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.
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!
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.”
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.
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.”
RCEF is experimenting with different methods of promoting free reading at our main program site, Guan Ai Primary School. In December, students visited each other's classes to talk about what they'd been reading, adults and students read together at designated times every day, and the student librarians kept the school library open during recess hours. Below, RCEF Program Manager Sun Chuanmei shares some funny and interesting things that happened during all this reading frenzy.
The Incident with Mingyue
Mingyue Zhang is a pretty second grade student. When she picks up a book, she won't put it down. One day, she brought a book that she hadn't finished reading into the bathroom. As you probably know, bathrooms in rural China are pits in the ground. Since it's very cold, the children wear a lot of clothes. Squatting and then standing up again is a challenge, even when not holding a book. When Mingyue stood up, her book fell into the pit. She started crying but at first no one knew why. The other students only knew that there was a little girl crying in the bathroom who wouldn't come out. After asking her, and then looking into the pit, they understood. Word traveled fast. Several teachers went into the bathroom to persuade Mingyue to come out. When her homeroom teacher Ms. Wang finally led her out, Mingyue's face was covered in tears and she sat down, depressed, unwilling to go play. Only after RCEF staff member Zheng Kai went over and talked to her for a long time did her mood improve. The next night when the library opened, Mingyue immediately rushed in and borrowed a new book - this one of Chinese traditional stories.
Fifth Grader's Fury
In November, all of the fifth grade students read Dear Mr. Henshaw as part of our first attempt at holding book discussion meetings. The first meeting, facilitated by Ms. Li Xiaochun, was meant to get students interested in reading the book. The second meeting took place at another rural school in our county called Xiaochao Primary School. We brought the Guan Ai fifth graders there to discuss the book with their Xiaochao counterparts, who had also read the same book. Perhaps because they were in unfamiliar territory, it was hard for the Guan Ai students to open up at that meeting.
That evening, I went to their classroom to ask how they felt the activity meeting went. I suggested that they give themselves and their class a score for how well they behaved along with a few reasons for their scoring. Most of the students agreed and started standing up to explain their scores. They didn't give themselves high scores but gave their class as a whole pretty good scores. I listened and took notes. Was this turning into a self-congratulatory exercise? Why wasn't anyone mentioning the problems that had come up?
Just when I was about to guide them in that direction, a student named Zhang Rong banged her fist on her desk and stood up. She looked at everyone and said in a loud voice, "Why is everyone basing their scores on the faults of the other school's students? We didn't have any faults? Did we speak up actively?" She threw out a series of problems like missiles. Immediately, the class fell silent. I looked at everyone with a serious expression but inside, I couldn't help smiling. A challenge from within is better at producing the truth.
Zhang Fei's "Press Meeting"
Second grader Zhang Fei was a "guest speaker" in the first grade class. He went there to tell them a story he recently read and liked. However, when he told the story, his words weren't clear enough and a lot of children didn't understand. Thankfully, Zhang Fei saved the day. He said, "If you don't understand the story, please ask questions." The first graders started to speak actively, one question after another. Zhang Fei stood at the front of the classroom answering the questions without any hint of impatience.
From my perspective at the back of the classroom, it felt like a press meeting. After the class, I thought about why Zhang Fei had such ability. It must be that in his second grade class, it is popular for students to tell stories to each other during reading period. Now that they are used to it, they have naturally started to speak like a teacher, asking, "Can you guess why? Do you understand?" This is how little teachers are cultivated!
When doing reading activities with the students, I often run into unexpected scenes like these. When I look at the expressions on the children's faces as they read, I can't help but sigh and let these feelings sink deep into my heart.
We are pleased to present RCEF's Annual Report 2008-2009. RCEF's program in grassroots "bottom up" education reform has been - and still is - a continuous learning experience for all of us. This is a report about the teaching reforms we've made through intensive collaboration with rural teachers and students in a typical rural Chinese primary school. It is our hope that you will find it a useful window into RCEF's journey and where our learning is leading us. You can download it from our website at: www.ruralchina.org.
Thank you for your support of the Rural China Education Foundation (RCEF). We greatly appreciate your interest in helping to promote quality education in rural China! The new school year began at our program site, Guan Ai Primary School, on August 20. You can read on our blog about how RCEF Teaching Coaches helped Guan Ai teachers analyze textbooks and create lesson plans for the semester. Teachers also decorated their classrooms to make them more warm and inviting--something that is very rare in rural Chinese schools.
This school year RCEF staff and Teaching Coaches will build on the foundation from last year to take our innovative curriculum design to the next level. We spent last school year helping Guan Ai teachers become more proficient at teaching and coaching each other. We also helped the Guan Ai principal set up an in-school professional development system.
This year, RCEF staff will focus on the areas of greatest strength and value added. Given our track record from last year, we feel that RCEF's strongest suit is in creating lesson plans that help students experience and learn about issues in their environment. This includes teaching textbook concepts in ways that make use of rural cultural and natural resources to help students learn more effectively. It also includes extracurricular activities like service-learning projects.
Service-learning is a concept that is very new to China and RCEF has already piloted some service learning projects at Guan Ai which we want to deepen and broaden this year. An example, the Anti-smoking Project, is described below. We will collect baseline data for evaluation, along with basic quantitative evaluation data and anecdotal qualitative evaluation data to track our progress.
We would love to hear your feedback and pass it along to our hardworking teachers and staff in the field!
Thank you for your support of quality education for rural children in China! As the school year comes to an end here at our headquarters school in rural China, we are busy preparing for final exams. Below is an update on how we're trying to test children's skills beyond the textbook. We would love to hear your feedback and pass it along to our hardworking teachers and staff in the field!
Evaluating and tracking student progress is very important to our program. However, for most subjects, county-wide exams only reflect students’ most basic ability to recall facts, but not their understanding. For example, a lot of the questions on the Science test are fill-in-the-blank questions taken straight from the textbook. Students can remember lines from the textbook without having any idea what they mean. In English, a paper-and-pencil test can show students’ reading and writing capabilities, but not their listening and speaking skills which are actually the emphasis of the curriculum at the primary level.
To fill this gap, RCEF Teaching Coaches designed internal tests for each subject area at Guan Ai School. In science and math, the tests asked students to apply their knowledge to solve real life problems. For English, every student had a one-on-one speaking and listening assessment. In language arts, we focused on evaluating spoken communication and essay writing. To test students’ spoken communication, we asked students to tell us what they would do if they were the principal of the school, and graded them based on aspects such as clear expression, giving reasons for their ideas, logical organization of thoughts and confidence. In social studies, we tested students on their ability to make judgments about social issues based on available information and their ability to support their arguments.
This is the first time RCEF has done our own comprehensive testing of students. The results will serve as a benchmark to measure students’ improvement over time. The next Guan Ai tests will take place right before the final exams. This time, we will also include assessment of skills in communication, collaboration and problem solving in addition to academic knowledge. To read some examples of test questions, visit the RCEF Blog at: http://blog.ruralchina.org.
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Co-Founder, Co-Executive Director