Chinese for Kids and It’s Your World: China by Carole Marsh

There aren’t many workbook-type social-studies resources available in the education marketplace to help teachers, homeschoolers, and family travelers introduce foreign cultures, especially those from Asia. I work in this industry and have been keeping my eyes open at tradeshows and when new catalogs arrive for such materials to use with my daughter, as well as to review for the weninchina community.

These 32-page workbooks are each from series published by Gallopade International, covering many countries (14 in that series) and languages (7 in that series). Each book is priced at a reasonable $5.95 and printed in black on good-quality paper. Both books are written for an older-elementary / middle-school reading level using a conversational (and perhaps overly excited) tone. (Source disclosure: I received both of these books at no charge from Gallopade at an education trade show.)

Chinese for Kids (copyright 2004) presents translated words in their context (greetings, food, and such) and uses matching exercises and fill-in-the-blank puzzles that progressively build vocabulary. The format of It’s Your World: China (copyright 2009) is to present new information at the top of each page and review / reinforce it with activities at the bottom such as crosswords, timelines, matching games, creative writing, or drawing.

With books about China like these, there are always several concerns: (1) the book can try to do too much (a comprehensive view of Chinese culture in 32 pages?); (2) the information can become out-of-date very quickly; (3) the pacing and difficulty level of the activities can be uneven … or too little / too much for a child to do.  All three of these issues are at play with these books.

With supplemental educational materials, the writing and editing staff need a clear understanding of the product’s intended use: will a child be using this book independently as a self-contained learning tool, or will a teacher / homeschool parent be using the book as an element in the context of a broader lesson plan that uses multiple materials? It’s unclear with these two books just what the intended instructional context is supposed to be.

As standalone books, there just isn’t enough content in either to be a complete social-studies of foreign-language teaching unit. For instance, the language book introduces Mandarin words but never explains how the language works, what the Pinyin sounds actually are, or how to make the all-important tones.  While the social-studies book has many interesting individual page activities, they jump from topic to topic so that the student never dives deeply into any particular issue. The writing style is breathless – using many exclamation points! – even in topics that perhaps need a more somber tone. While several pages talk about Communism and even the Cultural Revolution, there is no discussion of post-1980s reforms, how the country is actually governed today, the status of Hong Kong, or the “3 T’s which must not be discussed” (Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square). For young children these topics aren’t critical, but for the middle-school age range these books are written for, these more-challenging critical-thinking topics are not just worthwhile but also the kind of content that they crave. China’s history is amazing, but what’s going on there today is also compelling, and more concrete for kids and teens to discuss.

I’m not able to recommend either title for homeschoolers or traveling families to use on its own – you would need substantially more supplemental materials so that you could introduce one page from these books at a time, in the context of other media, and that’s a tall order for families to coordinate. For educators, you also would need to carefully choose specific activities from these books to coordinate with other materials in your China lesson plans; these are not standalone resources.

Kosher Chinese by Michael Levy

Mike Levy was a language-arts teacher from Philadelphia suffering from a crisis of faith post-9/11. Wanting to use his talents toward a Big Global Purpose, he found himself in the Peace Corps in 2005 assigned to rural Guizhou Province teaching English at the university in Guiyang, getting paid the same subsistence wage and living in similar apartments as the local professors, and figuring out everything on his own with no outside support, for a two-year tour.

The 29 chapters go by quickly in a conversational and often funny tone, similar to a Bill Bryson or Sarah Vowell travelogue. Outside of a few weeks' training in Chengdu, Mike doesn't get to travel outside Guizhou, but that gives us readers the chance to really settle in and view an area that will never see a Hollywood film crew or breathless Travel Channel documentary.

As Mike gets to know his fellow teachers, his students, and other local kids, we get to hear the personal stories and decisions from real-life people with real-life ambitions, problems, and responsibilities. Should a professor put substantial money into buying an apartment, and can she find a mate when she makes more than most men? Will a talented and dedicated masters-student from Guiyang, knowing she has no career future in her home province, be able to find a future in the costal cities? What will the fates be of twin sisters, bright and hopeful and thirsty to learn, but born as ethnic minorities and living with their grandmother because their parents have migrated to the coast to find work?

Guanxi and party politics, ethnic contrasts and Chinese stereotypes of Westerners are all shown matter-of-fact, but the people are never shown as villains, just everyday folks doing what they've been taught or repeating something they've heard. It's a refreshing contrast to sensationalized mass-media China reports that never take time to have an authentic conversation with citizens, or who never leave Shanghai / Beijing / Hong Kong.

For those of us with children from China, this book strikes a powerful nerve as we can easily see our daughters and sons in the situations Mike relates. Would my daughter have faced a childhood of having to collect plastic bottles for the recycling money, or working in a back-alley kitchen, sleeping on a cot because home is too far to walk and she couldn't afford bus fare?

My little girl has an unbounded future. Reading this book reminded me of how much of an honor it is to be her father, and how much I owe it to the kids left behind to make sure she has the ability to pursue any dream.

Kosher Chinese is a 2011 release, available in softcover at a retail of US$15. Well worth a read for adoptive parents, for travelers heading inland, and anyone wanting a better understanding of everyday life in modern China.


Standard blogging disclosure: this book was paid for with our own funds.