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Professor launches camp to strengthen the English skills of youth in Shanghai

The UNC School of Social Work expanded its work in China this year with the creation of a youth camp designed to help low-income children in Shanghai strengthen their English skills.

UNC Professor Mimi Chapman and Meihua Zhu, a professor at East China University of Science and Technology (ECUST), developed the DragonStar English Camp, which served more than three dozen children over the summer. The camp, which targeted youth ages 9 to 14, evolved from a separate community-engaged research project that Chapman and Zhu previously collaborated on involving the health and well-being of in-country migrant mothers in China.

From that earlier project, Chapman said they learned about the growing need for English tutoring for families in very low-income households.

“Children in China are required to learn English, starting at a very early age,” Chapman said. “But what we learned is that parents were having difficulty helping their children because they don’t speak the language, and they don’t have the ability to hire tutors like other Shanghainese parents are able to do.”

Chapman and Zhu successfully launched the camp in late July, with assistance from Brittany Darst, program associate with UNC’s Carolina Asia Center, two volunteers who are recent graduates of Carrboro High School, social work students from ECUST, and social workers in Shanghai. Most of the program’s daily activities incorporated art, music and games to make the learning experience as fun as possible, Chapman said.

“We really didn’t want it to focus just on learning English grammar,” she explained. “We wanted it to be more organic than that. So, for example, one day, we took the kids to the Shanghai Museum and used the exhibits and the objects on display there as a way to talk in English about the different qualities of the objects. The children learned songs and games in English and made ‘pretend’ passports that allowed them to ‘visit’ different countries.”

The team of Chinese and American students brainstormed each afternoon for the following day’s activities and developed their lesson plans with themes in mind, including one around entertainment and popular songs, Chapman added.

“The Chinese and American students and volunteers had the freedom to design this experience,” she said. “I really loved watching the American team and the Chinese team become the DragonStar team. They became friends and colleagues by creating something together. And ultimately, the kids loved it all. Their parents told us that they would get up early each morning to get ready for camp. They couldn’t wait to get there.”

For the children, the camp was a chance to build much-needed self-confidence, she said. “I also think their idea of the world got a little bigger by interacting with foreigners, learning new dances and games, and doing things like going to a museum, something many of them had never done. It was a chance to learn about other cultures, learn about their own, and teach us along the way.”

Chapman and Zhu hope to host a second expanded English camp in Shanghai next year and would love to involve other UNC students and departments, an idea that the Asia Center also supports. The professors are also planning to collaborate with Carolina’s Center for Urban and Regional Planning to pursue a research study that examines English acquisition as an asset.

“That’s a little bit different,” Chapman said, “but I really think we can put (learning to speak English) into that kind of frame—as something that increases your educational and employment opportunities over time.”