Thursday, November 3, 2016

China Journey: China Journey, November 2016

China Journey: China Journey, November 2016: Kindergarten Programs   To Sir, With Love was the first movie about a teacher I saw as a teen! Sidney Poitier’s acting and the rol...

China Journey, November 2016

Kindergarten Programs

To Sir, With Love was the first movie about a teacher I saw as a teen! Sidney Poitier’s acting and the role he played as a teacher perhaps influenced my decision to become a teacher! The teacher took a very democratic approach to teaching to meet the needs of his students. It was a novel approach in that period in India. Much of our thinking on teaching and learning is greatly influenced by what the societal expectations are. When an opportunity arose to visit some kindergarten programs in China, I was indeed eager to see what the teaching and learning expectations were in a country where I had limited exposure to schools. Young children between 2 and 6-yrs of age are enrolled in Kindergarten Programs. In China, they refer to the preschools and kindergarten as Kindergarten One, Two and Three. Sometimes these are stand-alone programs and in some instances they are set in primary schools!

Any time I observe teachers in their classrooms, I consider it a privilege to observe them. To observe three teachers teach lessons- two in preschools and one in a kindergarten in a different country is certainly an honor. But, before I share with you my observations and other details about teaching and teaching methods, I would like to describe the school settings. All three schools were set in rural towns, farming country. Two of them were government funded programs set in primary schools where they accepted children from two-six yrs of age. The third school was a private program that charged 400 rmb per month (about $60 per month) and accepted children in the same age group!
The government funded programs had extensive, well equipped buildings, spacious classrooms, special conference rooms with fancy tables and chairs. Smart boards seemed like a common feature in most classrooms and meeting rooms. The kitchen in these schools were highly mechanized with a chief chef and plenty of assistants! Meals were being prepared for over 400 & 500 kids in the two government kindergarten programs! The sweet aroma of rice filled the air!

The play area in all three schools were spacious and impressive. In one of the schools the Principal mentioned that 480 sq meters (4,945.97 sq ft) were added to install play equipment and plant trees and bushes. This was a school that had 400 children in their kindergarten programs (Play school, Preschool & Kindergarten combined). Some of the play areas were done more creatively than others. Lots of climbers, swings and slides were common features. One school had balance walk bars and other challenging equipment. In all of the programs, they had synthetic turf lawn giving the area a manicured ever green look!

Lesson Observation:
The teachers used theatrics when they read the book to the children. The intonation and expressive voice modulation kept the story flowing. There was “showmanship” in how they presented the content. The teacher training requires the Early Childhood Educators to sing, dance and perform and that was well demonstrated in these classes. The lessons lasted for 40 min and the children sat without fidgeting! The teacher also called on a child to respond and used call and response. They had plenty of attractive props to inspire children to focus.

In the private kindergarten school, the class we observed had 33, three and four year olds seated in a semicircle in individual chairs with no tables. The teacher was teaching a lesson on "Whose ears are longer?" - teaching the concept of more or less. The class began with some singing of nursery rhymes and finger plays. They transitioned from that to telling a story and then reading a book interspersed with questions. Children often blurted out their responses and invariable they were the same children. Some children were distracted by the group of professionals sitting in the back of the classroom!
On the same day in the afternoon, we visited another Kindergarten Program and observed a preschool teacher read a book to children. She pulled up an electronic story book titled "Move Over Here, Move Over There" by Daniela Kulot to read to the children. This book is a translation of a German book in Chinese. A fascinating story even for adults! I was disappointed to find no English version of the book! There were 36 four-year olds in this classroom, all seated next to each other with no elbow room in a sort of semi-circle. In this classroom the teacher had the attention of the children the first ten minutes or so and then the children were distracted by the presence of the visitors! 

Similarly, the kindergarten teacher started her class with very rhythmic verses that children chanted and clapped to the beat. There were 48 five-year olds in this class seated in three rows (2X3X8), facing the teacher. There were two seats for every table and the children could turn their chairs around to face each other when group work was assigned. Right after the chant that may have lasted for 3 to 5 min., the teacher took out a book, about 12X8” and started to read, with questions for children to respond every 10 or so mins or so. The reading of the story lasted for approximately 32 min. Then she called out names of some students to identify the plot and the sequence of events in the story which my interpreter disclosed that children did not answer correctly. As a final activity, the teacher asked the children to face each other and discuss the solution for the problem the story posed. The teacher enacted the story and even a non-Chinese speaking observer could see some of the children followed the storyline well. Any time a child was distracted (perhaps two times during the 40 min period), the teacher walked closer to that child’s seat and gently bent down and tapped on the table. Some students in the class seemed distracted by the presence of observers.

