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Rural China Education
P.O. Box 224
New York, NY 10276
Ever since entering the internet age, there has never been a time in our history that so many people have access to media and reading materials. However, this is often passive reading lacking reflection and the content and information from the internet or other media changes so quickly. What can we do to encourage active reading? How might teachers choose reading materials that can nourish the mind, develop objective thinking, and cultivate empathy towards other people?
In this article, “reading” refers to reading extracurricular books. Reading as a positive pastime finds fewer and fewer enthusiasts in present day China due to negative influences from the internet, cell phones, and an education system that focus only on student’s marks in exams, leaving very little time and inclination for students to read. This is especially true in rural China where access to public libraries is limited and where teachers’ own reading interests may be lacking. These circumstances have resulted in an apparent decrease in curiosity which is the very key to knowledge that is not only about "know-what" but "know-why", as well.
What shall we do to change this seemingly bleak picture of our future? As the saying goes, a thousand mile journey begins with the first step, a small step at a time. In this reading case study which we are going to invite our readers to consider, starts with cultivating the teachers’ own interest in books and their awareness of objective thinking to pass on their passion for knowledge to their students.
RCEF rural educators Ms Wang, Ms Ji, Ms. Shang and Ms Ren have been undertaking reading projects at Xiaochao Elementary school in Yongji, Shanxi Province, for 4 years now and the outcome of their effort has gained very positive feedback from their Grade 6, Grade 5, Grade 4 and Grade 1 students respectively. Xiaochao Elementary school has received a certain amount of books since it is supported by RCEF, the school has established a library for the students. However, due to rather restricted curriculums our students only have one reading class each week. Our educators take the initiative to use this short window of time to its fullest capacity.
Ms. Ji, who is in charge of Grade 6 reading class, chose a piece of poem entitled Happiness, written by a French poet Paul Fort, and evoked a heated topic of conversation regarding the concept of happiness among the students. A student said that if he helped someone, and received an appreciation which was happiness to him. Another student said that happiness was to have lots of snacks. Still another student said that to have lots of money was happiness…
Ms. Shang, who teaches Grade 5 reading class, chose an essay An Old Cherry-Apple Tree, written by a Chinese writer Shi Tiesheng. This piece is the writer’s warm and somewhat sad memoir of his late grandmother and also the writer’s childhood. Ms Shang asked the students to reflect upon what they have read and to sum up with a few sentences about the article. In this way, the students had opportunities to do relatively in-depth reading, to organize their thoughts and express their thoughts in words. This practice is often lacking in rural schools in China where students are often shy and don’t have enough confidence due to limited opportunities to practice.
Ms. Ren, who teaches Grade 1 students, chose to read the students Rosie’s Walk by American children’s literature writer Pat Hutchins. It is a tale of a hen’s walk across a farm. As junior graders are more interested in listening to stories, Ms Ren read the whole story to the children. They did enjoy the story and laughed a lot.
In order to give our newsletter readers a full view of how RCEF rural educators carry out their reading classes. Here is an example of Ms. Wang Yanzhen’s reading unit. This unit is developed into four weeks of reading process. Ms. Wang chose one of The Little Hen series The Little Hen Who Wants to See the Sea by French writer Christian Jolibois for her Grade 4 students. In her teaching journal, Ms Wang wrote:
“I always remember in the year 2011, when I talked with my students about what did they think was their strong points and also the weakness in their personalities. I was surprised by my students’ answers, as most of them didn’t seem to know their strong points, they only talked about their weaknesses. Their response made me wonder what made them feel this lack of confidence that they only thought of their weaknesses in their personalities? I decided to choose The Little Hen series as our reading theme this time. I hope that by reading along with the series, it can help my students build up their confidence, to be bold enough to have dreams in the hopes that some of these dreams may come true.”
When the first reading class started, it happened to be a student’s birthday so Ms Wang changed her original teaching plan. Instead of brainstorming with the students, she used an approach she learned from a theatre training program. The students were invited to sit in pairs with their backs to each other, and one student would be asked to sing any children’s songs he or she knew, to celebrate the birthday child. Ms Wang has noticed that the students really loved the way it was arranged, but many students didn’t know many children’s songs except the Happy Birthday song or the ABC song. However, they still enjoyed the fact that they were able to make this day a beautiful memory for the birthday child.
Ms Wang asked the students whether they were familiar with chicks, hens, or roosters, if so, what did a chick, hen, or rooster usually do? The students came up with lots of answers. Ms Wang wrote down their answers on the black board, such as picking out worms and eating them, laying eggs, and crowing.
Ms Wang then followed up by introducing a little hen called Carmelito, whose dream was to see the sea. She asked the students whether Carmelito had managed to see the sea. By so doing, the student’s interest was piqued. After she finished reading the story, Ms Wang asked the students to share their impressions about the story, and also introduced the students of the theme of this reading unit, which was “Dare to dream, dare to be different.”
In the second unit, the students formed small groups and Ms Wang asked these groups what each of them considered to be the most interesting part in the book and then share it with their groups. Each group would then select a representative to give a two minute talk. Each elected speaker was required to talk clearly and loud enough so everybody in the class could hear. As it was mentioned earlier in the article that the students in rural China are often shy and don’t have enough confidence. In this way their confidence could be encouraged and enhanced. The students had the opportunity to practice how to summarize a story and to articulate their thoughts, an ability which needs to be constantly fostered in students in rural China. The rest of the class was required to listen attentively and they were asked to give their feedback to the speakers.
The third unit was focused on game playing and sharing students’ reading journals.
Ms Wang showed students a stack of cards on where major characters were written. Each group selected one person to come up and choose any card and to act out the characters accordingly. The rest of the class would guess who was who. The group members were allowed to come up to help the actors, but they were not allowed to talk. In so doing, one can see the students’ ability to observe at different levels. Some students acted the character very well, showing that they read and reacted attentively, while some students were not as active, but they all enjoyed the game. At the same time, group activity helped the students to develop a cooperative manner.
Sharing students’ reading journals in class is a method that aimed to enhance students’ ability to organize words and sentences, toward more in-depth reading. Students also found their confidence improved by expressing their thoughts in public.
Towards the end of the reading class, most of the students completed The Little Hen series. During the last class Ms Wang invited the students to recall what they had read about the series and to share their favourite characters in the series.
Ms Wang then presented 6 bags in which each contained 12 words that described the major characters’ names and their personalities. Students were grouped and each chose a character and used these 12 words to summarize the story.
At the end of the class, Ms Wang asked the student a question: “What differences do you think there is between the little hen Carmelito and other hens?”
A student answered: “She has dreams.”
Another said: “Carmelito is brave.”
Still another student said: “She is clever, she has wisdom.”
Ms Wang asked the students whether they had their own dreams, and the students were encouraged to draw their dreams and describe it with simple words.
The students enjoyed their reading classes and their interest in books was clearly increased. Their enthusiasm in books was evident, as well as their concern for the characters in the book which resulted in active reading. Active and in-depth reading leads to critical thinking, students’ concerns for the characters in the book will eventually cultivate their empathy towards their fellow students and the community around them. These are basic building blocks for creating a thoughtful and caring future generation.
Yes, a small step at a time!
Here are some pictures of the Students’ drawings