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Grant spurs innovation in Chinese program

PARKER – While technology has revolutionized education, Sierra Middle School and Chaparral High School Chinese teacher Catherine Channell says she never expected it to impact her classroom.
“If you would have asked me two years ago if I would have these kids come in every single day and work with an iPad, I would have told you, ‘you are crazy,’” Channell said.
Like many foreign language teachers, Channell’s Chinese lessons largely focused on memorization, that is until recently. While playing with an iPad, she began to wonder if it might be able to solve a problem her students consistently have.
“Since I started working here, about eight years ago, we’ve always struggled with one very basic thing and that is hand writing, specifically stroke order,” Channell explained.
Previously, students used whiteboards but that would only help her identify a handful of those who were writing the characters incorrectly. 
After doing some research she found and experimented with some programs that seemed to address that recurring problem. Through a DCSD Superintendent Innovation Grant, she purchased 35 iPads for her students. The impact was immediate.
“I started the kids with a basic writing program. What we discovered right away is that their writing improved, their speed improved, and their recognition improved,” Channell said. “We did in about a month, what would have taken me three to four months, without these iPads.”
While the way a student writes a character may seem pretty insignificant, Channell says in Chinese it can make a huge difference when it comes to literacy.
“When you’re looking at a Chinese character, you can’t sound it out,” she explained. “We can, however, infer meaning from the pieces of the character.”
For instance, she explained how the stroke order, helps to understand the meaning of guó, the Chinese word for country.
“Inside the country border, the king is put in the middle. There is a piece of jade and we close the border,” she explained.
Channell says being able to infer meaning is a game changer for the student, because it puts them on the road to literacy.
“Now they can go through relatively sophisticated pieces of writing, original pieces, and infer a meaning, which is a tremendous thing,” Channell said. “I wanted these kids to feel more comfortable and to get into original sources and to read stories, cultural stories, myths, and newspaper articles.”
Using the technology, Channell also found ways for students to practice their speaking and to begin communicating with Chinese speaking communities.
“What is fascinating is that they took their little device, they spoke into it in Chinese and up pops the Chinese character into documents. Shazam, you can communicate across the world,” Channell said.
She says the students use their own devices outside of the classroom, helping them gain the confidence needed to engage Chinese speakers.
“These kids have broken the barrier of insecurity. They begin to believe they can create conversations and they can create friendships with people and understanding, mutual understanding,” Channell said. “If it’s one word that they can’t think of without those devices, it stops communication. With these devices, communication can continue and even at a higher level. That’s what we’re looking for is the higher level of communication—the larger vocabulary, the more specific vocabulary.”
While Channell is now a believer, she is quick to admit that she is not a digital native and says she faced a big learning curve.
“[The students] come from a place that I didn’t come from,” Channell said. “I went to college and I didn’t have a computer. I remember writing my thesis and spreading note cards all over my dorm room and trying to order them.”
She even remembers hand writing papers while she studied in China.
“For me it was a huge leap,” Channell said. “Sure I could have taught Chinese the same way I taught eight years go. And my students were successful eight years ago. I have some of them graduating with degrees in Chinese, going to the State Department, but it is more than that.”
“You look at this and you say, ‘technology this and technology that. Can’t we just teach the kids what they need to know?’ Here is the thing: the kids need to be inspired to learn what they want to learn. They are tech kids. They really are,” Channell added. “To create with them, is to create for their generation and for their future.”
She hopes her project will now serve as an example for other educators.
“If I can encourage any teacher to take that big leap into the area of uncertainty—we ask our students to do this all the time—we need to do this ourselves and to learn from it,” Channell said.
July 16, 2013 | By Anonymous | Category: Communications

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