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Bilingual P.S. 20's Principal Talks About Teaching in English and Mandarin

By Serena Solomon | January 21, 2013 8:02am

LOWER EAST SIDE — There are plenty of surprises when it comes to James Lee, the principal at P.S. 20 Anne Silver School, one of only two in the city that run a bilingual program in Chinese Mandarin. 

Despite being Chinese-Japanese-American, Lee doesn't speak the language many of his elementary students are learning, though he is fluent in Spanish.

A degree in rhetoric with an emphasis on the persuasiveness of folk tales preceded his master's in special education.

After a year spent soul-searching in Peru, Lee's science curiosity led him to work for the Prospect Park Audubon for two years before landing in the New York City school system.

"I thought to be a good principal I need to gather some skills and experiences you might not be able to gain in the school system," said the 45-year-old Lower East Side resident and San Francisco native.

"When you sit behind that desk you are a manager, you're an instructional leader."

From that desk — when he isn't welcoming his students through the front door most mornings — Lee runs the school's bilingual track for two out of five classes in each grade.

He also takes an individualized approach to the 18 percent of his 625 students who are in special education.  

"You need to know what is going on in that one child's mind," Lee said.

What was your education like?

I am a public school product. I went to a public school and a public university — the University of Berkeley in California. From there I graduated with a degree in rhetoric. Rhetoric is persuasive writing and speaking.  What I really studied was the rhetoric of folk tales, viewing it from a cultural perspective and what role folk tales have in passing down knowledge and culture.  There is a lot of teaching that is involved in folk tales.

I graduated in the middle of a recession so I had two years where I was searching for what I wanted to do. That is when I went into a graduate degree in special education.

How did you decide on an education path?

Education has always been at the forefront of my mind. My mother was a math teacher and I have always thought about teaching. She was my mother and she was also someone who was very demanding in the academic area. Making the jump to being a teacher myself wasn't that great.

How does your special education training and experience help you with general education students?

Special education is very interesting. You really have to look at one person's mind and think about how they learn and what you can do to unlock that. You need to know what is going on in that one child's mind. If anything, special education shows you how to teach to the individual  and not the group.

There are core fundamental beliefs that I walked away with and I don't think they pertain to students in special education, general education or bilingual education. Children need to have a strong affinity to school. They need to enjoy school. Children need to be viewed as individuals.

Did you have a favorite subject at school?

Science is what draws me. It is a good way to look at the education process — there is a lot of investigation, a lot of thinking, a lot of pondering, questioning.

Were you ever in trouble as a kid?

When I was 12 I developed a healthy obsession with tennis. It kept me out of trouble. I was lucky I was able to find something that I was so deeply wrapped up in that I didn't really get into trouble. 

My poor parents had to drive me to tournaments every weekend. I played each day after school. Sports as well as academics are a big part of our family. You learn a lot of lessons for life. The sport itself teachers you a lot about strategy, working with others.

I still play once or twice a week.

What stood out to you during your school years?

When I was in first grade I was in a class where we got to go on field trips twice a week for an entire year. That made a huge impact on me. I remember that year and I guess it really informs what I do now. 

Children need to have these significant experiences that they ponder.

What are the experiences you attempt to create?

One of my biggest things has been enrichment programs and bringing them into the school. I spend a lot of my time working with outside agencies, bringing them in and providing music, dance, theater, arts. We just finished [Tuesday] our second-grade dance performance on the Lunar New Year. 

We have CookShop, which is a different program where the kids cook for three months out of the year and they learn all about food, cooking, nutrition and where their food comes from. They have hands-on experience.

Kids need to learn how to make themselves happy. It is not just through academics, it is also through the arts and finding enriching things, and it is also making sure your body is healthy.

How does the bilingual track at the school work?

We follow a 50:50 model where one class is learning English and one is learning Chinese and they switch every other day. The subjects are the same those two days, but we don't repeat the content. The teacher builds upon what the other teacher taught the day before, just in a different language.

Half of the students are native English speakers and half are native Chinese Mandarin. Then we can use each student in the class as a language model for their own language.

What are some of the challenges you have faced with the dual-language program since it began three years ago?

For parents of students who are native English speakers, it is access to the language. If your child needs help with the language at home, you have to figure out how to do that without knowing the language. I think there is a feeling of helplessness for the parents wanting to help, but not knowing how. Chinese characters are no joke. You really have to practice.

I think for Chinese parents their biggest worry is 'are my children getting enough English?' So it is really just managing these concerns and preparing parents.