Innovation on Earth

Global Citizenship Resources for Innovation Academy and Beyond

Archive for the category “China”

2016: Let’s Look Beyond the Headlines

ScratchMapWhen I look back at the headlines from 2015, it was a pretty rotten year. The world looks like a pretty scary place when you see a constant stream of terrorism, political fighting, climate change, and gun violence. My goal in 2016 is to help people look beyond the headlines.

Here are some examples from recent news:

New Year’s Eve headline: A high rise building caught fire in Dubai, burning right next to the world’s tallest tower, the Burj Khalifa, as the city celebrated New Years with their annual fireworks (1).

What I think of when I hear about Dubai: I only spent one night in Dubai, but I’ll remember watching the spectacular dancing fountains just below that tall tower, the Burj Khalifa.

Last week’s headline: China will get rid of its one child policy, and starting yesterday, January 1st, 2016, families will be able to have two children without huge tax fines (2).

What I’ll think of when I hear about China: I spent 7 weeks teaching English speaking high school students about China during the summer of 2012. I’ll remember so many amazing moments, such as volunteering with the Migrant Children’s Project, helping children from families unable to go to public school because of a complex government policy.

Last month’s headline: Forest fires in Indonesia this year destroyed 6.4 million acres of rainforest and farmland, causing more than half a million people to develop acute respiratory infections (3).

What I think of when I hear about Indonesia: The beaches of Bali will be forever etched into my memory, but the island’s friendly people are really what make this place so compelling to tourists from around the world.

Last year’s headline: Mali 391-1Terrorists took over a hotel in Bamako, the capital of Mali, keeping hostages for many hours (4).

What I think of when I hear about Mali: I’ll remember the amazing people who took care of me during my time volunteering there. And listening to the beautiful Muslim call to prayer at one of the most amazing mosques in the world, made entirely of mud.

Nobody knows what 2016 will bring, but let’s all work together to look past the headlines, and see the people. As you can see, travel helps me feel connected. What helps you to stay hopeful?

Coming Home

KapeckasIt has been an amazing experience to follow along with Melissa Kapeckas’s experiences while she was away in China. While her half of the administrator exchange is over, we are still looking forward to Vice Principal Pei’s visit in the fall. We’d love to hear what you learned through reading this blog. Write in with your reflections, and be a part of Innovation Academy’s global education journey.

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“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started,
And know the place for the first time.”

        -T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets

In many ways, one of the best things about a longer travel experience in which you really immerse in another culture is coming home. I’m not referring to coming home and experiencing all that you missed- your family, being greeted by your dogs licking your face, sleeping in your own bed, and eating familiar foods. Those things are certainly appreciated, but not what I am referring to. What I mean is seeing your home through new eyes as if you are new to the place and appreciating it for its value.

FlowersI came home to spring in all of its glory. Trees are bursting with that lime green color of new leaves that haven’t quite found their photosynthetic way. Splashes of colors are everywhere- golden forsythia bushes, tulips and daffodils abound, and purple, pink, and white flowering trees are spreading their pollen everywhere. It’s simply stunning; I cannot get enough of it. Would I have appreciated its beauty if I were here all along to see spring unfold? I am not certain.

The traffic in China was an unforgettable experience. 1.3 billion people in a developing country, in which cars are relatively new to the road, means an intersection of pedestrians, bicycles, mopeds, and cars inventing their own rules of the road. I’ve never appreciated the order of the roadways in the US. The traffic laws do indeed keep us safe and for the most part people follow them. The lack of honking has made my heart happy this week.

Those are just a few simple examples; in reality, travel can help you realize how sometimes you we can take things for granted and how beautiful your family, home, school, and country really is and how grateful you are to have this one precious life and the opportunity to come back to it refreshed with new set of eyes.

 ~Melissa Kapeckas

Successes and Challenges for Handan No. 31 Middle School

KapeckasInnovation Academy Middle School principal, Melissa Kapeckas, is home from China!  At the end of her trip, she was too busy  to post, so here’s another report from her experience. We will host Mr. Pei, vice principal of Handan No. 31 Middle School, next fall. What will he think of our school? Will he observe successes and challenges that we can’t even guess at?

