The first school that we were able to tour was a high school. Students at the high school begin their day by reciting political readings to help them pass tests. After these readings, students register for school for the day and go to the playground for morning exercises. Students are required to exercise. During the school day, students have four classes that are 45 minutes long with a 10-minute break between each. Between second and third classes, they have a 20-minute break for a whole school group exercise. Students also do eye exercises. Many of the students in China wear glasses. The Chinese believe that doing eye massages will improve circulation around their eyes.
After high school, most students have military training. They don’t have to become a soldier when they are finished, but they do have to spend 10 days on military training. This is for both boys and girls. Benefits of the military training include learning independence and operating as members of a group.
The high school building itself was a beautiful brick building, modeled after American universities. Surprisingly it was an open-air building. The school was several stories high, and the staircases to the upper floors were open to the elements. The center of the building had an open air courtyard. As a result, there is no central heat or air. Students were wearing uniforms and matching coats to stay warm during their studies.
The tour took us to many rooms, most of which were devoid of students. I found this quite interesting, as it was seeing the schoolchildren that I most anticipated. One of the rooms contained a display of science projects. I loved this, as it was a universal approach to teaching children. Like in America, students had assembled displays depicting a model and a written explanation of their science project. It was a permanent science fair, if you will. There was also an art appreciation room, where students could go to manipulate models. In another room, there were some models with student sketches of them. One science room contained many posters of American inventors, such as the Wright brothers, and Thomas Edison.
We were able to finally able to interact with students during a break between their first and second classes. They flocked to take pictures with us and visit with us. I had a delightful interaction with a small group of girls.
After our tours of the empty classrooms, we observed a Chinese class. It was fascinating. The teacher was on a stage at the front of the room, in an official looking coat. The students sat close to one another in rigid rows, in their matching uniforms. All of the students, 100% , were actively engaged in the lesson, which was completely teacher directed. I did not see one student daydreaming. The closest thing to being off task was one little girl who was twirling her pen while she watched and listened to the teacher. There was very little student involvement beyond choral recitation. The class started with the bell, which was a musical melody rather than a bell. Students stood and recited a greeting to their teacher in unison to commence the class. She responded to their group chant. The teacher played music as part of the lesson, and projected a PowerPoint to the music on the screen. The PowerPoint had lots of moving graphics with some text, but not the text-filled slides that I see so often in my experiences. The PowerPoint was not connected to the Internet and I couldn’t tell if it was available in the room. I believe that this music and PowerPoint was part of a story that matched their workbooks. Students followed along in their books, as she taught and wrote on the chalkboard. There was an unused SmartBoard in the classroom, pushed to the side of the class. The classroom had a speaker sound system.
The room itself was long and narrow, and curtain covered windows lined the top half of one wall. The floors were swept clean. This classroom was nicer than the other classrooms we toured in the building. A water cooler was in the back of the class. There was no graffiti on the desks. It was a very structured environment.
The teacher was very enthusiastic and engaging, and the students giggled in response to what she shared. One student stood to share what he’d written in his workbook, but it was predominately teacher directed. I respected her command of the class. Some of the students had a few trinkets or stuffed animals. I wonder if some of the stuffed animals were from home, as most of the students stay at dormitories from Monday – Friday.
There were 54 students in the class. The kids themselves were just kids. Some were shy. They giggled. Some wanted their pictures taken; others looked away. They wore Nike’s, Converse, and regular tennis shoes like those that we’d see in the states. They did wear uniforms and matching coats, but it looks like the students were wearing their own sweaters underneath. Three layers, at least, to stay warm in the very cold rooms.
Overall, the classroom represented conformity and structure. The teacher directed the lesson, and I didn’t see any independent thought. There was little student interaction, and no small group discussion.
Next, we visited the computer lab that held 65 computers. Students are restricted from using the computers or the Internet outside of their formal computer lab time.
Teachers are subject to an annual exam and must also maintain favorable reviews by the students. Teachers are SO much more respected than those in the United States, and entering the teaching profession is highly competitive. Teaching is one of the most honorable professions in China.
As we left the computer lab, all of the students in the building were on their 20 minute break between class two and three. They were in the courtyard doing group exercises. It reminded me of the opening ceremonies at the Olympic. The kids were all dressed alike, all going through the same motions in unison, in straight lines and rows.
After the exercises ended, I had one of my most memorable experiences of this trip! I was mobbed by a group of girls. They were part of the same pack that I’d seen on the earlier 10 minute break. One girl introduced herself to me. In English, her name is Roger. Roger touched me in a very special way. She told me how beautiful I was and how pleased she was to meet me. She asked if I liked her school and her culture. I was able to capture a short interview with her on my video camera. After we taped it, I played it back to the group of a dozen girls. They were all crowded around me, giggling with their hands to their faces, and amazed. Roger then invited me to visit her class. She answered questions about school in China, and then we exchanged addresses and phone numbers. I told the group that I’d been in China for 5 days and that I liked their culture. I asked about their school. Roger lives 17 kilometers from the school, and studies politics, math, civics. She is with the same set of teachers for two years. Their school doesn’t have lockers, and they keep their supplies in the classrooms. I told Roger and her friends that their school was very large and beautiful. She said that the number one school in the area was much larger. The break was nearly over, and I asked if I could please give her a hug. The sense of warmth, love, and admiration that washed over me was indescribable. She gave me the sweetest hug, while her little friends stood around smiling, and giggling. Then I received a flood of hugs from the girls. Some individual hugs, some group hugs… they were so genuinely pleased to have spent a few minutes with me talking about their school. I’ve never felt such instant love from a group of strangers in my life. The experience brought me to tears. I do hope that I can stay in touch with sweet Roger. We've already been emailing one another.