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Shawn Martin (’12 Fellow, University of California-San Diego) is currently a 1st year Fellow in Dali, Yunnan.  She reflects on what impact she hopes to have on her students outside of academics in this upcoming semester.

After traveling throughout Southeast Asia for 4.5 weeks and being away from my village and China for more than a few days span, I feel refreshed and somewhat ready to begin the next semester.

Prior to finals last semester I had a rather pessimistic view of my impact on my students’ lives and my role as a teacher in my village. My students actually ended up performing higher than I expected on their finals which gave me hope that I am actually being an effective English teacher. In addition, it renewed my faith in their abilities and dedication as students.

Thanks to some comments I received on my blog post about my impact, as well as some extended reflecting I have done while traveling, I had altered my perception. My success should not be measured just academically. Just having a presence at my school I am exposing my students to the outside world. I am probably the first person outside of their village or county they have ever met. They are the first village children I have met. This new relationship is mutually beneficial and exposing both parties to ideas, customs, habits, etc. that neither party has ever had close contact with. Looking back on my semester, I realize how I have peaked my students curiosity for learning about the outside world through stories about America and pictures of my time traveling in China. Indeed, my students have gasped in excitement when I show them pictures of the Great Wall and pandas. Conversely  my students have made me more curious about village life and their individual families and customs.

I have also realized that my goals should not be the same for every student. Not every student is destined to go to high school and college. That was the path that fit me, but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily the best suited path for all of my students. Some will find success in their own ways whether it be in agriculture, continuing their parents’ business or opening up a successful restaurant in the village. The goal I should have for all students is the instill in them a sense of hard-work, responsibility and desire to set goals and achieve. No matter if this hard-work and responsibility applies more to their studies or taking care of their siblings, these are essential traits in life.

Hannah Kerne (’12 Fellow, Saint Louis University) is currently a 1st year Fellow in Yunnan.  She reflects on her experiences engaging with her local community through food and music.

After spending the weekend in Dali to bring in 2013, I returned to LiuHe on New Year’s Day. I thought I could get some relaxation in before classes started up. Of course, we ran into government officials on the way back to our dorms. There was yet another pig killing that we could not escape. What is a pig killing exactly? At this time of year, everyone in LiuHe kills the pig that they have been fattening up and invite everyone they know to come eat that pig and drink copious amounts of 白酒 (rice wine). When I say eat pig, I actually mean eat pig fat. Pig fat, along with every other unusual (to Americans) part of the animal, is eaten. The actual meat is cured and eaten for months.  Eating the pig fat is how  you show respect to the family that has killed that pig. So, you often get asked “how many pieces of pig fat have you eaten?”

At this particular pig killing dinner, we were lucky enough to also eat beef–a rarity in my village. We can always buy pork at market day, but if we want other types of meat we have to buy our animal of choice, kill it, and cook it. With this being said, this pig killing (relative to the 15+ I have been to this month) was fantastic.

After the meal, I was asked by the local Baizu women to put on Bai minority clothing and dance with them. A mother of one of my students happily walked twenty minutes to her home to get her Bai clothing for me to wear. I felt so honored to have been able to wear that clothing. The baijiu was flowing, a bonfire was lit, and the dancing started. Local Bai men started playing Baizu music with instruments I have never seen or heard before. There were about 50 Bai women, men, and children (along with me and Johan ), dancing to traditional Baizu music around a bonfire.  It was fascinating to see them collectively take part in their customs. Lucky for me, I have been practicing two Baizu dances that local teachers taught me. This came in handy.

Hannah Kerne in Bai Mniority clothing

Up until this point, I had not felt I was part of the LiuHe community–I did not feel connected. This is not because I did not feel welcome; it was and is because the challenges that accompany language barriers and cultural differences. With this language barrier, there are fewer opportunities and methods to connect with people. By dancing and singing with the people of LiuHe , I felt the cultural exchange was on their terms–something they are clearly more comfortable with. This got me in touch with the soul of their culture. We did not have to say a thing to one another. I imagine we were all feeling a similar feeling–joy. Everyone kept asking the person next to them “你开心了吗?” (Are you happy?) Their energy, in addition to their response, said “yes”. By learning their dances, wearing their clothing, listening to their music, I say to them “I respect you, and I want to learn from you.” My efforts were well received to say the least.