Now some explanation on who the observers or the visitors were in the back of the classroom. A team of about fifteen professionals occupied the seats in the back of the class. This team included first year teachers in the school to teachers with two or three years of experience, the Head-Mistress of the kindergarten program, the district trainer, professionals from T.Trees and myself. Each first year teacher was observed the entire period of 40 min. Right after the teacher finished her teaching, the group along with the teacher walked over to the conference room in the school where the teacher began the meeting with her justification statement on the lesson plan and her reflections on what went well and where she was effective/ineffective. Following that, one by one, the first year and experienced teachers gave feedback on what went well and what could be different and why. Then the Head Mistress explained what her expectations were, the type of feedback she gave when the teacher taught the same lesson earlier that day (!) or the day before and how the teacher performed based on the feedback that was given to her. Subsequently the team from T.Trees (at least three professionals) and the district trainer gave specific feedback on how the lesson could be strengthened and the teacher’s effectiveness. 

Finally, the foreigner was asked to give feedback. Since I do not speak/understand the language, my comments were restricted to the teacher’s nonverbal communication, student behavior, visuals and props in the lesson, age appropriateness/developmental needs of the age group and finally how the lesson planning could be further strengthened by making the 40 min period to chunks of listening, doing/hands-on and interacting segments.  I also highlighted the purpose of story reading or story-telling and its importance in the child’s language, cognitive and social development. I did emphasize the fact that I come with a culturally different paradigm and hence they should pardon me for my cultural ignorance! Overall my comments were well received and I appreciated the opportunity to interact with teachers and the professional team! It was indeed inspiring to see how committed they were to improve teaching and learning and to support their new teachers! It is also commendable that these new teachers allowed their peer group and professionals whom they did not know to critic their lessons!

Sharing all these would be amiss if I did not highlight the cultural differences in our expectations. It would be difficult to see children in that age group sitting in their seats so quietly for 40 minutes back home in the USA. It seemed like it was an expectation that the children would sit through a 40 min. period. In a private conversation I had with a professional, it became evident to me that one of the goals in the Kindergarten programs is to build children’s “capacity and stamina” to sit quietly and listen to their teachers. My comments on the developmental needs made her wonder where else these children would learn to sit quietly and listen to their teachers as they would need that when they enter primary grades. She was curious at what age it would be appropriate for teachers to expect children to sit through the lesson! It made me think of an article I had read two or three decades ago about how kindergarten is considered an academic boot camp. Catsambis & ButtaroJr, (2012) provide insights on how kindergarteners acquire their role as students from the structured programs and socialization in our schools in the U.S. The hidden curriculum one could argue is to prepare children for sustaining their energy to stay in school for longer hours and allow teachers to “educate them”!

The teachers spent hardly anytime managing the behaviors. A handful of children in all three classes put together seemed distracted- perhaps about 1 or 2% of each class. It does not mean the rest of the class was totally engaged. No one got out of their seats! The only distracted behavior we saw a few children would turn their heads toward us and smile or stare at us.

The comments shared by the professional team sometimes focused on what the teacher could have done better or how she failed to consider certain aspects. Although some started their feedback with positive comments on what went well, a few started their feedback with what did not go well and how she failed or missed the opportunity to hone in children’s attention. The teacher seemed to take the comments in her stride and once or twice she also provided a rebuttal. The interactions were professional and the session lasted for a little over an hour. This was truly a professional learning community!

Some Issues

In these rural Kindergarten programs most of these young children are being raised by their grandparents. Young adults in these farming regions flee in search of greater opportunities in industrial cities in the hope that they too can climb the economic ladder. They are referred to as "migrant workers" in China. Sichuan province (where Chengdu is a major city) is known for its rich soil and therefore farming used to be a major occupation. However, it is no longer an attractive profession as the work is hard and the returns are not that lucrative. Most migrant workers are not allowed to take their families with them. This has resulted in grandparents raising their grandchildren. These grandparents have to take care of their farms too and struggle to cope with the stress of raising young children which can be very demanding. 

One of the principals mentioned that more than 90% of his student population is being raised by grandparents. When Kindergarten programs organize events for parents, it is mostly grandparents who attend.  The plight of migrant workers in China is very well captured in the film "Last Train Home" case you are interested! 

