School Days: Part 2

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This past week, I was a guest and observer at a local elementary school, Xianlin Primary School. It had been a goal of mine this year to visit and observe at at least one school here in China to get better insight into the education system here. Making such arrangements, however, proved to be harder than I thought. My boss Emy offered back in March to ask whether I could visit her daughter’s school. Unfortunately, they were afraid I would be a big distraction to the children and prevent them from learning. So Emy then asked a friend and professor at NUFE whether I could observe at his daughter’s school. After much back and forth communication between Emy and her friend; her friend and the school; and then finally between me and a teacher, I successfully made arrangements for my desired school visit.

 In the US, education reformers and policy makers seem to constantly be ranting about how US schools and learning lag way behind those in other countries. Having spent several in-depth years in public schools in Seattle, Virginia and DC and having worked very closely with learners from Kindergarten through 12th grade, I feel I have some pretty good insight into public education, learning and teaching in the US. Being in China this year has been a big paradigm shift especially when it comes to the way students learn here. Granted I am working with college students, I have nevertheless been challenged many times with the teaching approaches I use. When it comes to getting students to open up and share their opinion or when I try to make my lessons more student-led, as opposed to teacher-led, I sometimes hit a wall. This has led me to wonder whether my college students have been deeply engrained from a young age to learn what is told to them and are not offered many opportunities for self-discovery. I was therefore, curious to visit a primary school to see the practices that are used in the younger formative years of education. Also, perhaps I could learn a thing or two about what is effectively being done in classrooms in China to share with fellow educators in the US.
My school day began at 7:30 when I arrived to meet Ms. Liu, my contact at the school who teaches English to 3rd and 5th graders, both grades I have some experience teaching as well. In China, teachers do not have their own classroom, instead, a class of students has their own room and the teacher arrives at that room when it is time for his or her lesson. Even in primary schools, teachers focus only on one or two subjects. Ms. Liu and her teaching partners were quite surprised when I told them that elementary teachers in the US teach ALL of the subjects. Ms. Liu taught a maximum of 4 lessons on Monday and Fridays and 3 lessons on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. That’s right, she taught 17 hours a week. Meanwhile, elementary-teacher counterparts in the US teach at least 35 hours week. Is it any wonder why so many teachers (myself included) burn out so quickly from the teaching profession?
 
China’s future doing their morning exercises

Ms. Liu took me to her office where some other teachers had their desks. The students had “reading time” until about 8:20 and were in their classrooms completing their homework and preparing for their classes for the coming day. Some students came in and out and one student I saw was scolded by the head teacher since he had repeatedly not been doing his homework. Her scolding didn’t seem particularly harsh but nevertheless the student seemed ashamed enough that he probably would follow through with doing his homework. What also seemed strange was that students just seemed to go on their own accord to their classroom. Some students were out and about playing in the hallways and just being kids, but most of those students seemed to make it eventually to their classrooms. There didn’t seem to be major discipline issues and students just seemed to know what they needed to do. Teachers didn’t even really need to be in the classrooms monitoring the students. Instead, they could use that time to prepare and get ready for their lessons for the day and check-in individually with various students.

At 8:20, the teachers met and lined up on a path by the school field. A few minutes later, the older students marched out and lined up in 5 lines on the school track. The national anthem came blaring out on the speakers and two students raised the Chinese flag. Students then started doing some morning exercises to get energized and ready to learn.
Later that morning, I had the chance to sit in on two English classes in fourth and fifth grade. In China, students are now learning English as young as third grade. English is considered one of the most important pillar subjects in school along with Chinese and Math. In addition to the English kids learn in school during the week, many students get additional tutoring on the weekends. Some students go to private language schools while others may have private tutors (a job I had in the fall here). Why so much emphasis on education and learning, learning, learning all the time? Knowledge and education is seen as the key to success in China. If a child does well in primary school, she will then do well in middle school and then get into a prestigious high school which will ensure she will do well on her college entrance exam, which will ensure she will have a good job in the end in which to support her family. So already at a young age, children are set on the track to future success by working very hard in school and on weekends.
 
An engaged 4th grade English lesson

When a teacher entered a classroom, the students all stood up to attention and shouted out, “Laoshi, ni hao! (Hello Teacher)”. Once the teacher responded and acknowledged their greeting, the students sat down. During the course of the 45 minute lessons, the teachers used a curriculum that included a variety of activities to keep the students attentive, energized and on their toes. The activities were fast-paced and moved quickly. Students sang a song using their learned English vocabulary and also had other quick games that tested their knowledge of the vocabulary from their lesson. Sometimes students could consult with their peers at their desk and other times students worked individually. Most students seemed very engaged and involved during the course of the 45 minute lesson.

 
Attentive students
 
Art lesson

In the afternoon I enjoyed sitting in on an art lesson in a second grade class. Students had been learning about Peking Opera and the costumes and make-up of both female and male parts. The lesson began with the teacher drawing both a male and female face on the board. Starting with the shape of a head, the teacher gradually added the eyes, nose and mouth and the faces gradually came alive in front of me and the students. The students then went to work drawing their own versions, being precise and accurate while they were at it. The teacher played some Peking opera music in the background as they children worked and their creative juices flowed. It seemed so effortless and easy for the teacher to get the students going.

 
Twice in the day, the students had an interesting ritual called “Eye massage”. For ten minutes, the students shut their eyes and then massaged around their temples, noses, above and around their eyes. Student monitors came around with clipboards checking and making sure all students were doing their eye exercises which was supposed to help students relax and get rid of any headaches and pressure that would inhibit learning. Although a strange practice, I don’t think I would mind having “Eye massage” time in my classroom in the US!
For the last hour of the day, students cleaned up their classrooms and then got their homework assignments from their teachers. Again, students seemed to go about doing these activities with efficiency and little fuss. I was really quite amazed at how disciplined the students were but also how easily everything seemed to flow and get done. It’s true that the teachers are very well respected and have their place in the school. Nevertheless, the students seemed to have a certain flexibility and freedom to go about doing what they needed to get done. All students seemed to know what was expected of them and what the consequences were for not following through with what was expected of them.
 
Healthy school lunch- This isn’t your corndog and pizza!

Could such a utopian learning environment work in the US? I don’t think it could work so easily. The value of education and it being the key to future success and happiness is so deeply ingrained in Chinese culture and history. That’s not to say that education is undervalued in the US. The US on some level has much more complex social issues that play a role and affect a child’s education and future wellbeing. Some of those issues don’t even come into play in China. Additionally, my one glimpse into one primary school here may not be a fair indicator of education and learning in all schools across China. Some drawbacks in China are that students become easily stressed because of their heavy workload and as they get older, they have very little opportunities to participate in creative activities, volunteer opportunities, jobs and other experiences that contribute to a young person’s growth and education. Nevertheless, I think all learners, whether in China or the US, can benefit from teachers who have the time to focus on individual students’ needs as well as being well prepared for the classroom. Neither overworking students nor teachers can sustainably be productive in the long run.

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