Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Visit to Primary School, China.
Journey 3

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!!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

China Journey 2

Oct. 29

China Journey 2

I had the opportunity to visit a Kindergarten/Childcare program in late September. After much time spent on obtaining permission, I got ready to do a lesson (or shall I say facilitate) to introduce children to English language. Since I was told there would be 34 students in the class, I requested if a couple of our students could join me as some of them had expressed interest in visiting programs and schools here.  Then there was the issue of whether or not we have health insurance (hum) and then if we have any health problems. First, I was going to teach this lesson to Kindergarteners and then it changed to 3-4 year olds. My contact got the permission for the visit finally by saying she would take me only to her child’s class and have me teach a lesson there! She appeared to be nervous about the whole visit. After the date and time was finalized for the visit, she would call me to either give me an update about the changes or the issues she was dealing with or simply to remind me the time and the date! She also seemed very anxious and would ask me if she could help me make “flash cards.” I reassured her that everything was under control.

On the day of the visit, we met with two women in the main office, one who appeared to be the director. The conversation between my contact, whose child is enrolled in the program, and the director was very formal, unlike what a conversation between a parent and the director of the program would look like in the US! When I inquired about the math education in kindergarten, the director responded by simply saying “the directives for math education comes from the ministry of education and the teachers follow the directives.”  Probing further, I asked if could buy the textbook they use to which she responded with a firm “No.” Then I requested if I may simply see the textbook and she obliged. She brought me a whole lot of Chinese language books and one math book. I got to glance through all of them in a rush and simply could not grasp much as everything was in Chinese. I pushed the issue a little more to look into the possibilities of observing a math lesson, and you guessed it! Her response “China is number 1 in math and science, and we are very proud of it!” but she did not give me permission to witness how they achieve this excellence! The whole meeting lasted for no more than 10 minutes and we needed to rush out as the children and the teacher in the classroom where I was to teach were waiting! Whatever little hope I had about visiting the program again faded away after my meeting and knew that probably that would be the last time I would ever visit the program.
The second professional who was present at the meeting, took us around. The facility was simply beautiful! The layout of the building was triangular inside. The classrooms, which we could only peek into, appeared clean and tidy. The children were not in the classrooms. The classrooms had plenty of windows and as one walks along the corridor, one could see and hear whatever being taught or how the children were engaged. The structured lessons are done in the mornings. Maybe that explains why we were given an appointment at 3:00 pm?  

Up the stairs into an open hall-way, with two doors each leading into a classroom, we enter one. The children (3 year olds) had just woken up after a nap I was told, were sitting on child sized green chairs lined up against the back wall and a few chairs arranged in a line on either side.  The environment seemed formal. There were about 34 children in that small room with three adults.  In the center there was some space where we stood in a line, me and then my two students.  Behind me there were four small, light blue tables arranged in a square where I plop my things:  the book I was going to read to children, The Odd Egg by Emily Gravett, a stack of “This journal belongs to ________” notebooks (a few sheets of colored papers, folded and stapled) I had made for children to scribble, the cutouts of eggs and birds for children to glue to make their own follow up stories and sticks, crayons and stickers. 
In an attempt to connect with the children, I introduce myself in Chinese:

Ni hao (Hi)
Qin aide hai zi men xia vu hao (My dear children, good afternoon).
Wo de Ming zi Jiao Vidya laoshi (My name is called Vidya teacher).

This was scripted by my Chinese laoshi Pang (thank you, laoshi) so I could share with children to ease their stranger anxiety! Then I tell them in English we are going to sing some songs and “Qin gen wo shuo” (Please repeat after me). I begin with “twinkle, twinkle little star,” a universal rhyme that most children in many countries seem to be familiar with or at least the tune and “One, two, three, four, five, once I caught a fish alive” as it involves counting in English and A,B,C,D” song to introduce English alphabet. My students who accompanied me knew the lesson I had designed and they backed me up by repeating after me. I tell the students to join me and a few children start to make some sounds and as did the teachers. Then we clap and wiggle our fingers and I pull a chair and sit down to read the book. We examine the pictures, some curious eyes began to engage and I start to read as my escort starts to translate it for the children. I say “Crack and CRACK” in soft and loud voice as the eggs hatch and birds come out and children repeat. Then I request the teachers if we could distribute the note book to the children and have them write (scribble) their own sequel to the story by gluing the cutouts. I assured them that my students and I would help with the activity and clean up. But the teachers felt it was too much for children to handle and that they can send the booklets and the cutouts home and parents can do that with their children. We nodded politely and gave the children the stickers to the children and exit from the class. They children follow us to the play ground.

