Midterms and Musing

by Mary P.

It’s Sunday evening in Chafang (茶房), a town whose name literally means Tea House. There are about 30,000 people in Chafang, although it certainly doesn’t look like it can support that many people. The town is surrounded by mountains and sometimes I think to myself that I’m in the most beautiful place on earth. I’ve been here for about two months now, long enough to feel the stirrings of doubt regarding the claim that Yunnan is springlike year-round. It is frigid. Fortunately, I can spend this evening bundled up in my room; my students are not so lucky.

My students — aren’t they adorable? For the most part they’re well-behaved and calm, but when I pull out my camera the sight of it flicks a switch in them. Suddenly I’m surrounded by a mob of children yelling “Please, me, teacher!” in English and “这里, ” (zheli, zheli, laozay — over here, over here, teacher) in Mandarin colored with a very endearing Chafang inflection.

***

The five hundred or so students of Chafang Middle School are currently hunched over their splintery wooden desks, furiously (I imagine) taking their mid-term exams. They’ll be at it for the rest of the evening, all of tomorrow, and Tuesday morning. In the afternoon, classes resume.

While my students are taking an exam, I am writing one. Mid-term and final examinations are created by experts from the Ministry of Education, but my students take a unit test every week on the content they studied the prior week. For the past month, my American colleague, a Teach for China Fellow in his second year of teaching, has been creating tests and sharing them with me. This week, though, I’ve decided it’s time to start creating my own assessments, primarily because doing so is a good way to familiarize myself with the content of the upcoming unit. Tonight, my desk is covered in textbooks, grammar books, assessment-writing resources from Teaching As Leadership (Teach for America’s pedagogy). But my mind doesn’t quite want to focus right now.

This may be because although Chafang Middle School has been the beneficiary of what must be tens of thousands of dollars of government funding — part of an ongoing project on the part of the Chinese government to bridge the rural-urban educational inequality gap, of which Teach For China and other Sino-international educational collaboration experiments are just a small element — our classrooms have no heating. The windows do not shut. The ratty wooden doors seem to swing open an close on their own volition. If I’m this cold in my concrete room, I’m afraid to think of how the students must feel, sitting still at their desks, especially the kids without close-toed shoes. That said, most of the kids here are exceptionally tough, — weather this cold is no anomaly, and feeling cold or uncomfortable is nothing new for them.

For my first posting as a member of the Intro to Ed collective, I’d like to share a story I told in an e-mail I sent to family, friends, and a professors a couple of months ago. Over the summer, I attended Summer Institute, or TFC Boot Camp, whose purpose was to introduce Fellows to the ideology of Teach for China (and Teach for All, Teach for America) and the theory behind unit planning, lesson planning, writing assessments, classroom management, etc. Then, from from July 27 to August 15, I taught 7th grade to about 15 students and phonics to about 30 5th/6th graders as my three-week teaching practicum. That all took place at Minzu Zhongxue (The People’s Middle School) in Lincang city, Yunnan province.

***

It is a Wednesday morning in early-August. As usual, I lug my backpack and tote to the second floor of the newest building of Minzu Zhongxue, munching on a hot crossed red bean bun and sipping warm and sugary soymilk from a flimsy plastic cup. It’s the second week of summer training, and the excitement of the first week has worn off, both for me and for my students. With the excitement has also gone any fear and awe the students may have felt for their new waigoren (foreign) teacher. I open the door of my 7th grade English classroom, finding a few students already milling around their desks at 7:45 in the morning — a full 45 minutes before class will begin. Most of them coolly ignore me. I set my stuff down on the giant computer system that also doubles as a desk, and, feeling slightly awkward about my students being in the classroom before laoshi (teacher), erase yesterday’s markings from the blackboard.

