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Archive for November, 2011

In this post, Caitlin Moss (Fellow ’10, Georgetown University) describes some of the invaluable lessons that she has learned from local teachers at her school and from her Teach For China teammates. This process of ongoing feedback and improvement is crucial to Fellows’ efforts to become even more effective teachers.

Here at Manghuai Middle School, we have an open door policy about observing classes. Pretty much any teacher can go observe any other teacher’s class at any time. At first, I was somewhat intimidated by this policy. As a first time teacher, it seemed pretty scary that I would have other, more experienced teachers scrutinizing my every move. Never mind that I had been formally observed by my (American) Program Manager during Summer Institute–I was pretty freaked out by the idea of local teachers watching me. “What if my Chinese doesn’t make sense? What if they hate my teaching style? What if they wonder why the heck I’m here and would rather that I just go back to America?” These doubts all ran through my head like a broken record. And thankfully, none of them turned out to be true.

Caitlin Moss ("Fellow '11, Georgetown University)

When Lu Laoshi 老师, my mentor teacher, started observing me during the first week of school, I got earfuls and earfuls of advice. A lot of it was actually really helpful, but sometimes the packaging it came in was not always my favorite. I didn’t particularly enjoy being told what I could be doing differently immediately after class, in front of all of my students. Thankfully, things have changed for the better. When Lu Laoshi  comes to observe my classes now, we usually have a quick debrief afterwards in the teacher’s lounge, which is a much better way of interacting (at least in my opinion!). She is still extremely direct with her advice, but most days, I’m glad that she is giving me her honest opinion.

During the first few weeks of school, I was still trying to get used to my class, and wasn’t able to make the time to observe other teachers’ classes. But I soon realized that it is a two-way street with Lu laoshi, and that observation should be a priority of mine. Given that during our school’s opening ceremony, she was one of a handful of teachers to receive a hongbao 红包, or a bonus, for getting some of the highest test scores in the school, it was very obvious that she could be a great resource for me. So, I have started popping in to the back of Lu laoshi’s classes whenever I can find time. By watching Lu Laoshi, I have learned her methods for giving her students quality opportunities to practice new material and then to demonstrate mastery to her. She has a great way of having students practice writing new vocabulary individually, and then assigning a word to each student to write on the blackboard.  Occasionally, I’ve also picked up good explanations of some really tough grammar points from her class. After class, she always asks me if I have any advice for her, and sometimes I help her with the pronunciation of tricky words like “dictionary.” As far as collaboration goes, I think we’re on the right track now.

Caitlin Moss in her classroom

I have also listened to a number of my co-fellow Karman’s classes. From Karman, I have learned so much about how to take a lot of the tools given to us during training and modify them to better suit the rural Chinese context. For example, we have a 5 – step lesson plan framework that is designed to fit within a 45-minute class. It goes something like this:

1. Opening

2. Introduction to New Material

3. Guided Practice

4. Independent Practice

5. Closing

At first, I was sticking rather closely to this structure and tried to use it in almost every lesson. However, 45 minutes is often not enough time for students to master a tough grammar concept or completely memorize 15 new vocabulary words. Karman’s method of stretching out the 5 – step lesson plan over the course of a day (over two or three class periods) has worked much better in my classroom. If students have more chances to practice new content, they do MUCH better on their dictations, exit tickets, and other mini-assessments. Now, I grade fewer, but usually better quality assessments that inform me about students’ level of mastery for our material each day.

Observing both Karman and Lu laoshi has been immensely helpful to me. One of the most difficult things about being a brand new teacher is that the learning cycle keeps going and going and going. It’s a LOT of hard work.  I plan classes, execute them, and in doing so, experiment with new ideas, ALL the time. I get feedback on all of this on a class-by-class basis. Even if no one observes my class, I can tell, based on how my students are doing, what worked and what didn’t. Observation definitely helps to speed up that learning process. Sometimes it can be hard to watch yourself fail. But the thing is, I know that I fail in at least one minor way (and often a more major one…) every single day. Since I already have that awareness, having someone else point out my weaknesses to me is that much less painful. And sometimes it helps me focus my energy on the more pressing problems that I must resolve sooner rather than later. It gives me priorities and a direction for my growth as a teacher.

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Many rural school systems don’t offer English education until middle school, leaving their students at a huge disadvantage to those students who start learning the language earlier. Last year, former Fellow and Program Manager Ken Saathoff oversaw an exciting new pilot program that brought English education into rural elementary schools, with extraordinary results: read his story below. 