This dinner was a classic case of “Surprise–don’t plan anything. You live in rural China” I often complain about this sort of thing, as these pig killings usually come at inopportune times (i.e. when I need to plan for classes, when I need to sleep, when I actually have class, when I have  拉肚子”aka the world’s worst stomach ache”). This one in particular was a well-needed reminder of the fact that these pig killings are my opportunity to connect with the community– 关系via 杀猪(connection via pig killing).

Hua Sha (’11 Fellow, Fudan University) is currently a second year Fellow in Shantou, Guangdong.  She was invited to share her reflections about her work and students at Teach For China’s 2nd annual Gala in Hong Kong on Saturday November 3rd, 2012.  Her class tested above average for the first time in the school’s history.  Below is a portion of what she shared with the audience that evening.

My name is Hua Sha. I graduated from Fudan University, and I am a Teach For China Fellow at Dazhai School in Shantou, Guangdong. When I first arrived at Dazhai, I saw nearly 70 students squeezed into tiny desks and benches in every classroom. I saw students sweating through their clothes because of the humid weather, I saw students running barefoot in the playground.

Most of my students’ parents are laborers and work more than 10 hours every day. They expect their kids to drop out of school and earn extra income for the family as soon as possible. Even though there are laws against child labor, over 50 percent of the girls in my class leave school every day to work in factories with appalling conditions for 2-5 hours to make extra money. The girls had never been encouraged to dream anything bigger than factory workers. Dazhai School has had the lowest scores in the county for over 10 years. But I told my students that I was confident we would reach our goal as long as we worked incredibly hard and believed in our ability to achieve.

 

I realized that to get my students excited about their work, we had to set strong goals. We had posters and bar graphs in the classroom of our trip towards the big goal, and every one of my students drew their own progress charts after each test. Day after day, I saw the changes in my students: they would loudly and proudly call our class motto “Never give up.” They would share stories in front of the class how they achieved a goal by believing in themselves and making efforts. My student 李泽玲 was not sure if she could continue school because she had 9 brothers and sisters in the family to support, and her grades were below the average. After several individual talks, she set a goal of 15 points progress for herself, and in fact increased her score by 20 points. I will never forget that during my home visit, 李泽玲 told her mother with a smile that because of her hard work she would definitely get into high school in the future. I was proud of her academic achievement, but more importantly, I was proud that she believed in herself.

 

Simply discovering their dreams was an impressive step for my students. But it was their academic progress that proved to me and to themselves that those dreams were possible. On their final exam, my class scored first in the school, and tested above-average in our county. This was the first time in school history that had ever happened. I knew my students were getting into 8th grade with a belief that they could achieve, and continue achieving. One of my students, Zheng Xinxin, wrote to her pen pal saying that, her English teacher has completely changed her view of learning in school. She now believes that even a girl, who was once at the bottom of her class, can achieve great things.

I am one Fellow at one school. This year, we have nearly 220 Fellows across Yunnan and Guangdong, reaching nearly 33,000 students. We believe in our students, and tonight, we invite you to believe with us.

“Through ordinary hard work, day in and day out, we produced extraordinary results.”

Zhang Qiang (Fellow ’10, Tsinghua University) recently completed his two-year term as a Fellow. As a math teacher at Dazhai Middle School in Yunnan, he led his class to improve from the bottom ranking at his school to the second-best in their grade. This fall, he will join Teach For China’s Chinese Recruiting team to work as full-time staff. Read his story to find out more about what he learned from his time as a Fellow and how he decided to stay involved with Teach For China. 

I remember the first day I walked into my classroom at Dazhai. The

Zhang Qiang (Fellow 10, Tsinghua University) with some of his students

desks and tables were falling apart, and my 53 students were crammed into too few seats. Dahzai is a poor community in a mountain valley, over 160 kilometers away from the prefectural capital.  My students rarely met anyone from outside the small town, and I remember their expressions as they stared up at me with meek curiosity.

