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.”
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Co-Founder, Co-Executive Director