My name is Ken Saathoff. I’m a graduate of Harvard University, where I studied English literature. After graduating, I came to China as a member of the initial cohort of Teach For China Fellows, teaching in Liuhe middle school in northwestern Yunnan. After completing my Fellowship, I came on staff, working to train and support new Fellows.

One of the most challenging things about teaching English in rural Yunnan is how, from the first day of the first year of English, your students are already so far behind. Seventh grade students at my school, for instance, were taking their first year of English. And yet, the final exam that assessed their performance at the end of the year was the exact same test as the one administered to their peers in Dali and Kunming, who had been studying English since first grade and, often, spent years doing private tutoring in English after school. The playing field is anything but level.

Ken Saathoff (Fellow '09, Harvard University)

Looking at how far behind our students were, it struck me: it didn’t have to be this way. Our Fellows were already providing a quality education to these students in middle school; what if they could start working with these same students at a much younger age, building solid foundations and preventing students from falling behind in the first place. The impact our Fellows could make in elementary schools would be tremendous.

However, across the board, schools prioritize middle school English, and think of elementary school English as a placeholder at best, or completely unnecessary at worst. It was difficult to draw the correlation for them between students’ experience with English in elementary school and their performance on middle school exams. It would take too long to measure. It was a waste of time and resources.

It took extensive planning, much collaboration with local partners and the enthusiasm of Teach For China staff and Fellows alike, but we finally found a partner in Xingfu elementary school. In fact, Xingfu’s principal was so eager to pilot the program that he dramatically increased English hours for all students and brought in three Teach For China Fellows to co-teach all third and fourth graders in the school. At Teach For China’s recommendation, that also adopted an international standard curriculum that has proven results with young learners of English. The pieces were in place, and it was time to see what would result.

A few months after the program was implemented, I got a chance to visit Xingfu. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I told myself to reserve judgment – after only a few months, particularly with new teachers who had not been trained to deal with young children, it would be an accomplishment if these students were well-behaved and making real progress on the alphabet and phonics.

What I saw in Xingfu shocked me. Walking down the street in the village, young children would approach me and speak to me, not in Chinese, but in standard, unaccented American English. They would engage me in the types of conversations that eluded most of their high school-age peers. English was clearly alive for them, something they felt comfortable communicating with on basic topics, rather than a series of memorized phrases and grammar rules. By the end of the year, the local teachers and administration at Xingfu were so impressed with our students’ English level that they served as willing ambassadors for our elementary school program, advocating with other local partners for the benefits of prioritizing early education. Today, we have over forty Fellows placed in elementary schools in Yunnan and Guangdong, a number we expect to see continue to grow over the next several years.

These types of experiments, this type of partnership building – it’s utterly crucial to our work. Seeing the impressive results at Xingfu fills me with hope that this system can undergo the change it so desperately needs. It’s the kind of work that’s happening in Xingfu that will dramatically change the face of rural education in China.

I teach for the children of Xingfu. I teach for China.

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“I know that if the student at the bottom of the class can succeed, then they ALL can.” 

Chen Yanmei 陈燕梅 (Fellow ’10, Shantou University), told this story to the guests at last week’s Teach For China benefit dinner in Hong Kong, about the student at the bottom of her class, and how she pushed him to achieve.

My name is 陈燕梅. I graduated from Shantou University. I majored in Journalism. Now, I am a 2010-2012 Teach For China Fellow. I currently teach 7thgrade Chinese–last year I taught in Yunnan, and this year I am teaching in Shantou, Guangdong.

Chen Yanmei (Fellow '10, Shantou University)

When I first arrived in my classroom in Yunnan last year, I was completely overwhelmed by the challenge before me. I had 44 students on the first day of school and after only half a semester, 9 boys had dropped out. They were all significantly behind in their school work and felt that their efforts in the classroom were pointless.  After a few weeks, it became clear to me, that my students had it in them to succeed, they were simply not motivated. I set forth a goal for my class: 98% of them would improve their test scores.

One of my students, Li Ronghua, who comes from a Dai minority village, presented a unique challenge. He had scored a 2 out of 120.  He could barely read or write Chinese. In class, he looked down and did not dare to speak.

I became determined to help Li Ronghua succeed. One day, I decided to visit his family. His parents informed me that he is very shy and can only speak a little Mandarin. But, they told me about his passion for driving cars. He learned how to ride a motorbike on his own when he was 9. I saw a glimmer of pride in his parents’ eyes when they spoke about Li Ronghua’s driving. I told both him and his parents, if he graduates middle school, he can find a technical school and he can prepare for a career as a professional driver. But, in order to do this, he needs to gain a basic education.

