The Lurking " Beasts " at Home
At the end of March, COVID-19 turned everything upside down. Both of my sons’ schools closed. We started then what felt like temporary, but now seems permanent, having-the-"holy beast"-home life. Holy Beast (神兽, shén shòu) is the loving nickname work-from-home parents gave their kids during China's COVID-19 school closure earlier in the year. I found the term amusing and descriptive!
My boys, 5 and 9, after brotherly fight in mom's home office--this was, unfortunately, becoming an all-too-familiar scene during the first few months of COVID-19.
All of a sudden, there were no piano or tennis lessons, no science fairs, soccer games or chess tournaments. All at once, my husband and I were responsible for managing hours and hours of my children's time. It was a struggle for me to adapt to a life with both kids being home. My normal 10-hour workday seemed to extend indefinitely into the evening, and even then, I couldn't get everything done. After 3 months, I am still experiencing a nagging guilt that I am not giving my children enough time, while I am not being most efficient at work. Struggle has become my new routine.
At the beginning of this period, I experimented a lot to see what would keep my sons (ages 5 and 9) academically on track, physically safe, and from emotionally scarring one another….all while keeping them independently occupied enough to allow my husband and I to get our work done. I found a lot of things that DID NOT work for our family, a few things that work sometimes, and a few things that have passed the test and earned a place in my sons' current daily routine.
“There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”
The COVID-19 school closure, however, did seem like a crack that let some light into my two sons' Chinese learning, because both of my boys were no longer immersed in an all-day, 100% English learning environment! I began to wonder, "How can I make this summer a memorable time of Chinese learning for them?" Instead of fighting to squeeze Chinese learning into the boys’ busy school schedules, I could give it a leading role in their wide-open summer days.
In the past 3 months, I have been so pleased to see significant progress in both boys’ Chinese speaking, reading and comprehension skills. They both completed SageBooks and they are both independently reading Mandarin Companion Leveled Readers and other beginner level books such as Mo Willems’ Elephant and Piggie series.
After they grew tired of a daily schedule that was printed on a piece of paper, I created these "daily task boxes". So far, those boxes are working well! Every morning, I put books and write to-dos on sticker notes and put them into their boxes. They get things done as they pull each item out of the box. When the box is empty, they are free to run wild in our backyard, or watch an occasional show Chinese show on YouTube.
The daily "task boxes" for my sons
5-year-old Ming Ming reading a Mandarin Companion book at home during COVID-19 school closure
Building dictation journal into pet-raising routine
To help them experience a little more Chinese culture and my own carefree and pet-filled childhood in China, I convinced my husband to allow us to welcome two of my favorite pets into our home this summer--silkworms (almost all Chinese kids raise silkworms at some point!) and White Chinese goslings.
I also created printable journals for them to keep track of the life cycles of these fascinating creatures in Chinese (You can download this Pet Journal Template word file). Following Caelyn's family's lead, we have turned this into a dictation journal activity in which they draw pictures of the silkworms and goslings and dictate their observations to me. I have to admit that although the kids truly enjoy writing the journal with me, we don’t do it every day--mainly because of my hectic work schedule. Hence, my aforementioned guilt.
Their pet journal includes an calendar to mark important events/observations
Their pet journal includes daily picture and answers to 2 questions: I saw...I did...
Our White Chinese goslings 沙拉(Sarah) and 小杰(James) came to us on May 28 in a USPS box shipped from California
My 9-year-old has become the primary caretaker of our goslings 沙拉(Sarah) and 小杰(James), taking them to swim in a creek in our backyard everyday
Last week, my 9 year old started to experience doing the dictation journal with the assistance of Google translator. He is keenly into all things technology right now and found Google translator fascinating. Now, he has replaced me to help his younger brother dictate his gosling journal!
If you have a backyard and don't mind the abundant goose poop, the white Chinese goslings actually could make great pets! I had the fondest childhood memory with my two beautiful white geese. Be mindful that day-old goslings are available to be ordered between March to May each year. We had great experience ordering our bundle of cuteness from the Metzer Farms.
While our goslings are thriving in our backyard and building bonds with our family, we had little luck with our silkworms. It was exciting for the boys to watch the tiny black silkworms hatch, but within 3 weeks, all of our silkworms died. We thought the boys might have collected the wrong kind of leaves. Silkworms only survive on mulberry leaves. Watching the silk worms die was quite an experience for the boys. I have to think that the experience taught them a lot about the delicate balance of life and the big responsibility that comes with having pets.
