Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Teacher’s Perspective

Maryann Woods-Murphy, Allendale, NJ

This post is part of a series of guest blog entries written by teachers who received the NEA Foundation’s Awards for Teaching Excellence. In this entry, Maryann Woods-Murphy, a high school Spanish teacher from Allendale, NJ, discusses the value of the EF professional development tour in China.

China has swept me off my feet.

Seven days ago, my plane was taking off at Newark airport in New Jersey, direction Beijing. For two weeks prior I had been learning to speak Chinese by practicing my numbers on the car ride to and from work. The number three is "sun" and you kind of have to sing it. I had studied some history, art and culture in our online class. I was as ready as you could ever be – or so I thought.

The plane touched down in Beijing and the group from our flight gathered with Simon and Alex, our guide and tour director. I looked at the ATE teachers and could see that our faces were expectant and open as we checked out our fellow travelers and the majestic modern airport.

I ran over to what I thought was an ATM and found out that it was a drinking water dispenser! When I finally found the ATM, I saw the screen filled with Chinese characters and a few key English words. I realized that I had indeed left New Jersey! Thankfully, I got my Yuan! Success! A small child with close-cropped hair, peeking out from behind his mother's skirt, peered up at me. What did I look like to him?

The next morning, we loaded on the bus to visit a vocational school. Freed of our bags and with a good night's rest behind us, the energy in the air was palpable. We were going to meet Chinese teachers and students! We pulled up to the school and students were waiting to greet us. Each pair of American teachers was assigned a student guide. Ours was Jared.

We found out that Jared was studying to be a hotel manager and he was proud to show us his English text. Photographs had little bubbles with useful English expressions.

"What is your name?"
"How do you do?"
"How old are you?"

But now, Jared was facing real, native speakers right in front of him. He blushed and stumbled over his words and looked around for a dictionary or a friend for a lifeline.

"It's ok," we consoled him, "talk to us."

Sara, my partner teacher from the Department of Education school system, and I looked at Jared with encouraging faces. He told us about his school, his family and his dreams for the future.

The English teacher looked tense as she got up and prompted students to share with the teachers. A couple stood up, a little confused about what she was asking them to do, frozen and tongue tied. Things got better, though, when a group of students got up and sang us a song in Chinese as we looked on adoringly. Were we really here, in China, listening to these children sing to us?

We wanted to give something back to them, so we got up and sang "America the Beautiful." The music teachers among the group said that our "gift" needed practice. "Really?" I thought, it sounded great to me.

In the days that followed, we experienced more of China. A Buddhist temple where followers burned incense and cupped their hands around the fumes to make sure it got right up to heaven. A park with retirees dancing, playing a game that looked like giant checkers and a musician playing a curved wind instrument. All over, we were followed by vendors, who offered us fans, silk and fresh-water pearls.

Some of us learned to make deals and none of us were ever sure what the "real" price might be. It didn't matter - we were making contact and speaking with people and touching their products and lives.

On day four, we flew to Shanghai, a city I knew nothing about. As we drove through the streets, I saw the sky filled with skyscrapers that had sleek modern lines or organic motifs, like an opening flower or swirl of water. At night, the buildings reinvented themselves with lights. Some dripped and moved, and others outlined the edges to create a seemingly planned urban composition that awed us in a way that none of us expected.

Still, we hadn't seen the best of it. This morning, we visited the West Shanghai Experimental School, where we were greeted by cheerful students in uniform. Zhang Zi Qi was my sophomore guide. She touched my arm as we spoke while she led me through the modern complex.

We saw a room where language students role-play authentic contexts for language instruction. There was a teachers’ study room with professional development texts on the shelf. We saw a counselor's room with a sand table and a series of dolls so students can share their stories and heal.

Zhang Zi Qi asked what the most remarkable thing is about our education in the U.S.A. I told her that in the U.S.A., we teach all students for a minimum of 16 years and that we try to adapt our instruction to all different kinds of abilities. I also said that we are well known for our creativity and ability to connect students with each other.

That seemed to satisfy her. Next, Zhang Zi Qi told me that she was the youngest daughter in her big family and that everyone loved her so much. I pulled out my cell phone and shared photos of my home, the Christmas holidays and my children and granddaughter.

"Big family," she said, "lots of children!"

I thought about the one child policy and how life must be with so many parents and so few children. Sounds like in Zhang Zi Qi's case, it means that she gets a lot of attention.

I walked around the school, learning from the school's teacher leader about how the Chinese are seeking to reinvent and reform education by teaching the whole child, reducing the level of the content that students have been responsible for and by increasing creativity and student engagement.

