September 2011 Issue
August 31, 2011

China - A land of surprises

Author: Debra Calvino
Source: NYSUT United
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Have you ever thought you knew exactly how something was going to be? Then you tried it and you were completely surprised? That sums up my recent 10-day trip to China.

The NEA Foundation, in conjunction with the Pearson Foundation and Education First, took its 2011 Award for Teaching Excellence recipients on a Professional Development Tour of Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. We planned for hot, humid, muggy conditions laced with smog for our June trip.

But, as we arrived in each city, we were accompanied by heavy rain that pushed the smog out and left clear, crisp, comfortable warm weather. That would be the first of many surprises.

Certainly, we would be immersed in Chinese cuisine. I have sampled many dishes and always enjoyed the fortune cookie at the end of the meal.

As each meal was served, I noticed that if I expected to taste something mild, it turned out to be spicy.

If I thought it would be soggy, it was crunchy or if I knew the morsel would be bland, it was sweet. Each meal was an adventure and I was surprised each time — especially when I did not receive one fortune cookie. Watermelon, in season, would signal the end of each meal — breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Our main goal was to sample more than just the cuisine. We would see, smell, hear and experience the people, culture, history and schools of these three big cities. Each was very different but combined to give a more complete view.

I expected to find Hong Kong as modern and trendy. No, it was the financial district of Shanghai built in the last 20 years that was techno-extraordinaire. I knew Beijing would probably be my least favorite when in reality it had the most indigenous flavor and provided some of my most favorite moments. Is a pattern of the unexpected forming?

I was absolutely certain that I would find the schools we visited to be very modern and on the cutting edge. While the experimental school in Shanghai displayed grand pianos and immersion English role-playing classes (where grammar and written composition were discarded in favor of the goal of producing oral fluency), the school in Beijing was not government-funded. Its students did not test into a "normal" public high school. Parents in this Vocational School of Tourism paid for their children to attend high school classes that prepared them for jobs in the tourism industry (only nine years of education is compulsory in China). The condition and supplies, including computer equipment, of this school were anything but state of the art.

Having read extensively about the pressure on Chinese students, I expected to see rigid, expressionless book worms. On the contrary, the students we met were all very personable. Their English fluency ranged from beginner (high school vocational students) to intermediate (Hong Kong primary school students) to expert (experimental middle school students). We observed typical giggling behavior of high school friends and warm, welcoming, affectionate middle school ambassadors. Personality abounded throughout!

Homogeneous groupings were more apparent than heterogeneous groups. The testing seems to begin early and sets a course that takes the students through their schooling. All three schools were different in every way, but the students in each appeared to be the same "level." The only similarity among all three was the absence of any students having a handicapping condition.

The middle school principal presided over an assembly during which he spoke and answered questions. He said they were undertaking a reform in mathematics. Being a math teacher, I asked him to elaborate. Through an interpreter, he shared how they had decided to lower their standards to meet those of the U.S. They would concentrate on "the how" of math more than on specific content to ease the pressure on students. The surprise now turned to shock.

China certainly is a land of surprises. My teaching and future decision-making will be expanded by this journey. Rather than thinking I know about this diverse country and its people, this actual encounter was able to provide me with unexpected insight. Was everything a surprise? No! The Great Wall was the thrilling experience I knew it would be. I would encourage you to journey to the place you know — I bet you will be surprised!

Debra Calvino, shown above with a Chinese student, is a Valley Central TA member and 2010 New York State Teacher of the Year.

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