Under the Smog and Away From It (Part 2): The Passion for English and Learning — How children and adults from a small town in China learn and teach English

- Part 2 -

How Students Learn English

As typical in China, all the students take English classes almost every day at school from at least 3rd grade up. On the weekends, they go to community education programs, like the one run by Ms. Yao, to receive additional support in English.

Inside every single one of the classrooms that I observed in Zunyi, whether it was just a handful of students or 70 students, I did not see one case of a student acting up or misbehaving, but only concentration and participation. Teachers were able to easily get all the students to read aloud a long list of words bilingually (e.g., math — shù xué 数学, P.E. — tǐ yù 体育, science — kē xué 科学), or a long piece of text. This practice of 朗诵 (lǎng sòng — read aloud) is dreaded by our students here in the U.S., but it is essential for getting the hang of the language through the experience of manipulating its sounds.

More and more of the classrooms are equipped with multi-media systems even though the materials presented are not that rich yet. In a lesson on the history of the Olympic Games, as a warm up activity, the teacher (Ms. Li) showed a short clip of photos of athletes engaging in various sports. This clip could be just a so-so clip for children in the U.S. who are exposed to richer entertainment. But in this class of 50 Zunyi students, I could hear a needle drop as they stayed focused and amused. 

I have personally known and lived with, for a long time, such educational discipline and high tolerance for what is considered to be “boring.” And I’m utterly relieved to see that these Zunyi students are able to retain their spirit in the midst of entering a world filled with media that is only becoming more “entertaining” and “stimulating” each day.

Before my arrival, I was warned by the local educators to not put my expectations too high for these children at Zunyi, which is considered as a 三线城市 (sān xiàn chéng shì — a third-tier city). It is implied that they do not match up in abilities to children from cities such as Beijing or Shanghai, which are considered as 一线城市 (yī xiàn chéng shì — top-tier city).

But the children of these so-called “third-tier city” have surpassed my highest expectations of them. They took me by surprise with their English abilities and their passion for the language.

Towards the end of most classes, the teachers would give me about 10 to 15 minutes to talk to their students entirely in English. These teachers did not want to miss the opportunity for their students to speak with someone whose English is supposedly authentic. In each instance, I would ask the students personal life questions based on the focus vocabulary of their lesson that day. I would announce a question first, pick one of the students who had his or her hands up, ask that student the question again, get an answer, and then give that student the opportunity to ask me a question in return.

As soon as I have posed a question, I would see a couple of different things happening in the classroom that was once calm and settled: a fraction of the students were excited with their hands already high up in the air waiting to be picked; another fraction of students were struggling amongst themselves as to whether or not to raise their hands; meanwhile the remaining fraction of the students were in deep thoughts, as if they were seriously contemplating the question.           

The student I picked would invariably stand up from his or her seat, answer the question with a shy but bright smile, and then ask me a question in return. Common questions from the third and fifth graders included what my favorite things were: color, month and person, as well as my birthday. Meanwhile, the middle and high school students asked deeper questions such as: Who do you talk to when you have troubles? Why did you decide to study Psychology? What are your thoughts on “Chinglish”? What is exactly the situation of racial discrimination in the U.S.?

 Gisela teaching her English class in Zunyi, China

Gisela teaching her English class in Zunyi, China

 A student answering and asking a question.

A student answering and asking a question.

A very memorable experience happened at one school that I was supposed to observe. A few days before the scheduled date, the teachers decided to switch gears in the sense that they asked me to teach two classes instead of just observing. One was a 3rd grade class, the other a 5th grade, and each with 70 students.

I was up preparing until 2am the morning of the day the classes were scheduled. On the way to the school, Ms. Yao, Ms. Li and I devised various plans to control the students if they would become distracted or rowdy. Thoroughly inexperienced in classes of such a size, I imagined myself standing on the stage shouting and the two ladies running around after the students to gather them up.

In fact, I had two unforgettable classes where the student showed total concentration and cooperation. I had prepared for the classes a PowerPoint presentation filled with photos to tell them about my life in NYC, and to review with them words they had learned by putting them in various sentences. From the beginning to the end, I only spoke English. Each time an interesting photo came up, particularly the one with a NYC scenery or of my family, a rush of “wow!” and “oh!” can be heard echoing across the room. Just like American children, these children also loved photos of animals. Their sparkling eyes and glistening faces betrayed it all — their fascination with the English language and things that are new.

In a kindergarten classroom, I observed a story session. It was carried out in Chinese because the kids had not yet started learning English. As I entered with a group of teachers, the children (who were already neatly seated) turned around with curiosity in their eyes. One child asked, “美国朋友来了吗?” (Is the American friend here?) Upon being pointed out, I received big and welcoming smiles from these little children. 