Hallway Decorations

Friday, September 20, 2013

We are in Chengdu finally after Beijing and Xi'an, which included a lot of the routine sight-seeing trips to key places + the train journey- which was almost like traveling in Europe, except the crowd and noise at the train stations. Beijing, being the capital is more developed than other cities. Unbelievable development everywhere!! In just three years, China has moved on!
We are slowly settling down to the rhythm of life here. Our apartment is on a busy road, close to Sichuan University and comfortable.  We are on the 8th floor with two elevators… sort of a modern apartment.  For about 8 days we experienced break down of water supply as the water tank broke and we had to ferry water from the first floor. Water supply was resumed today and a hot shower felt really comfortable! The security guard and folks in the building were very helpful and if they saw me lifting a bucket, they would rush to help!
Believe it or not, there is a Wal-Mart on the first floor of our building (they call it Trust Mart!!). You can buy anything under the sun. Long lines at the checkout are an indication of how successful there are! I did some of my initial setting up stuff and groceries a few times at the Trust mart, much against my wish. Since it is in the same building and that you have to walk everywhere (which we love) makes it convenient to carry stuff. We also shopped in some local groceries for milk, vegetables, fruits etc. and a French chain for butter/cheese and plain yogurt (which are not available in Trust Mart!!). Unfortunately it is not walking distance for us or accessible by metro or bus easily- at least we have not discovered a straight route. Maybe changing from bus to metro to bus is possible. Cabs are cheap and in plenty. It cost us $2 by cab. Metro and bus are also very cheap- only 30 cents to anywhere. Once we settle down, we should be able shop in the local stores.
Trust Mart, I understand was a Taiwanese chain supermarket which was bought out fully or partially by Wal-Mart. All of the employees wear a Red shirt with Trust-Mart on it. But I also saw one or two supervisors/managers who were wearing a blue "Wal-Mart" shirt. They have Wal-Mart shopping carts. The store has only 2 floors and very cramped. If you shop on both floors, you have to carry your baskets up and down the stairs-a pain!! Unless you plan well and buy the light stuff first, you have to lift heavy loads up and down. No elevator or escalator inside the shop. The store is forever busy!
Well, there are so many observations on cultural aspects. First, the people are very friendly. It is very hard to find an individual who speaks English. If you are fortunate enough to find one, they will help you get to your destination, help you find items in the supermarket and won’t leave till they find all the help we need. They are ready to put their work on hold to help you!
The place is extremely crowded, but there is some orderliness to the chaos. The buses are neat and clean, the streets are broad and clean, although you do find a few spitting on the streets! No one throws anything on the ground! It seems like everyone eats out. They eat an overwhelming amount of meat (hum.. biased? maybe as I am a vegetarian!). The crowd and noise pollution to environment pollution is just unbelievable.  The US Consulate publishes the air quality index everyday to show the toxins in the air, as the local gov. here may not be so open about sharing! It is really bad.

The university has four gates: north, south, east and west gates and we live close to the West Gate.  Around the South and North gates there are lots of restaurants and clothing shops. Unbelievably busy area, particularly during lunch and dinner times! My favorite is the baked hot sweet potatoes. There shops and street vendors sell them! Cute little shops sell odd items like plastic pails, hanger and other items for household use. Around each gate there are also faculty and staff housing which look kind of old and I understand they are also very small. Maybe that explains why people spend most of their time outside/outdoors. The parks are beautiful and well maintained- very well used. People use the parks to do Tai Chi, line and ballroom dancing, singing lessons and an endless list of activities- old and young alike participating in all of these activities. You can see the communities coming together.
It is hard to spot children on the streets. But if you go to parks (in plenty here), you do see some children. So far I have seen three or four pregnant women and a few twins! In the evenings, you can find some grandparents out with their grand kids. My first visit to a kindergarten school is scheduled for Wed afternoon. It is very hard to get permission to visit a primary school, so I have to satisfy myself visiting a kindergarten program which is not part of the primary school. They are usually with childcare. I will be teaching them some nursery rhymes……… I am really looking forward to it.
I had my first Multicultural Education class on Monday, but my class is scheduled for Thursday. Just this week I was asked offer it on Monday as this Thursday is a holiday. Today is Moon Festival and it is a big event, almost like Thanksgiving. I had about 50 students. But the coordinator whispered to me that most of them would drop as many do not understand or speak English. We expect about 15 to 20. The classrooms have a teaching station-basically computers and LCD etc. They are locked in a chest that retracts and the instructors have keys. Most buildings at the university have four floors and there are no elevators or escalators. You have to climb! My class is on the 3rd floor! I hope I shed some lbs! You walk everywhere!   
This morning when we rode the metro to see the biggest mall in the world, Miles and I were standing. The security police was walk past our car, she tapped on two young men and asked them to get up so we could sit! Made us feel very, very old, the gesture said a lot about the culture.. that people listen to authorities, respect for age or maybe foreigners (I would like to believe that)!
When people talk, they freely comment on each other without any reservation! The concept of being politically correct is absent perhaps or people just speak their mind at times! Maybe they are uncorrupted by the outside world! When I introduce Miles to university professionals, they immediately make fun of him as "so you are the servant" or “you are the house husband who cleans and cooks." I am not sure if anyone can read in to it as "women are the servants in the family." There are plenty of women in the work force!
The other observation is- I was talking with a French national in one of the meetings who had  hairy arms (he was wearing a short/half sleeve shirt), when the 20 year office assistant stopped and pulled his hair and said in English- "the Chinese call this monkey." Maybe "monkey" does not have the same negative connotation and neither did he say in a derogatory manner. Both the foreigner and the young man laughed out loud! There is some innocence in their comments! I like their openness and one cannot get offended. If you made fun of them in the same way, they probably may not take offense to it.
As a young friend who has spent several years in China explained, the waves of immigrants have heightened our sensitivity in the West. On the contrary, Chinese have lived here for generations and their contact with foreigners or outside world probably is limited. Their comments certainly do not mean any insult!
Food has been the only problem for us. Because we are vegetarians, unless we go to Buddhist restaurants (excellent food there though), you see an overwhelming amount of meat in everything. We have now started to cook at home!!