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Graphic posted in 2 schools visited; schools are trying to adopt more of a student-centered approach

Graphic posted in 2 schools visited; schools are trying to adopt more of a student-centered approach

 

At Handan No. 31 Middle School, the administration and staff want students to have as many opportunities available as possible when they become adults. It is a combined middle/high school, and their success in seventh-ninth grade will have a big impact on their future. At the end of ninth grade (the end of compulsory education in China), students must take exams. The highest achieving students are awarded a seat in a “key” school; key schools generally have more resources with regarding to funding, facilities, and equipment than non-key schools and high school administrators at non-key schools have to be savvy in order to provide resources for their schools. Each year, some of the rising ninth graders of Handan No. 31 Middle School move on to key schools, some move to vocational schools for training in technical schools and some stay on for senior high school at Handan No. 31 School. What can Principal Wang do to give his students the most opportunity possible?

Meeting Funding Challenges

Many families are moving from the countryside to find more opportunities in the city, finding work operating as street vendors and increased educational opportunities for their child.

Many families are moving from the countryside to find more opportunities in the city, finding work operating as street vendors and increased educational opportunities for their child.

One distinct challenge for the administration of Handan No. 31 School is funding. Teachers earn between 40-50,000 yuan/year at Handan No. 31 Middle School ($6600-$8300/year). The Chinese government currently provides about half of the funding for teachers’ salaries. However, the school faces a minimum quota of the number of teachers that must be employed at school each year. Because high school students are charged fees for tuition across China (800 yuan/year or $130/year), Principal Wang has increased enrollment of senior high school students to help offset costs. He has also had to hire 30 temporary teachers this past year in order to meet the quota. Temporary teachers are not paid as much and do not earn benefits. Beyond meeting the tight funding needs of the school, Principal Wang tries to budget carefully in order to provide scholarships for the tuition costs for the children at his school facing economic hardships, including many rural migrant children.

Developing a Niche

Dance class

Dance class

In order to attract students to stay on for senior high school, non-key schools must develop a niche as a school. Handan No. 31 Middle School’s niche is the arts. There are many course offerings in electives, such as dance, visual arts, music, and tai chi. Arts students can specialize in one of these arts and take a full courseload in addition to their academics. While at Handan No. 31 Middle School, I visited a drawing class, a portrait class, a ballet class, a tai chi class, and a chorus rehearsal. Despite the average class size of 50 in academic classes, arts classes ranged in size from 10-25 students. In 2012, 96.7% of the senior high school students applying to arts schools were accepted.

Increasing Academic Performance

Learning tai chi alongside students

Learning tai chi alongside students

From 2010 to 2012, Handan No. 31 School increased their percentage of students passing the gao kao college entrance exam from 19.5 to 32.3%. Principal Wang shared a vision of continual improvement for students with the entire staff. Vice Principals worked with department chairs and teachers to set goals. Teaching teams that met their goals were awarded an 8,000 yuan bonus ($1330). Last year, 128 No. 31 students went on to college, the highest percentage in the school’s 20 year history. While Principal Wang acknowledged that the school still has lots of improvement to make, he took pride in the school’s rapid progress.

~ Melissa Kapeckas

Teachers of Handan #31

KapeckasMelissa Kapeckas is nearing the end of her visit to China. Her administrative exchange has been full of learning and growth, and we are very much looking forward to her return. We are also excited to host Mr. Pei, principal of Handan No. 31 Middle School, next fall. Mrs. Kapeckas will return to IACS on Tuesday, April 23rd!

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With the tragic events of this past week, I am eager to return home to my family, friends, and community at IACS to simply be together and express my gratitude that they are an important part of my life. I spoke with pride to the teachers of Handan No. 31 Middle School about the dedication, compassion, and care for students that our school has; as we return to school, it will be difficult and important to return to normalcy, but I am confident we can do it together.

Round table discussion with the English department

Round table discussion with the English department

This blog post pays homage to the teachers of Handan No. 31 Middle School. One of the absolute joys of being at Handan No. 31 Middle School was interacting teachers. Consistently, teachers asked me for feedback on their lessons and were eager to know how they could improve their teaching and how they could help their students be more assertive and creative. English teachers (almost all who had studied in China and had not been abroad) wanted to know how they might improve their own command of the language, and ways we teach foreign language at home to help our students acquire the language. Their thirst for knowledge and desire to stretch their teaching practice was inspiring.

Students performing a skit in English class

Students performing a skit in English class

The Bureau of Education is working to change the face of education in China and move from a lecture-based system to a more student-centered one. In debriefing with other principals, schools, as you would expect, are in varying places with this shift. At Handan No. 31 Middle School, group work has a presence in classes, although, often, students are not yet being asked to apply their knowledge and assessment does not appear to be built into lessons. In one English lesson, I observed students worked to create unique skits with varied themes and then answered listening comprehension questions about each skit. Other group work tasks involved lower-order comprehension questions or following the directions of a physics experiment. That said they have laid important groundwork with a staff that is eagerly asking what they can do to improve their practice and build their students’ skills.