As I erase, I notice that a few of the students are up to something. The center of gravity is Yongneng, a boy who’s “too cool” for school. He wears the same thing everyday — a yellow t-shirt beneath a black vest, blue jeans, sneakers, and a black string necklace with an ankh around his neck. He doesn’t smell strange, though, and I get the impression that he showers everyday, and I guess that either he or his mother washes his one and only outfit. Or maybe he has multiple copies of each garment. Or maybe he has more than one outfit but, as an early adolescent, has to assert his right to wear the same thing every single day. Anyways, he is sitting on the stool at his desk. He must be doing something interesting, because he’s flanked by Yangjie and Pengcheng, the two smartest boys in the class. Yangjie is a kid who’s going places. He is easily the most charismatic, intelligent, and confident 11-year olds I’ve ever met, anywhere. His mother is an English professor at the teaching college, and his father is a city tax official. I don’t know as much about Pengcheng’s background, but at the end of the summer session, he scores the highest on the summative English exam and second highest on the math exam; he is also the student who improved the most between the English diagnostic exam and the final.

What could Yongneng, who seems to care more about looking cool than grades, be doing to capture the attention of both Yangjie and Pengcheng? They seem to be engrossed by something in his hands. Curious, and also a bit suspicious — what could they be up to? Should I stop them? —  I walk over to them and find that Yongneng has what looks like a little game console in his hands. It turns out to be a portable video player.

A portable video player? In the hands of an 11-year old boy in so-called “rural” China? I could hardly believe my eyes. Weren’t my students supposed to be disadvantaged? Weren’t they supposed to have no exposure to the outside world? Weren’t they the people that Beijingers and educated Chinese said lacked culture?

“What are you watching?” I ask. They burble incomprehensibly in Chinese for a few seconds and then turn back to the screen. I watch with them for a few seconds, no doubt making them a little uncomfortable. Then, to my surprise, I recognize the show. It’s a Japanese cartoon called “Crayon Shin-chan.” A Japanese cartoon. About a strange little boy and his normal family living in the suburbs of Tokyo. The dialogue is dubbed in Chinese and there are subtitles in Chinese, something all Chinese television programs seem to have.

They must not know it’s a Japanese show, I think. Considering that moment to be a fine opportunity to improve the image of Japan in the eyes of Chinese youth, I say: “Oh! That’s a Japanese show.” But that doesn’t seem to be news to them. And if it is, it isn’t the huge, troubling revelation I think it would be. In fact, it doesn’t faze them at all. And having established that I am a fairly harmless waiguoren English teacher, they turn their attention back to the video screen. I am blocked out. I step back onto the dais in front of the blackboard to recover the necessary but illusory sense of authority and power that comes from standing a foot above a pack of adolescents, and prepare the board for class.

Who are these children in “rural” China, who are clean and well-fed and watch videos before class? Who have mp3 players and don’t care that their television show is from a country that some of their grandparents and perhaps even parents despise? Over the course of my three-week training practicum in Lincang, I came to realize that the children I was teaching were not the disadvantaged youth of rural China — they were the students whose parents cared enough about their education to force them to attend summer school classes during their already very short vacation. While there were a few exceptions, these were not the students of farmers; they were the students of middle class Lincang residents. This was not rural China. This was Lincang.

Unlike other cities in Linxiang County, the government of Lincang does not answer to the county government but rather directly to the provincial government. This means that Lincang is kind of a big deal. It’s a relatively large city with its own airport, movie theatre, teacher’s college, fake Nike store, and red-light district. It’s known for its tea and for its growing hydroelectricity industry. Although Lincang is urban by many standards, a ten minute walk in any direction will take you to the mountains, whose slopes and terraces host corn, tea trees and tobacco, in addition to donkeys, oxen, and a seemingly infinite number of chickens. And every day farmers carry their crops into the heart of the city to sell at stalls set up along the sides of the street. It’s not unusual to see broad, sturdy women carrying whole live chickens upside down by their feet down the street, or to spot gazelle horns and indeterminable nuts and spices piled in woven baskets, the ingredients of traditional Chinese medicines.