Zhang Zi Qi shadowed me as I walked and talked. When it was time to leave, she planted a giant kiss on my cheek and threw her arms around me. I hugged back, really tight.

When I left Newark airport, I didn't expect to fall in love with this country, these people, this culture. I grew up at a time when China seemed a distant, frightening and confusing country. I knew nothing significant about it, other than the information gleaned from chapters in books or news reports. I didn't realize that the people here were so warm, hopeful and excited about building a new tomorrow.

After this trip, I feel that the romance that began in Beijing on day one will never end. I will forever see the Chinese as partners in learning, and I look forward to learning from this ancient and modern culture. I hope that I, too, will have the chance to share the unique way that American teachers adapt learning to the learner.

I don't know how or when this will continue to happen, but I am transformed and energized by this experience in a way that I never would have been had I not been given this gift. China is now a part of my life and I will never be the same again.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Shanghai and the Western Shanghai Experimental School


We recently arrived in Shanghai , a city known for its financial history, as well as its hybrid-like East-West culture (for more on Shanghai, visit here). In a very short period of time, we visited the Bund (外滩), the Shanghai World Financial Center (known by local people as “the beer bottle opener”), an outdoor market (XinTianDi ; 新天地), the Jade Buddha Temple  (玉佛禅寺), Yu Garden  (豫园), and a silk factory.

Our most valuable experience so far was at the Western Shanghai Experimental School  (SES). SES is  a relatively new, well resourced, local public school. The campus is beautiful. The school is “experimental” in that it is a research institution, geared toward testing new teaching methods. After a tour, Mr. Li, the principal of SES, described the school’s policies in general and answered our ATE teachers’ questions about the teachers and students.  Our teachers learned that the school’s design and instruction were geared toward helping students become wholly developed.

Teacher’s Perspectives
Our ATE teachers took away a broad spectrum of impressions from the experience, as evidenced in their comments below on the SES students’ maturity, their approach to homework, the importance of family in Chinese education, the school’s rigorous schedule and its resources, and even the importance of music as a communication tool.

Mary Pinkston, a high school math teacher from Delaware, and Debra Calvino, a high school math teacher from New York, discuss their thoughts on SES in a video to be posted soon.

“Throughout the visit at the Western Shanghai Experimental School, I sensed the vital importance of English to the school's curriculum. The teacher who gave us the tour told us that applicants to the school are interviewed and evaluated for their English proficiency and potential more than for their learning habits or personalities, which surprised me. It was clear that the school and the students saw mastery of English as essential to their future success, and that they were very cognizant of China's relationship to the rest of the world. I feel that this global perspective is exceptionally important, but I rarely see my students showing interest in or curiosity about other cultures. I would venture that the students we have met this week know much more about the United States than our students do about modern China! As we travel through China, it becomes increasingly clear to me that my colleagues and I need to help our students learn more about China, and that we need to help them understand the importance of learning not only about the history but also about current issues around the world.”
Carole Margolis, high school English teacher, Massachusetts

“During our visit today at the SES school, I had an excellent student who adopted me; she explained to me what her school was like, asked me about my school… She was very clear about her path. She wanted to see America. She wanted to come see me in America. She was a very different type of student than I’m used to seeing in America. The focus was entirely different.”
Kathleen Benedict, high school language arts and social studies teacher, Tennessee

“The China that I came to expect is not here. It might be in the western part of the country, but it’s not here in the big cities… I can’t see any evidence of the communist China I was raised to believe was the reality here… One interesting thing is we talked to kids about homework, and one of [our] teachers asked what they do with homework. They asked, ‘what do you mean?’ They all do their homework. The culture here is about one family, one child… That might have something to do with how well they perform in education…The students are more motivated [in part] because of the parents’ expectations.”
Brian Berg, high school math teacher, Washington

“The most valuable thing Professor Li said was: ‘Diversity for development and success for all is our focus.’ In education isn't that what we are all striving for? The most wonderful thing is that China considers this experimental school part of their own reform.”
Karen Gorringe, elementary teacher, Utah

“These students see a value in their education in a way our students do not… I find it very interesting that Chinese students see reaching out of their country as a thing that will get them ahead as adults.”
Terri Vest, high school English, social studies and psychology teacher, Vermont

“The young people that I met today were motivated to succeed and get a good education so they would have an easier life. Studying and homework are a means to an end.”
Tom Mead, language arts, mathematics, and science teacher, South Dakota

