Day 12 – 15 – April 18-21 –
My week at Shijiazhuang No. 2 Middle School
This week was brimming with learning experiences; many of my preconceptions were challenged and my perspective altered. Before coming to China I really believed that the educational system was much more ‘traditional’ with little, if any, room for flexibility and variations in curriculum and instructional practice. I believed there was limited emphasis on the arts or development of the ‘whole child’. I was wrong. This is what I observed, and noted, through discussions with students and teachers:
· Our school, located in the Hebei Province, which surrounds the Chinese capitol city of Beijing, is deeply engaged in the educational reform process. Teachers and administrators are eager to learn more about constructivist theory and practice, they are experimenting with many of the same instructional practices we engage in: collaborative work, self-directed learning, student centered practices, and experiential learning. They are trying hard to reduce the time teachers spend lecturing or in direct instruction and shift instructional practice toward a more inquiry approach. I had many discussions with teachers about how, in America and more specifically at Wilson, we help students learn to ‘think like scientists’, how we build relevance while increasing rigor, and how we engage the social development of the child in the process. In physics class I shared questioning techniques and strategies to encourage critical thinking and inquiry with the instructor, modeling the practice with my translator at my side. Later we talked quite a bit about how they could develop more cross discipline experiences and an integrated curriculum. We talked about their challenges (often class size and a lack of resources, or frustrations with a system that doesn’t always ‘move fast enough’ - a system steeped in history and culture that is simultaneously both an attribute to their system and an obstacle in cultural change – hmmmmm, sounds similar, doesn’t it?!).
· There is a very tangible concern for students’ mental health. Nearly every school I visited and where I spoke with teachers and school psychologists (including my schools) there was evident awareness of the stress level of their students and intentional focus on ways to reduce that stress load and provide experiences for their students to balance their lives. Most every school has a room for students where they can go to de-stress, to talk with a teacher/psychologist, to engage with a group of peers with similar struggles, or to just ‘get away’ in a softly lit space with comfortable furniture and warm colors. They, like us, have student support groups and school psychologists (usually the psychology teacher – I didn’t find a school with school counselors) facilitate student support groups, meet 1-1 with students, and assist students in finding the support systems or resources to better manage their mental and emotional lives.
· In Shijiazhuang, at least in No.2 middle school – all three campuses – there is a huge Party presence. Our principal is a deputy within the People’s Congress; our party secretary is a prominent figure both within the schools and within the Province. It’s important to note that the Party secretary is heavily involved in the decision making processes of the schools and is often in deep discussion with the school principal(s). His office is located on the floor above the principals – an interesting point, as within the Chinese hierarchy, the top floor is generally reserved for the most authoritative figures within the school; it is a space removed from the masses where they can engage in thought and planning. I also believe, it is because of this tight Party connection that our school has been able to be progressive in their reform, secure the necessary resources to support the reform, and embrace opportunities – such as the expansion of their campuses, more readily than other schools within the Province and the country. With it, however, also comes increased responsibility as the government has mandated that our school support a rural/village school approximately 1 ½ - 2 hours outside of the city. It was very evident, when we visited this village campus of approximately 1,000 students, that the No. 2 middle school has had a huge impact. The similarities in curriculum and instruction were evident, campus changes mirrored that of the partner/support school, and the cultural influences of the No. 2 middle school’s mission were evident (and embraced I might add). This village school, because of the support, was very different from the school I visited in Xi’an – let’s hope that more of the elite and wealthy schools are asked to support their less fortunate counterparts; it appears, at least in this case, the collaboration is working.
· Professional development and teacher collaboration was prominent. It was second nature to walk into a class with five or six teachers in the back of the room observing and providing specific feedback to the teacher facilitating the learning. Lesson study was the norm. Administrative feedback was specific and honest, not sugar coated; but along with that, there was support for improvement and discussion over what was needed promote teacher learning and instructional growth. Expectations were high; expectations were met. What there wasn’t a lot of room for was complacency. Teachers from each of the campuses visit each other’s classrooms; teachers also take time to go to the rural school and teach with the instructors there sharing pedagogy, instructional practice, and resources. Administrators also teach on occasion and model practice for their teachers.
· There was an amazing collegiality among all the teachers. There was time almost every day for teachers to get together and ‘play’. Yes, play. They work hard and play hard. It was nothing to see teachers competing against each other in friendly yet spirited games of a ‘soccer badminton’ hybrid, or volley ball, or dance, or song. It was wonderful to watch and I only wish I could bottle that piece and bring it back here. I have no doubt in my mind it helped the teachers meet the expectations set for them and gave them opportunity to bond and grow in a very positive environment – it was all about balance.
