Some volunteers, like my daughter Anna, come to Asia before committing themselves to a profession. Others, like John Millspaugh, do so when they retire. I, on the other hand, have many more years to work and need to rededicate myself to my work as a teacher educator. So I entered my placement with very clear intentions. First, I wanted to live and work beside typical Chinese families and try to develop greater understanding of modern Chinese culture.

My second goal was a bit more philosophical. I’ve spent thirty years working in American education, and until I came to China I didn’t think about how limiting it was to base my understanding of learning (and teaching) solely on Western values. So my professional goal was to develop some insights into my own assumptions about education by analyzing teaching that is based on a very different culture.

I’ve been fortunate in having another midcareer volunteer, Sander Breedeveld from The Netherlands, in Mian Yang at the same time. I will always be grateful for his good company and mildly confrontational questioning throughout our placement. I am now back in my Shanghai apartment, looking back over five kaleidoscopic weeks in Chengmian Lu Primary School. I am aware of the deep satisfaction of completing a challenge. I think I have seen and done things that will affect me for years to come.

First days

Sander and I flew together from Shanghai on the day before a new school term was to begin. We were greeted by Jessie, the XuBo coordinator, and Lily and Shirley, the teachers who would be our school coordinators. We took our bags to our living spaces and then went out for a long SiChuan lunch with many toasts and much good food.

The following day, 2500 children streamed down the stairwells and into the courtyard of the six storey primary school, magically forming themselves into squares of sixty children each, all facing a raised platform. The flag was raised, national anthem sung, guest (me) introduced, and an interminable principal’s message read, while 2500 children ages 7-13 stood at parade rest. Forty minutes later, the children roared up the open stairwells into teacherless classrooms to await the first of the teachers who would rotate through their room during the day. Hmmm. Assumption: Children need to be closely supervised at all times during the school day. Assumption: Children need a close relationship with one teacher.

I observed three lessons and then was given my schedule for the month. I was to teach in every classroom, giving each child the opportunity for some interaction with a Westerner. I was to begin with grade six the following day. Assumption: Teaching should begin with thorough knowledge of the students. Although the teachers were very welcoming and willing to help me plan my lesson, they were not clear about what they wanted me to do. What was I expected to teach? ‘The book. Anything you want from it.’ My first lessons were very bad imitations of the lessons I had observed. Worse, my attempts were witnessed, as I came to understand is a standard practice in Chinese teacher development, by many of the English teachers, who later told me how I could improve them. Assumption: Teachers are independent professionals who work in isolated classrooms where they receive little support from other professionals.

Assumptions About Teaching

In each of the 15 or so lessons I observed during the month, teachers began the lesson with a patterned greeting, which also became the standard greeting when passing students on the street. ‘Hello, how are you?’ ‘I am fine, thank you. And you?’ ‘I am fine, too.’ Then teachers introduced new vocabulary written on large pieces of paper or on the blackboard. From the raised platform in the front of the room, each teacher efficiently led the 60 or more children through whole class and team (15 or so students) pronunciation drills and spelling practice. Assumption: Lessons should begin with the known and build toward the unknown. Every minute or two the teacher would back up to the chalkboard to place a star beside T1, T2, T3, or T4, saying emphatically that Team 2 (or 3 or 4) is the best as she did so. Sometimes the team was the best at shouting the word in unison. Sometimes they were the best at sitting up straight and quiet. Similarly, stars were erased for noise or incorrect responses. At each motion of the chalk, children quieted and sat up straighter in their chairs. Assumption: Teachers should reinforce individual behaviors rather than group behaviors. Several of the teachers incorporated listening games and retelling the lesson dialogue as a story, which children seemed to enjoy a great deal. At the end of the lesson, or as homework, the new words were repeatedly copied in five straight columns. As teachers graded the copybooks, I noticed that a sloppily written entry was marked as a wrong word. Assumption: Whenever possible, assessment of content knowledge should be separate from the means of expression. Assumption: drills and copying words are less effective for language learning than using the words in a personally meaningful way.

Even as I identified some of my own assumptions about education that have gone unexamined for years, I was noticing the unexpected (by me) effectiveness of the English teachers. Despite their violating some very basic tenets of learning theorists, their students are learning to read, write and speak English. And the students are happy, energetic and motivated to learn, even at 4:30 in the afternoon. I am still working on what this means. The simple answer is that they are teaching in a way that is consonant with Chinese culture. The more perplexing answer adds that their way of teaching is not consonant with the culture of American schools. Perplexing because it leaves me thinking about children in the United States who are not of my culture and might be happy and motivated students with teachers using methods I have consciously rejected.

Teaching in the Primary School

When I attempted to teach like the Chinese teachers in my sixth grade lessons, it was just pathetic! Children were not just inattentive—they were downright noisy. They listened as I introduced myself and responded to a few patterned questions. Then they talked in a normal conversational volume during a weak instructional drill. This may not sound disruptive until you consider the cumulative effect of seven or eight talkers in a room of sixty children. Later, the teachers mildly suggested stickers and larger drawings. I was very frustrated and knew this was not a problem to be solved with stickers. I needed to make a major change before the next set of lessons.