We faced a lot of obstacles, which became only more apparent with each day. I struggled to understand the local dialect, and half of my students could barely speak Mandarin. I walked into class preparing to teach a standard math curriculum, while many of my students struggled with basic concepts they should have learned years before. A girl named Susan, who was very nice but always silent, did not even know what a triangle was in our first class.  I was naïve enough to think that these students would understand the role that hard work plays in learning, as I had at their age. My students were naïve enough to think that I, as a teacher from a big city, could magically make their grades improve without assigning any homework.

We all had a lot to learn. Most importantly, though, I believed from the

Zhang Qiang and his American teammate Gareth Collins (Fellow ’10, University of Michigan) with some of their students at Dazhai Middle School

beginning that my students could overcome the challenges they faced; and my students believed in me and my vision for our class. We trusted one another, and we worked hard, every day. I painstakingly planned out each lesson, and they tried their hardest on each homework assignment. I told them about my life and about how I got into Tsinghua University, and they told me about their lives and their aspirations. I spent hours outside of class tutoring the struggling students, and they gathered outside my dorm during their free time to raise questions and ask for extra help. Through ordinary hard work, day in and day out, we produced extraordinary results. Having started as the sixth-ranked math class in our grade, we rose one ranking in each successive semester. Two years later, as we approach the end of the semester, my class is now the second-highest ranked in our grade.

Susan , the silent girl, is now in the top 10 in our class. More importantly, in the letter she wrote to me when I left, she said she is now very convinced and confident of going to high school and college. She wrote that this change all came from our sincere conversations about growing up and from our relentless efforts in the past two years. When I read many letters like this from my students on my last trip out of Dazhai , I just could not help crying, for my kids, myself, and all we had accomplished together in two years.

I am so proud of my students’ hard work and of all they have accomplished. Nevertheless, there are so many reminders of how far we have left to go. Today, my classroom is slightly less crowded with only 45 students. Over the course of two years, eight students dropped out, closing the door on a whole range of opportunities. Many of my students like to joke with me, “Teacher, when I’m a student at Tsinghua, I bet I’ll be more handsome than you!” They like to joke about the future, but I can tell from their expressions that they want the joke to come true. They truly want to go to Tsinghua someday, or at least to attend university and to have the choices that a college degree would afford them. However, with so much uncertainty and so many obstacles still in front of them, they only dare to voice this dream as a joke. All I could do was take every opportunity to remind them of how much we had accomplished, and of how much more they can accomplish in the next two years, and the two years after that, as long as they remain brave and don’t lose sight of their goals.

I also know that my work is far from finished, and that there is so much more that I can do to close the gap for my students and for thousands like them in other schools. Now that my two years as a teacher are over, I will join Teach For China’s staff working to recruit new Chinese college graduates to join in our efforts. With each new Fellow, we come one step closer to realizing our common vision and helping every child in China enjoy the education they deserve.

Wyatt Bruton (Fellow ’11, University of North Carolina) teaches English at Zhiying Middle School 植英中学 in Shantou 汕头, Guangdong. He knows that one of his most important tasks as a teacher is to inspire his students to believe in the importance of their educations. This week, he led a group of his students to visit the campus of Shantou University, giving them their first ever opportunity to set foot on a university campus and showing them what they have to gain by continuing in their educations. 

Every day here in rural China turns out to be surprising and fascinating in its own way, but some days stick out above all the rest.

Today, on one of those days. I had the privilege of taking 40 of the students from my class at Zhiying Middle School to

Wyatt’s students at Shantou University

Shantou University. This was a dream come true for me, and was a trip which I believe could have a huge impact on my students’ futures. One of the core challenges that we face as Fellows lies in the effort to invest our students in learning. Only if our students believe that their educations are important to them will they apply the effort and the persistence that they need in order to overcome the obstacles before them. Many of my students had never left the area surrounding their village, much less been to Shantou or to a university campus. I organized this trip so that they could see, for the first time, what they had to gain by continuing to pursue their educations.

We arrived at the gate around 9:30AM, where we met several professors and 10 current university students with diverse majors and stories. They led us around the beautiful Shantou University campus, where we went in the Art & Design Lab, Science laboratories, the Marine Ecology Department and the Literature Department. Students were able to see first-hand what daily life looks like on a college campus.