· Physical Activity and the Arts – Interestingly, all the schools that I visited, both our sister school(s) and the others, engaged in morning exercises – 15 minutes or so of moderately rigorous activity. Some of the schools also required their teachers to participate with the teachers running laps around the track with senior students while underclassmen progressed through various exercises on the field.
All the schools also focused on the performing and creative arts – not something I expected to see given what we’re told in America is an emphasis on math and science. The performances were beautiful, talent abounded. The practices and classroom sessions were at times brutal. But what I did notice was that these classes left little room for student creativity – they were very structured. It was all about performance; perhaps you could say imitation, not process or individual creativity. As reform progresses, I can only hope they build an environment where teachers and students are not afraid to take risks or fail, where they can build their innovative spirit, feel free to create, and turn the performance into something that is very much an extension of self.
· Routine and uniforms – Students were required to wear uniforms, but they did have leeway in that uniform. Some wore school sweat suits, others wore pants and school shirts, and some wore a combination. Routines were well established - a management component that is necessary with classes of 39-50 students. Yet, in conversation, teachers shared their desire to be able to ‘loosen up’ but simultaneously feared losing control of their classrooms. As relevancy builds and students are able to experience more autonomy in their learning, we can only hope the teachers can realize their desire.
A brief background of my school(s): 3 schools – Urban (3,000 students, some stay on campus, 500.00 Yuan/year tuition; Suburban – 7,000 students, all board, 10,000 Yuan per year, recruited from across China, rural/village school – ordered by government to support the school – 1,000 students, some board - urban and suburban schools designated as key schools (elite academically, produce many top students within China, also considered experimental – leading edge of China’s school reform; village school, with their help, quickly becoming a top school academically – resource support, PD, instructional exchange, policy guidance)
Some highlights of the week, in addition to just being able to engage conversation with students and teachers, included addressing the entire faculty and student body of the urban campus (remember, well over 3,000 people) during the morning flag raising ceremony on Monday. Thank goodness they only gave me a few minutes warning; I may have stressed over that one.
On our last day we signed our Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) setting the framework for future collaborative experiences and setting the date for our first student teacher exchange. This is only the beginning…
We visited the Anji Bridge, the most famous stone arch bridge in China. It spans the Jiaohe River in Zhaoxian County, Hebei Province, and is better known as Zhaozhou Bridge after the ancient name of the county. Built during the years 591-599 A.D. by the mason Li Chun, it is still being used as a bridge, so although renovated, it is one of the bridges with the longest service life in the world. It is 9 meters wide and stretches 50.82 meters over a single arch spanning 37.4 meters of the river. On each of the "shoulders" of the main arch, there are two spandrel or minor arches. They not only improve the general look of the bridge but help to reduce its weight and thus lighten the load on its foundations. In times of floodwater, the minor arches join the main one to facilitate the passage of the current, weakening its impact on the body of the bridge. A masterpiece of bridge construction, this old stone structure has used in subsequent ages as the model for stone arch bridges. While visiting this bridge I, literally, ran into a group of students on a field trip. Their excitement was magical, and we posed for a few pictures together.
I also visited the ancient Bailin Temple (Bailin Chan Si). The temple, the ancestral home of Chinese Zen Buddhism, is one of the most famous Zen Buddhist temples in China. It is an important teaching altar for Zen Buddhism which advocates self-knowledge through meditation... Read more about this temple by clicking the link below:
Several of us also had opportunity to meet with the Director and CEO, Dr. Han, of the Shijiazhuang City Department of Education, talk with him about our thoughts on pedagogy, especially with science instruction, and to share in a Traditional Tea Ceremony. What a wonderful way to end an evening – collegial conversation, good food, and hot tea dancing in our glasses.
On another evening I had the opportunity to have dinner with the physics teacher and his wife in their apartment. It was exemplary of the space many of the teachers in China call home. It was tiny but welcoming and warm. I felt very comfortable in their presence. We shared a toast with Mao-tai (let’s just say, do not accept white wine – in China it’s quite potent and not wine at all, but rather a very strong liquor – do keep in mind though, Mao-tai is considered their best and is quite expensive in comparison to others; to be offered it is a mark of friendship). I can’t say it enough – the Chinese people, as least as I experienced them, are warm and gracious. I will miss them.