In between the buildings and the front there was a big play yard with slides, monkey bars, seesaw and space for children to run around or do some exercise. This space was bustling with activities. Children running and playing on one side and a group engaged in drill practice. The kindergarteners were getting ready for the National Week celebrations. A teacher stood in front of the group and moved her hands up and down and sideways as the children mimicked with the big red silk roses in their hands. The music was loud and the children’s actions were well choreographed.  The director and the teacher who showed us around waited for us at the main gate. I thanked the director and give her and the teachers the key chains and pens (SOE-yeah! Thank you) and “Thank you” cards to them and walked out of the premises with little hope of returning to the school or having any interactions with children or teachers or parents.

The next day unfolded much differently than I had expected. I got a call from my escort if I would such activities once a week! I was not sure I was hearing her right? I say “Come again” and she repeats.  My response, YES! Of course! Parents called her to find out about who had visited the school as the children shared with them what they learned.  They asked her why the school could not have such lessons more often, at least once a week! But my contact felt that it would be too difficult to obtain permission and hence discussed with the parents alternate ways to arrange these sessions.  Things moved at supersonic speed! Within a few hours the 15 parents had rented a couple of rooms in a tea house, right opposite the Kindergarten program, for every Tuesday evening (from 7 to 8 which after the first week changed to 6 to7 pm) and asked me to give them a list of things I would need to engage children. Since I do not know the place well enough to know what is available where, I relied on her to get me some colorful transparent scarves, a parachute and child-safe scissors and a few English books (which are almost impossible to find here).  I too explored the local stores for some musical instruments-like bells, shakers and drums-, glue sticks and lots of colored papers and stickers and stamps- thanks to the $200 grant SOE granted me! When we were in Tibet, in one of the street markets, I found 19 cow bells for 80 RMB!  One parent who had some of the books I had listed brought those to share. So with all of these, we were off to a very great start!

We have had these play sessions now for five weeks and it has been one FUN ride for me and my four student helpers! Brown Bear, Brown Bear has been a hit. Children and the parents love it. Now I have my own, thanks to Karen for picking up some excellent books and sending them to me! I read Tap the Magic Tree yesterday and it was mesmerizing! Most of the parents do not know English, not even the alphabet or the English number names! They are learning alongside their children, which is really fun to watch. The parents are eager to have information about child development.  I have now prepared a handout that is being translated into Chinese.

Lesson 1. Never travel without children’s books!
Lesson 2. The power of parents! They are very resourceful and as a group, they can achieve whatever they wish to!
Lesson 3. Never give up! I never dreamed that I would get to work with children and parents and now I am delighted beyond measure. I hope I will get an opportunity to interact with teachers as well so I can learn from their experiences and explore their challenges together where possible.

Monday, September 23, 2013

China Journey                                                                                     Sep. 17
We are in Chengdu finally after Beijing and Xi'an, which included a lot of the routine sight-seeing trips to key places + the train journey- which was almost like traveling in Europe, except the crowd and noise at the train stations. Beijing, being the capital is more developed than other cities. Unbelievable development everywhere!! In just three years, China has moved on!
We are slowly settling down to the rhythm of life here. Our apartment is on a busy road, close to Sichuan University and comfortable.  We are on the 8th floor with two elevators… sort of a modern apartment.  For about 8 days we experienced breakdown of water supply as the water tank broke and we had to ferry water from the first floor. Water supply was resumed today and a hot shower felt really comfortable! The security guard and folks in the building were very helpful and if they saw me lifting a bucket, they would rush to help!
Believe it or not, there is a Wal-Mart on the first floor of our building (they call it Trust Mart!!). You can buy anything under the sun. Long lines at the checkout are an indication of how successful they are! I did some of my initial setting up stuff and groceries a few times at the Trust mart. Since it is in the same building and that you have to walk everywhere (which we love) makes it convenient to carry stuff. We also shopped in some local groceries for milk, vegetables, fruits etc. and a French chain for butter/cheese and plain yogurt (which are not available in Trust Mart!!). The French chain is not walking distance for us or accessible by metro or bus easily. Cabs are cheap and in plenty. It cost us less than $2 by cab (10 RMB). Metro and bus are also very cheap- only 30 cents to anywhere. Once we settle down, we should be able shop in the local stores.
Trust Mart, I understand was a Taiwanese chain supermarket which was bought out fully or partially by Wal-Mart. All of the employees wear a Red shirt with Trust-Mart on it. But I also saw one or two supervisors/managers who were wearing a blue "Wal-Mart" shirt. They have Wal-Mart shopping carts. The store has only 2 floors and very cramped. If you shop on both floors, you have to carry your baskets up and down the stairs-a pain!! Unless you plan well and buy the light stuff first, you have to lift heavy loads up and down. No elevator or escalator inside the shop. The store is forever busy!
Well, there are so many observations on cultural aspects. First, the people are very friendly. It is very hard to find an individual who speaks English. If you are fortunate enough to find one, they will help you get to your destination, help you find items in the supermarket and won’t leave till they find all the help we need. They are ready to put their work on hold to help you!
The place is extremely crowded, but there is some orderliness to the chaos. The buses are neat and clean, the streets are broad and clean, although you do find a few spitting on the streets! No one throws anything on the ground! It seems like everyone eats out. They eat an overwhelming amount of meat (hum.. vegetarians bias?). The crowd and noise pollution to environment pollution is just unbelievable.  The US Consulate publishes the air quality index everyday to show the toxins in the air, as the local gov. here may not be so open about sharing! It is really bad.

