Visit to Primary School, China.
There is something to be said about knowing the right person at the right place to learn about the Chinese schools. Following the procedure laid out alone may not help even if the intentions for visiting a program are innocent and made transparent. Perhaps government officials fear negative publicity. It happened to me in India, in the US and in China. But when you know a local person who has the right contact, then these obstacles disappear! That is what happened when I finally obtained the permission to visit a primary school. My contact, who is a professor at a university, had a former student who taught Chinese language at a local primary school. Through her, entry to the school was made easy particularly with the promise that I would teach a lesson in English to 6th graders.
Just like my kindergarten contact, I sensed a certain anxiety about being on time etc. I realized that is just out of respect for the authorities, my contacts wanted to ensure we adhered to the school’s expectations. Prior to the visit, I only knew that I was visiting a primary school on Nov. 15 at 9:30 am and that I was to teach a 30-minute English lesson to 35-40 6th graders! But any details of the visit were unclear to me. My attempts to find out the proficiency level of the 6th graders did not yield much information! My contact simply said “you can figure that out when you go to the class!” I knew then flexibility was the name of the game! Perhaps, these are the cultural differences-a reminder again that the systems operate differently. So I went in with an open mind, ready to adjust my lesson to the level of the students. However, I know the intellectual capacity of 6th graders.
The school was situated in an alley way with a nice wall enclosure with glass recess with musical notes embedded on them. This school is attached to a music college, I am told and hence that connection is made obvious on the wall! The entrance to the school had a retractable gate and a guard house next to the gate. Was there a guard for security reasons? Every school and most buildings have a security guard. Maybe it is cultural too! We waited patiently outside for the teacher to escort us in. Since we were almost 30 min early, we sat on a stone right next to the gate! An old cobbler was fixing shoes next to our seats and there was a big apartment building in front of us, a school supplies/candy store and the side entrance of a restaurant. The school was smack in the middle of a neighborhood. While waiting, I got to witness a lot of the everyday activities in and around the school-a woman carrying a cart full of vegetables/groceries, making small talk with the cobbler. The cobbler says “So you brought lots of vegetables today” and the woman responds “Yeah, there was nothing in the house.” (My contact translates it for me!) After unloading the cart, she comes out with a box of cigarettes, shares one with the cobbler and both of them smoke together. I am told the neighbors will also feed the elderly cobbler! On the opposite side, two women clean the green vegetables, green onions and cilantro, right on the side of the street. People walk by saying hallo to each other- giving it a feel of friendly neighborhood.
In the meantime, our teacher, a female escort arrives and we go in. We were formally received in the large playground at the entrance of the school by two female teachers, one a Chinese language teacher in whose class we will sit in and the other the English language teacher in whose class I will teach! After exchange of greetings, we go straight into the class. About 30 children stand up and greet their teacher, as we file past and take seats at the back of the classroom. The teacher introduces me and the children turn around to greet me.
The teacher starts her class with a PowerPoint, after some exchange of words in Chinese. The PowerPoint shows the simple final, (the vowels as we know) on the screen, children sound out. This exercise seemed like it was a recap of what they had learned previously. She then pulls up consonants “C, Z, S” on the screen. First, they talk about what those letters resembled and then the sounds. When the teacher points to a little girl to describe “C”, she responds that it is like a half moon and the other children shout out “half-circle” making a “C” with their thumb and forefinger. The teacher affirms that both are correct! Children do similar exercises with Z and S. The teacher then focuses on the phonemes, the integrated sounds of Ci, Si, and Zi, emphasizing the four intonations of Ci, Si and Zi- flat, rising, falling-rising and falling. The class starts the chorus chants of the four tones. I frequently find the children repeating after the teacher or responding to teacher’s questions.
