January 2010 No. 32
|Not subscribed yet? Then do so now!|
Fall Semester Concludes
Curriculum and Teaching
Sweet Potato Investigation
Teaching English for Communication
Recognition of Recent Donors
Fall Semester Concludes
RCEF's program site, Guan Ai Primary School, is now on winter break for the Chinese New Year. This concludes a busy and challenging semester that you can read all about in our newsletter archive, on the RCEF blog, and the Guan Ai School blog. Before the new semester begins at the end of this month, RCEF will hold a teacher training session at Guan Ai School for rural teachers from three provinces. We will share teaching methods in RCEF's flagship curriculum areas: Integrative Practice Class (综合实践课) and Extracurricular Reading.
Sweet Potato Investigation
Above: Fifth grader Di Wei holds the sweet potato she dug up.
"Integrative Practice Class" is a mandatory primary school subject that emphasizes hands-on, interdisciplinary learning. Most rural schools don't actually teach this class because teachers feel that they don't have a good grasp of how to teach it. In response, RCEF develops practical methods for teaching Integrative Practice Class classes to upper primary school students in grades 4-6.
This semester, Guan Ai teachers and RCEF staff formed an "Integrative Practice Class" project group. Focusing on fourth and fifth grade students, they chose a topic familiar to students and could be explored through hands-on activities and investigations in the community: the history and culture of the sweet potato. Sweet potatoes are a common crop grown and eaten in rural China. Guan Ai students enjoy eating them often but know little about how they are cultivated or the important place they have in history.
The teachers planned each class together and took turns teaching. After each lesson, the teachers debriefed the group reflecting on improvements for the future. Executive Director of Programs Sara Lam led the project group teachers and gives an overview below of the activities that have taken place thus far.
Above: Teachers and students dig for sweet potatoes.
Stage One - Triggering student interest in learning about sweet potatoes
Since the topic of sweet potatoes was selected by the teachers and not the students, it was important to get students motivated and excited to learn more about it. We decided to start the project with an activity that we knew would get students hooked - eating sweet potatoes. A villager agreed to let students harvest some of his sweet potato crop. We provided students with farm tools, but we also challenged them to come up with other tools that provided equally efficient methods for harvesting without damaging the sweet potatoes in the process. One important object of this activity was for students to learn how to write clear instructions. Before the activity, students worked in small groups to jot down the steps for harvesting potatoes complete with illustrations that accompany each step in an instruction booklet.
Above: Farmers knead the potato dough
The next day, following a safety talk, each student group made a small supervised camp fire on the school's back field and baked their sweet potatoes under the guidance of their teachers. Afterwards, they wrote instruction booklets about how to start a camp fire and cook sweet potatoes.
Stage Two - Making Sweet Potato Starch
In our village, most sweet potatoes are made into starch for noodles (粉条). The whole process of making these noodles is extremely complex and we wanted students to appreciate the professional expertise and hard work that is required. Students weighed the sweet potatoes and used traditional tools borrowed from villagers to make flour out of the sweet potatoes, and then to filter the flour to get starch. After this class, the students were able to add another chapter to their instruction booklets. Below is one of the teacher's reflections on this activity:
When weighing the sweet potatoes, I discovered a huge gap between student performance in math class and their ability to use math in practice. For example, when figuring out the potatoes' weight, some groups didn't correctly subtract the weight of the basin that held the potatoes, resulting in major errors. Some students didn't know how to use the scale. Some students added the weight of the basin to their final calculation instead of subtracting it. This shows problems in our teaching. Specifically, we over-emphasize the textbook, instead of practical skills in our math classroom; we should do whatever we can to design ways for students to try out math principles in practice.
Above: Strands of noodles are removed from the water.
Stage three: Observing sweet potatoes
The purpose of this activity was for students to practice detailed observation and descriptive writing skills. Each group was given one sweet potato. The teacher guided students in the observation of various aspects of sweet potatoes and in writing descriptions about them using literary devices such as anthropomorphism and similes.
Stage four: Learning about the history of sweet potatoes
When teaching multidisciplinary units, we try to exploit any educational opportunity that would allow students to learn about a topic from different angles. We feel that a historical perspective is particularly important in studying the sweet potato because it has played such an important role during the famine in China in the late 1950's and early 1960's. The students interviewed an elderly man in the village who told them about when and from where sweet potatoes were introduced to this area, how methods of growing sweet potato have changed, and why sweet potatoes were among the few things they had to eat during the famine. He also told us how people came up with many creative ways for preparing sweet potatoes during that period. Earlier in the project, the students practiced writing instructional and descriptive text. After the interview, they learnt to organize the villager's answers into one coherent essay. Below is a fifth grade student Suqi Zhang's essay:
On Thursday, we excitedly approached the front door of Grandpa Hou's house to interview him. According to Grandpa Hou, fifty years ago, life was very hard; the weather was dry, water pumps were few and so the wheat harvest was poor. If you grew two kilos of wheat, you couldn't even harvest two kilos! The sweet potato harvest was small in that the entire village only planted twenty mu (a little over 1.2 Hectares) of sweet potato during this period.
