualifications (he received his Master’s degree in Linguistics and Applied Linguistics from Xiamen University, China in 2010). At TCHS, Mr Ann wrote, cast and directed the play Tan Kah Kee, which was a sensational hit when it debuted. Unfortunately, though, he soon felt overwhelmed by his dual role as both theatre practitioner and educator, and he began to fear that he couldn’t keep the required up for very long. After a lot of thought, he decided to tender his resignation to concentrate on educational publishing, but after just one year in the publishing industry a twist of fate led him to establish his own Language Centre.
“In 1993 the examination mode for the Chinese Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) was changed drastically, and the then president of the Singapore Chinese Teachers’ Union Mr Chen Keng Juan invited me to study the new format. Together with Friday Weekly we co-organised a forum on the PSLE. That forum was fully booked.
“From the enthusiastic response we received, I saw there was a market in this area. I therefore registered Han Language Centre, rented a classroom in a small unit in Ang Mo Kio and started to enrol students. I initially used my surname ‘Han’, which meant Korean, so some people mistakenly thought I taught the Korean language. It was only later I had it changed to ‘Han’ (Mandarin) Language Centre.”
When Han Language Centre was opened, demand alone was not enough to guarantee its success. Mr Ann had to rely on his personal appeal and his contacts. Fortunately, two decades of teaching experience and six years of curriculum and assessment book writing ensured the Centre had a high profile when it entered the market.
With his own experience of and natural ability for writing course materials, Mr Ann felt that the Ministry’s publications were too rigid and too bland. For example, “fragrance” was not included in the vocabulary list for Primary 2, hence textbooks could not refer to “the fragrance of flowers”, but were instead restricted to “the beauty of flowers”. In following Western language teaching practices the curriculum was also built on the progressive accumulation of sentence elements. For example, “I have a book”, “I have an interesting book” and so on. Mr Ann, however, thought that storytelling was a better method of building up knowledge and ability.
“These teaching methods were dry and boring, because there was no element of storytelling. Learning cannot take place without stories, and on top of that, the phrases that could be used were very limited, with no room for lively words and phrases because students hadn’t yet learned these. It was only later that the MOE relaxed these rules and started having three categories of words — those students only needed to recognise, those they needed to pronounce and those they needed to write.”
When he discovered these pitfalls, Mr Ann decided to write his own curriculum. “When I write my own materials, I not only include the terms taught in school but those not covered in the formal curriculum that students ought to know. My texts are stories based on the vocabulary lists of five to ten chapters covered in school,” said Mr Ann.
“For instance, our Primary 1 text can be a few short but poetic sentences: ‘The sky is covered with puffy white clouds, and this looks like a cow while that looks like a sheep. The cows and sheep have no grain to feed on, that’s why they’re in the sky.’ I am able to use very simple words to write a short piece that is very easy to remember for the students.”
Mr Ann also discovered that the MOE does not teach many fairly frequently used three-character phrases, like “unheeded advice”, “in a flash”, “jaws of death” and “a feast for the ears”. Even at Primary 6 a student wouldn’t have learnt more than ten such phrases. He is incredulous that such lively phrases are neglected.
“According to the content of these phrases I put them in different levels of text and treat them as intensive learning. Every lesson I teach five of these, like ‘a feast for the ears’, then ‘a feast for the taste buds’. In this way they realise that they can change something or tweak it to mean something else. By the time my students are in Primary 6, they will have mastered a hundred of these phrases.
“Other than the more commonly used phrases, there are also many maxims and proverbs which, although they only use simple words, are very vivid in their descriptive power. For example, ‘taking responsibility for one’s deeds’ not only contains significant moral education but is simpler in Chinese than ‘confess’. Proverbs and maxims such as ‘helping others is the source of happiness’, ‘a moment’s folly may result in lifelong regret’, and ‘treat others as you would like to be treated’ also come in very useful during composition writing,” said Mr Ann.
The MOE syllabus is revised every five years, but the syllabus at Han Language Centre is revised every year. “The teachers in all 20 of our centres give me feedback every year, and I will revise the curriculum based on what they say. For example, some texts might be overly difficult for students of that level, so I will change it completely. The secondary curriculum, especially, needs constant revision because it focuses a lot on current affairs.”
Mr Ann not only performs research and writes the course materials but he also observes his students so he can better understand their problems and find solutions to them.
“I have a Primary 6 student who does pretty well in his studies, and performs well in exams, but he always complains about the difficulty of writing essays. It is as if his pen weighs a ton and he cannot write a single word. When asked what’s wrong, he will say, ‘I don’t have good phrases, so I can’t write anything.’
“This is the result of the schools teaching the children to use ‘good phrases’, to have a good introduction, poetic sentences and so on. Students are not only unable to memorise them but those with weaker language abilities fail to even grasp the meaning of these phrases, and therefore they feel that they are unable to write anything. In order to help these students overcome this psychological barrier, I teach them not to care about ‘good phrases’ but instead to concentrate on just saying what they have to say. When they do that they can finish writing the essay and at least pass that component,” said Mr Ann.
When Mr Ann appeared in Lianhe Zaobao last year, he said, “A language centre is different from a tuition centre.” The students who choose to study at Han Language Centre have a range of linguistic mastery. The Centre then chooses the appropriate types of teaching based on the needs of the students.
“For those who are weak in the language, we have tuition and ‘lifebuoy’ classes. When we register the students, we first ask their parents about their ability. Those who are near the passing mark in school are encouraged to join the tuition classes.