The university has four gates: north, south, east and west gates and we live close to the West Gate.  Around all of the gates there are lots of restaurants and clothing shops, some fancy while others sell mundane things. Unbelievably busy area, particularly during lunch and dinner times! My favorite is the baked hot sweet potatoes. The shops and street vendors sell them! Cute little shops sell odd items like plastic pails, hanger and other items for household use. Around the gates there are also faculty and staff housing which look kind of old and I understand they are also very small. Maybe that explains why people spend most of their time outside/outdoors. The parks are beautiful and well maintained- very well used. People use the parks to do Tai-Chi, square, line and ballroom dancing, singing lessons and an endless list of activities- old and young alike participating in all of these activities. You can see the communities coming together.
It is hard to spot children on the streets. But if you go to parks (in plenty here), you do see some children. So far I have seen three or four pregnant women and a few twins! In the evenings, you can find some grandparents out with their grand kids. My first visit to a kindergarten school is scheduled for Wed afternoon. It is very hard to get permission to visit a primary school, so I have to satisfy myself visiting a kindergarten program which is not part of the primary school. They are usually with childcare. I will be teaching them some nursery rhymes……… I am really looking forward to it. I am also planning an activity in the parks for children.. don’t know yet if that will happen. We will see!
I had my first Multicultural Education class on Monday, but my class is scheduled for Thursday. Just this week I was asked offer it on Monday as this Thursday is a holiday. Today is Moon Festival and it is a big event, almost like Thanksgiving. I had about 50 students. But the coordinator whispered to me that most of them would drop as many do not understand or speak English. We expect about 15 to 20. The classrooms have a teaching station-basically computers and LCD monitor etc. They are locked in a chest that retracts and the instructors have keys. Most buildings at the university have four floors and there are no elevators or escalators. You have to climb! My class is on the 3rd floor! Our Western China guest lecture class on Wednesdays, which the PLU students attend (sort of organized by PLU and so do I) is on the 4th floor!! Wait, not done yet! My Chinese language classes are also on the 4th floor! Whew!!! I hope I shed some lbs! You walk and climb everywhere!   

This morning when we rode the metro to see the biggest mall in the world, Miles and I were standing. The security police walked past our car, she tapped on two young men who were sitting and asked them to get up so we could sit! Made us feel very, very old!! That gesture said a lot about the culture.. that people listen to authorities, there is respect for age or maybe foreigners (I would like to believe that)!

When people talk, they freely comment on each other without any reservation! The concept of being politically correct is absent perhaps or people just speak their mind at times! Maybe they are uncorrupted by the outside world! When I introduce Miles to university professionals, they immediately make fun of him as "so you are the servant" or “you are the house husband who cleans and cooks." I am not sure if anyone can read into it as "women are the servants in the family." There are plenty of women in the work force!
The other observation is- I was talking with a French national in one of the meetings who had hairy arms (he was wearing a short/half sleeve shirt), when the 20 year office assistant stopped and pulled his hair and said in English- "the Chinese call this monkey." Maybe "monkey" does not have the same negative connotation and neither did he say in a derogatory manner. Both the foreigner and the young man laughed out loud! There is some innocence in their comments! I like their openness and one cannot get offended. If you made fun of them in the same way, they probably may not take offense to it. 
As a young friend who has spent several years in China explained, the waves of immigrants have heightened our sensitivity in the West. On the contrary, Chinese have lived here for generations and their contact with foreigners or outside world probably is very limited and restricted! Their comments certainly do not mean any insult! 
Food has been the only problem for us. Because we are vegetarians, unless we go to Buddhist restaurants (excellent food there though), you see a lot of meat in everything. We have now started to cook at home!! Yeah!