“I immediately noticed the abundance of vegetation planted around the school. There was a deliberate effort to incorporate trees, flowers, and shrubs into the school landscape…the school was very clean and nicely decorated, bringing a pleasant atmosphere for the students.”
Brian Sievers, high school math teacher, Illinois

“This trip has greatly increased my perspective of the global society. My ‘aha moment’ was going to the school in Shanghai… It’s really neat to see that kids are kids, no matter where you are, that all children are really the most valuable asset that any country has.”
Drue Haarsager, social studies teacher, North Dakota

“Music is a universal language. My school visits here in China have really reinforced that.”
Luke Merchlewitz, elementary teacher, Minnesota

“The teachers are really valued at that school; and you could tell, just by talking to the principal, the teachers, and the students.”
Veronica Ellingson, high school physics teacher, Wisconsin

“The school was top of the pile in test scores and achievements. They had very modern facilities and the students were very well behaved. Again, kids are kids, but these students were highly motivated to learn.”
Craig Williams, elementary teacher, Wyoming

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Beijing to Shanghai: Education Begins at Home


On our last day in Beijing, we went to a traditional Chinese neighborhood called a hutong(胡同). In the past, government officials lived in these neighborhoods. Now, ordinary people live there. According to Simon, our tour guide, the hutongs are really great places for retired people.* For them, it is a safe place with a sense of community. There, we practiced Tai Chi and visited a family’s residence, exploring a theme that often arises when we have discussions about education – that education begins at home. In the Chinese hutong, we saw that such family support often extends throughout multiple generations.

Tai Chi
Tai Chi 太极拳)is a traditional Chinese martial art that involves slow, rhythmic movements designed to develop and support “Qi” (energy/lifeforce). In China, many people practice Tai Chi in the parks regularly. While we were in the hutong, Simon arranged for us to take a Tai Chi lesson from a master. Everyone practiced the subtle movements involved, and several of us are still feeling the effects of “sit,” which is a squat that, if held properly and repeated, may provide benefits similar to the “chair pose” in yoga – but also elicits a certain angst in those of us who don’t squat regularly.  :)

A Typical Courtyard
While we were in the hutong, we took rickshaws to a family’s courtyard. According to the owner, his home had been in his family for five generations. He described some of the history of the house and the benefits of living there. He enjoyed living near to his granddaughter’s school and his friends. Simon later explained that many retirees take care of grandchildren while parents are at work, and as a result, grandparents are a central part of their grandchildren’s education.

Driving Question
During this professional development tour, ATE teachers have been asked to explore a topic and create a driving question to focus their explorations. One of the teachers, Bob Gustas, is particularly interested in how students and teachers interact. While in the hutong, Bob spoke with some students and parents from a nearby high school about their school, as well as how teachers are perceived in China.

“When I asked the kids if they wanted to be a teacher, I didn't expect them to respond so glowingly that they would. Surprisingly, their curriculum is so strong on math and science, yet many of them responded that they wanted to do something else.”
Bob Gustas, 8th grade math teacher, St. John, Indiana

Further Exploration and Perspectives
Later, in Shanghai, Bob and another ATE teacher, Kathy Steinhof, took the opportunity to talk with a family about education at the hotel restaurant. Their comments are included in the videolog coming soon.

*Simon later described that the retirees in China enjoy many benefits, like receiving approximately four-fifths of their income in retirement. This generally leads to more retirees in parks, playing games, dancing, practicing Tai Chi and/or relaxing.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Dynasty of Look Forward


On the bus heading to our first school visit of the trip, Mr. Kai, our tour guide for the day, briefly told us about China’s history, from the Xia Dynasty through the Qing Dynasty. Though China is not currently in a dynastic period, it is in a period of constant change, one that many call “The Dynasty of Look Forward.” For example, Mr. Kai mentioned that, if we were to ask students what they wanted most for themselves, it would be an education so they can achieve a decent salary (and therefore “look forward” to a prosperous future). He noted that China’s educational system is growing and allowing more students to advance to college.

School Visit
Initially, we were scheduled to visit one of the top-performing secondary schools in China. But as it turns out, our visit coincides with examinations, so we were instead introduced to a more nontraditional institution, a vocational school focused on the hospitality industry. The students were extremely excited to see us and immediately gathered at the gate to say “hello.” Many of our ATE teachers were able to respond with the Mandarin equivalent, “Ni hao.” Everyone was excited to visit a school and interact with students, and a fun cultural exchange commenced.