Visiting a Marine Biology Lab

We ate with local students in the cafeteria for lunch, and then headed to the library (known to be the most modern university library in all of Asia), where we took part in my favorite part of the day. The university students introduced themselves and shared their stories of how they ended up at Shantou University. They challenged my kids to work hard to defy the odds, to start planning now for their future, and to think critically. They challenged them to not just accept the status quo of what everyone in their village has done, but to dream big and set big goals. They gave my students the opportunity to ask questions about everything from daily life to different possible majors.

The Zhiying Stars on this trip today have some of the highest scores in the 7th grade out of their almost 900 classmates, yet most have not had college on their radar simply because they have just never thought it could be possible. Many of their parents didn’t study past middle school, and they may have never before met someone who took the path to college. For someone from rural China, getting into college is difficult, but it is impossible. I believe that the first

Wyatt’s students spoke with Shantou University students about the value of higher education

step to putting my students on that path is to show them what a university education looks like and what they have to gain from it.

In China, going to college is not the only path to success, but it certainly is one, and I hope that today I planted seeds of hope that will grow a passion and resolve to believe that their goals are achievable no matter what the statistics say.

The visit prompted me to look back 10 years ago to when I was in 7th grade—I had no idea at the time of the epic life adventure in front of me that would intersect my story with these amazing students. I can’t wait to see where they all are in 10+ years. I truly believe I’m teaching China’s future leaders in the fields of science, journalism, art, business, education, engineering, government, and math. 

This spring, Teach For China teamed up with the National Football League to introduce American Football to several of our placement schools in Yunnan. Three Fellows–Will Keleher (Fellow ’11, Georgetown University), Ben Cutrell (Fellow ’11, Gettysburg College), and Wang Yaoming 王耀明 (Fellow ‘11, Zhongshan University)– have been hosting weekly practices for their students. Read Will’s report below on how students have been flocking to the game–and how it’s given girls at his school a rare chance to build life skills through sports. 

The NFL flag football progtwram we’re implementing at our school has already

Fellows Will Keleher and Tim Worm talk their students through the basics

impacted many students and brought a lot of happy memories. The amount of interest among students, and within the community in general, for football caught us by surprise. We’ve played with elementary students, our own middle school students, and have even played catch with local teachers who were curious about the strange ball. The level of excitement and enthusiasm is incredibly gratifying. Even though we’ve limited participation in our regular football practices to members of Classes 73 and 76, the two 7th grade classes at Heqing Number Two Middle School taught by Teach For China Fellows, the number of participants still far exceeds our supply of equipment. It’s a good problem to have!

We hold practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays between students’ two periods of

Ben Cutrell shows videos of American football to his students to introduce them to the game

evening study hall, as well as a longer practice on Sunday after they get back from visiting their homes and before their Sunday evening class. The program is still very much in its early phase, so we continue to receive new interested students and catch them up on the basics as quickly as possible. At each practice we generally spend a few minutes tossing around the football and working on basic technique, after which we run a drill that’s more similar to a real game. So far, we’ve have the students run routes with quarterbacks and receivers, played games of “tag the flags,” and done possession drills with two teams, a football, and the flags.

My favorite part about the program is the opportunity that it’s giving girls to participate in a sport. At our school, as in other parts of rural China, girls have few opportunities to participate in sports. The male students at Heqing Number Two

Flag football has given girls at Heqing Number Two Middle School a rare opportunity to participate in sports, building self-confidence and teamwork skills

Middle School dominate the basketball courts and the ping pong tables. Though many of the girls at our school are interested in playing basketball, would love to learn to play soccer, and would excel at volleyball, they are prevented from joining their male peers because of persisting gender inequality at the school. On a few occasions I have helped kick male students off the basketball courts to give the girls a chance to play, and they greatly enjoyed the opportunity. Apart from missing out on this chance to enjoy themselves, female students also miss opportunities to build important life skills like teamwork and perseverance that would boost their chances to succeed both in and out of the classroom. Seeing the girls running around, vying with each other to catch a ball, and doing their best to throw it as far as they can has been incredibly exciting for me. I’m really looking forward to working with the girls more and giving them the chance to compete in five vs. five games.

