The goal of the Rural China Education Foundation is to promote innovative, community-based curriculum taught through student-centered methods in rural Chinese classrooms. To achieve this goal, RCEF has supported for many years a group of dedicated rural teachers who grew up in the rural areas themselves and are intimately familiar with the unique challenges of rural students. They teach in 4 different primary schools in Shanxi Province, reaching children in all grades. In these schools, they teach two classes: Reading Class (绘本阅读课) and Comprehensive Practice Class (综合实践课). For these classes, the teachers develop their own curriculum, which is meant to not only confer basic skills, but also let children reflect on and share their personal experiences in relation to their local communities. To reflect the innovative role of the teachers, we also refer to them as Rural Education Innovators (REIs). Here, we present some updates of the REIs' work.
Newsletter Summer 2021
Experiential Learning Series: a journey with peaches
Peaches are one of the most economically important fruit crops in the villages where the REIs live. In this spring semester, the REIs piloted a unique experiential learning program entitled A Journey with Peaches, to help local children learn more about fruit growth and farming in their hometown through place-based interdisciplinary learning.
Above: Teacher Huiguo invited students to observe the peach trees closely
Every weekend between March and June 2012, children spent one day participating in a range of experiential learning activities designed by the REIs. For instance, in March and April when the peach flowers had just begun to bloom, children had a chance to visit local orchards and enjoy observing peach blossoms, drawing pictures of peach blossoms, listening to folk stories and singing songs about peach blossoms, investigate the anatomy of peach blossoms, and making their own orchard model crafts under the guidance of architects joining online from a professional design studio.
Above: Pictures of peach trees drawn by students
In May and June when the peach trees started to bear fruit, children learned how to cull some of the peaches in order to improve fruit size and sweetness. They also visited an organic fruit farm to understand the strengths and weaknesses of organic agriculture versus non-organic farming practices, and actually participated in harvesting peaches for sale.
Above: Teacher Yanzhen guiding students on a peach orchard tour
These experiential learning lessons provided children with a chance to strengthen their love for their surrounding environment while developing knowledge and skills in language, literacy, numeracy, social emotional awareness, art, science, and design.
Students shared unforgettable memories of their learning during the end of the semester. One student said that a key difference between experiential learning and traditional classroom learning is that the latter focuses on rote memorization whereas the former is about joyful learning. Another student reflected on how the experiential learning experience enabled him to learn effectively by solving real life problems.
In recent years, the mental well-being of children in rural China has received increased attention amongst policy makers and educators alike. In the Spring semester, the REIs had an opportunity to deliver a series of social emotional skill building lessons to Grade 1-5 students in three primary schools.
Above: Teacher Huimiao and her social emotional skills class
The lesson plans covered five key topics: how to learn, interpersonal relationships, positive relationships, positive self-awareness, and integrated social-emotional learning. In the Spring 2021 semester, more than 370 students benefited from the lessons delivered by the REIs.
Above: Students developing social-emotional literacy through group work
Story time at the village kindergarten
The REIs have continued to teach reading class in the kindergarten in Wang Village during the Spring semester. The kids there had become familiar with the teachers and looked forward to each class. Every time they saw teacher Caimei, they would call out her nickname “Teacher Strawberry”! After each storytelling session, they would eagerly ask what handcrafts projects they would be working on that day. They even investigated the teachers’ material bag to find clues.
Compared with last semester, the teachers found that their students had shown improvements in recalling stories. When they asked the students what stories they had listened to during the semester, the children could almost recall every single story’s name, main characters and plots. Why did that happen? The children must have truly resonated with the characters in the stories, reflected the teachers. Some parents told the teachers that the kids would be enthusiastically willing to go to kindergarten if they heard there would be a story class on that day.
Above: Teacher Yao reading a storybook to the kindergarten children.
The REIs have continued to conduct individualized tutoring for three students during the Spring semester. One student, Yuyu, whom Yongji teachers have spent 18 months mentoring, recently showed interest in reading. The teachers designed a set of questions that could provoke her to think more while she was reading the books they recommended to her. Although she was not able to finish all of the books, she showed improvements in being able to discuss relevant questions with the teachers. She also showed interest in knowing more facts that happen to teenage girls, such as why teenage girls start to have acne on their faces. The teachers felt rewarded to witness the progress Yuyu made, as well as the progress they made themselves in tutoring and mentoring Yuyu.
Book club: the courage to teach
This semester, the teachers read The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer. The book is “for teachers who have good days and bad — and whose bad days bring the suffering that comes only from something one loves.” The REIs expressed their feelings after reading the book:
“If I have a chance to meet Professor Palmer, I will tell him that we are practicing the exact same kind of educational philosophy. We are particularly able to understand the ideas conveyed in the book, and we also admire the author's unique perspective and the courage to express it.” - Teacher Huimiao
“Only those who have experienced this kind of teaching experience can resonate with the author and appreciate the difficulties of education reform.” - Teacher Lina
“After reading this book, my heart slowly became relieved. It turns out that every pioneer in education is going very slowly and effortfully.” - Teacher Caimei
“We have spent nearly ten years practicing an education philosophy that respects students, pays attention to the individual differences of students and constantly reflects on our own teaching process. Only those who have experienced this kind of teaching reform can resonate with the author. Palmer's book made me feel the difficulties of education reform and gave me the courage to move forward.” - Teacher Huiguo
“As a teacher, you must first understand yourself, keep your own soul intact, and be able to interact and communicate with your own soul. Then you can show your true self in front of students.” - Teacher Ping
Above: Teacher Ping sharing her passion for teaching with kindergarten children
A visit to Zhipu Foundation
In May 2021, Teacher Huimiao attended a conference organized by the Zhipu Foundation to network with other rural educational NGOs and explore collaboration opportunities. She gave a talk on her understanding of rural children’s development and her case studies and teaching insights were well-received by the rest of the conference participants.
Above: Teacher Huimiao presenting at the conference organized by the Zhipu Foundation.
This summer, university volunteers will visit Yongji to organize a summer camp for children. To prepare for the camp, the REIs held an online sharing session with the university volunteers through which they introduced their teaching philosophy. They also participated in the university volunteers’ lesson planning meetings to get to know the volunteers and to provide advice and guidance. The summer camp will take place in August. Stay tuned for more updates from the REIs!