Sander and I went down the road for tea after school. We had each had disturbing introductions to the classroom and what we thought were teachers’ expectations. After several minutes of mutual complaining, he asked the central question: What was it that we could provide these students that their local English teachers could not? In other words, why exactly were we there? Obviously, the teachers did not expect that we would be the principal teachers for any content. That meant that our real purpose was far more cultural than academic, which in turn meant that I should be creating lessons that were more consistent with education in my own country. From his simple question came several changes that made the following four weeks just plain fun most of the time.

The biggest of these, and the only one I will mention here, is that rather than ‘teaching the book,’ I wrote a specific objective for each grade level that was closely tied to the last lesson I knew the teacher had completed. Assumption: Lesson planning begins with a clearly stated objective that then guides instruction and assessment. Once articulated, the objective drove the planning and I could draw in games, role plays and music. The grade five objective of naming American foods fit well with working in pairs to act out ordering breakfast in an American restaurant. Grade four objectives of using ‘left’ and ‘right’ correctly and naming parts of the face led to dancing the Bunny Hop and playing Pin the Face on the Clown. And you have not lived until you’ve tried wrangling 68 third graders into groups of four to play a color card game.

My one continuing frustration was noise. Children only quieted down for stars or threats doled out by a glowering local teacher. There was one innovative teacher who told her sixty second graders to put their heads down and take a rest whenever she thought it was getting a little noisy. Surprisingly, this often seemed to calm them.

I think much of the noise was related to the constant novelty of having a Westerner in the classroom. If there was one thing I could change about this placement, it would be to schedule me to work repeatedly in far fewer classrooms so the children would become familiar with me. Assumption: learning occurs within relationships; if students and teacher are unable to relate to one another, learning and teaching will be negatively affected. Mian Yang had less than a hundred foreigners in the entire city at the time, and a significant number of those were Asians. It is likely that many of the people in the community, let alone the children, had never been in the presence of a nonAsian before. One group of first graders quite literally screamed nonstop for several minutes as I set up for their class. Older children were simply irrepressible. Their teachers would attempt their usual methods with minimal success, and often resorted to truly Draconian controls to restore order. Eventually I discovered that children were more controlled when I used less facial expression and moved my arms less as I spoke. I also found that if I stood tall and straight and clapped slowly and rhythmically above my head, attentive students would join in. Our loud communal clap got the attention of the truly noisy students and the room would be quiet within five or ten seconds. It worked at every grade level.

Evenings and side trips

Mian Yang is a nice sized, walkable city. Chengmian Lu Primary School is located on a nice local street with open-fronted shops at ground level and apartments above. There are several bike shops, small food shops, restaurants, bakeries, stationary shops that sell markers and colored paper, and a market with everything from street food to live chickens. Most of the children live very close to the school, so as I set out for my daily walk to the river, I encountered dozens of smiling students and their grandparents. The riverfront promenade is just around the corner from the school. A short walk along the river in either direction will get you away from crowds. People’s Park, with its many lakeside tea drinking spots, became one of my favorite places to read in the late afternoon. Directly across from People’s Park is Trust Mart, the Chinese version of Kmart, where you can buy toiletries, sanitary items and food. Next door is McDonald’s, where you can satisfy your craving for Sunday morning pancakes if you get there early enough. Not too far away is a great English Pub, Flags, where you can get good beer and have an English conversation at normal speed.

One weekend, Sander and I took a train into Chengdu. We ate good Tex-Mex food, laughed out loud at the lazy residents of the Panda Breeding Research Center and toured through several temples. Chengdu has a large Tibetan area that was fun to walk through, and we visited a big tourist market as well.

Teachers organized several trips on weekends and school breaks. My school coordinator hosted a dumpling making morning at her apartment one weekend, and Sander’s coordinator organized a day visiting a local ‘Agritainment’ farm. On Women’s Day, the twelve women of the English department (and me) were treated by the school to a nice lunch followed by an afternoon of karaoke. After one of our weekly visits to Wu Jia Village schools, we toured a large local park. On the terrace of the teahouse, a Sichuan Opera troupe was practicing for a performance the following day. They invited us to try their instruments and dances, then performed for us. On my last day in Mian Yang, I walked with several of the English teachers through blooming cherry trees to the top of Fu Ling park to play Ma Jong in the teahouse. It has been a beautiful spring.

With Many Thanks

In Mian Yang, Westerners are rare and special visitors. Everywhere we went, including the teachers’ office, Sander and I incited curiosity and interest. With the exception of the sixth grade girls who attempted to climb into my room through the window one afternoon, interest in us and our lives didn’t lead to rude behavior. Most people were honest and direct in their curiosity. Heads would swivel, mouths would drop open, and our apparently astonishing height generated many comments as we passed through the market. We reciprocated with smiles, head nods and greetings. It was a very special, if tiring, feeling to be noticed at every moment. I have never been so conscious of myself as a representative of my culture. Thank you a million times over to Jessie and Xu Bo for giving me this mind-opening opportunity.

This month was wonderful—and filled with wonders. It was a joy to walk into the school courtyard and look up to see children waving from each of the school’s six balcony walkways. It was weirdly interesting to guess the provenance of lunch (ox throat? pig stomach?). It was an epiphany to put together observations and test scores of rural and city schoolchildren and identify the same knowledge gaps we see in the United States. And it was a genuine pleasure each and every day to be included in the lives of the twelve beautiful women of the English Department of Chengmian Lu Primary School. I will always be grateful for their kindness.