Our school’s flag football program is only a few weeks old, but we’ve made remarkable progress so far. At the beginning, most students and teachers had no idea what a football was, and we still attracted groups of perplexed onlookers whenever we hold a practice. We’re still working on basic skills, and have transitioned into short scrimmages between teams of five. I’m genuinely excited to progress onto full games and start to build a real sense of competition. One of the other Teach For China fellows implementing the flag football program, Yaoming, is also located in Heqing, and we’re already planning on having inter-school games. In the coming weeks we plan to screen game footage for students so that they can see what they’re working towards, and I can’t wait to start hosting full games between the students!

Fellows have a lot to learn about their students by visiting their homes and understanding their lives outside the classroom. Kristen Faiferlick (Fellow ’10, Middlebury College) and Laura Zulliger (Fellow ’10, Davidson College) recently spent a weekend visiting the homes of their students in a village near their school in Luodang 洛党. They learned, among other things, that “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Tortise and the Hare” are popular children’s stories in China, too!

With the semester almost halfway over, Laura and I decided it was time for us to go visit some of our students’

Kristen Faiferlick with some of her students in front of their old elementary school in the town of Tianxin

homes. We had enjoyed teaching them about American customs and habits, such as celebrating Halloween, and we were eager to learn more about their lives. So, last weekend, we walked with six of our students to their homes in Tianxin 田心 (“Field heart”), a village across the valley from Luodang. Tianxin is deceptively far from our school. From our dorm window, we can see the village spread across the mountain, but walking to the furthest home in Tianxin can take over an hour.

After Saturday morning class, Laura, our students, and I walked down the road and across the river that stretches around Luodang (which I learned is named Yinchun He 迎春河, “Welcome Spring River”). We stopped along the way at each student’s home, meeting their parents or grandparents. In many homes, one or both parents are working in other cities or provinces, so only a grandmother or grandfather is present to care for the children. Most of the students we visited were lucky to have at least one parent in their home. Troy, Sandy, and Meena also had adorable younger sisters!

I learned a lot about my students from seeing them interact with one another and with their families. I knew that Troy was quiet and gentle from talking with him in class and seeing him patiently work with some of our class’s most challenging students, but seeing him joke with his sister helped me understand how tender-hearted he really is. I was also struck by how sensitive he is in dealing with his family’s pets. In many cases in China, pets are hit or kicked, but Troy told me that they neither hit nor kick their dog or cat.

Once we reached June’s home in the heart of Tianxin, we sat in the morning sunlight and told fables that we learned

The village of Luodang, as viewed from Tianxin

when we were young. Apparently, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a Chinese story! Additionally, all of my students already knew “The Tortoise and the Hare,” even though I had been sure that it was an Aesop’s fable. It seems good stories travel fast! We had fun discussing what each of these tales can teach us about life.

At Sandy’s house, we ate a quick lunch of rice, fried eggs and soup, and then headed up the mountain to see Meena and Savannah’s house. We made a detour on the way up to see Savannah’s favorite spot: a tiny stream that pooled over smooth rocks. We spent some time splashing in the pools, then continued up the tiny trail to the upper level of Tianxin. Finally, we reached Savannah’s house. It wasn’t a typical home: for the next few months, Savannah will be living with all her furniture under a tarp, waiting until her new house is built. All of her extended family members still living in Fengqing had joined to help tear down the old house and build the new one. We had to step gingerly around piles of rubble and avoid falling pieces of roof as we approached her makeshift home. Although the family will be cold under their tarp, in a few months, they’ll have a brand new home to live in!

After seeing each of their homes and meeting their family, Laura and I headed back down the mountain. It’s always

Some of Kristen and Laura's students at home

satisfying to interact with students outside of class, and we could feel their pride as they showed us their village’s elementary school, their favorite swimming hole, and introduced us to their parents. I feel blessed to be teaching such wonderful children. Getting to know them better makes me more dedicated to our mission and want to work even harder to give them the brightest future I can!