February 2010 No. 33
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Beneath the Parasol Trees: RCEF’s Winter Teachers Conference
Stepping Up: New Roles for Guan Ai Teachers
Young Teacher Finds a Mentor
Recognition of Recent Donors
Beneath the Parasol Trees: RCEF’s Winter Teachers Conference
Rural teachers from three provinces shared and discussed RCEF’s curriculum at a three day conference.
Above: Teachers share their reflections on the last day of the conference at Guan Ai Primary School.
The school yard of Guan Ai Primary School, RCEF’s main program site, is lined with tall Chinese parasol trees. Shortly after the Chinese New Year, rural teachers from six schools in three provinces gathered at wooden picnic tables underneath their branches for a three-day conference. Though the focus was on RCEF’s student-centered teaching methods and curriculum, all of the teachers were encouraged to contribute their unique viewpoints, questions, and examples from diverse personal experience. As birds chattered above their heads on the first morning of the meeting, the 40 participants discussed rules and expectations for the event that would foster an open, safe atmosphere for sharing and learning. They voted on a “class name” for the group—“Beneath the Parasol Trees”—and got acquainted with each other’s backgrounds and personalities through games and small group discussions. Teachers from one private and one public rural school in Yongji attended as well as from rural schools in Gansu and Guizhou that are supported by the NGOs Western Sunshine Action and Xiaoping Foundation respectively.
Hands-on Learning for Teachers
For most of the three days, participants split up into two groups to learn about RCEF’s experiences in developing teaching methods for two curriculum subjects: Integrated Practice Class and Reading. In Integrated Practice Class, participants learned about RCEF’s method of facilitating students to do community investigations by actually carrying out the steps of an sample project, ranging from walking around the village to collect possible investigation topics, to narrowing down the choices to one topic, to designing and executing a plan for interviewing and investigation. Through a facilitated process modeling how RCEF teaches students, the participants eventually narrowed down their topics to investigating how villagers of three different generations celebrated the Chinese New Year holiday. After designing an interview plan, just as the students do, the teachers went out to interview older villagers, an experience that many found eye-opening and enjoyable. Even those local teachers who had grown up in nearby villages learned new things!
Above: Teachers interview a villager about local holiday traditions.
At each step in the process, Guan Ai teachers or RCEF staff shared in detail how they taught the step, what difficulties they faced with students, and how they dealt with these practical challenges. Participants brought up concerns and challenges they would face in their own classrooms implementing such a class and the whole group offered ideas and advice. In the evaluation form, one public school teacher wrote, “This is truly a meaningful activity for students. It’s not just for appearances.” Another teacher from Gansu remarked, “Before this meeting, I had only theory about this class in my head. Now I have a better idea of actual teaching methods.”
A Different Approach to Reading
Above: A teacher shares a reading lesson her group designed during the training.
The other half of the group focused on how to promote extracurricular reading in primary school. They gathered in the colorful RCEF library at Guan Ai School to hear how students were trained to manage the library. Many teachers were struck to see the free, open way that Guan Ai students act in the library—sitting on the floor, leaning against the bookcases, even lying on the floor, immersed in books! Guan Ai teachers who facilitate silent sustained reading as well as storytelling and book discussion activities in their classes shared the process they went through from having almost no concept of non-textbook reading to now utilizing extracurricular books on a daily basis, and seeing marked improvements in their students’ creativity, oral language and independent thinking skills. This approach to reading was new to many participants. One teacher wrote, “Before I came to this meeting, I would simply give students some content to read. They didn’t have any initiative and finished the task mechanically. However, now I want to let them choose books that they like and slowly build up their habit of reading.”
On the last day, the two groups came together for a seminar on cooperative, small group learning. Though many teachers were already familiar with the benefits of the concept and had been using small groups in their classrooms to different degrees, this was an opportunity for them to discuss the practical challenges that came up and share effective strategies. Guan Ai teachers shared how they organized this kind of learning, ranging from ways of forming groups to fostering group leaders, to what kind of problems to watch out for if using a points system to incentivize groups.
Peer to Peer Sharing
Above: Participants sat and discussed in groups throughout the conference.
Overall, the participants enjoyed the open sharing available in this conference, saying it was quite “down-to-earth” and that they “could really learn things here.” In the evaluation form, one public school teacher wrote, “I’ve been to a lot of teacher exchange meetings in the past but mostly just listened to some reports or read some materials or observed a model class. The difference here was that at every stage, we talked about our own experiences with other teachers. This is really meaningful to me and I liked it very much.” Another wrote, “I like this kind of meeting more than other ones I’ve been to because the teachers have a lot of time to interact and participate.” However, the short duration of the meeting (three days) left some teachers unsatisfied and several said they hoped to see live classes with students in action. Another suggestion was to raise the efficiency of the discussions and facilitation. This teacher’s sentiment echoed many of her peers: “I want to learn even more methods I can try out myself so I’m looking forward to the next meeting.”
Above: Guan Ai teacher Ms. Yang shares her experience teaching Integrated Practice Class.