7th grade English class. Students were learning about geography in Canada.

7th grade English class. Students were learning about geography in Canada.

Peer observation is central to the work in Handan No. 31 school and many schools in China. Teachers are expected to observe colleagues in their department 1-2 times/week and they are observed generally once/week by colleagues. Each of the classes I observed had 7 teachers taking notes on a school-wide template. They debriefed both informally with the colleague when they saw them and in department meetings. All teachers agreed that this was an important means of support and for their growth.

How do teachers fit this in? Teachers teach less blocks/day in a longer work day. Many teachers at Handan No. 31 Middle School teach only 2 blocks/day during the 7:30-11:30 and 2:30-6 school day, leaving lots of time for observation, collaboration in planning lessons together, and meeting with students in tutorials. Depending upon if it was an exam year, teachers and students often were expected to come back after dinner for study together until 8:30 and/or all day Saturday. The average class size is 50 students in cramped quarters, posing a real challenge to moving to a more student-centered classroom.

My 3 lifesavers of the trip- English teachers and my interpreters, Qin Tian (Tina), Xiao Juan (Becky), Mi Juan (Monica)

My 3 lifesavers of the trip- English teachers and my interpreters, Qin Tian (Tina), Xiao Juan (Becky), Mi Juan (Monica)

Teachers often discussed feeling pressured by the long work day. Teachers earn 40-50,000 yuan/year ($6600-$8800 US dollars/year). At this rate, often a teacher would have to live with family to save for 10 years for being able to buy an apartment. Cars are relatively new to Handan and teachers ride bicycles or motorbikes to school, as they cannot afford cars.

Like in the US, teaching is a profession with distinct rewards and some real challenges as well.

~ Melissa Kapeckas

The Students of Handan No. 31 Middle School

KapeckasAfter 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.

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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.

One of many gifts I have been given by students

One of many gifts I have been given by students

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.

Donations

Students donate items for sale at fundraiser for local school for students with autism

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 Hawk lands in to join the fun in a noisy, teacher-less classroom with some students horsing around.

The Hawk lands in to join the fun in a noisy, teacher-less classroom with some students horsing around.

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.

"Tai-chi recess"

“Tai-chi recess”

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?

Chinese students like basketball and so do I!

Chinese students like basketball and so do I!

-Melissa Kapeckas

Flag-Raising Ceremony

KapeckasHappy Marathon Monday if you are in Boston! Mrs. Kapeckas, who is in Handan, China at her partner school, had an amazing experience today. If you are a student or staff member at Innovation Academy Charter School, you’ll be especially interested to read this entry. Even if you can’t go to China yourself, there’s a whole school there who knows about you!

Students gather during flag-raising ceremony

Students gather during flag-raising ceremony

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Today, I was welcomed to No. 31 Handan Middle School at their weekly flag-raising ceremony, akin to the community meeting at Innovation Academy Charter School. I walked with Principal Wang from his home the 10 minutes to the school, passing many of his students grabbing a quick breakfast from a street vendor or pedaling their bikes along the way. Students arrive 30 minutes prior to their first class for the flag-raising ceremony and line up on the soccer field by class. Each class takes a turn raising the flag, and the national anthem is played. After, announcements were given, some awards were distributed, and a student read a speech on her dream to be an architect. Finally, I gave a short speech to the 2000 students and 150 teachers, thanking them for their warm welcome and giving a gift (a globe inscribed with a plaque that says “A gift of friendship from Innovation Academy Charter School 2013”).

Presenting a gift of friendship from IACS to Principal Wang.

Presenting a gift of friendship from IACS to Principal Wang.

After the flag-raising ceremony, I met with the members of the leadership team and some teaching staff to learn more about the school. I realized we share more commonalities than differences.  For example, I asked what the biggest goals and obstacles of the school were. They are currently in the midst of an expansion and have major construction going on at the school, so they can serve more students.

Many seniors, including this one, were studying for the gao cao college entrance exam which takes place on June 7th.

Many seniors, including this one, were studying for the gao cao college entrance exam which takes place on June 7th.