 Storytelling session at a kindergarten.

Storytelling session at a kindergarten.

Again, the head of the Kindergarten had previously gave me the “third-tier city” warning, and had expressed her desire to improve the quality of her school. However, the storytelling session I witnessed said something else entirely. Unlike the typical presenter-and-audience storytelling, this particular storytelling session unfolded more like a collaborative play by the children and the teacher. There were lot of guessing, gesturing, playing with words and sentences, and above all, a lot of laughter.

Afterwards, the children were split into two debating teams — their debating topic: the morale of a duck character from the story who gave up his chance in winning a bet with his friend, the goose, for the sake of saving the life of said goose. The clarity, sharpness and civility with which these children articulated their thoughts struck me. In this little school tucked away in a small town, I found the fountain of hope for my native land. 

 The kindergarten children debating each other in two teams.

The kindergarten children debating each other in two teams.


How Children Relate to Education

Another challenging task I accepted was to give a talk to children enrolled at the Sisyphe Education Center. There were OVER 300 students, ranging from 3rd grade to high school, from various schools across town.

After much time devoted to planning, three days before the talk, I still found myself very concerned while sitting in my hotel room with Ms. Yao and Ms. Li. Then a light lit up. Why don’t we ask the children what they want to hear! (A sort of, Q and A.) The two ladies immediately sent out the request to teachers who then passed on the message to the students, all via the WeChat app. In a matter of minutes, the questions started to roll in.

The following are the original questions in Chinese, sorted in the order in which they were received:

1. 怎样让家长赞同自己的想法?(How to get my parents to agree with me?)

2. 在感到有很大压力的情况下怎么减压?(How to reduce stress when I feel pressured?)

3. 怎样学英语口语才能学得好?(How can I speak fluent English?)

4. 美国的孩子会不会象我们一样有各种考试?(Do American children have various exams just like we do?)

5. 美国的孩子是怎么学习的?我们可不可以借鉴他们的方法?(How do American children study? Do they have good methods that we can borrow?)

Armed with these questions, I was, in a way, taking a peek into their minds. I continued to prepare for the talk, this time with more confidence. On the day of the event, I explained with examples, how a good child-parent relationship involves compromises from both sides; introduced ways to reduce stress, including the practice of mindfulness; shared examples of how American children study and take exams. In addition, I went over the guiding architectural principles of American education — the 21st Century skills — that I saw were promptly written down as notes by the students. This portion of the talk was in Chinese to ensure their maximum comprehension.

At the end of the talk, after the lively all-English Q-and-A session, I had various students approaching me for autographs, photo-op, and with requests for me to assist in giving them an English name. As a routine for me, I asked every student who approached me, “Did you get something out of my talk?” Invariably a child would nod. I continued, “What was it?” (This was to check to what degree their answers were valid.) Again with no hesitation, all of them listed at least 1 to 3 things, such as: I learned ways to negotiate with my parents; I liked the methods of reducing stress; the 21st Century skills are so important for me to know.  


Parents, oh, parents!

One more challenge I faced at the Sisyphe Education Center was another talk I was arranged to give to parents, over 300 of them (they are the parents of the children mentioned in the previous section). The range of their children’s age (3rd grade to high school) and the openness of the topic made the talk especially challenging.

Again came the “third-tier city” warning, and I was advised to be careful as to not talk over the parents’ heads. I have long been used to relying on scientific principles and findings to guide my parenting talks. After much thinking, I told Ms. Yao that I saw limited value in a talk unless it is one that is guided by scientific principles. Ms. Yao replied, “That’s fine. But do make sure that the parents would get something concrete to hold onto.” And I promised with a yes.   

On the day of the talk, I covered the nature of parent-children bond by sweeping through findings from U.S. orphanages prior to the 1900’s, to Harry Harlow’s findings about monkeys during the mid-20th century. Armed with the findings from Noble prize award winning biologist Elizabeth H. Blackburn and other scientists, I talked about how chronic pressure affected the length of telomere (the two caps on human chromosomes) and how that can further affect the health of adults and children. I presented findings that show the link between depression and the lack of sleep in adolescence. I also described research showing that innate genetic differences make people respond to the same environment in different ways. Therefore, I asked parents to not compare their children to others in any superficial manner.  

Upon hearing findings in the U.S. showing that schools that started later in the morning (so that students can get more sleep) produced better academic results than schools that started earlier in the morning, one parent asked what they should do in China. I answered, with no hesitation, that eventually it is up to the parents because they are gaining an increasingly stronger voice in these matters. I told them something I have repeatedly told parents no matter where they are from, “You are the most important people in the world, because you are in the position to shape your children’s future, thus the world’s future.”