The three-day RCEF 2010 Winter Teachers Conference provided a platform for educators from several different schools to dialogue about their teaching. It also served another very important purpose for RCEF: providing the Guan Ai teachers that we work with a chance to publicly articulate the teaching methods that they have tried over the last two years. For most, this was a difficult and intimidating prospect. They felt comfortable speaking in front of children, but not adults and peers who were strangers.
Everyone agreed not to frame the event as “training” since this suggested that the organizers were experts with a proven set of methods to teach others. Guan Ai and RCEF are still developing methods and simply want to share our lessons and experiences so far with other interested educators. Our goals were to: 1) Use this opportunity to summarize what had been done so far in our two main curriculum subjects; and 2) Get feedback from educators in other schools about how to improve our work and support their efforts to develop these subjects in their schools in the future.
During the planning process, teachers didn’t have a clear grasp of how to organize their thoughts to present to others. The RCEF staff worked closely with them to reflect on their past experiences and outline different aspects of their teaching. They then articulated clear steps or topics that could be expanded upon and teachers wrote “how-to” essays and reflections that described specific strategies and observations. These were then compiled into handouts and given to meeting participants. During the meeting, teachers and RCEF staff took turns presenting different aspects of the curriculum and facilitating participants to discuss or experience the teaching methods themselves.
Above: Principal Sun of Guan Ai School facilitates an exercise during the conference.
The three days of professional sharing and genuine dialogue with peers was a new “experiential learning” opportunity for Guan Ai teachers. In an evaluation session afterward, one teacher said, “I prepared and knew what I was going to say but when I got up in front of so many strangers, I forgot.” Many teachers wanted more public speaking opportunities to build up their confidence. Several other teachers brought up the need to regularly take notes and write about their teaching so that when the time came to organize the next conference, they wouldn’t struggle as much to remember what they had done or find appropriate examples to illustrate their points. The general consensus from the teachers was that the difficulties and shortcomings experienced at this first conference motivated them to study more, practice more, and prepare for future opportunities.
Young Teacher Finds a Mentor
Li Xiaochun, 24, is a math teacher at Guan Ai Primary School. Born and raised in a local village, she graduated from the Yuncheng Teaching Academy in 2008 and is now in her second year of teaching at Guan Ai. New teachers in China have much to learn on the job but they have few places to look for guidance beyond each other. In a recent post on the Guan Ai Teachers’ Blog, Ms. Li recalls how she learned to ask for help from other teachers.
Above: Ms. Li reads a story out loud to her first graders.
Upon returning to Guan Ai after summer break, I got the news that I had been assigned to teach first grade math. I was thunderstruck and didn’t know what to do. I had heard from experienced teachers that first graders are the hardest to teach as they are only six or seven years old and have just started school. They have no study habits and can’t take care of themselves. I’d heard of a teacher who had been transferred from higher grades to teach first grade. When the students got out of control, she threw down the textbook and ran out of the classroom.
For a relatively new teacher like me, the prospect of teaching first grade is stressful. I was afraid that if I didn’t do a good job, it would have a bad influence on a critical period in students’ lives. But worrying was no use, I had no choice but to face the situation bravely. However, I had no methods to use with these little children and I really didn’t want to ask other teachers because I was afraid of what they would think of me. Would they talk about me behind my back? It would make me feel like I was incompetent and that others didn’t respect me. I don’t like to ask others for help and prefer to resolve things on my own rather than inconvenience others. However, if I didn’t ask others for methods to deal with this difficult assignment, what else could I do? So I went over it again and again in my head and then mustered up some courage, hoping that maybe I would come across some good luck and things would change.
I went to see Ms. Li Zhuxia (a fourth grade teacher at Guan Ai with over a decade of teaching experience). At first, I was afraid to say what I needed and just started chatting. As we chatted, I gradually turned the conversation towards my questions. I didn’t expect it but she started to talk at length, sharing her experiences from teaching first grade in the past. She told me that first grade is crucial for cultivating students’ habits and developing their oral language skills. I thought she wouldn’t be happy to help me but she actually didn’t hold back anything. I felt respect for her and started to work hard on the areas that she mentioned—fostering good habits and exercising oral language. However, I found that the first grade textbook mostly has pictures. There’s not much for students to read. I didn’t know how I could get students to practice their oral language.
After having that first experience of asking for help, I worked up my courage to go to Ms. Li again. This time, I also learned a lot and finally discovered the joy of asking for help. In the future, no matter what kind of problem I come across, if I have tried and failed to resolve it myself, I will enthusiastically seek help from others to reach my goal. I actually think I had overanalyzed this. Everyone is happy to help out others and enjoys the feeling of helping someone out. Thus, I encourage and hope all of those around me will become people who are good at asking for help.
We are grateful to all the supporters who donated to RCEF in February 2010! (A complete list of donors through the years is available here.)
Silver Sponsors ($1,000 to $4,999)
David A. Hong (Temple City, CA)
Bronze Sponsors ($100-$999)
Art-hammer.com (Hacienda Heights, CA)
Supporting Sponsors (under $99)
Connie Chung (Cambridge, MA)
The RCEF Newsletter is a monthly publication about the educational initiatives being carried out by RCEF in rural Shanxi Province, China.
(C) Rural China Education Foundation 2009