During our visit, some of the ATE teachers taught the teenage students how to sing a few American songs, including “Itsy Bitsy Spider.” In response, some students taught the teachers how to sing “两只老虎” (“Two Tigers”). We exchanged gifts and, eventually, we sang songs from our countries in front of the entire group.

After the students left, the vocational school teachers arrived and the school administrator provided more background on the school, including school resources. The school is entirely reliant on corporate donations and tuition. With a student body of less than 200, tuition revenue is meager, and school maintenance is a difficult challenge. After the school administrator’s presentation, ATE teachers had an opportunity to ask the vocational school teachers specific questions about the school schedule and how some subjects were taught, as well as other teaching experiences.

ATE Teachers’ Immediate Insights
After we returned from the school visit, our ATE teachers had the opportunity to comment on their experience. Below are some of their insights.

“Visiting a Chinese school on our first full day in Beijing set the tone for our first few days in China. In a school that had not previously hosted visitors from the U.S., we were very warmly greeted by both students and staff. They were very outgoing and eager to share their books with us, wanting to share with us even though their English was very limited. I found myself wondering if my own students and staff would have been as warm and accepting of visitors from another continent.”
Jeline Harclerode, integrated technology teacher, Emporia, Kansas

“I was struck by how serious they were about teaching and learning, and how insistent they were that I take it seriously, too. They weren’t satisfied with a token effort – only perfection would be enough.”
Terri Vest, 9–12 English, social studies, and psychology teacher, Plainfield, Vermont, describing her experience with the students, teaching them how to sing American songs and learning how to sing Chinese songs

“One fun thing we did was compare pictures on our phones – technology is often a great way to make a connection! I was able to show [a Chinese student] pictures of Maine, my parents, my dog, my brother and nephew, as well as some landscape shots of the Maine coast. He shared images of his family, friends, and some school events.”
Sarah Sutter, high school arts and technology teacher, Lisbon Falls, Maine

“Before coming to China I had a preconceived idea that Chinese people are very stoic, guarded, and unwelcoming. I have found that they are very welcoming, warm, and have received us with open arms. I am so grateful that I have been given the opportunity to break down that barrier. This world is becoming flatter every day for me, and I will definitely take that back to my classroom and teach the students what an amazing place China is."
Karen Gorringe, 6th grade teacher, Bluffdale, Utah

“This trip is a wonderful opportunity and I greatly appreciate the chance to see China firsthand. Our school visit to the vocational school was awesome! It was great to experience the kindness of the young students – the songs, stories, and laughter were universal connectors.”
Drue Haarsager, social studies teacher, West Fargo, North Dakota

“What an incredible opportunity to learn that high school students are, in many ways, the same all over the world! Some are shy, some giggle, and some rely on their friends for their courage. Many of the students we met were warm, and all were engaged in our visit. On the other hand, a one-size-fits-all education was not evident as we visited this vocational school whose students placed in this program based on a placement abilities test.”
Debra Calvino, high school math teacher, Montgomery, New York

“[This] experience in China is invaluable in helping me to become a better educator. Learning about other cultures, other countries, and other colleagues firsthand cannot be equaled in any other professional development environment. I will not only use this cross-cultural experience to help my students prepare for success, but I will also use what I have learned from this elite group of [ATE] teachers.” 
Joe Underwood, T.V. production and filmmaking teacher, Miami, Florida

Thursday, June 23, 2011

First Impressions


Ten years ago, I remember, I wrote about how I had just experienced the “worst flight ever.” It was my second flight to China. I remember it most vividly because it was my first trip to China as an independent adult. What was my experience like then? Chaos. Babies crying, people chatting in the aisles, people opening and closing their overhead compartments constantly, the smell of quick-cooking noodles in the air, no personal space, no quiet...and, most certainly, no sleep. In China, this chaos is called “乱七八糟” (a mess). For a quiet American college student from the wide-open Midwest, it was culture shock.

My flight to China this week was a little bit different. There was still a smell of quick-cooking noodles in the air, and – as with any flight these days – I didn’t have much space; but the space I had was peaceful, the plane was quiet, the people were orderly…I even slept a little. I woke up briefly to see a man doing Tai Chi exercises in the exit row. Where was the chaos, though? Certainly it was not in the man practicing Tai Chi…I found myself missing it, wanting several people to step out of line, tread on my toes, speak loudly, or drop their children on my lap.

Landing in Beijing was certainly no different in its lack of chaos. The airport, recently built for the Olympics, sprawled out in front of us, an architectural wonder. The acoustics were also impressive – it was very quiet. Before we knew it, we were through Customs and baggage claim, and the EF Educational Tours staff met us in the airport and guided us to the tour bus .