She concludes the lesson with a writing exercise: children write ci, si and zi within the boxes provided. Throughout, the teacher was gentle, soft and smiling. She weaved around the desks a few times to monitor children’s work. When the class got a little rowdy, she goes up on the teacher platform, gently bows, swings her arms, and brings them down in a sort of fold against her chest- hands one below the other crossed as though she was doing a dance pose. Her fingers spread and curled like a flower. Immediately children put their hands on the desk. No word was uttered and there was perfect silence! After a few seconds, they sat upright and started to write. After 30 minutes, an announcement on the speaker system came on and all children dropped what they were doing, cupped their palm and placed it over their eyes and then massaged it with their forefingers. The announcement continued and the children repeatedly massaged and cupped. I am told that the entire school was doing eye exercises- a routine practice twice a day! The teacher turns around and asked me how our children take care of their eyes!
About a decade ago, when I was at a conference, the presenter mentioned that when the government selected individuals for the teacher education program, particularly those who would train to be teachers in preschool and primary school, candidates had to be proficient in performing arts. To be a preschool/ elementary school teacher, one needed to have theatrical skills, she described. The memory came back alive when I witnessed what the teacher did in this class! There was no correcting behaviors, no warning, and none of that. A few children toward the end of the class played with their pencils, stood up and fidgeted. The teacher simply ignored those behaviors. The absence of rules or boundaries in the classroom was obvious.
As always, the classroom where I was to teach was on the 4th floor! Going up and down the endless flights of stairs is an effortless task in this part of the world! So pampered are we back home! The press of a button, zoom we go up! As I enter, I hear “Good morning! Welcome to our school, do you like China, how are you, I am fine, nice to have you in our class etc. and I breathe a sigh of relief that these children can speak English! My lesson was on identifying facts from the artifact given. I had taken about 19 US currency coins: quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies which would be given as gifts to the students at the end of the lesson. Recently there have been some excavations in Chengdu where archeologists have unearthed artifacts and a big massive Jin Sha Relics Museum is built to showcase the excavations and the site. Since Jin Sha and the Xi’an museums (in the neighboring province) are famous in this area, I decided to introduce children to vocabulary words “Archeology” and “examine.” I also informed the class that they will be transported to the year 5013 and they, the archeologist have just discovered those coins and they are to examine the coins and find out facts about the coins. As I state 3,000 years from now, there was a cry “oh!” and I was glad they understood that much. The children’s initial dialogue was somewhat scripted (as the teacher stated later) and that their proficiency was much more limited than I believed it to be. Toward the end of the lesson however, the students were involved in the activity and they were talking to each other in Chinese about the coins. The lesson ended abruptly as the bell rang and there was the announcement again! Although I was told, I would l teach for 30 minutes, I only had about 20 minutes due to some special program that day. Later during my discussions with the teachers, I learned that the children are not used to hands-on experiences and hence had difficulty getting started on the activity.
Well, what did I learn about primary school? At a quick glance, these schools have over 1,000 children and in each class there are over 45 children! Their periods are 33 minutes usually with a 30 min lunch break. Class sizes are uneven! Both the classes I visited had about 35 children while the other classes/sections had 45! Why? Because these are the chosen ones who will have music lessons all afternoon! These classes are attached to the music conservatory while the rest of the school had regular classes. The teachers openly stated they do not know why these students were selected and simply said, “Parents apply and the Principal decides!” Could it mean that there is the separation between administration and the teaching staff? or that the decisions are not made by a committee?
The last row of children seemed either aloof or disconnected. When I asked teachers about their major behavior challenges in the classroom, the immediate response was “Some children do not listen. They do not follow the teacher when s/he teaches!” There is the belief that children should listen to their teachers-obedience is expected!
Each child spends about one to two hours of homework in the lower primary and in the upper primary, maybe four hours doing homework. “Parents want us to give more homework” added one teacher! I had spent about four and half hours in the school and could not have asked for more. Although my classroom observations were limited to about an hour, I had about two to three hours of interactions with the teachers. We spent time exchanging ideas on curriculum and planning, challenges in classrooms, and how schools are structured differently in both US and China and how they are similar. What I walk away with is that there is eagerness in teachers to learn about the curriculum and the different challenges teachers face in US schools. There is equal willingness to embrace the different strategies we use in our schools! That revealed how open they are to try out new ways to make teaching and learning more effective!
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!