Under the Smog and Away From It (Part 1): The Passion for English and Learning — How children and adults from a small town in China learn and teach English

My trips to China to visit my 80-year old father tend to be mixed in with work. For the holiday break of December 2015, I was brought to Zunyi (遵义) — a town in Southwest China —by both my curiosity and the enthusiastic invitation of Ms. Zhongqin Yao (姚忠琴), the head of a local community education program known as Sisyphe Education.

- Part 1 -

On Route to Zunyi — Under the smog in Beijing

On the 18th of December I landed in Beijing where I stayed with some friends for two nights.  At a friend’s home, I heard from his 10-year old nephew that the local government just issued another smog alarm and all public schools in Beijing canceled their classes for the coming Monday and Tuesday.

“What are you going to do at home?” I asked the boy.

“There’s more school work to do when we stay home than when we go to school!” He showed me his grandpa’s cellphone, on which, through the WeChat app, the boy’s teacher had already assigned work for every hour of the coming Monday and Tuesday.

I enjoy playing games with friends, so I introduced a card game I play in NYC called “I Doubt It.” Knowing that the entire family has been learning English, I proposed that we would play the game entirely in English. My friend and the 10-year old agreed easily and we played many rounds all in English. What's more impressive was that English was used even for things such as clarifying the rules, challenging each other, sharing strategies, and sometimes simply just to joke.

My friend speaks English with great fluency and a flair of authenticity. For example, he warned everyone with a gleam in his eyes, “I’m in a good position to win now.” As practice, he reads original English books every day and does a read aloud in English every morning. His nephew speaks English with less fluency but still quite well. For example, he would argue and whine in English with phrases such as “Oh, no! I forgot that!” None of these two have ever set foot in an English-speaking country.

The grandfather declined to join in the game. However, he also studies English everyday. I later on opened up one of his English textbooks, skimmed through the intensely marked pages, and randomly tested him on some words from the vocabulary lists. He was able to say most of them.


Arriving in Zunyi

I boarded a Zunyi-bound flight at the Beijing airport around 7:30am on a Sunday morning, and arrived at Zunyi just after 10am.

At the airport, I was greeted with the most polite bows by Ms. Yao and the head of the English department at Sisyphe Education — Ms. Mei Li (李梅). Both ladies were beautiful, the type described by Chinese as 美女 (měi nǚ — beauty). It only took me a few more days to learn that their capacity and vision as educators even surpass their appearances.   

Ms. Yao’s husband drove us from the airport and into town. It was liberating when I noticed that I was away from the smog!

One after another, wondrous mountains passed by. While I was being mesmerized by the views, Ms. Yao promptly gestured at the mountains and said, “大山挡住了我们的视野” (the mountains have blocked our vision). However, now they felt that they had someone in the car with something they wanted — 国际视野 — an international vision, a label that has been repeatedly put on me by my educator colleagues from China.

 The mountains surrounding Zunyi, China

The mountains surrounding Zunyi, China


Settling Down in Zunyi

I never knew much about Zunyi other than the fact that it’s known as a “Red Town.” In the 1930’s, a conference was held in Zunyi by the Chinese Communist Party leaders, which marked the turning point of the party’s leadership and its future.  

Upon preparing for my trip and actually seeing Zunyi, I realized that the town has a rich history independent of everything else. It was beyond the control of the emperors throughout most of Chinese history, because the local chiefs of tribes known as 土司 (tǔ sī) ruled the natives (who tended to be of ethnic minorities) with their own governing systems. Top Han officials were exiled here and they then created their own local intellectual culture. In recent decades, Shanghainese immigrated to Zunyi in large numbers and mixed their blood and culture with the locals. On a downtown Zunyi street lined with 法国梧桐 (fà guó wú tóng) — London plane trees — I felt I was standing on the famous Nanjing Road in Shanghai.

After arriving in Zunyi, I was brought to the best hotel in town — the Zunyi Binguan (Zunyi Hotel). Aside from the standard amenities, I also had a computer, Internet connection, and central AC system in the room. From the window, I had a view of the peacefully winding Xiangjiang river (湘江河) and the Fenghuang Mountain (凤凰山). For the following week, I walked past the river a few times on my way to the various schools, but never had the time to climb the mountain due to my packed schedule. 

 Ms. Yao and her husband next to the Xiangjiang River in Zunyi

Ms. Yao and her husband next to the Xiangjiang River in Zunyi

On Monday morning, I was picked up by Ms. Yao bright and early at around 7:20am. I spent the next 14 hours with students and teachers, a schedule repeated daily all the way until I was sent off to the airport directly from a school the following Sunday evening.

It was no small feat to arrange for all these activities. It took Ms. Yao and Ms. Li months in advance to make everything happen. It takes a strong passion for education to lead such initiatives.

I have no complaints about this busy schedule, simply because what I experienced was an educator’s dream come true. I left the town inspired and full of renewed energy.

I want to briefly share with you some of what I have experienced on this trip, in hopes that you will be inspired and energized (like I was), and be well on your own way of pursuing Chinese language skills and knowledge. 


How Teachers Teach English

The main events from Monday to Friday were to observe English classes at various local public schools, from Kindergarten to high school, as well as classes at Sisyphe Education Center. In total, I went to five different schools and observed about 20 classes.

Ms. Yao and Ms. Li explained to me that they selected above-average but not top-notch schools, so as to not skew my experience.

While sitting at the back of each class I was observing, I took detailed notes, shot photos and videos, and joined in on the students’ group work.