“Our ‘lifebuoy’ class has a very special curriculum. This class is specially designed for those students who are unable to write Chinese compositions at all. Parents can request this class for their child if it is needed. Every teacher at our Centre knows the methods of the ‘lifebuoy’, and is able to lend a helping hand to those who are drowning.
“Many years ago a parent approached me and asked if I would be able to rescue his son, who hadn’t passed a single composition test from Primary 3 to Primary 6. When I saw samples of his work, I realised that all his sentences were fragmented and unintelligible.
“This child’s cognition process was similarly fragmented, so I started a ‘composition lifebuoy’ method. First, I gave him a sentence to start every composition with, no matter what the topic was. This is a dead method. For example I would get him to use, ‘Today’s weather is fair’ for all his picture compositions. Even if it was a rainy day he could say, ‘Today’s weather is not very good, and it started raining, so I couldn’t go out.’ Next, I advised him to use the helping words or phrases, but only those he understood, and to leave out those he didn’t. After that I taught him the simplest conversation, and how to punctuate it with colons and quotation marks because dialogue uses plain language and is therefore the easiest to write.
“After this student managed to pass his composition using these methods, we went on to teach him how to improve his writing by adding characters’ thoughts and generally making it more vivid. The whole course takes ten lessons, and focuses on writing with simple words — actions like ‘see’, ‘listen’, ‘run’ and mental activities like ‘I think’, ‘this is terrible’ and so on. All the time the student uses plain words, he will express himself clearly, and some students can even narrate events in quite a lively manner. For example, ‘speechless’ can be used for many scenarios: ‘scared speechless’, ‘so happy he was speechless’, and so on. An idiom like ‘terror-stricken’, however, would be hard to remember for these students.”
Exceptional students who enrol at the Centre are held up to different expectations by Mr Ann. “I require students with a strong language ability to think of an introduction before the first picture so they can use it as a prelude.
“There are many ways to start a composition: with the weather, with a memory or even with an object. For example, ‘There is a single character — Endure — framed in my father’s study.’ From such a beginning you can guess what kind of story it will be. If the composition starts off well half the battle is already won. In writing any introduction, the most important thing is for students to have their own ideas, and to write according to what they have observed. I don’t want the better students to memorise an introduction. We have collated and published a book of the best essays our students have written, and not one introduction is the same. None of the essays start with, ‘It was an excellent morning.’”
Even the best students have areas in which they can improve. “Students now seldom read, so they are not exposed to good writing, and this results in a lack of creativity. They are unable to write essays which are not cliché. Therefore I will often direct the stronger students to good classical works.
“Aside from encouraging them to read, I will also have my students do some brainstorming exercises. I remember a class where I played the famous Taiwanese singer Fei Yu Ching’s Yi Ba Ni Tu. After that, I got my students to compose another song based on what they had heard, or to use their own ideas to compose a song based on the same structure. The students managed to write verses with many different flavours. The lyrics of Fei’s song, ‘This soil has been trodden by enemies, tilled by farmers, and walked over by us,’ are very poetic and they teach students the appeal of words. It is no coincidence that many song lyrics are good poems.
“In recent years, based on parents’ needs, we have organised a workshop in June for PSLE students. I speak at this workshop myself, which only has two classes. The duration is four hours per day for five consecutive days. This intensive course is aimed at helping students achieve better marks. Students who enrol in this workshop must have scored no lower than 70 marks. I teach these students useful proverbs and maxims to help them score better,” elaborated Mr Ann.
Han Language Centre is entering its twentieth year, and its 20 centres currently have about 4,000 students on roll. Mr Ann, who is 66 this year, is, however, planning to retire.
“I am looking for a successor. I feel that the Centre should continue to develop, and not stop after I leave. Therefore I am training my teachers to be independent.”
Mr Ann has taught students who have gone on to become President’s Scholars and Prime Minister’s Book Prize winners. Already retired from actual teaching, he does not force his teachers to be like him. “I don’t ask to be replicated, and I think that as long as we make sure that students are happy when learning, and that they improve, parents will trust us, and that is enough,” said Mr Ann.
Mr Ann still has an unfulfilled wish. In 1990 he was awarded the Cultural Medallion (Theatre), but up until now he has yet to receive the creative sponsorship fees from the National Arts Council that are given to awardees. “I am currently writing a script, and would like to work with director Kok Heng Leun. The SAC has already approved my application. The work will be based on the history of Singapore, and will have a total of eight acts. What makes this work special is that it contains elements of crosstalk. I want to hear laughter in every act, just as I do in my classes. But the laughter will be tinged with sadness. That is what I want to achieve. I want to record our country’s history with something that is non-traditional. History is filled with funny and incomprehensible moments, and satire is a valid historical perspective.”
Mr Ann hopes that this play will be ready in 2015 to celebrate Singapore’s fiftieth year of independence.
Some people say that Mr Ann will stop caring about his Centre after he has retired. To this, Mr Ann replies, “I will not stop creating just because I have retired. I will still work in theatre and crosstalk because those are my passions. I have never stopped writing crosstalk for students to perform.” China’s famed crosstalk master Mr Hou Baolin once presented Mr Ann with the following phrase: “As the pen flows.” To create and write is indeed what is most important for Mr Ann, and as someone who has fought for Chinese culture his whole life, he will almost certainly want to continue leaving his mark on Singaporean culture long after he has officially retired.