The Curriculum

Today we concluded our formal–albeit abridged–curriculum in literature and social studies, and I realized people might be wondering what we’ve been up to in the classroom. Typically, when people think of the China Exchange, they think of all the exposure to the language the students are getting. And it’s true: they have three hours of semi-private instruction in the Chinese language, not to mention about two hours in the ‘immersion’ class in which they observe how a typical high school class in China is conducted.

Yet what might not occur to you is what happens between 2 and 3:45 in our school day. It’s a really wonderful opportunity for the students (and their teacher!) to learn about the culture and society… in their native language. The curriculum we’re using was originally developed by the original CHEX leader, Bettina Gordon, and each teacher who’s traveled to China has left an indelible mark on it. So Bettina (and Gaelen, Liz, Emiy, Peter, Bruce, Adam, Brittany, Kim, Lisa, Katy, Brad, and anyone I’ve forgotten), if you’re reading, please accept my gratitude for this challenging, thoughtful, robust and complete curriculum. And Elspeth, I’m trying to leave as many notes on my lesson plans as possible for you and next year’s crew!

The literature class is a great collection of works that really helped us understand the Chinese experience through many different lenses. The books are read in English so on the one hand we’re aware of the compromised authenticity of the works; however, some of these books were written in English by fully bilingual and bicultural authors. In Pa Chin’s “Family”, we read about the struggles of three sons coming of age in a revolutionary (1920s) China, as they are forced to choose between duty, freedom and, of course, love. Secondly, we tackled “Wild Swans”, a memoir written by Jung Chang. In this gripping memoir, she chronicles three generations of women in her family as they all come of age in the starkly different circumstances that marked twentieth-century China. The final novel in our series was “Waiting” by Ha Jin. The waiting refers the protagonist biding his time to finally win an uncontested divorce (18 years by Chinese legal statute) from his peasant wife. This was the book that sparked the most debate amongst the class: some students found main character sexist and pedantic while others identified with his inner anguish; some found the writing style slow and overdone while others found it intentional and intriguing. Finally, we concluded with an anthology of Chinese poetry that included the Dao De Ching (the spiritual manual for Daoism), classical poetry from the eighth and ninth century, and contemporary poetry from after the Cultural Revolution of the ’60s and ’70s. in addition to their weekly personal journal assignments, students are assessed on the quality of three analytical papers which can be re-written in response to teacher feedback.

The social studies/history curriculum has been a little more concrete in terms of learning objectives. We read nearly 700 pages in a dense, college-level history textbook called “The Search for Modern China” by Jonathan Spence. Each student was responsible for presenting two different chapters in the book, each chapter spanning a period of five to ten years. This means that in eight weeks, we journeyed in time from about 1810 to 1997! The kids also designed summary activities (games, debates, discussions) to complement their presentation and verify they were effective presenters (and that everyone was dutfiully engaged!) Of course, the textbook ended with a lot of conflicts unresolved as of 1997, so we’ll spend the last week writing position papers (op-ed pieces) about how China should manage certain issues like censorship, Taiwan and population control. The final component of the curriculum is already underway in the form of a research project. Students have spent the majority of the semester reading books and articles on a given topic–economy, environment, women’s rights, etc–and now they’re kicking into high gear writing their term papers (Sophomores: 3-5 pages, Juniors: 6-8, Seniors: 10-12). They’ll spend their last week conducting interviews, revising drafts, and peer editing.

This enhanced understanding of the history us goes a very long way as we try to intergrate into the culture here. It’s been quite easy for us to make connections and inferences as we go about our daily life, especially in discussing certain issues with our Chinese hosts and peers. In my experience, though, it’s been a challenge to get the locals speak freely or give original interpretations, and typically offer a canned response. For instance, did you know there’s even an agreed upon statistic regarding Mao’s policies?: “He was 70% right, and 30% wrong,” though I haven’t yet heard which parts were right and which were wrong. In this sense, I’ve come to appreciated the fact that our classroom has been a ‘safe’ environment where we can ask critical questions, express opinions and offer criticisms on certain topics, especially the controversial ones.

On a final note, I wanted to share how meaningful it’s been for me to work intimately with only eight students. The amount of time I’m able to put into giving thoughtful feedback has really surprised me, and helped me grow as an instructor, too. I really don’t know how the English and history teachers back home manage to do this for 4 classes of 25 students. Hats off to them!

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