Looking up with her big brown eyes, Mary Chi (紀詩伶) nodded shyly while biting her lower lip when asked if one day she’d like to be a famous pop star.
“And as a singer, you have to be able to sing English songs and that’s why I need to learn to speak and read English,” she said.
Shih, 11, a fifth grader from Ping-Jing Elementary School in Nantou County, is one of 20 Aboriginal students from the Sediq tribe participating in a long-distance online English tutorial program provided by a group of volunteer mothers from Taipei American School (TAS).
The seed of the program was planted two years ago when a speaker invited by the Chinese Parent Connection at TAS spoke of the rural outreach education program to the Aboriginal community.
Casey Lin, one of the mothers who listened to the speech, was touched by the subject and was eventually introduced to the 51 year-old elementary school nestled in the mountainous region of Jenai Township (仁愛).
The school was among the casualties of the 921 earthquake in 1999 in which an entire building of classrooms was flattened and several walls crumbled.
During last year’s spring break, Lin and a group of TAS mothers brought some students to the tree-lined campus in the deep mountains to discover a world that is quite different from the concrete jungle they have become accustomed to in Taipei.
During the visit, the parents realized that the small school of 64 students, which teaches children from kindergarten through sixth grade, did not have a full-time English-language teacher.
“It is very difficult for the school to find a full time English teacher because of the remoteness of the place. Not many people are willing to travel so far,” school principal Tseng Yuan-hsin (曾元信) said, recalling that prior to the opening of Freeway No. 6, it would take almost two hours to get to the nearest town — Puli (埔里), Nantou County.
The discovery prompted Lin to organize a program to enable students to learn English in the absence of a teacher.
“There’s got to be something we can do, we thought,” Lin said.
Piggybacking on the existing computer infrastructure and an online learning platform already set up at the school by a local university, a group of eight mothers decided to offer a remote learning program to 10 first and 10 fifth graders.
It is that spirit of service that prompts the mothers to turn on their home computers every Tuesday and Friday at 8:30am to teach the students English — from simple conversational phrases to phonic pronunciation — via Web cam.
The result, said Sylvia Tai, one of the TAS volunteers, was most evident when five of the recipients volunteered to introduce themselves in English onstage during the TAS annual Spring Fair, where they performed traditional Sediq dancing.
“I felt very proud of them to muster up the courage to introduce themselves on stage,” Tai said, applauding the children for their willingness to speak English in public, something that was nearly impossible in the past given their shy nature.
Tai, a housewife, said that one of the purposes of the program was to boost the self-confidence of children by giving them ample opportunities to succeed.
She shared a story of a hyperactive boy who had been labeled as a troubled student. The volunteers decided to give him one-on-one attention.
Without using extra materials and by simply showering him with the attention he needed, “months later, his teacher was happy to report that his grades had improved.”