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Life in the trenches: At home learning for Mandarin immersion students and their parents

May 13, 2020


It’s a wild new world for parents whose children are attending school from home these days, especially for parents whose children are in immersion programs. Here are some notes from the trenches from a mom near Boston whose children attend two Mandarin immersion schools. Their daughter, 2 is at a daycare center, Little Wagon. Their son, 5, is at the Boston Rainbow Bridge preschool.

Neither parent speaks Mandarin, though mom Jennifer says, “we are trying to learn – in spite of our fossilized brains!”

Here’s some of how the days go, from Jennifer:

After schools were closed around March 14, our daughter’s daycare immediately started a 1.5 hour (!!) Zoom session for any of the kids interested in joining.  There are stories, general conversation, and a daily project.  Because our daughter is so young and cannot maintain focus on the screen for so long, and because both us parents have demanding jobs that keep us on Zoom much of the day, we have only been able to participate in about 20-30 minutes of this program a few days a week.  But I give the teachers huge credit for their valiant attempts to maintain connection and to provide solid content and activities to continue the children’s education.

We’ve been making other small efforts with our daughter to maintain the language skills she gained in daycare: for example, we have the fun Food Superman reading pen and books and the excellent LeLe reading pen and books.  I use the pen (my son laughs at my awful pronunciation, so the pen is critically important!) to “read” 3-5 short stories a day.

We are also allowing a fair amount of YouTube time for both kids, which I’ve reconciled myself with because we just need to keep them quiet while we are in our endless work-related meetings! The majority of their screen time is in Chinese and it is the usual fare: Peppa Pig, Qiaohu, that sheep and wolf cartoon, etc. We have also found some fascinating gems that have hooked the kids. A CCTV production from 1986 of Journey to the West is really popular with both kids and another big hit is a reality show about a group of kids training at the Shaolin Temple.

My 5-year-old son’s school — following the news that school is now canceled through the end of June — is just now about to launch regular Zoom sessions led by his teachers. Before this, his main teacher kindly met with him a few times over Zoom to read some stories and catch up. While the schedule is still coming together, my sense is that these will be held several times a week for 30-45 minutes each time and will include stories, show and tell, conversation, short lessons, and even physical exercises.

In an attempt to fill some of the gap, we have been using a teacher via for four 25-minute sessions per week. I really like our teacher and this system, which I’ve only learned about during the quarantine.  Our son loves his teacher and talking with her is a highlight of his day!  She has organized lessons that involve things like counting the number of vegetables at the market,  but my son most likes general conversation with her. And I don’t mind if they go off course because he is speaking Chinese a mile a minute and I am relieved that he has a chance to engage with an interested and engaging teacher.

Through trial-and-error, we’ve found that he is most able to concentrate and most excited for these sessions late in the afternoon – after he has had a  lot of time to run around and play. Get him started too early and he resents it and won’t freely talk with the teacher (who is wonderful and rolls with his grumpiness). PandaTree offers lessons for kids starting at 2, and we could do this with our daughter,  but I am hesitant to add more scheduled activities to our plates right now given the incessant drumbeat of meetings for work (you will want to supervise these lessons). Still, I think we will continue with PandaTree once school is back in session for added Chinese exposure. It is just so convenient.

We’ve also been trying to use this time at home to get my son to practice learning and writing some basic Chinese characters (which our daughter is also picking up by extension).  This has worked best after lunch when has he needs some quiet time.  We’ve been taking this quite slowly and he has been learning/writing one character for three days at a time.  It’s very gratifying for him to recognize characters in books. We’re also using the reading pens/books with him, through which he’s also learning/recognizing characters.

In short, we’re trying …but I cannot wait for school to start again!

Note from Beth — Nice work, Jennifer. And I welcome other parent’s stories of how it’s going with home learning.

kids with book


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