By Jodi Yim James, Staff Writer
Dr. Martha Bigelow is an Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction of the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD). Bigelow's program, Second Languages and Cultures Education, prepares Mandarin Chinese language teachers to teach in K-12 schools in Minnesota.
Bigelow has received many awards, including the Multicultural Faculty Award (2011) and the Distinguished Teaching Award (2008) from the CEHD, and the Matthew Stark Civil Rights and Civil Liberties Faculty Award (2010). Bigelow has authored or co-authored numerous books and articles. As a published researcher in the field of second language learning, her research focuses on building language teachers' (such as Mandarin language teachers') content knowledge in second language acquisition as well as teaching strategies.
As a professor, Bigelow instructs, advises, and guides Ph.D. candidates in the Second Languages and Cultures (SLC) Education track. This track focuses on the study of language use, teaching, learning, and policy. The Ph.D. program is designed to prepare scholars to engage in thoughtful research in the field of language education in order to assume roles as faculty members, researchers, policy makers and educational leaders.
In this capacity, Ph.D. graduates – including scholars from China and Taiwan - are well positioned to make important contributions to the field of second language learning nationally and internationally. In addition to these research-focused programs, Bigelow's program offers teachers the preparation to become licensed in 15 different languages, Mandarin Chinese being one of those languages.
The State of Minnesota and the U.S. government are very supportive of Mandarin language teaching, explains Bigelow. At the local level, parents are interested in enrolling their children in Mandarin programs, including Mandarin Chinese immersion schools, taking Mandarin as a school day course, and after school classes. Bigelow's program works with the MDE (Minnesota Department of Education) in recommending teachers for licensure for these programs.
At the Federal level, for three years the U.S. Department of Defense has awarded the Confucius Institute at the University of Minnesota a STARTALK grant. Startalk is part of the National Security Language Initiative to expand national capacity in critical languages. This federally funded program supports Chinese language teacher training to educate more capable Mandarin Chinese language teachers for the state of Minnesota as well as other states. This teacher training program has focused on how to integrate culture with proficiency-oriented Chinese language instruction. Aptly named, "Culture as Core", the class integrates culture as the core in foreign language instruction, based on the cross-cultural communication theory through proficiency oriented teaching methods. Chinese teachers explore awareness of culture as an essential component in foreign language instruction, teaching materials and assessment. As the final outcome of this program, each Chinese teacher designs a Chinese language curriculum module integrating culture as the core. The participants speak very highly of the training, and consider it as one of the best teacher training programs they have ever attended.
As one of four instructors in this training program, Bigelow says that Chinese language teachers learn how to teach Chinese in a Western context. In addition to learning how to teach Chinese, they also explore how to interact successfully with parents in US schools and in classrooms with a great deal of diversity. The teachers look at how to embrace diversity in both China and the United States.
Working in collaboration, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), The Confucius Institute, Minnesota parents and students, University of Minnesota teacher education, and CARLA (Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition – also at the University of Minnesota) all support Mandarin Chinese teacher development.
The synergy of these five groups working together has developed a reputation of important scholarship for Chinese language education in the State of Minnesota. Visiting scholars come from across the globe to Minnesota to learn about Chinese language pedagogy. "We are learning a lot about Chinese literacy and getting help with what is particular and unique about Chinese literacy acquisition," articulates Bigelow.
Some may say that Chinese pedagogy is unique and deserves a separate program. While this may be nice, it is not sustainable for even popular languages such as Spanish.
"We believe language pedagogy, when highly developed, works for all. In this way, Chinese teachers learn from other language teachers and they have much to offer all language teachers. Chinese teachers are moving into the mainstream of language teaching pedagogy. We want Chinese teachers to be a part of the community of all language teachers, instead of being needlessly separated during their pre- or in-service education," says Bigelow.
In Minnesota, Chinese teachers who have come from China are now better understanding the American child, family, school and community. In our teacher training classes as the University of Minnesota, all language teachers come together to share ideas and learn from each other.
Bigelow adds, "In order to develop strong Chinese language programs, teachers need to become part of the wider profession of world language teachers. In programs such as ours, they develop a professional knowledge base to be part of the professional community in a K-12 school, including developing the language to talk about teaching, curriculum and learning."
Since 2005, the numbers of Chinese language programs and teachers seeking Chinese licensure has greatly increased in Minnesota, observes Bigelow. "In our licensure classes there is critical mass of Chinese teachers now. They can work with classmates who also teach and speak Chinese and this is a new strength in our programs."
In the full-time teacher preparation program at the University of Minnesota, the Chinese teacher candidates are in the classroom during the day, and then come to the University at night to further their education. They network in their school community, in their small cohort of world languages teachers, and among Chinese teaching professionals. There are more books, articles, research projects, and discussions about Chinese pedagogy than ever before. Moreover, Chinese teachers are learning to teach Chinese to all types of students, not just the elite in special programs. Even though Chinese is still considered a less commonly taught language (LCTL), it is nevertheless becoming more typical in our schools in Minnesota.
"I love the energy that Chinese teachers bring," says Dr. Bigelow. "They come with their own traditions in education and are eager to share the beauty of their language and culture with students in Minnesota.
Dr. Bigelow can be reached at the University of Minnesota at 612-624-7087 or