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Posts Tagged ‘Education’

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. 

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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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As autumn descends on rural Yunnan, Kristen Faiferlick (Fellow ’10), reflects on her progress with her new class thus far. Among the highlights from the first semester: using music to motivate students to learn, and and getting to know her students’ dreams and aspirations: 

With October already halfway over, winter is on its way. We feel it occasionally, like when we step out of the bright sunshine into a shadow, or at night when the sun sinks and the air suddenly feels unseasonably chilly. But for now, we’re enjoying the last weeks of a sun-drenched autumn and hoping we can cling onto it for just a little bit longer.
A lot has been happening this fall. Laura and I have been working on our unit-

Students from Kristen and Laura's class get a guitar lesson as a reward for learning English vocabulary

planning skills, which means that our English lessons are better than they’ve ever been. Aside from teaching test content, we’ve been working hard on investing our students in their studies and getting them excited about English. Since China doesn’t hold students back if they fail a grade, we’ve got a wide range of levels in our class. While many of our students show a real aptitude for English, others are still struggling with the basics. For some of the latter students, we find time in the afternoons to hold 2-on-1 classes with them to solidify the basics. Laura discovered that even the most unmotivated students can find a reason to study English… especially if it involves a guitar! Below are three of our students who were less-than-excited about learning the words on their flashcards. That is, until Laura told them they could learn a chord on the guitar if they learned every word on the cards! Apparently, our student Art shows some real musical potential!

In addition, we’ve put into action our “Student of the Week” plan. Every week, we choose a student who has been highly motivated to learn, and demonstrates that through asking questions, attending extra classes, helping others, completing all of their work on time, writing neatly, and being a model for others. This week, we announced our first Student of the Week, a quiet but bright and motivated girl named Lola. We told our students that the Student of the Week would get their picture on the wall for a week, but when we asked Lola where she wanted her picture taken, she replied, “With the whole class.” So, after the students finished their quiz, they ran to the back of the room for their first whole-class picture of the year. Here they are… Class 92! (Check out Lola in the front with her certificate!)

Although it’s still early in the year, we’re trying really hard to get to know each of our students on an individual basis. As it turns out, goal setting was a great way to do this. This week, we spent a class period working with students on why and how to set goals. We discussed the importance of goals in school and in life, and how we could use them in English class. Then, we set goals for the next monthly test. Finally, we discussed the importance of making an action plan and outlining the steps students would use to reach their goal.

That night, we read every student’s goals and strategies to reach their goals. Some of the students still wrote vague, run-of-the-mill statements like, “I want to be able to write a beautiful essay,” or “I want to score better on the listening section of the test.” Others blew us away with the goals they had outlined for themselves. Take a look at Emily and Hamlet’s goals (I’ve done a rough translation below):

Emily
我的目的是: 1)把英语写得漂亮,为以后上高中,大学做好准备。2)把英语当作自己的母语一样,可以说什么时都以顺利的把英语朕口而来,毫不犹豫。
My goals are: 1) To write English beautifully, in order to well prepare myself for high school and college. 2) Learn English as if it were my own native tongue, and be able to speak whatever I want whenever I want without hesitation.

Hamlet
我的目的是学到英语知识,达到能够和英语老师用英语对话的程度。考个好成绩,能够多达到可以到外国留学,学其他语言。
My goal is to gain a strong understanding of English and be able to have conversations with English teachers in English. I want to test well, and be able to study abroad and learn other languages.

After reading these, consider that only around 30% of Luodang Middle School students from each class will move onto high school. Only a fraction of them will attend college. The fact that Emily is thinking about high school and college shows that she’s committed to her education, only one summer after graduating from elementary school. Hamlet takes it one step further, saying he wants to study abroad and learn even more languages.

Reading their goals reminds me of how much potential our students have, and how much is at stake. I want SO badly to help each of them achieve their goals… I barely know them and I’m already dying to send them all to high school and beyond! I can already tell it’s going to be an intense year, but Laura and I are up for the challenge!

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Caitlin Moss (Fellow ’10, Georgetown University) is working to build her students’ sense of investment in their educations. One of her strategies was to survey her students and ask them about their own goals–for school, for their careers, and for their lives. Some of the answers weren’t quite what she expected…

In the first few weeks of class, I have started to implement my investment plans, which are basically an ongoing reinforcement to my kids (yes, I have started referring to them that way…) that studying is critical to opening up doors in the future. To me, being truly invested means that rather than being disinterested because they feel English is a subject that they’re forced to take (even though that’s partially true), my students will want to study English and be willing to study hard because they understand the importance of doing so for their own good.

Caitlin Moss with Margie, one of her students

I’ve also been trying to get to know my students better; with 52 of them, that’s not always easy. So part of my solution to that problem was to have them fill out a pretty extensive survey, and to make them reflect on their personal goals for the year and for life (and yes, all of this was done in Chinese, to make sure they understood.)