Caelyn's two boys got silkworms at the same time that we welcomed ours home. 3 of them grew into big fat white worms and made cocoons! We are eagerly waiting for the moths to come out of the cocoons at any moment now (about 50 days from hatching to cocooning). Once Caelyn's silkworm moths lay eggs, my boys will get another chance at raising their own silkworms.
My sons searched for and picked mulberry leaves in our neighborhood to feed their silkworms
If you would like an inexpensive, low-involvement, and short-term (60 days) commitment pet experience for your children, consider the silkworms! There is also rich history and Chinese culture behind those little silk-making worms. It was fascinating for me, as a child, to observe the metamorphosis stages of the moth. Most Chinese kids raised silkworms at some point, yet silkworms don't seem to be a popular pet here in the United States.
All silkworms need are one pizza box and lots of mulberry leaves. If you don't have access to mulberry trees, you may order processed silkworm foods. However, I think part of the fun is searching for and picking mulberry leaves (not to mention tasting the occasional purple, juicy mulberry). Mulberry leaves are usually only available in the late spring to early autumn. If you would like to experience silkworms this summer, you will need to order them soon (we ordered our silkworm eggs from The Silkworm Shop).
3 first-class resources for my sons’ daily, independent Chinese-learning routine
What has helped me most during this working-while-having-kids-home craziness are the following three first-class Chinese resources, which keep my boys independently engaged while parents are busy.
When my kids are using these 3 resources on their daily schedule, I am almost completely uninvolved. That is at least one hour of uninterrupted time each day that the kids are learning Chinese and I am free of both kids duty and working-mother guilt!
2. An interactive E-book App, Ellabook 咿啦看书. Since last August, we have been using the Ellabook App on the iPad to give the boys more exposure to Chinese children’s books, especially when they were always on the go. Now that we are mostly staying at home, Ellabook is still their favorite Chinese reading time. I have searched and experienced a number of E-book Apps over the years with my boys. Ellabook is the one E-book App that my children stick to and ask to read with. Ellabook has 1000+ E-books in its library, many of them award-winners from around the world. The books are slightly animated and interactive through a touch-screen.
Please read my other blog about detailed comparison of several major Chinese Children's E-book Apps on the Market, as well as an in-depth review about the Ellabook App.
With an exclusive offer from JoJo, parents can get $8 off Ellabook's annual subscription, obtaining access to Ellabook’s over 1000 E-books in simplified Chinese.
My boys love the Interactive e-books on the Ellabook App. This E-book, Freedom in Congo Square, is a poetic, non-fiction story about a little-known piece of African American history in New Orleans, a 2017 Caldecott Honor winner.
3. iHuman Chinese Character learning App, an App that teaches 1300 frequently used Chinese characters through video games! I used to be skeptical of gamified learning until this March, when a Chinese immersion school teacher enthusiastically recommended this App at a Technology and Chinese Immersion Learning Forum Caelyn and I moderated in San Francisco. This App has replaced our “snail's pace” Chinese character memorizing progress with 四五快读, and picked up after the 500 characters learned through Sage Book. (Stay tuned for a detailed review of the iHuman App in a future blog).
Provide Children the Best Chinese Books to Spark Their Love of Reading
For our children to learn any language willingly, happily and effectively, they must read a lot of good books. "Reading safeguards second language for life."-Dr. Naomi Steiner, M.D., author of 7 Steps to Raising a Bilingual Child.
Caelyn and I are super fans of early childhood literacy. Caelyn sent me a video the other day. Her 5 -year-old son was reading 米小圈上学记 (Mi Xiao Quan) independently. Mi Xiao Quan is a book series that is wildly popular in China with elementary school kids. Now an American 5-year-old kindergartner whose family do not speak Chinese is able to enjoy the book! I was beyond being excited and proud!
There is our hope. We have found solutions that work! To the moms and dads out there, please don't overlook or give up Chinese literacy. Working together, we can do it! Providing our children the best Chinese resources, they will love reading and they will be able to read independently, in this seemingly difficult foreign language.
Raising kids who speak Chinese in a predominately English-speaking country can feel daunting and lonely. If you enjoyed this post or found anything about it helpful, please share the learning with others by liking, commenting, or posting to your social media feeds using the buttons below.
Thanks for reading!