During that time, there was nothing else to eat so all everyone ate was sweet potatoes. However, this was not enough to satisfy peoples hunger, and eating too much sweet potato causes heartburn. However, the people had no choice, otherwise they would starve. It was common for people to get into fights over sweet potato rations.
Back then, there were many ways to eat sweet potatoes. You could cut and dry them and then grind the pieces into flour to make steamed buns and you could also make bean jelly. The varieties of sweet potatoes back then were also different. There were sweet potatoes that were red inside and could keep for 12 months. There were also potatoes with white flesh but the cores were softer than the red fleshed potatoes and couldn't be stored for as long. At first, there were no sweet potato noodles. People only knew how to make noodles out of green beans. Later on, some villagers from Henan taught the other farmers how to use sweet potato to make noodles.
During that period, everybody planted and shared with each other. When Grandpa Hou came to this part, he raised his walking stick in the air. As I listened to Grandpa Hou, my heart couldn't help but cramp up. "Back then, people were so poor and now we are well fed and well clothed. If we compare life then with life now, I think our environment is very good. We should treasure our food and study hard so we can improve each day."
Above: Students observe how the noodles are dried.
The students learn about the process of making noodles from starch and about different varieties of sweet potatoes and agricultural methods for growing sweet potatoes. We will report more about this in future editions of this newsletter.
By Kiel Harell, English Teaching Coach
Above: English Teaching Coach Kiel Harell working with a student
I work with rural teachers at RCEF's site, Guan Ai Primary School, to plan and deliver student-centered English curriculum. Throughout this school year, we have been experimenting with different types of exams to monitor our students' progress and adjust our teaching. In most rural schools, students take English tests only once a semester. The tests are quite limited in what they assess, requiring students to recall missing words from reprinted passages from the English textbook. This format does not require authentic communication in English and only tests the students' ability to memorize foreign words in a rigid, narrow context. Furthermore, since the tests are only administered at the end of each semester, they don't help a teacher determine which concepts are in most need of review and further attention in class. Recognizing these shortcomings, the teachers and I have been developing and administering modified tests on a regular basis throughout the entire semester.
From the outset of our collaboration, the rural teachers and I have been developing an approach for our English classes that encourages students to use their newly learned English to communicate in real-life situations. This is often done through role-plays and group activities. Given this focus, we have been most concerned with evaluating students' ability to speak English fluently and respond to questions and comments in meaningful ways. For example, in one unit earlier this year, students developed dialogues about traveling. In their scenarios, pairs of students talked to each other while pretending they were in different parts of China. Their task was to develop a mock phone conversation that conveyed certain information about their respective locations. When it came time to test the students on this content, I pulled them from the classroom and conducted a phone conversation with each of them individually. In order to successfully complete this test, the students participated in an authentic English conversation by responding to my questions and comments. In this type of test, it is not enough for the students to memorize lines of dialogue from their textbooks. They must be able to understand spoken English and construct their own sentences that relate to the conversation at hand. By conducting these tests after each unit, we became more familiar with the struggles our students were having with the content and we made the necessary adjustments in our teaching.
The recent end-of-semester exams we administered were developed around the same principles; however, instead of focusing on one specific lesson, they were much longer and covered topics from throughout the entire semester. Our goal was again to evaluate spoken English skills, but also to test retention of vocabulary and concepts from all of our lessons. In my sixth grade class, I brought individual students into the RCEF office for the exam. During the exam, they needed to navigate a PowerPoint presentation and read and answer the questions on each slide. Some of these questions asked the students to translate words or sentences from Chinese to English while others required students to create sentences of their own. In addition to this, they needed to participate in two separate conversations with me. In the first conversation, we talked about what they wanted to eat and drink as though we were in a restaurant. In the second conversation, we acted out a mock transaction at a store. The second scenario was especially interesting because the students were able to choose what items they wanted to buy and negotiate if they thought the price was too high. Almost all of my students were able to participate in these short conversations; the class average for the test was eighty-two percent.
The results of the end-of-semester exam indicate a continuation of our students' English progress this year. While eighty-two percent is a few percentage points off of their test average for the year, it is actually higher than I expected because this was a comprehensive test. Many of the concepts tested were first taught to them five months ago, in August. I expected less retention of this earlier material, but I was pleasantly surprised because they remembered the majority of it. I believe this is the result of our different approach to review this year. Instead of only reviewing previous material at the end of each semester, like many teachers do, we have created an approach where we regularly bring the vocabulary and grammar rules from previous lessons into all future lessons. This approach requires minor changes to the curriculum and it takes more class time but we believe it is worth it to help students to retain all of the content they've learned before. Considering these results, we will continue with this method of review and look for even more ways to integrate past material into current lessons. These methods and others will be included in a handbook I am developing for English teachers working in China.
We are grateful to all the supporters who donated to RCEF in January 2010! (A complete list of donors through the years is available here.)
Chen Yet-Sen Family Foundation
Bronze Sponsors ($100-$999)
Laura Mitchelson (Shanghai, China)
Supporting Sponsors (under $99)
Chew Fon Lamn (Malaysia)
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