A challenge is resources; currently 32 of their 150 teachers are “temporary” or unlicensed teachers, because the school could not afford to pay the salaries to have all of their teachers licenses. They also have a difficult time equipping their school with adequate materials, such as technology, books, etc. When asked what sets their school apart, they shared that they have a dedicated staff that puts students first and they value a family-like culture at the school.  A school resource officer is at the gate to the school and assists the Vice Principal in discipline matters, especially when students are involved in a fight. I laughed out loud when the Chinese teachers asked if American teachers had to deal with “puppy love” in the classroom. They also shared that the Principal has amassed quite a collection of cell phones from teachers that have been texting during class. We agreed that teenagers are teenagers everywhere.

I am excited to spend some time observing classes tomorrow!

No. 31 Handan Middle School at night. Many buildings are lit like this at night throughout China.

No. 31 Handan Middle School at night. Many buildings are lit like this at night throughout China.

Courtesies and Discourtesies

 KapeckasIt’s April Vacation and everyone is busy enjoying in different places! Mrs. Kapeckas arrived in Handan, China at her partner school! This is one of my favorite entries so far, and I think you will be really interested in her observations. At the same time, our IACS high school group in Costa Rica rode horses to the jungle yesterday, and I’m writing from New Orleans, where I am spending a few days of April Vacation!  It is currently POURING rain outside with loud thunder, but the weather is supposed to clear up and I will try to get out a blog entry soon. Where are you for vacation? Write in with your own global experiences (and remember, sometimes you can find lots of global learning close to home)!
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Yesterday, I traveled to Handan where I will be attending the No. 31 Middle School this week. I am grateful to be staying with Dr. Hei Wang, the principal of the school and his wife and will be shadowing Vice Principal Yaolin Pei. This weekend, I have been welcomed as if I were a foreign dignitary and I thought I would share in this blog post some of the ways Chinese welcome guests and the courtesies they bestow. I will also share some of my observations of customs we might find rude in the US that are not considered to be so here.

Courtesies

 

  • Making "welcome dumplings"

    Making “welcome dumplings”

    When I was welcomed into the home of Dr. Wang and his wife, Ms. Guo, we immediately began preparing delicious dumplings filled with vegetables, mushrooms, and shrimp together for lunch. They shared that it is customary to prepare dumplings together when you wish to welcome something. They said that we would eat noodles on my last night to signify a long and lasting friendship, like the length of the noodle.

  • People are very friendly and polite. Here in Handan, foreign tourists are not very common, so many people say “Hello” in English and some even want to pose for a picture with me. People generally call each other by their family name (i.e. Mr. Pei)
  • A future blog entry will center on food. For now, please know that it has been delicious and plentiful. Food is served around a round table, family style, on a large lazy susan. When you are welcoming guests, elaborate banquets with lots of dishes are prepared along with many toasts. Lunch today involved….no exaggeration…22 courses.
Table is set for a banquet!

Table is set for a banquet!

Discourtesies or just customary?

  • Men often spit. I know this happens in the United States, but the spitting here involves throat-clearing and is loud and frequent. Maybe it’s because of the pollution although I have not seen any women spitting? Some places, there are “no spitting” signs posted.
    Traffic
    Traffic
  • Honking horns is constant. Perhaps this is necessary. If there are traffic laws, they do not seem to be obeyed. The streets are flooded with cars, mopeds, bicycles and people without clear marking of lanes, frequent driving on sidewalks in various directions, and three-point turns on highways. Apparently, drinking and driving was allowed up until a year and a half ago after laws were passed after some major accidents. So maybe the horn serves a purpose, but it seems excessive.
  • Young children pee in the streets. Toddlers wear pants with their rear ends exposed (no diapers) and just go in the road. I don’t suppose we find that rude as much as unsanitary. A future blog entry will involve the bathroom situation. It is not always pretty.
Is there anything Americans do that is customary that you think other cultures might found rude? What rituals do we have to welcome guests and show hospitality?
Hope the IACS community is enjoying the start of April vacation!

~ Melissa Kapeckas

Changing Times in Education

Costa Rica Group

IACS Students in Costa Rica

Today, Innovation Academy begins spring break, but the learning doesn’t stop. Mrs. Kapeckas titled her post of the day “Changing Times in Education” and we can see that all over the world. Some of our high school students are currently in Costa Rica learning about biology and many other subjects. Today, they visited a biodiversity park, Doka coffee plantation, took a ride to Paos Volcano, and relaxed in hot springs. Tomorrow they’ll be spending the day building a bridge for a poor family of pineapple farmers. KapeckasAt the same time, our middle school principal, Melissa Kapeckas, is visiting schools in the Hebei Province of China. Read on to learn about her experiences. Are they similar to the school where I got a chance to volunteer over the summer in the Beijing suburbs? If you read this and still haven’t gotten enough, re-read Senora Schmalz’s guest post from the summer when she went to Costa Rica with her family. There’s no doubt that this kind of education is certainly changing for the 21st century!