I made a plan to focus on Li’s writing and speaking.  In order to get him to speak, I encouraged him to speak with me in both mandarin and Dai dialect. I don’t understand Dai, so his best friend would translate for me. I asked him to write 5 sentences, twice a week, in Mandarin Chinese. He could write about anything he wanted—even motorbikes!

Li Ronghua had the lowest test scores in Chen Yanmei's class

But the process wasn’t easy. He would often forget to turn in his writing homework despite my reminders. At times, I doubted if it was worth spending so much time on him. But I knew we were on the right track when I read what he wrote on his midterm exam: “Chen Laoshi, I do so poorly but you never give up on me. This semester is the happiest I’ve ever been in school.” Much of the words he wrote were incorrect but I was so moved when I read it. I promised myself to be more patient with him and to celebrate every small achievement.

Once day he tried to speak in class, I asked his classmates to applaud and support him. He was so surprised and inspired by this and he began to feel more and more confident speaking Mandarin and he began to hand in his homework. I’d call his parents regularly to praise his improvement in school.

He still has difficulties speaking and writing, but he is not afraid of them anymore. On the last test, he scored a 38. He is still the lowest score in the class, but he no longer fears the hard work that he KNOWS will lead to his success.

Li Ronghua is just one of the many students in my class. But I know that if the student at the bottom of the class can succeed, then they ALL can.

At TFC, We set big goals for our students because we know they can achieve them. We challenge our students and ourselves because we see great potential. We work hard because we believe that we should be the change we want to see in the world.

I teach for Li Ronghua. I teach for China.

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BEIJING, China–October was a month of frenzied activity in the Teach For China Beijing office to prepare for a visit last week from Wendy Kopp, founder and CEO of Teach For America and Teach For All. This trip, Ms. Kopp’s second to China, was planned as part of an effort to raise Teach For China’s public profile here. The trip included meetings with a range of prominent figures, including American Ambassador Gary Locke, CEO of the SOHO real estate empire Zhang Xin, and Yang Lan, a prominent television producer and host of her own interview show who is sometimes referred to as “the Oprah of China.”

Ms. Kopp also served as the keynote speaker at Teach For China’s first ever two benefit dinners. The two events, held last week Beijing and in Hong Kong, brought together a range of prominent figures from the Chinese corporate, nonprofit, and government spheres. Ms. Kopp spoke about Teach For

Wendy Kopp speaks at the Teach For China Benefit Dinner in Beijing

America’s successes and about the lessons learned from the first four years of running Teach For All, which now includes 23 education nonprofits working in different countries throughout the world. “One of the major unknowns we faced in the first years of starting Teach For All was the question of whether this model would work anywhere else,” she said, after all, there was no way to know if a model which has proved so effective in America would generate results against the particular challenges of education inequality in other countries. What we’ve found, though, is that there is a universal power in channeling a nation’s young people to tackling its most fundamental problem.” The benefit dinner in Hong Kong, through a combination of donations, ticket sales, and a charity auction, raised over 2 million Hong Kong dollars (over 250 thousand USD).

Ms. Kopp’s time in Beijing also included a lunch with the staff in the Beijing office, who shared with her the challenges and successes currently being faced by their different teams. “It’s amazing to see the progress you’ve made since I last visited almost a year ago,” she said. “You are light-years ahead of where you were last time I visited. There are a lot of challenges ahead of you at this stage, but you guys are asking the right questions.”

Wendy Kopp eats lunch with the Teach For China Beijing staff

Leaving Beijing, Ms. Kopp stopped over briefly in Shantou, and had the chance to sit in on several Fellows’ classes. She spent over an hour in the class of Wyatt Bruton (Fellow ’11, UNC Chapel Hill). “She re-centered us on an ever-important question: given the challenges and all the circumstances outside of our control, what can we do to make a lasting impact in the lives of our kids?” said Wyatt of the visit.

Wendy Kopp with Wyatt Bruton (Fellow '11)

In retrospect, the visit was a success on several fronts. Ms. Kopp’s support proved of tremendous value to Teach For China’s efforts to both build strong relationships with influential leaders in China and to meet its fundraising goals. Ms. Kopp’s over two decades of experience working in education reform provided lessons for staff and Fellows alike to apply both in and out of the classroom. Perhaps most importantly, though, in the words of Wyatt Bruton, the visit served as a powerful reminder “that our daily work here is part of a global story bigger than ourselves.”

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