Ed Week - Maggie Gordon

Mandarin Lessons Transmitted Live from Beijing

By Maggie Gordon, The Stamford Advocate, Conn. (MCT)
Published Online: October 25, 2010

STAMFORD, CONN. – Students at Scofield Magnet Middle School are learning to speak Mandarin with the help of new technology.


At 9:15 a.m. last Tuesday, nine sixth-grade students filed into one of the school's computer labs to login to their computer stations and get to work. After a few keystrokes to bring them to the correct web portal, they donned their headsets and were ready to connect with their teacher, Na Xing, who teaches them live from Beijing.


The class is one of two Mandarin sections at the middle school, both of which are conducted using software called myChinese 360.


All together, there are 20 Scofield students enrolled in the program, which is serving as a pilot for the district. The roughly $16,000 cost of the program was paid for by a grant, according to Scofield Assistant Principal Bryan Olkowski.


The instruction began with a bit of review: the students read two- and three-digit numbers out loud and ask and answer basic questions in Mandarin.


"Each day, they come in from the very beginning, like with numbers, and they work their way in to new things," said Yulin Tsao, a Mandarin consultant who supervises the children in their classroom.


On Tuesday, the students learned "this" and "that." Over the course of the next week, they will be adding money and objects into their vocabulary so they can begin asking "How much does this cost?" and other similar questions.


Scofield students operate on a six-day schedule, and the Mandarin class meets on three of the six days. They have live classes, where they connect with their Beijing-based teacher twice per cycle, and spend the rest of their time learning from Tsao, a former Scofield parent who teaches Mandarin at the University of Bridgeport.


During live sessions, a lot of the work is centered on speaking the language. Students are given phonetic spellings of new words and phrases on their computer screens, and work with Xing to learn to pronounce them. On Tuesday, one new phrase included "t...i gui le," which means "it's too expensive."


The students copied the phrase in their notebooks and practiced speaking it.
"This is a very new and exciting way to teach children Chinese," Xing said after the 45-minute class ended, during an interview through the computer system. It's 10 p.m. in Beijing at that point, and she will continue teaching American students until about 2 a.m., she said.


The students' computer screen operates as an interactive Smart Board. They can click and drag the words in front of them, as can Xing, who they can see in a box in the bottom left corner of their screen. There is another box near their teacher's face where they can type questions or comments like "my headset isn't working" if they're having technical issues. They can also click a button to virtually raise their hand.


"We probably couldn't have done this all that well two or three years ago, but the technology has become so advanced that we can basically communicate anywhere in the world with multiple numbers of people that allows us to talk just like over a phone line.


“Perfectly synchronized, no echo and no delay," myChinese360 Sr. Vice President Steve Niederman said during a phone interview.


He likens the technology to Skype. But unlike Skype, users have the ability to communicate with more than one person at a time, Niederman said. The company began serving about 25 students last year, and is now serving 500 across the U.S., he said.


"We expect to, by next year, have up to 4,000 kids, and we're ready for that," he said. Currently more than 40 school districts in 15 different states are using the program, Niederman said.


"Virtual is the new frontier in education," Olkowski said in the computer lab Tuesday, as students sounded out a chorus of Chinese numbers.


Scofield administrators assigned students to the class based on a lottery held over the summer. More than 50 students signed up for the lottery in the first two days, and enrollment had to be closed, according to Scofield Principal Jan Rossman. Twenty students were chosen; the rest of the school takes Spanish during the world languages period of the day, Rossman said.


"The hope is that we can follow this curriculum through our middle school," Rossman said.
The students who take Spanish have the ability to continue in their study throughout middle school and into high school, where they can eventually pursue advanced placement courses. In a perfect world, the nine students in the computer lab on Tuesday would have the same opportunity with Mandarin, Rossman said.


"That makes sense. Why would you take this if you don't have a path?" Niederman asked.
"Right now we're offering years one and two, and we have the curriculum and our teaching staff are capable of years three and four, which leads you into advanced placement," he said. As the first cohort of children progress through the curriculum, the courses offered will expand into a more advanced level, he said.


"It's just the beginning, but we're excited to see where it takes us," Olkowski said.