In several schools, afterwards, I would attend a meeting assembled with all the English teachers (of the school). The meetings tended to be led by either the head of the English department or the head of the academic programs of the school.

Generally, the meetings would begin with the host presenting a welcome speech on my behalf with a brief introduction of my academic backgrounds. The main agenda of the meeting is for me to 点评 (diǎn píng) — to rate, review or comment on each teacher’s class. This was followed by an open discussion, which was always lively.  

 At a meeting with the English teachers at No.16 Middle School in Zunyi, China

At a meeting with the English teachers at No.16 Middle School in Zunyi, China

 Post meeting with English teachers at No. 1 Middle School in Zunyi, China

Post meeting with English teachers at No. 1 Middle School in Zunyi, China

 At a meeting with English teachers at the Sisyphe Education Center in Zunyi, China

At a meeting with English teachers at the Sisyphe Education Center in Zunyi, China

 Ms. Zhongqin Yao (first from left) and Ms. Mei Li (first from right) with Gisela and two English teachers from Zunyi No. 1 High School.

Ms. Zhongqin Yao (first from left) and Ms. Mei Li (first from right) with Gisela and two English teachers from Zunyi No. 1 High School.

I went into my first class on a Monday morning, Ms. Huang’s class of 10th graders. Upon seeing their teacher going up on the stage, the class of 60 students who had all been seated neatly, stood up. Ms. Huang said, “Good morning, class!” The students answered, “Good morning, Ms. Huang!” All the students then sat back down. Aside from this all-English greeting, the class was also carried out entirely in English.

The topic of that lesson was emergency medical care — students learned and held discussions about what to do in various emergency situations — from the little things, like a nosebleed, to the more critical things, like asthma attacks and snake bites! Students were amused by some practices introduced, such as using coffee to handle an asthma attack.

Then I sat in classes with lesson topics such as: how to seek social support, art history, the Olympic games, school subjects and so on.

I was struck and impressed by several observations of these classes:

First, all teachers were capable of carrying out a class entirely in English, and most of them did so. This is equivalent to being in a Chinese-as-a-foreign-language classroom in the U.S., and seeing the class being taught entirely in Chinese by an American-born native English speaker. 

It was a common sight to see these Chinese teachers conduct reading and writing exercises, coordinate group work and games, explain assignments, and joke with the students, all in English! It was even more impressive when I asked these teachers about their educational backgrounds. None of them had ever set foot in the U.S., and only a few had been to England for no longer than four months. They all graduated from local teachers’ colleges in China.

One young teacher who spoke flawless English is planning on visiting the U.S. with her husband to pursue a Master’s degree. She asked me, “What kind of job can I do in the U.S., teaching Chinese?” I honestly replied, “Well, you could teach English if you want!”

 An English class at the Zunyi No. 1 High School with Art History as lesson topic.

An English class at the Zunyi No. 1 High School with Art History as lesson topic.

 Gisela joining in a student group's discussions.

Gisela joining in a student group's discussions.

A second observation is that teachers no longer teach only in the “traditional and old-fashioned” Chinese ways, which is described as top-down “feeding” of information. I saw only a little of that in these classrooms. All the teachers engaged students in group-work that got each member to collaborate and conduct peer reviews, play games, and even do skits related to the lessons.

In classrooms that are crowded (with anywhere from 40 to 70 students), it is difficult for students to move around. So in order for students to do any game, teachers have to get creative. One such creativity I observed was in a class where the teacher, Ms. Wang, was teaching the topic of school subjects. She adapted into the lesson a game that is similar to a game of “Telephone.” The teacher handed out cards, with a short conversation written on each, to each student sitting on the front row. Each student then had to memorize the conversation written on his/her own card and then verbally pass it down to the student sitting behind him/her. This was repeated with the next student until the conversation reached the last student of that isle. When all isles were done passing along their conversation, the teacher, while looking at the relevant card, would ask the last student to recite the conversation. If the student recited it correctly, the teacher would say, “Bingo!” If not, the teacher would revise it.

Most of us probably remember playing a game of Telephone in a much smaller classroom setting with only a handful of students, but in a class of 70 students, this alternation was a brilliant execution of the game. Imagine, in only a matter of a few minutes, each and every single student had to memorize a conversation with no student left out in all the action!

The third observation I made was that strong teaching traditions are upheld. For thousand of years, the Chinese people have the habits of getting into the minute details of the structures of the Chinese language. They would then do the same to English. Just like how my English teachers did it when I was in secondary school in China, these teachers still spend time on grammar, from tenses to double negatives, to what elements make up complete sentences.

The day I returned home to NYC from this Zunyi trip, I started to read a Master’s thesis written by an American student, a native English speaker. It was not long before the pages were marked with numerous grammatical errors, including incomplete sentences. In moments like this, I have felt lucky to have English grammar drilled into me while going through my secondary school in China.

The fourth observation was that all the teachers were eager to improve. After each class I observed, in all sincerity, I would tell the teacher how impressed I was. Invariably, the teacher would say, “请一定指出需要改进的地方” (please make sure you point out where I need improvement). Most teachers would then take initiative to tell me which steps they could have executed better in the class I observed.

At the post meetings with the teachers, I often suggested that they give students more ways to practice using the words spontaneously, as well as using richer language materials other than just textbooks. The teachers would all promptly take notes. They would then ask numerous provoking questions, such as: how English vocabulary and grammar are taught to students in the U.S., and what they can learn from that; how to enrich students’ home English environment when nobody from the family speaks any English.