TAMPA — Teacher Mark Xing reads a sentence in his native Chinese and asks his middle-school students to repeat it.
The seven students, enrolled in a Chinese-language class at Corbett Preparatory School, follow along on the display board in front of the classroom and recite the sentence.
But there is something different about this class: Xing is teaching via Skype webcams from his home more than 8,000 miles away.
Chinese is the most spoken language in the world; there are nearly 3 million Chinese-speakers in the United States, making it the third most-spoken language in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
In a time when the United States is trying to create a more global workforce, Chinese classes have been offered for several years to students at some Hillsborough County public schools as well as those at the private school.
Corbett seventh-grader Mason Shamley, 12, has taken Spanish classes since he started there in kindergarten, but chose to take Xing’s Chinese class as an elective this year.
“My mom wants me to learn more languages so when I get older, if I have co-workers from different countries, I can speak to them,” he said.
Xing lives near Hong Kong in the city of Shenzhen and has taught for 30 years. He is the director of teaching affairs in the middle school department at the Second Foreign Languages School of Nanshan, Corbett’s sister school.
Corbett Headmaster Joyce Burick Swarzman met him in Beijing at an education summit in 2007 and again at the International Leadership Fellows Institute in Pasco County last summer, where they talked about the Skype course.
Xing knows each of his students by name and runs his Skype class almost like a normal one. One difference is that he can’t closely supervise students’ work. Also, relying on technology can pose problems, including interruptions with the Internet connection, audio and video.
“The benefit is to take advantage of modern technology to carry on cross-cultural communication and to cut down expenses,” he said. “The downfall is we totally depend on technology. If the facilities or the Internet have some problems, we can do nothing.”
For example, in a recent class, an audio problem meant the students and teacher could see but not hear each other. Students communicated with their teacher by writing on small dry-erase boards and holding them up for him to see.
The students in Xing’s class meet for 45 minutes twice a week. Corbett’s school year is broken into trimesters, with the first trimester wrapping up this month. If there is enough interest among students, Xing will offer the class again next trimester.
Before each session, Xing emails work sheets to Corbett’s associate middle school director, Cindy Strickland, who sits in the classroom with the students during the class. The students’ grades are based on class participation, attendance and how well they are grasping their lessons.
During a typical class, students can see the same Chinese characters on their classroom’s board as Xing can see on his. He underlines and circles in red the words he wants to focus on.
Xing has high expectations for the students, which Strickland said has been to their benefit. At the beginning of the school year, the students learned one or two words per class. They now are able to communicate with each other using simple Chinese.
“He really wants them to understand the pronunciations,” Strickland said. “It’s been an intense course. They have really stepped up to the plate. I’ve been impressed with them.”
Although Xing focuses on language, he is able to squeeze in cultural lessons. He told students about the Chinese Moon Festival, which is held typically in September or October, while the students ate traditional “moon cake.”
Eighth-grader Jayson Gruden said after Xing’s class — where he learned Chinese numbers, greetings and state names — he would like to continue learning the language. Taking a class through Skype has its challenges, but Jayson said he enjoyed learning from Xing.
“He does help us a lot, which is the most important part.”