Full immersion

Looking for something else entirely online today, I came across this blog, written by a mother in Shanghai who is sending her four-year-old to a local Chinese school. It gives an interesting and entertaining perspective on a very different Chinese immersion experience. From her introduction:

The handful of foreigners, like me, who choose to put their kids in local schools are – like the first generation immigrants in the West- being guided by our kids into a deep cultural immersion that we ourselves will never achieve. We follow our children – who are our probes and translators – trying to keep up as best we can.

We are also at the cutting edge of an increasingly heated debate over global education. What is the right balance between rote learning and creativity? How much homework and discipline is too much? How much not enough? How much free time should children be allowed? Is pressure and high expectations good or bad for kids? Which system – Eastern or Western – will best prepare our children for the highly competitive future that they must face?

This blog is dedicated to tracking this cultural immersion and to our own — highly personal — engagements with these debates.

She writes frequently with sometimes hilarious anecdotes about her son’s experiences (such as, being the only blond-haired child in a class happily singing, ‘I have black hair, I have black eyes, I am a Chinese baby.’) that give unique insight into Chinese society and language learning.

For more on Chinese education, Howard Gardner’s Learning Chinese Style is a classic. The Chinese Lessons blog posts it in its entirety.

Also, on the same topic, our Robin’s Nest columnist wrote an article about her visit to a pre-school in Tianjin in 1999. These photos are from her visit.

“EVERYTHING IS FOR THE CHILDREN” hangs over the school entrance. Three-year old Yee just doesn’t want to go to school this morning. Approaching the Tianjin Primary School, I see her mother, Mrs. Wu, smiling, but slightly embarrassed at being late, coaxing her daughter into the large brick building. Once inside, Yee happily slips off her shoes, kisses her mother good-bye, and runs into the large sunlit room to join her sixty classmates all beginning their day with an hour of Creative Movement. Mrs. Liu, their dynamic teacher, leads the children through a vigorous and fun exercise routine set to lively music. When Mrs. Liu sees me she promptly asks her best student, Ming, to show off his expert gymnastic moves: backbends, somersaults, and cartwheels. Teaching by example is typical of Chinese methods.

Mrs. Yao, the principal, graciously greets me and welcomes me to the school and to Tianjin, a vibrant seaport city ,an hour and a half east by train from Beijing. The Tianjin Primary School is a public school for 700 children: 500 four and five-year-olds divided into 60 per class and 200 two and three-year-olds in classes of 40. The school day commences at 7:40 a.m. and ends at 5:40 late afternoon.

This long day allows the children to eat three hot meals prepared at school in an enormous stainless steel immaculate kitchen. Savory dumplings, tasty noodles, crispy fish, and of course lots of fresh vegetables are being prepared. The children nap in large dormitory-style rooms lined with rows of wood-framed beds. The light green plaid coverlets, fresh and clean, make these rooms extremely homey. Rows and rows of tiny cubbies where each child keeps a small metal cup and a washcloth line the spotless hallways.

In the play yard 300 of the older children are also exercising to music, but in more regimented calisthenics. All the children exercise vigorously for an hour morning and afternoon. In addition, at free-play time on the playground children gleefully skip, run, jumping, and climb on all the fanciful equipment—one structure resembles a Russian onion-domed pavilion.

The Math classes are impressive. Sixty four-year-olds sit at low wooden tables; each child holds an abacus and with incredible speed their little fingers slide the tiny beads as they compute the math problem their teacher, Mrs. Huang, poses. What a competition! Cheng-cheng is in the lead. Chyou, her eyes bright with excitement, endeavors to surpass him. The only sound in the classroom is the click, click, click of the beads. Who will figure out the problem first? What fun it is!

Directly afterwards, Mrs. Yao brings me to observe the three-year-olds to see how they prepare for such skilled abacus use. These younger children use their fingers to quickly compute the addition and subtraction problems Mrs. Li offers them. Tiny fingers fly. Faster and faster it goes. The children easily keep up.

The Chinese language class is less intense. Mrs. Wu sits on a small wooden chair next to her collection of bright vocabulary cards with Chinese characters written on the back. The 40 three-year olds sit quietly around her. Mrs. Wu holds up a picture of an animal, cheerfully says the name in Chinese, shows the written word, and then the children repeat the name in unison. After introducing several more animals she plays a fun and absorbing oral word identification game with the children. No writing now; just visual recognition.

Writing Chinese characters requires a good brush and ink technique. The three-year olds in Mrs. Xiao’s Art class are well on their way to becoming good writers. These 80 young children stand around ten wooden tables. Each child has a square of rice paper, a brush, and a shared block of black ink and water pot. Pandas are the subject today. With enthusiasm and adeptness every single child produces a charming black and white panda bear similar to the teacher’s model.The children work with obvious delight, especially when their little pandas come to life on paper. Finished, each child washes the brush and returns it to the holder.

Afterwards I chat with Mrs. Yao in her office. She tells me that with the one child policy in China (which by default encourages parental spoiling of children) school is necessary to teach children to obey authority, to function in a group and ultimately in their country. Parents are welcomed to visit twice yearly; there are more frequent meetings where Mrs. Yao answers questions and reinforces parental responsibilities such as promptness. Above all, Mrs. Yao is anxious to learn how schools function outside of China. She would love to visit the United States but indicates it is almost impossible without her government’s permission.

Some day Mrs. Yao will travel and learn of new ways to enrich her school. I thank her and assure her that the Tianjin Primary School shows me so much about Chinese culture and education where “EVERYTHING IS FOR THE CHILDREN”.

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