Creating A Personal Artifact

This article was authored by Min-Min Liang, an instructor of Chinese at MIT and winner of the Best Classroom Innovation Award for the 2023 MAFLT LCTL Innovation Awards. Min-Min used Book Creator to reconceptualize a project in which students investigate the Chinese characters for their names. Min-Min’s innovation is a great example of how technology can be used as a starting point for meaningful interaction in and about LCTLs. Congratulations, Min-Min!

Mandarin Chinese is not easy, but I think that most people will agree with me that the most difficult part of learning Mandarin is learning Chinese characters. To a second language learner, learning characters is laborious work. However, Chinese characters are not just a form of communication but a form of art. 

In my thirty-year teaching career, including twenty-three years at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), I have taught Mandarin Chinese to both second language learners and Chinese heritage language learners, but my main focus and interest are Chinese heritage language learners. Like most heritage language learners, Chinese heritage language learners are good at conversation and listening. Most of the time, their listening skills are better than their oral skills. Despite growing up speaking some Chinese at home, many heritage language learners do not have fluent language skills and may not know how to read and write Chinese characters. Their goals in learning Mandarin Chinese are to read and write Chinese so they can communicate with their family members in China or Taiwan. Their goals are very clear. How do I make this long process of learning Chinese characters meaningful and fun? This has become a goal for my course.

Chinese Names

Ninety-nine percent of my students have two names: one that is English and the other is Chinese. The majority of them are unable to correctly write their names in Chinese characters or to explain what their names mean. Even at home, they don’t always hear their Chinese names called often. Some of my students told me it was unusual hearing their Chinese names called in class because I address them by their Chinese names. I believe that knowing the significance of your name can help students learn Chinese characters in a way that is meaningful and applicable to their everyday lives. They must learn the origins of their last names, the meanings of each character, how to write each character, amusing anecdotes about each name, and the rationale for their parents’ selection of these thirty thousand Chinese characters out of all possible options for them. The process has been incredibly enjoyable for the students, who now appreciate the significance of their names and the rich cultural legacy they represent.

Prior to the pandemic, I required students to give an oral presentation of their names. I would say that they were excited and engaged, but owing to the limited class time, there was little interaction. The project did not quite meet my objectives. I discovered Book Creator, a tool or online platform with a lot of amazing features, during the pandemic. It is the ideal resource for involving students in this endeavor. Each student writes a unique online book that explores the origins of their names. The students design and embellish the books, which may include audio snippets, vocabulary lists, illustrations, images, connections, and more. It definitely gives my students a platform to express their creativity.

Designing Process and Action

I wanted this project to reinforce students’ skills while being interactive and student-centered. Students will share the link to their book on our Canvas discussion section once they have been created. Then I will ask each student to read two other classmates’ books. The capability of this tool to record voices is one of its amazing features. I ask students to record what they wrote on the same page and make a vocabulary list at the bottom of each page to help readers comprehend the text by listening to the recording while reading it. After reading their classmates’ online books, students make oral comments in Chinese on what they like and what they have learned from the book. Discussions in the class then follow. Each student will share the two books that they read with their peers in the designated group. Each student would therefore be familiar with more than two books written by their classmates. Students would practice speaking and listening during sharing. In this way, the whole project has become very interactive and engaging as a result. It starts with writing and reading and ends with speaking and listening. Additionally, students are teaching other students, which provide them a lot of freedom. I believe that I have accomplished my project’s objective.

Students regularly mentioned on how they enjoyed reading other students’ books and seeing their peers’ ingenuity. By discussing their names with their parents and sharing their books with family members, they particularly liked learning more about their Chinese heritage. It is an effective method for them to discover their identities and cultural history and ties to their family members and customs. Although it is not an easy work to learn Chinese characters, this project really paves an excellent way for students to learn Chinese characters because it is meaningful and pertinent.