My students are certainly not dumb. I was really surprised and impressed with some of their self-insight and ability to reflect. I am looking forward to getting to know them more and more in the future, and even though they can be little monsters in class sometimes, I can already feel myself getting quite attached to them. Some of their answers really inspired me to work as hard as I can to support them this year.

Here are some of their interesting responses, synthesized and translated. Who WOULDN’T be inspired by these kids?!

Q: In your opinion, what does the ideal teacher look like? What characteristics does he/she have? What teaching methods does he/she use?

A: My ideal teacher looks just like Miss Moss. Except that I don’t know you well enough yet to know what your characteristics are.

A: My ideal teacher can teach me lots of new things, doesn’t get mad easily, and finds many different ways to communicate with students.

A: My ideal teacher is strict in class but tells us lots of stories.

A: My ideal teacher is just like you, different from all the other teachers.

Q: What are your goals for the future? What do you want to be when you grow up?

A: Go to college.

A: Go to Qinghua (Tsinghua) University.

A: Get a PhD.

Become a…

A: teacher.

A: scientist.

A: public attorney.

A: lawyer.

A: doctor.

A: math teacher.

A: nurse, then a doctor.

A: sports coach.

A: gym teacher.

A: cab driver.

A: migrant worker.

Q: What challenges might you face in trying to achieve these goals? How will you overcome them?

A: There are some things that I don’t do very well at (in school), my family doesn’t have enough money to keep sending me to school, and my parents don’t want me to be a doctor. I will study hard, take out loans, and convince my parents to let me follow my dreams.

A: Well studying might be a challenge. But if I have questions I will definitely go ask the teacher.

A: Some challenges I might face are not having enough money and not being able to find work. I will face them by asking Miss Moss for help.

Q: When you don’t feel like studying, how can Miss Moss motivate you?

A: By simply talking and interacting with Miss Moss, it will make us more mature and willing to study.

A: Tell me to believe in myself, not to give up, to keep working hard, and to always be honest and responsible.

A: Remind me that if I don’t study hard now, I won’t have any more chances to keep studying later.

A: Say: “For the sake of your own dreams, don’t you dare quit!”

A: There’s not really much Miss Moss can do about it.

A: Remind me that I’ll be able to play badminton and other games in my free time after I finish my homework.

A: Remind me that I’m studying for my own sake, and not just to meet my parents’ expectations.

A: Say: “You should believe in yourself. Don’t give up! Believe that if you continue, you can realize your dreams and overcome challenges.”

A: Remind me that if I work hard, I’ll have time to go play badminton.

A: Say: “You’d better go study! You don’t want to disappoint your parents, and especially don’t want to disappoint your dear Miss Moss. ADD OIL! You can do it!”

A: Compare my grades to other students who are doing well and tell me to study harder!

Q: If you could go anywhere in China or in the world, and bring anyone you wanted, where would you go and who would you bring?

A: I want to bring my mom to Xinjiang.

A: I want to go to France with my friends, since when you leave the house, you have to rely on your friends for support.

A: I want to go to Shanghai with friends because it would be a lot of fun.

A: I want to bring my parents to America, so they can live comfortably.

A: I want to go to Beijing, and I’d bring my parents with me. (times 3)

A: I want to go to Kunming because the weather’s nice there, and I would bring my parents.

A: I would like to go to America and bring my parents with me. (times 4)

A: I want to go to Africa and I’d bring my little brother. He’s very curious about how Africans live.

A: I want to go see where you live.

p.s. Another part of my investment strategy is to have lunch with my three most improved students on Friday. I started this last week, and one of my students, Marcia, has such a great attitude. During our lunch conversation, she asked me lots of questions about America, and asked me if there is anything she can do to improve her performance in English class. I’ve gotta be the best teacher I can be to support Marcia’s dream of becoming a doctor, and for all my other kids too!

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Emily Cole (Fellow ’10, Brown University) came up with a creative way to engage her students at Xingfu Elementary云县幸福小学 and broaden their horizons. Last semester, she reached out to friends and family living in different countries around the world and asked each of them to send a postcard to her students: 

When the first postcard from Switzerland arrived at the Xingfu post office, the manager matter-of-factly informed me that this was the first overseas piece of mail they’d ever received.  When I first showed my students the picture of the snow-covered Swiss Alps, their reaction wasn’t quite so calm.  All 55 of them jumped up out of their seats, exclaiming “A ma!” and “A gua!” in the local dialect because they were too excited to speak proper Mandarin.

