Thursday, November 3, 2016

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

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