There, we relaxed while Simon , our tour guide, told us about some of the places we passed. We drove past a 700-mile man-made canal (京杭), the Lama temple (雍和宫), and “Old Beijing.” Old Beijing contains traditional Chinese buildings – all of a low height. Just across the street, Simon pointed out new skyscrapers. It was an interesting juxtaposition of old and new, a trend I knew would be repeated throughout the trip.

Once we reached downtown, we were stuck in traffic, so he explained to us that about 2,000 additional cars are registered in Beijing every day. In order to regulate traffic, the government requires individuals to alternate driving days. 

Once we arrived at the hotel, we had an hour to change before heading out to a Chinese feast.  What a day! 

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Our Goals, Our Expectations

“Are we ready? Do we have the background to understand what we are seeing? Will we understand each other, our perspectives, our goals?” Maryanne Woods-Murphy, Spanish Teacher, Allendale, NJ

In less than two days, teachers who received the 2011 Awards for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation (“ATE teachers”) will be heading to Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong for a 10 day professional development tour provided by EF Educational Tours to learn more about China’s educational system. To prepare, they’ve started taking a professional development course on that educational system and on China itself. The beginning of the course contains an orientation; a historical and cultural overview; a session on geography, diversity and art; a session on current issues; and my favorite session, the forum, where teachers discuss readings, media and thoughts. The forum highlights teachers’ expectations and goals for the tour.

Below are selections from the forum conversations:
·         “How do teachers challenge students and make subjects interesting... They have a student base that is expected to do well, but how do they incorporate fun and interest?” Brian Sievers, Physics/Math Teacher, Palos Heights, IL
·         “Comments about us traveling to this expansive, intriguing place have ranged from ‘remember it is a communist country’ to ‘I hope you go to the markets’ to ‘the students won't be like what you are used to’! Politics, economics and education – they infuse each and every conversation about this 21st-century power.” Debrah Calvino, Math Teacher, Montgomery, NY
·          “The pressure on students, families and teachers for students to advance to higher education is real.” Joe Underwood, T.V. Production and Filmmaking Teacher, Miami, FL
·         “ Many of [the Chinese parents] strive to see their children do their best. We need to do this more in our schools… Helping a student pass and be ready to enter the world has to begin at home.” Bob Gustas, Math Teacher, St. John, IN
·         “While I'm sure there are many differences in the specifics, there are some broad-brush similarities between the scholar official and the role education currently plays for those who engage in our own political system. It is only through diligent years of study, high enough scores on certain exams and a certain ability to communicate clearly about one's political ideas and ideals that one gains access to participate in the upper levels of government.” Sarah Sutter, Arts and Technology Teacher, Lisbon Falls, ME
·         “We have developed a set of priorities in this country and our responses echo those priorities. I'm not saying these are wrong, just very American. The Chinese have a different approach to problem-solving than we do; remember, we're an individualistic, very young, "manifest destiny" culture, and they have a group-centered, ancient culture. Those different cultural backgrounds, I believe, generate a different response to problems and a different creative approach.” Terri Vest, English, Social Studies and Psychology Teacher, Hardwick, VT
·         “In China, many of the ethnic minority students, in spite of the same barriers that exist for my students, manage to beat the odds, go on to study at the university level and earn college degrees… How do these students manage to function effectively in a second culture using a language other than their native language?” Teresa McNeill, Algebra, Geometry, ESL Teacher, Greensboro, NC

My Goals and Expectations
We’ll all have unique perspectives on our experience: a former special needs teacher who is curious about how special needs are handled in China, a technology teacher who wants to see how technology is integrated in the classroom, a social studies teacher who wants to observe the “typical day” for a Chinese teacher and student, another social studies teacher who wants to see the role of women in China… My goal is to document it. Specifically, I’ll be “博客”(writing a blog). As a former Chinese major with a passion for cultural exchange who has had a blog “on the side,” I’m thrilled to be a part of this experience. I can’t wait to get started!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Mark Nieker Recognized by EdNET


Congratulations to Pearson Foundation's President and Executive Director, Mark Nieker, for being named one of EdNET's "Leaders to Watch" Top 5 List in 2011. Building on the success and legacy of the EdNET Industry Awards, MDR, with support from Educational Systemics, announced in February 2011 the creation of EdNET’s Best, a professional peer recommendation program that will recognize leaders and innovations in today’s education marketplace. Shaped by input from a panel of education market veterans, the EdNET community at large, and the teachers it serves, EdNET’s Best list will recognize leaders in three different categories. Learn more here>