This past fall, the Department of Asian and Slavic Literatures and Languages at the University of Iowa welcomed a familiar face back to campus. Master’s student, Catherine Fillebrown, returned after ten years away to complete her thesis and graduate with an MA in Asian Civilizations. In 2009 when Fillebrown had completed almost all her course work, she was offered a position as a high school Mandarin Chinese teacher at Bergen County Academies in Hackensack, New Jersey.
With the intent of completing her thesis while working, Fillebrown made the move and started in her new teaching position. As life progressed and priorities shifted, her thesis project was put on the backburner. That was until Fillebrown discovered a research topic that piqued her interest.
“Before Covid I was introduced to a trivia website called Sporcle and I began creating small homework assignments and quizzes with the tool,” Fillebrown says. “When our school went virtual in 2020, I went all in on making Sporcle activities and kept the momentum going once my students returned to in-person learning. I found it was helping students and I wanted to test how effective my online content was.”
Fillebrown’s curiosity led her back to her prior advisor, Dr. Helen Shen, Director of Graduate Studies in the department. Fillebrown worked with Dr. Shen to create a plan for her thesis and once again she was a graduate student. In the fall semester Fillebrown conducted research on the theories behind online learning and organized all her content into an extensive website with over 1000 items to teach Chinese.
“I have not seen such a comprehensive website as what she is doing,” Dr. Shen says. “Her website allows people to learn Chinese characters and words in a meaningful context and in an enjoyable way. I consider her work as meaningful and highly needed by high school teachers and students.”
Because Chinese is a language built on characters, or graphs, it proves to be a difficult language for English-speakers to grasp. Dr. Shen describes Chinese as taking triple the amount of time to learn compared to other languages meaning there is a need to create technology-based Chinese learning tools for students to increase learning opportunities and develop research interests. Fillebrown’s research specifically focuses on vocabulary and character acquisition linking form to meaning.
Within her classroom she tests an experimental group of students who complete online activities in addition to class against a control group of students who complete additional pen and paper assignments. Once her trial is complete, she will analyze the vocabulary pre- and post-tests to define her online activities’ effectiveness. Beyond her research influencing her classroom and teaching methods, publishing her website will impact the Chinese teaching community.
“Making the website available to other teachers is a huge difference,” Fillebrown explains. “My website is comparable to online tools like Duolingo, but my activities allow any level to jump into any subject they are interested in. I also feel it is important to have an online tool that is free for both teachers and students.”
Fillebrown has always been ahead of the curve regarding online teaching tools beginning in her original days at Iowa. When she was a teaching assistant, the program required graduate students to film and edit their lectures and upload them to Iowa’s learning management system, ICON. Fillebrown said this was advanced for 2009 and affirms that it helped her secure her position at Bergen County Academies, one of the top 5 public schools in the US.
“With my application I sent Bergen my lecture videos and website,” Fillebrown says. “Bergen is a STEM technical school focused on technology and the future, so I credit the Asian Civilizations program for improving my technology skills and helping me snag this job.”
The innovative research from the Chinese department is part of what originally drew Fillebrown to Iowa and is what brought her back to complete her thesis. With the ten years between her graduate work, Fillebrown not only gained valuable teaching experience, she also was able to train her eye to see the gaps in the Chinese teaching field. She feels that if she had continued straight on from 2009, she would not have been able to bring such notable research and insight to the online Chinese learning and teaching space.
“The best research in teaching Chinese as a second language has come out of the University of Iowa,” Fillebrown says. “I thought if I was going to complete my master’s degree, I was going to go back to Iowa to work with the brilliant Dr. Shen. And if I am going to contribute to the field, I am definitely contributing through Iowa.”
Fillebrown returned just in time because after 21 years of service Dr. Shen will be retiring at the end of the spring semester. Dr. Shen has been a mentor to Fillebrown and many other graduate students who have gone on to teach Chinese. With the difficulties and challenges that come with learning Chinese, Dr. Shen emphasizes the importance of students continuing the cycle of effective learning and teaching.
“We need more Chinese instructors to teach in the field and be role-models for learners,” Dr. Shen says. “Catherine is a successful Chinese student and a highly dedicated, diligent, and creative teacher. She encourages her students to not only learn the language, but to also understand its importance.”