Alex Jones (Fellow ’10, Hamilton College), documents his experiences living and teaching at Maolan Middle School in Yunxian, Yunnan, by drawing. Here are some recent sketches of his of life in and out of the classroom:
Archive for September, 2011
Caitlin Moss and the other Fellows at Manghuai Middle School 忙怀中学 in Lincang, Yunnan may have faced the “worst-case scenario” in their first week of teaching: a thunderstorm left their entire town without electricity for the first five days of class. As Caitlin relates below, however, the storm left them with “no power, but not powerless.” Read how she and her other team members supported one another to pull off a successful first week of classes “the old fashioned way:”
Power outages are in no way uncommon in rural China. In fact, they pretty much happen in Manghuai every single time it rains. But they don’t usually last for five days—the power is most often back on after a few hours, or one day at the longest. Evidently Manghuai had a special welcome in store for us—the rainstorm last Thursday night knocked out three power lines on the side of a mountain, meaning that the whole town was out of power.
During those five days, how did I (and the rest of my team) survive without power? My life was most certainly dictated by the rising and setting of the sun. I went to bed around 9pm, when the whole town grew pitch black. I got up early, around 6:30am or 7 most mornings depending on when I had class. I read using my book light (thanks, Mom) and had to carry my flashlight (thanks, Aunt Annie!) to go to class at night, to go the bathroom, and pretty much to go anywhere after 8pm. I made shadow puppets on the wall and talked about life with friends who visited for the weekend.
Manghuai’s ability to sustain itself through a power outage really impressed me. Of course, there were no cold drinks or ice cream in the entire town. But aside from that (relatively) small problem, Manghuai ran off of coal and generators for most other things, namely cooking food, which was by far my greatest concern. There are a handful of restaurants in my new town, and the majority of them stayed open through the outage. I was even able to get dumplings or rice noodles in the morning for breakfast every day.
Maybe even more impressive is that school started on time. Without access to class rosters on the computer, printed schedules to give each teacher, or many of the other essential first-day-of-school materials (the loudspeaker and bell didn’t even work!), Manghuai still managed to conduct a smooth start to the school year.
Although I had my moments of crisis when I thought I would die if I could not get on the Internet, I also shocked myself with an ability to just teach through the outage. This might not sound like such a big deal—sure, I could lesson plan on paper, and I still had a blackboard and flashcards, etc. to use with my students. But compared to the extremely comfortable conditions of Summer Institute, during which I printed out worksheets for my students almost every day at one of the two print shops across the street, and wrote extremely detailed lesson plans on my computer that I pored over for hours, having no power was pretty extreme. The lack of power meant that not only was I cut off from the lesson planning resources I had collected on my computer over the past two months at Summer Institute, but I also had no access to emotional support from home since there was no Internet.
At one point I shed some tears over my lost connection to the rest of civilization. And then, I sucked it up and moved on. For the first week, I was scheduled to teach lessons on classroom expectations, goals, and values—basically strategies to invest my students in their learning and begin to establish clear communication with them in a teacher-student relationship. If I had been teaching mostly English grammar and content, lesson planning would have been different since I could have referred to the textbook, supplementary practice books, and other materials that I bought. But all of my investment and management plans were on my computer. At one point, I resorted to taking pictures of word documents on my computer screen using my digital camera so that I could refer to them later. I copied many, many things out by hand. I modified the many plans that I had made for the first week and scrapped anything that I had planned to print. For a get-to-know-you survey that I wanted to print out, I ended up copying all 18 questions onto the blackboard for my students to answer. In short, I learned to do things the old fashioned way.
Although it definitely SUCKED at the time, in the long run, I think doing things the old fashioned way was a really valuable skill for me to practice as a teacher in the rural Chinese context. I have 53 students in my classroom, which means that printing things out all the time (especially since we don’t have consistent or free access to printers and copiers at school) is not a sustainable way of doing things. So much for my fun worksheets. But the ideas behind these worksheets, and what I am asking students to think about, remains intact, clip art or not. So I got through most of my investment and management strategies, even if it was in a way that I initially saw as less than ideal, and I even started teaching a bit of content (woohoo ABC’s!).
And as far as emotional resources go, I am definitely lucky to have three great teammates and some good friends who I could call on here. Before my phone battery ran out, that was my main lifeline to the rest of China. My teammates and I did a couple of anti-rain dances, sent up our prayers for power, and collaborated on first-week lessons in the meantime. And we read and talked and threatened the world that it better give us our power back or else. It was definitely nice to know that I wasn’t alone.
And finally, finally—our prayers were answered! We got power back on Monday night, but China had one last cruel joke to play on us: there was another rainstorm, and we lost power again for another hour or so after just having gotten it back. By this time, Karman, Shi Jingyi, Hu Zhenfeng and I were old hands—we huddled together in Karman’s room and played the Chinese version of Stratego to pass the time (let it be known that I am not very good at this game). The power came back on before we had finished the game, but we kept playing anyway.
Besides teaching core-subject classes, many Teach For China Fellows organize a range of
extracurricular programs and other projects that engage both students and communities outside of the classroom. In one such project, Hu Xiaodan 胡晓丹 (Fellow ’10, China Academy of Art), organized a student-run radio station at Lincang Number 2 Middle School临沧市第二中学 . Students from her class were split into groups and tasked with preparing a weekly program on a variety of subjects, including music, literature, science, sports and news. The different teams then broadcast one program a day to the school, in both English and Chinese.
“I gave students the flexibility to choose their own role within the project, from editing, to conducting interviews, to background research, to giving the actual broadcast. That way, each student had chance to highlight their own abilities,” remarked Xiaodan. “I had one 7thgrade girl who was quite studious in class and generally received good grades, but was incredibly introverted and shy. An upsetting experience as a young girl had left her unwilling to speak in front of groups. She would even sometimes develop a stutter when she spoke in front of the class. I brought her into the radio program work behind the scenes and help prepare the material for each broadcast. After just sitting and listening through many broadcasts, she began to read off of the script herself. By the end of the year, she even occasionally raised her hand to answer questions in class. She told me that she is incredibly happy that she now feels more self-confident.”
The program became wildly popular and Xiaodan received a flood of applicants for next year’s program. Xiaodan has set up a system whereby new applicants must first go through an “internship” period where they work under one of the current radio station members. This way, current student participants have a chance to develop their own leadership skills as they guide their classmates in the workings of the station.
Through projects like the radio station, Xiaodan and other Fellows are demonstrating the value of creative and participatory teaching techniques to encourage student engagement, build confidence, and spur cognitive development across a broad range of skills