El Paso Times - Alex Hinojosa

Chatting with China:

Eastlake High students take virtual trips to learn new language

August 12, 2010

Alex Hinojosa El Paso Times

Erica Saucedo talked via Skype with a Chinese professor in Bankok at Eastlake High School. Mark Lambie/El Paso Times

Erica Saucedo talked via Skype with a Chinese professor in Bankok at Eastlake High School. Mark Lambie/El Paso Times

EL PASO -- Students at Eastlake High School don't have to get on an international flight every
morning to be immersed in the Chinese culture and language. Instead, all they need to make the visit possible is a supply of 30 headsets, web cameras and live chat with a teacher via

Students go through the basics of the language, including greetings and learning the words to the song "Happy Birthday." They are also taken on a guided trip through the Chinese culture via educational videos. As students advance, they create their own avatar -- a virtual character -- that is taken on assignments in a 3-D virtual China.

"I've seen the graphics and the approach of teaching that this program has, and I think it will engage the students more," said Socorro Superintendent Xavier De La Torre. "We want to
make sure our students are college- and career ready so that they can compete on the global

The program costs $600 per student per semester. SISD officials said the class is paid through the district's general budget. Students do not have to meet any prerequisites before taking the class, and enrollment is open to any student who is interested.

Freshman Arturo Correo signed up to learn a third language. "I wanted to take something other than Spanish," Correo said. "I already know Spanish, so I wanted to learn a different language. Plus I get to learn more about the Chinese culture, so I signed up."

Eastlake High School is the first school in west Texas to use the program, said Rusty Crawford of myChinese360. Elsewhere in the state, the San Antonio Independent School District has also implemented the program at four schools.

"These schools have done a phenomenal job of getting this together," Crawford said. "In the next two years we're expecting to grow and have at least 40,000 kids registered throughout the United States in the program."

On average, each student learns to speak and write 700 to 900 words his or her first year.
Teachers are accredited by the Texas Region 4 Education Service Center, based in Houston. Thirty to 40 teachers are from Peking University and from the Beijing Language and Culture University. They teach students in 65 schools throughout the country.

Every instructor is assigned 12 students per class session. Students who need help with their
homework after school can sign into their account from a computer at home and speak to any
available tutor. Besides having a live video lesson from China, students can interact with other American students taking the course.

"Because we have to coordinate times for the classes for the teachers in China, the students here will also be taking classes with students in Pennsylvania," said Eastlake High School Principal Angelica Ramsey. "And because it is a live video chat, the students here in the classroom get to see other students live as well."

But the system isn't without its kinks. Problems with passwords and user names mean students are sometimes dropped during a session, but a technician on duty makes the experience run as smoothly as possible.

School officials hope to expand the program and add another two years, with the possibility of
offering Advanced Placement Chinese.

Ysleta Independent School District's Eastwood Knolls International School of Choice recently began its own Chinese language program with classes taught on campus by teacher Alisha Moody. The district also offers the language at Alicia R. Chacon Elementary School.

Alex Hinojosa may be reached at ahinojosa@elpasotimes.com; 546-6137.