In Lincang, there are children like Yangjie who are certain to go to college. But there are also heartbreaking children like Wang Renze, a small boy in my 5/6th grade phonics class. Like Yongneng, he wore the same clothes to class everyday, but unlike Yongneng, he smelled like it. In class he was distracted and disruptive. I held him back several after class to work with him one-on-one on the conjugation of the verb “to be,” and he seemed to benefit from this kind of attention. I was temporarily optimistic, but he stopped coming to class a few days later. When I called hisfamily to ask why he had stopped coming to school, they hung up the phone because they could not understand what I was saying to them.

In a study by Stanford University’s Rural Education Action Project, researchers argue that there is a set of systematic barriers erected at an early stage in the lives of poor, rural Chinese children that make it exceedingly difficult for them to attend college. These include low rates of enrollment into early childhood education, low quality elementary schools, and poor nutrition and low quality boarding facilities. Later in life, these students face high school tuitions that they cannot pay; and if they are migrant children, that is, the children of migrant workers who have accompanied their parents to cities, then they often end up in a migrant schooling system that is outside of the public education system and learn material that is neither aligned with nor up to the standards of the college entrance exam. Maybe Renze is just a dirty little boy, like many little boys are at that age, and stopped coming to class because he wanted to have a real summer vacation — a perfectly fair demand in my eyes. But maybe Renze is the child of migrant parents who have left Lincang for work, and he is the victim of the aforementioned barriers.

But even students who face these kinds of educational setbacks can succeed. Although poverty is limiting, there is case after case of people who have overcome their background. Sometimes, the key factor is to have supportive and present parents. I think of Lisa, another student in my 5/6th grade phonics class. During the unit in which the students learned occupations in their English class (I was just their phonics teacher), I learned that Lisa’s parents are construction workers. I tucked that piece of information away until about a week later when I was on my way to a mountain I wanted to hike. I was halfway there when I needed to stop and use a restroom, and people I asked pointed me in the direction of what looked like a shantytown of hastily constructed wood and brick huts with corrugated iron roofs. They were set up in front of a building under construction — at the time it was a structure of skeleton beams and scaffolding and tarps. I found a narrow passageway in between what I realized after a few minute were homes with entire families living inside. I asked a woman washing clothes in a basin about who lived in these houses, and she told me they were migrant construction workers who, attracted by the construction work offered by this expanding city, left their home counties and provinces to 打工, work. I’d seen a few kids running around and I asked if they went to school, to which the woman replied that they did.

I asked myself — was Lisa the child of this kind of migrant construction worker? If so, despite the potentially negative psychological effects of being uprooted from home, Lisa was at a significant advantage over Renze. Lisa had her parents who were, if not highly educated, cognizant of the value of education in providing their child with opportunities that they did not have. Further, they were most likely literate and knew how to speak Mandarin Chinese. The children of parents who leave them behind to find work often leave them with grandparents or distant relations. Renze’s grandparents may not speak Mandarin at home. And distant relations may not be as seriously invested in pushing Renze to succeed academically as his own parents might.

***

One can hardly compare the students who volunteer to attend summer school or who have parents dedicated enough to force them to go to the kids at Chafang Middle School, and Lincang and Chafang are quite different universes. In the coming weeks, I plan to write about my community here in Chafang, my students, personal experiences, and the concrete impact of Chinese government’s educational reform policy. In my next entry, I hope to introduce Teach for China, our mission, and our values.

I’ll also be posting lots of photos! Here’s one from our Halloween Party last Monday. 


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2 Comments to “Midterms and Musing”

  1. I’ve told you this already, but this is fantastic, and I love hearing about you making your way in China as much as I love hearing about the classroom. I hope that if you and Ben decide to have highly informed conversations about educating migrant workers in China, you have them in public on the blog!

  2. It’s really interesting to hear how the expectations or ideas or frameworks you didn’t even know you had get challenged every day by your kids and your experiences. (Funny how quickly they become “your kids,” isn’t it?) I am curious about how much your preparation over the summer was able to help you explore these complexities – and how much there is just an expectation that smart college grads can go in and teach. Looking forward to more.

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