Jill, the principal, was standing by the front desk at Explorer Elementary. She was petite with curly hair and was sucking on a lollipop. She offered one to me. Right away the strict principal figure I had imagined in my head was replaced by this lively, energetic woman. She led me down the hallway showing me the different classrooms, introducing me to teachers, and stopping to greet and hug the students as we walked. Although she had other commitments that afternoon, she made sure I was well positioned. After she left, I stood in the hallway and read the poems that students had written.
If I were a mathematician, I could…
If I were a tree, I could…
If I were a monkey, I could…
Seeing the children’s poems, essays and art on the walls, I couldn’t help but think that if only I were six years old again, I could…
Growing up in China during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and early 1970s, expressing my mind or thoughts was not only discouraged, it was forbidden. I witnessed so many intellectuals and professional people get in trouble because of what they believed and wrote about. I saw the misery that writing brought to the people. I lived with fear and pain, like many Chinese children during the Cultural Revolution whose parents were professionals. This was particularly true for me, as both of my parents were expelled from the university faculty and were sent to labor camps for “re-education” by peasants for more than 20 years. This was because they expressed their thoughts and asked too many questions about the Communist Party. Because I was their daughter, I wasn’t allowed to attend kindergarten and first grade.
I lived with my Mom in the countryside while she went through the re-education process. My father was sent to a different camp. The Communist Party did this with the intention that my parents couldn’t exchange their thoughts. During those years the only book I was allowed to read was Mao’s Red Book. Not until I was eight years old was I able to move back to the city, where I lived with my sister and brother, who were 15 and 13 years old.
Because of my family status I was constantly in fear of expressing my mind and thoughts, in school and out. I had learned that speaking my mind only brought me humiliation and the laughter of the other students. No matter how hard I studied or how fast I could run, I was never good enough to earn a teacher’s recognition or the friendship of other students. School was not a safe or fun place for me to be.
During that time, and even today in China, the teacher’s job, besides teaching, was to criticize and humiliate. Children still don’t get a chance to express themselves or to be considered as individuals. There is no opportunity to be creative, because the teacher is the only one who can talk in the class. Students spend all their time and energy getting ready for the national test each June, studying and memorizing material in Chinese literature, math, physics, biology, English, world history and geography.
Standing in the hallway, what did I see? I saw the warm and loving way this principal greeted the students. I felt safe.
Walking down the hallway, what did I see? I saw a huge mirror with bright yellow sunflowers smiling at me. I felt welcome.
Walking down the hallway, what did I see? I saw the children peeking at me. I felt responsibility.
It was story time in the third grade classroom. The students were sitting in a circle with their eyes glued to the pictures in a book as the teacher read to them. In the middle of the classroom, hanging on wires, were student drawings of “Imagination Monsters.” On the back of each drawing was a story about the child’s monster. On the wall I saw colored paper mâché masks that were used to teach the students about color symbolism. Next to the masks was a picture of a camera with a caption describing each part of it. On another wall, student essays were neatly displayed under the title “World Café.” Through this café format, students were learning writing strategies and how to convey a “big idea” in writing. Each wall dealt with a different learning process. The first wall was devoted to visual literacy and imaginative processing. The second was devoted to the development of students’ literacy and analytical processing. I was impressed and inspired by the projects and the ideas displayed around the room.
I began to think how I might use what I had witnessed at Explorer in my own Mandarin language classes. I thought of using a grid pattern that would place a Chinese word in each square, and that could be read by the X, Y and Z coordinates to convey a sentence in Mandarin. I thought of the three–dimensional paper mâché masks the children had made, and how a similar project could be done using Chinese opera masks as a means of introducing students to emotions, colors and Chinese culture.
With my visit to Explorer Elementary at an end, I realized that it had given me new motivation to develop other ways of teaching Mandarin. This is particularly important at High Tech High International, where we have students from various cultural, economic and religious backgrounds. Considering my own educational experience in China and my visit to Explorer, I began to wonder, how could I bring these revolutionary teaching methods to China? My “big idea” is that I could do something to help revolutionize the archaic Chinese educational system. I hope to implement these new ideas for my students now and in the future, here and in China.