The Students of Handan No. 31 Middle School
After the terrible explosions at the Boston Marathon, many of us are trying to heal. As our principal, Melissa Kapeckas, represents us in Handan, China, we mourn many injuries and the death of three innocent people, including a Chinese student who was studying at Boston University. The kind of cross-cultural relationships that Mrs. Kapeckas is currently building are more important than ever. Already this week, the police and media turned an injured 20-year old guy from Saudi Arabia into a suspect treated with brutality. As Governor Patrick said, “This community will recover if we turn TO each other and not ON each other.” Let’s start that process by taking the time to learn about another culture. Read on to hear Mrs. Kapeckas’s account of students at our partner school.
I echo Ms. Krakauer’s sentiments in her post, “Why Did I Ever Leave Boston?” It is very unsettling being away from your city; when tragedy strikes, we all want to hold our loved ones and open our hearts to those affected. The Chinese administrators I am working with informed me of the news and apologized for what the people of Boston have had to face.
The past 3 days at No. 31 Handan Middle School have been an absolutely amazing experience. The Chinese culture takes pride in honoring guests by giving gifts, entertaining others, and elegant banquet dinners. Beyond that, I am the first foreigner that many of the people I have met have ever encountered, so I have been treated much like a celebrity. I have my own office at school, which is three times the size of my office at IACS and is complete with a bed, in case I want to rest during the school day. I have had many people want to take their picture with me, even on the street, countless gifts bestowed upon me, and students yelling “Hello” followed by giggles as they are shy and unsure of their English, but eager to communicate. I have even been asked for my autograph. I am not sure how I can begin to describe all that I have experienced, so I’ll do my best to summarize highlights from attending school in the next few blog posts.
My students at IACS are probably curious what Chinese students are like, so I’ll begin there. In many ways, Chinese teenagers are like American teenagers. They have been curious how American students spend their time, and they agreed that, like Americans, they enjoy playing sports, shopping, playing online games, and spending time with friends. In general, they are more shy with adults than American teenagers, but they were able to come out of their shell with some coaxing. Thanks to HB Gates and Mr. Leedberg, I traded a $20 bill in for $20 worth of state quarters from the Pennies for Patients fundraiser to bring with me. Telling students they could have an American coin if they asked me a question in English broke the ice quickly! Chinese students, like American students, are friendly and warm-hearted. I enjoyed the persuasive sales pitches of Chinese students that participated in a fundraiser for a local school for students with autism. Students donated their gently used toys for the sale and bargained with one another, with all proceeds going to the school. Like our students’ participate in Pennies for Patients, it was inspiring to see so many students engaged in community service to help other kids.
The Chinese culture places a high value education; students and families understand that hard work brings more opportunities. As a result, the Chinese students generally have a lot of self-discipline and work hard. I have seen 0 discipline issues in the 8 classes I have observed thus far- no redirection, no calling out, no off-topic talking. This is with an average class size of 50 students in a typical middle/high school, not a “key” exam school. After seeing this, I wondered if perhaps Chinese teenagers were just more serious. During my “rest break” in my office, I wandered off down the hall to a commotion in the classroom. Students had arrived early after the lunch break. Some were merely chatting, but other students were horsing around, shoving one another and tossing a broom around the room. As soon as the teacher entered the room, however, the chaos ended and class began immediately with the same boundaries and respect for the teacher seen in other classes. Chinese students seem to have clear boundaries around the time for work and the time for play.
The students’ day is longer than in the US, but more relaxed in some ways. Students generally take eight 40 minute classes- Chinese, English, Math, History, Politics, Science (some years they take 2 science classes), PE, and art or music electives. Five classes occur in the morning from 7:30-11:30 with a mid-morning tai-chi exercise break on the field. Students go home for lunch and a rest for a 3 hour break and return for 3 more classes beginning at 2:30 and ending at 6:00. Students that are preparing for exams may stay for a ninth class and leave school at 7:15 pm. Students go home and do homework until 10 pm or later before going to bed. The school also has some residential students that live at the school in a dormitory and eat all meals in the cafeteria. I asked students if they ever do their homework during their 3 hour lunch break. They all said “no”; this time is reserved for students, families, and business people to enjoy a hot meal together, rest, and/or play a game, such as Mah jong or badminton. Despite the fact that the Chinese students have a long day, it seems like it is at a more relaxed, well-balanced pace compared to the speed New Englanders typically are accustomed to.
What conclusions would you draw about the similarities and differences between the Chinese and American students and their daily life at school?