Monday, November 18, 2013

Final thoughts

Closing with a picture of a bathroom just didn't seem right.  China is a fascinating place with a rich history and unique culture.  I appreciated the opportunity to visit this very interesting country and appreciated the kindnesses extended to me by the students, teachers, staff, and administrators we met as well as by representatives of the education ministry and the Hanban/Confucius Institute.  We were made to feel incredibly welcome and were very well looked after throughout our stay.  Thanks, too, to the College Board, for their work with our Chinese hosts to make this such a rich and memorable experience.

Zai jian!
The Last Day

Today was our most beautiful day in China since we arrived.  The sky was blue and clear and a nice breeze kept the smog at bay.  Luckily for my group, this was also scheduled to be our 2nd best day of sightseeing.  In the morning we visited the Temple of Heaven, and in the afternoon, we had time to get lunch on our own in the Pearl Market shopping area and then visit the Olympic Park.

The conditions were absolutely perfect for visiting the Temple of Heaven.  The Temple of Heaven was originally built during the Ming Dynasty and was the place where the emperor would go to offer sacrifices to heaven and to pray for good harvests.  The entire complex is lined with rows of cypress trees and covers about 675 acres.  On a clear day, it's a wonderful vantage point for viewing the city of Beijing.

 cypress trees line the walkways at the Temple of Heaven
 a peek inside the Grand Altar
 The Temple of Heaven against a gorgeous blue sky.

The visit to Olympic Park was also a treat thanks to the great weather and improved air quality.  We were able to go inside the Bird's Nest, site of the opening and closing ceremonies in 2008 and currently a construction site for what will soon be a public indoor ski and sledding area for the winter season.
Inside the Bird's Nest: the scaffolding for the sledding hill is visible in the background.

For those who asked, this is a clean and fairly typical Eastern bathroom.  Be sure to bring your own t.p. as it is not usually provided.
                            Madame Shu Lin addresses the delegation at the Closing Banquet.
November 13, 2014

It is hard to believe that tomorrow will be our last day in China.  We began our day with breakfast at 6 A.M. and were off to buses at 6:45 to beat the traffic to Renmin University.  Our Renmin student hosts met the buses and took us off on tours of the campus.  We returned for a lecture on the Chinese education system given by a professor from Shanghai University who had made the trip to Beijing to share his expertise on Chinese education and how it contrasts with Western education. His talk was quite informative and contained a great deal of information about how the education system in China has changed in the last 20 years and its goals for the coming years.  One statistic that is still resonating with me is that there are more students learning English in China today than there are English speakers in the United States. China is educating about 270 million students while the US has approximately 56 million students enrolled in schools between grades K-12.

In the afternoon, members of the delegation presented to one another about the visits to the various provinces.  In all, the 381 members of the delegation visited 6 provinces in China.  We saw many similarities across the schools, students, and teachers, though regional cultural differences were also a highlight of the visits.  For example, some of the higher education members of the delegation visited the province that is known as the birthplace of Kung Fu and visited a university which is the only one in China to confer a degree in Kung Fu.

Our day wrapped up with a special banquet held in the Golden Hall at the Beijing Hotel and featured a talk given by Madame Shu Lin, Director of Hanban/Confucius Institute and a very prominent figure in China.  Madame Shu Lin addressed the crowd and spoke about the mission of Hanban to promote learning about Chinese language and culture and encouraged each of us to share our stories and experiences about visiting China.

A brief glimpse of a student perfomance at Wuxi #1 High School.

A worker at Lake Taihu harvests lotus plants.

Couples pose for wedding photos at a scenic spot on Lake Taihu on the lucky day of 11-12-13.
School in China is compulsory for students ages 6-15.  Actually, China also offers preschool programs for students from the ages of 3-5.  For elementary and middle school (through grade 9), parents pay small fees for books and uniforms.  High school is paid for by the student's family; in urban areas, most students do have the opportunity to attend high school as their families can generally afford the fees.  This is not, however, true in rural areas where fees are often too high for families to afford.  Of those who attend high school, currently estimated to be 50-60% of the eligible population, only 30-40% pass the exams to go on to college/university.  China has outlined policy to reduce the gap between the access to and quality of education in urban and rural schools over the next 10 years.

The day for students is also quite different than our school day.  For the middle school students we met, their school day generally began at 7:30 A.M. and continued through 8 P.M. during the week.  Students typically have 4, 45 minute academic classes in the morning along with morning exercises in between the 2nd and 3rd classes.  They then have a two-hour break for lunch, and classes resume for approximately 2 hours in the afternoon.  After the afternoon classes, students meet with extracurricular clubs before dinner or meet individually with teachers for assistance.  Students who live on campus then have dinner and meet in evening study groups to complete homework or study independently for several hours before bed.

Our meetings with principals and their school's English teachers who served as translators made it clear that principals in China want the best for their students.  They expressed concerns about student stress levels and worried that schools didn't truly accommodate for student interests and differences.  One principal we met with told a story of a very famous student who had great musical talent and struggled with mathematics; the student stayed an additional 3 years in high school to attempt to achieve high enough scores on the national exam to gain entrance into university.  Without the requisite scores, no pathway for higher education was available to him.

It is difficult I think for us to understand the Chinese educational system without understanding their culture.  Parents of only children have made great sacrifices to send even their elementary-aged children to boarding schools so that they may obtain access to high schools and universities in order to improve their lives.  Exams have also been a part of the Chinese culture for thousands of years and were used to select individuals for official positions dating back to about 200 B.C.  While aspects of their educational system seem inappropriate when measured against our values, there are aspects of our educational system that raise eyebrows in other nations, as well.  I think there are things we can learn from the Chinese educational system and things that they can learn from ours.  I appreciated the openness of students and staff we met about their educational system as well as their questions about our educational system.

The high school we visited this morning treated us to student performances in music, dance, kung fu, and more and was hosted by some student emcees with great English skills.  We were escorted through the school for tours and also had the opportunity to listen to presentations from local and provincial school officials before a wonderful banquet lunch.

Our last day in Wuxi wrapped up with a scenic boat ride around Lake Taihu, China's 3rd largest freshwater lake which supplies water to much of the region.  We had a quick dinner and then made our way to the airport for the trip back to Beijing ultimately returning to our hotel at midnight. Definitely a long day, but a worthwhile one.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

 Students line up for morning exercises.  Quite a sight!
 After a demonstration from a student, I try my hand at calligraphy (my attempt is on the right--the character is "mountain."
 Students at work in a pottery class.
Staff, including an English teacher and the principal, greet us at the school's main entrance gate.