Over the course of this semester, friends and family around the world have sent postcards to my

Emily's students with some of the postcards they received from around the world

students.  Several times a month, we have an “Around the World” themed class where we learn to say “hello” in a different language, listen to world music, and color the country’s flag.  Most of my students have not left the small town where we live, and getting a chance to show them the world beyond Xingfu was incredibly exciting for both my students and me.  Their favorite postcards depict a hot air balloon festival in New Mexico, a fierce alligator from Louisiana, and a cowboy riding a horse in Texas.

By the end of the semester, my students had learned enough English to write a simple self-introduction,

"Greetings from Sunny Xingfu:" A postcard drawn by one of Emily's students

which is impressive considering that many seventh  graders struggle with the same task.  On the last day of class, we made postcards from Xingfu to send to our friends around the world.  It was interesting to see what they consider to be the “highlights” of our town.  Their postcards feature illustrations of our elementary school, water buffalo, mountains, and sugarcane fields.  In one creative exception, the postcard is filled with a picture of a gigantic bird surrounded by tiny birds, perhaps illustrating the chickens sold outside the school gates on market day.

I enjoy the Around the World classes as much as my students do.  I love watching their faces light up

Students wrote greetings in English on the backs of their postcards

when I introduce a newpostcard.  I love watching them try to decipher the English scrawled on the back (most of the time, due to messy handwriting and complex English, I have to translate the note).  Above all, I hope this project inspires them to seek opportunities to learn more about the world outside of Xingfu.


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How do Teach For China Fellows observe and measure their impact as teachers? Tom Hoffecker, a Fellow teaching at Dazhai Middle School in Yunxian, Yunnan, wrote this update near the end of his first semester in December, 2010, and was excited to see that his students were already making observable gains: 

My kids are starting to learn more and more quickly. As Coach Carpenter, my wrestling coach in high school, always said, “Practice brings success. Success brings confidence. Confidence brings more success.” My smartest students (a handful of girls and one boy) have grasped the four major language skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) quite quickly. Most of my other students have at least a handle on two, while my worst are still struggling to get a hold of even one.

It’s exciting to see things click with a majority of my students. It’s finally clear that English is a way to communicate, not just something they have to learn in school.
At the beginning of the school year, conversations outside of the classroom went something like this: “Hi!” “HALLLOOOOOO!!!” This got old very quickly.
After a week or two, the conversation evolved. “Hi! How are you?” “How ahhhe yoou?” (A few kids still do this, sigh…)
After a month or two, they could actually converse with me! “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine, sanks, how ahhe you?”
We’ve finally moved past the “How are you?” phase, and my students can tell me what color something is (The book is blue.), if they have a soccer ball (No, I don’t.), and some remember how to say that he doesn’t have a soccer ball (No, he doesn’t).

A few of my best girl students asked for some English reading material to practice on their own. One of them eats ice cream “because she has no money” (she says, “我没有 money.”) and her mom doesn’t let her play on the weekend – only studying! I found some of my favorite reading material and asked them what they thought. “Too hard, not enough pictures!” I remember when I first saw the material I gave them and I thought the same thing.

Vying for education

You can’t tell what they’re voraciously reading from this angle. For whatever reason, they really didn’t want to be photographed. Maybe because their peers would be so jealous of their reading abilities if these pictures ever got out.

Here’s a clearer shot of one of Gareth’s scholars reading the secret material:

The economy? or his 4'2" stature?

That’s right, The Economist! Excellent! Even though it’s impossibly difficult for these students, they get really excited to read real English material. I myself am a bit tired of the repetitive and predictable textbook English. It’s also the only context they know the language, so it’s time help them realize there is a language outside of that way-too-textbook of a textbook.

I’ve been teaching them recently that they shouldn’t fear things they don’t understand right away. I used the Chinese saying, “You can’t become fat with just one bite” to explain that you can’t expect to “eat” a long sentence or paragraph “in one bite” – it takes breaking it down into manageable bits to digest it properly. Once you understand the bits, put them together to get your long sentence and smile since you just accomplished a difficult task.

It’s a lot of fun to look through the text and identify words that they’ve learned. A typical exchange goes like this: “What’s this?” “On.” “What does that mean?” “在…上.” “Yes, very good!”

The Economist is an especially good magazine to play this game with because there’s always at least two articles about China (usually cautioning, fear-mongering, or derisive, whether or not appropriately is another discussion). “What’s this?” “Chinese!” “Yes, that’s you, right?” “Yes, that’s me!”
It must be pretty cool for them to see magazine covers with a prominently featured portrait of Mao or the word “China” in big letters. Just as my kids are making the turn to better understanding, I hope seeing these magazines links their studies to the real world.

On a side note, I ended up giving them some more appropriate practice material in the form of some slightly edited Aesop’s fables. “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and “The Turtle and the Rabbit” are two of my (modified) favorites that hopefully they’ll enjoy and learn some good morals from, too!

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