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First grade class

First grade class

Over the past two days, our group has been meeting with Hebei provincial education officials to learn of the current status of the Chinese education system and the vision for continued reform. We have also toured two top schools in the province, the Shijazhaung Foreign Language School and the Vocational Education Center of Shijiazhaung. Tomorrow, we will leave to begin our shadowing project. I will be living with Director Wang and his family and shadowing Mr. Yaolin Pei, the principal of No. 31 Handan Middle School. I am not sure what kind of internet access I will have, so there may be a delay in my posts. Cross your fingers that won’t be the case!

Mrs. Kapeckas with Kung Fu Class

Mrs. Kapeckas with Kung Fu Class

One of the recent goals of the Chinese government has been to mandate compulsory education from grades 1-9. During the 1990’s, the government invested in new school buildings to ensure that all Chinese children had access to schools and subsequently, regulations were passed to mandate compulsory education for grades 1-9. By the year 2000, that goal was realized with 99.5% of children in school and the government pushing to achieve 100%. Public funding has also increased, and while inequities exist, the government is working to make strides in rural education as it urbanizes China. For example, funding is pooled at the county level to guarantee staffing no matter the resources of the individual township. Additionally, there is funding for school lunch programs in rural areas and programs to rotate urban teachers and principals to rural areas where they often have difficulty attracting educators. Improvements in compulsory education and population growth have created a sharp increase in enrollment at high schools as well. In reforming education, high schools have been consolidated to pool resources, resulting in very large high schools. Many public schools are boarding schools, so that students living outside the urban areas can live at school from Monday-Friday. Recently, the government has begun to increase access to preschool education to build up the number of publicly funded kindergartens and subsidize privately funded kindergartens. Additionally, the Chinese government is working to reform curriculum and teaching practice. Mr. Shoumin Li and Director Jianguo Hou, two of the Hebei provincial education officials we met with, shared that too many classrooms are lecture-based with out of date textbooks and technology. While students acquire knowledge, they do not have a lot of exposure to critical thinking or creativity. They are hoping to change this for the future. I am certain that Innovation Academy can help our Chinese friends about this!

Some obstacles they shared include:
  • A large “floating” population due to rural migration.
  • High stress on students due to an exam-oriented culture; teachers are afraid to take risks in the classroom for fear that test scores will drop. They also shared that students have too much homework, and not enough time for exercise, sleep, and play.
  • Educating the sheer amount of students. There are 8 million students in Hebei province alone.
6th Grade Cooking Class

6th Grade Cooking Class

Many of these challenges did not seem evident at Shijazhaung Foreign Language School, the largest and top-performing school in the city. SFLS educates 12,000 (yes, that’s right….12,000) students each year with 915 staff members. Technically, SFLS is a consortium of 4 schools working in collaboration with the PK-9 privately funded and the key  high school publicly funded for grades 10-12. There are day and boarding students beginning in the primary school. All students take English beginning at age 3. Students were excited to practice their near perfect English with the American delegation of principals on tour. Students can also take Japanese or Russian as an elective, beginning in seventh grade. While class size can run up to 60-70 students/class, SFLS employs double the amount of English teachers to reduce English class size to 30-35 students/class. In addition to traditional academics, the school is proud of a school-based curriculum that allows students many opportunities for music, art, technology, and physical education. Students rotate through 26 compulsory courses in grades 7-9, such as ping pong, martial arts, electronics, cooking, bowling, and linoleum block painting, and then take more in-depth electives within high school. Finally, their school is unique in the amount of international exchange. They currently have partnerships with 25 schools in 10 different countries, exchanging both students and teachers.

Banner hung at SFLS

Banner hung at SFLS

The school day runs from 8-5 pm, with a break for dinner and recess/clubs before studying begins for boarding students. For primary school teachers, teachers loop with their students for grades 1-3 (and the 4-6 team does a 3 year loop with their students). Each elementary class has 3 primary teachers- a math teacher, an English teacher, and a Chinese teacher. The looping is important, because even primary classes can have up to 70 students in them. Teachers plan in collaboration in grade-level teams. They spend one afternoon from 1:30-5 pm planning lessons together for the next week. There are no substitute teachers; teachers cover for one another when they are out.

