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San Francisco Mom’s YouTube homework help rocks

October 20, 2011

It hasn’t taken much to turn 1st grade mom Judy Shei into a YouTube celebrity – a computer, some index cards and a marker. That’s all the Starr King Elementary school parent needed to launch her career as a homework-helping broadcaster with her own channel on YouTube.

It all started because non-Mandarin speaking parents were feeling helpless when it came to their children’s Chinese homework.  Not every family could afford a tutor. Shei, who learned Mandarin hardly at all in Saturday Chinese school growing up, and mostly by living in Taiwan for three years, felt that there was a need to bridge the gap between Mandarin and non-Mandarin speaking parents.

The purpose of the podcast is not only to provide the definition and pronunciation of the week’s vocabulary, which can be found easily on the internet, but to provide a more nuance explanation of how to use the words, a quickie lesson on related Chinese grammar, and finish off with an easy phrase the parents can practice with their kids.

The entire endeavor is very low tech. Just Shei (辥, pronounced Shay) and the video camera on her laptop. “YouTube has a function where you can record directly from a web cam,” she says, so she just sits down in front of the computer, goes to her YouTube channel and runs through the week’s lesson. The whole process takes about an hour a week. She tries to keep each week’s lesson under five minutes.

You can see them all here.

While she doesn’t make any claims to being a Mandarin teacher, because she taught English while living in Taiwan Shei has an idea of what language-learners need. “I know how English works, I also learned Mandarin as an adult, so I have a sense of how people might get tripped up between the languages.”

Shei says she is more conversational rather than fluent in Mandarin, ” I talk to my parents, I can have a conversation at a party but I couldn’t take part in a debate. My vocabulary is more around-the-house Chinese, not business Chinese.”

That’s quite enough for the needs of first graders and their parents. For example in this week’s lesson she explains why Chinese doesn’t have a specific word for Yes or No. “Chinese isn’t a yes-no language, it’s an echo-response language,” she says on the video. “There’s no one word for yes or no. You just have to listen to what the person is asking and to say yes you repeat the verb or adjective and to say no you say ‘not the verb’ or ‘not the adjective.'”

Of late the lessons have gotten a little more involved. She ponders the vocabulary words for the week and what might be helpful to parents who don’t speak Chinese.

“It takes me about an hour because I think about what I want to do and then I record it without any notes other than the index cards.  I do a few takes because I don’t want to spend any time editing!” she says. “I don’t have any agenda, I don’t have a curriculum that I’m taking people through, I just take the homework we’ve got for this week and think about what I would want to know as a Chinese language learner.”

She’s gotten a lot of positive feedback from other first grade parents at Starr King and also from Jose Ortega elementary, Starr King’s sister school in the San Francisco Public Schools Mandarin immersion program. Both schools have the same curriculum so the lessons are the same across all three first grade classes, two at Starr King and one at Jose Ortega.

Shei says it’s easy to do and anyone whose Mandarin is up to the task should consider doing it for their class or school.

Other grade families also tell her they’re watching it, sometimes with their kids. “They say they’re learning about Chinese, so they watch it even though the homework isn’t appropriate for them.”

Shei’s down-to-earth, calm style probably helps there. The lessons are very simple to understand. She also throws in a few extra words by combining characters the students had already learned, such as 冬瓜 — dong gua, or winter melon, which she describes — and even tells you where you can buy one.

Already other classes are talking about doing something similar. Starr King’s 3rd grade Mandarin teacher, Ms. Chen, is considering having her students record their own homework videos. And other classes have discussed it as well.

And to make it all even better, Shei put Google AdSense on her YouTube channel. If it ever makes any money, it will all to go toward supporting the Mandarin program.

As she teaches at the end of this week’s lesson, 加油! (jiāyóu, literally “Give it the gas!” but it really means Go! Go! Go!)

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