Learning Mandarin with iPad textbook passing early test

  • by Emily McFarlan Miller, Courier News

    Learning Mandarin with iPad textbook passing early test
    by Emily McFarlan Miller
    Courier News
    September 30, 2012 9:12PM

    Updated: November 2, 2012 6:07AM

    STREAMWOOD — There were no iPads in sight for most of the class period Friday at the World Languages and International Studies Academy at Streamwood High School. 

    Just pencils and paper and nerves as freshmen corrected the word order in sentences, finished writing prompts and supplied the Chinese characters that went with the Pinyin spellings on the first test for students in the academy’s Mandarin Chinese course. 

    The course itself is another first this school year, not only for Elgin School District U46 but also at any of the high schools in the Elgin area — and the first in the district to rely solely on an iPad textbook.
    And its first month has been “very good,” according to Mandarin instructor Lina Li.

    “I think the students are very interested in studying the language and culture. So far, everybody’s doing well,” Li said.

    Mark Atkins, chairperson of the World Languages and International Studies Academy, said the idea for a Mandarin program in U46 “came out of the business world.” Already, the academy offered four years in Spanish and Japanese.

    And, Atkins said, “Part of our academy is the business aspect.”

    Both Forbes and Business Week magazines have called Mandarin “the language of business,” he had told the U46 Board of Education in June. 

    There also was interest in the language within the district: U46 Superintendent Jose Torres joined the years-long discussions after a trip to China last year. And 31 incoming freshmen at the academy had enrolled in the first Mandarin course even before the program was approved by the school board in July. 

    The class now is down to 27 students, which means it “lost more than we expected,” Atkins said. Still, that’s not entirely unusual for academy courses because of their intensity and the fact they draw students from schools across the district, he said. 

    Making progress

    Torres visited those students on the first day of school, tweeting “Ni hao!” from the classroom. 

    And, the superintendent said Wednesday, “I do hope to go back again just to see the progress they’ve made.” 

    That’s undoubtedly more progress than he has made on his Mandarin. He’d downloaded the “Discovering Chinese” textbook students are using to learn the language onto his iPad and kept at it that first day and week, he said. He couldn’t keep up after that.

    Meantime, Li, who also teaches math part-time to English as a Second Language students at Canton Middle School in Streamwood, said students have learned names and basic greetings. She counted six perfect scores on the oral part of the test she’d already given her class. 

    And by the end of the first week of class, after some head scratching and remembering they were supposed to say something, her students already were approaching her in the hallway with a smile and greeting: “Li Lao shi ni hao!” 

    That’s an important show of respect in Chinese culture, she said — much different from the American axiom, “Don’t speak unless spoken to.” And the culture is just as important to learn as the language, she said. 

    “I’m very proud of this group. I push them very hard,” Li said. 

    That group begins the 1½-period Mandarin class during zero hour, starting at 7:10 a.m. — 40 minutes before the school day begins for most Streamwood High School students.

    That accelerated schedule means the class will start Volume 2 of the “Discovering Chinese” program in April, according to its teacher. Their senior year, students will take 

    AP Chinese at the academy.

    In the future, Atkins told the school board in June, Mandarin classes could be expanded to other students at Streamwood High School not enrolled in the academy, as well as students at other U46 schools. 

    Using iPads

    The district also could expand its use of iPad textbooks, he said. Right now, though, the academy chairperson still is figuring out how to protect and label the tablets for Mandarin students, wheeling them on a cart to the classroom after the test Friday, each still in its cardboard box with a number handwritten in permanent marker. 

    “We’re going to do it right instead of letting them take it home and get in trouble,” he said. 

    The iPads are “cool” because the textbook app immediately checks students’ work, and they don’t have to wait for a teacher for the correct answer, said 14-year-old Alyssa May Pacheco of Elgin. But she can’t wait until she can do her homework on the tablet, she said. 

    Meantime, Li has created a website with audio of pronunciations and video of the correct way to write characters with the help of her engineer husband at zhongwenhelp.com, she said. Those are things the iPad textbook mostly includes that students soon will be able to use at home, even without Internet access, Atkins added. 

    “It’s like you have a teacher with you everywhere you go, as long as they have an iPad with them,” Li said. 

    And several students in the class said before their test Friday that they expect to go far with their knowledge of Mandarin. 

    Daniela Barrera, 14, of Streamwood said she believes learning the language “will boost your opportunities.” Daniela wants to be a doctor and had talked over joining the program at the academy with her parents, she said. 

    “I’m Hispanic, so I’m already fluent in the (Spanish) language,” she said. “I wanted to learn Mandarin because it’s the next best language out there.”