The facilities and student achievement were very impressive at SFLS. It was a joy to see kung fu class with the kindergartners and be fed dumplings by the 6th grade cooking class! That said, I’m also quite interested to see what a typical school is like and I’m eager to travel to Handan tomorrow!
~ Melissa Kapeckas

Tiananmen and Forbidden City

KapeckasMrs. Kapeckas wrote today about some major tourist attractions in Beijing, and some of the most famous places in all of China (after the Great Wall, of course). I was also lucky to visit both the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square this past summer (my post was called The Center of the Middle). Read on to learn about these fascinating places!
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Posing in front of Chairman Mao's portrait

Posing in front of Chairman Mao’s portrait

Yesterday was our last day in Beijing and we visited Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City (the former Emperor’s Imperial Palace complex). In the US, adults know and remember  the tragic images of Tiananmen Square during the deaths of protesters in 1989. While the Chinese government is certainly much more open than I imagined, I wonder if the average person from Beijing has seen the images and how much they know of the incident. A quick web search from my hotel room revealed that while I could see headlines about the tragedy, each of the first 10 websites I attempted to click on were blocked.

Political slogans

Political slogans

Tiananmen Square is the largest city square on Earth at nearly 5 million square feet (44 hectares). There are many famous buildings that line Tiananmen Square. Most notable at the center of the square is the mausoleum of Chairman Mao Zedong. Yesterday when we visited (an average work day, not a weekend or holiday), there was likely a 3 hour wait  for the opportunity for a 10 second viewing to pay respects to Chairman Mao. His body is preserved within a glass coffin. Today the square is a place of national pride, which political addresses occuring here and party slogans projected on large screens.

Father and daughter entering Forbidden City

Father and daughter entering Forbidden City

From there, we crossed into the Forbidden City, the Chinese imperial palace from the Ming Dynasty to the end of the Qing Dynasty, the last Emperor of China. Built from 1406-1420, the city 7.8 million square feet and consists of 980 buildings. The city was held within protective walls and a moat and is divided into two parts- the outer part used for ceremonial purposes and the inner court, the residence of the Emperor and his family. I’ve never seen a larger “home” in my life.

From there, we traveled by bus to the city of Shijiazhuang in Hebei province, 4 hours southwest from Beijing. We will meet with provincial education officials and visit schools before heading to our partner schools on Saturday.
Massachusetts school leaders in front of one of the 990 buildings of the Imperial City

Massachusetts school leaders in front of one of the 990 buildings of the Imperial City

Extraordinary Days

KapeckasYesterday, middle school students skyped with Mrs. Kapeckas! How exciting! Students got a chance to ask lots of questions, but the number one thing they asked about was… FOOD! She stayed up past midnight to Skype with us, after hiking on the Great Wall of China earlier that day. Wow! It looks like she had a much clearer day than when I went this past summer. If you want to read about my experience on the Great Wall, check out that post here. Or take a look at one of these posts to learn about food in China. And visit again soon for more entries from thousands of miles away in China!

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China 053Some days, life is ordinary- you do some errands, do laundry, and maybe watch a little TV. Hopefully, you find some small moments of joy in simple moments. Other days are simply extraordinary and you can’t quite believe the day really happened. Yesterday was one of those extraordinary days. I climbed the Great Wall of China! I don’t know what is on your personal “bucket list” of things to do in this lifetime, but being at the Great Wall of China was on mine and I was thrilled to experience hiking the wall.
China 047
The Great Wall of China is a series of walls along rugged mountains that extends 5500 miles. The first set of walls was built during the Qin Dynasty (remember the Qin Dynasty also was the same epoch of the Terra Cotta Warriors); the Qin Dynasty lasted from 221-206 BC and the wall was created to keep the Mongol invaders out of China. During different time periods, the wall was added to and repaired, with major construction happening during the Ming Dynasty (1388-1644 AD). The Ming Walls were up to 25 feet high and wide enough for marching troops or wagons. There were guard stations and watch towers placed throughout.
China 024The section of the wall we visited is north of Beijing and is known as the Mutianyu Section. We rode a cable car to the 14th tower (the same one that former President Bill Clinton rode in) and then hiked to the end of the wall- the 23rd tower. At times, it was incredibly steep (the kind in which you don’t look down, you just put one foot in front of the other). It was both exhausting and exhilarating.
Later that night, I treated myself to a foot massage at the spa across the street from our Beijing Hotel. It was a real treat after an incredible journey!
Melissa Kapeckas

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