Many parents lined up to talk to me after the lively Q & A session at the end of the talk. Their questions revealed to me that these parents understood the science and took it seriously.

A teacher handed me a pack of throat soothing Chinese herbal drops and said, “A parent asked me to give this to you. She hopes that these can protect your voice.”

On another day after the events, I was having lunch at a small roadside noodle shop when one of the parents from the events came in. She took out a plastic bag, handed it to me and said, “I went to your talk. I feel that I shouldn’t heard it for free. So I want to give you this pair of slippers that I handmade.” (我听了您的讲座。我想不能白听啊。这双拖鞋是我自己手编的。)

The English saying, “actions speak louder than words,” best describes this traditional style of communication of the Chinese people. I was relieved to see that the talk was appreciated by parents in Zunyi.


Students in the Clouds

When I say “students in the clouds,” I mean it literally. Ms. Yao had arranged for me to visit a school that is half way up a mountain, at about the elevation of 5,000 feet. That is roughly equivalent to being half way up Mount Deseret in the state of Utah, which stands at 11,035 feet in elevation. 

 The one-room classroom at a school atop the mountains in Zunyi, China. 

The one-room classroom at a school atop the mountains in Zunyi, China. 

 Staff and students at the school atop the mountains in Zunyi, China.

Staff and students at the school atop the mountains in Zunyi, China.

This school atop the mountain has only one classroom, hosting 10 students ranging from grades 3 to 5, and taught by one teacher at any given time for all the subjects.

More impressively, these students come from even higher up the mountains, or from the other side that is behind the mountains. As you can imagine, given the difficult terrains and the extremely long journey on foot, these children are unable to go all the way down the mountains to attend school at a town or city. Thus, this school in the middle of the mountain was built to accommodate them.

Wearing donated coast and boots, each student walks 1 to 2 hours each way on the mountain roads leading from their homes to the school. When I asked about their daily commute to school and back, all the students pointed to the daintiest girl in their class and said, “She has the longest commute. She walks 2 hours each way.” I looked at this girl and she nodded with a shy but peaceful smile. 

 Students starting their long journey home through the mountain roads.

Students starting their long journey home through the mountain roads.

 Gisela talking to the little girl with a 2-hour on-foot commute (the longest in her class).

Gisela talking to the little girl with a 2-hour on-foot commute (the longest in her class).

Up in the clouds, the children here showed the same kind of concentration in their work as their fellow students from schools below the mountains. With great enthusiasm, students participated in a few English games Ms. Li organized for them. They produced good English, they struggled and they laughed.

 Students listening to Ms. Mei Li's guest lesson in English.

Students listening to Ms. Mei Li's guest lesson in English.

Fast-forward to the end of our visit. Ms. Yao brought out brand new books she donated, and the students pounced on the books with excitement. Each student took a book, returned to the seats, and immediately started to read.

It was by then dismissal time, their teacher had to remind them again and again that it was time to go home. (A delayed start in their journey home can mean darker mountain roads to navigate due to sunset, and that is potentially a hazard for the students.)

The students finally gathered up their things and headed home, but not without the book in one hand. Ms. Yao said, “Mark my words, they will be reading that book on their way home.” At the moment, the thought was too absurd that it did not even register in my head.

As my party and I were on our way back down the mountains in our vehicle, from a distance way up on the narrow mountain roads covered partially by the misty clouds, I saw four of the students walking in a single file, each holding a book in front of them and reading!


Ending Thoughts

With all the celebrity treatments — autographs, photo ops, gifts and words of appreciation — there was NOT a single moment that I felt like these treatments were directed to me as form of “celebrity worship.”

All of these people that I have met on this trip, young and old, have a passion to improve themselves through a new language and through knowledge. I’m simply lucky enough to be that person to have something to share in this regard.

But little did these people know that, the person whom they had listened to and talked to, left this bustling city asking herself, “How can I better myself just like the people from this town?”

What a gift the people in Zunyi gave me to start the New Year of 2016! With this two-part article, I hope you feel that the gift is shared with you as well. 

 Signs on the wall of the Sisyphe Education Center in Zunyi, China. "When the youths of a nation are rich, then the nation is rich. When the youths of a nation are strong, then the nation is strong."

Signs on the wall of the Sisyphe Education Center in Zunyi, China. "When the youths of a nation are rich, then the nation is rich. When the youths of a nation are strong, then the nation is strong."