“Hello Teacher Li!”

Fourth-year Stephen Leonelli immerses himself in China’s education system.

By Stephen Leonelli (Interdisciplinary-East Asian Studies and Religious Studies ’09)
This is an image of schoolchildren in China

Xiaochang students happily flash “V for Victory” signs after a successful class.
Photo courtesy of Stephen Leonelli

“Hello Classmates!”
“Hello Teacher Li!”
“Do you guys know what class this is?”
“GEOGRAPHY CLASS!!”

The excited fourth graders from rural Lingao County in Hainan Province, China, had memorized the entire schedule of teachers and classes for our three-day summer camp. Their first time interacting with foreigners, the kids sat eagerly on the edge of their seats, hands neatly folded on their desktops. The 12 students all wore red Young Pioneers neckerchiefs, symbolizing that they were some of the best students in their homeroom. I felt relieved that at least they understood my two friendly, albeit simple, sentences of greeting—so far so good.

This was my first time teaching class, not to mention my first time speaking with children in Mandarin Chinese—a language I spent the past two years at U.Va. trying to master. This experience, more than any exam in Virginia, would be the true test of my ability. This teaching encounter—one of two three-day classroom experiences that put me at the teacher’s helm—was one component of the Associated Colleges in China Summer Field Studies Program, a full-scholarship, seven-wee, immersion program generously funded by the U.S. Department of State Fulbright Program and the Henry Luce Foundation that took me to China last summer.

After catching an encouraging smile from the homeroom teacher quietly watching in the back of the room, I continued with my lesson plan. With the help of several enthusiastic volunteers, I taped maps of China and America onto the uneven blackboard. I wanted to invite all the students to the front so we could all look at the two maps together, but something was wrong. The teacher’s speaking podium was still in the way. I pointed to one of the boys and told him that I needed his help to move it out of the way. His jaw dropped, and he looked back at the homeroom teacher. She nodded her head, and then we pushed it to the side wall. The place where it had stood was full of dust and dirt—it looked like it had never been moved before.

“Well everyone, get up here and let’s check these maps out!” I said.

I asked the kids some questions about the unique geographical regions, important cities and special political regions of China. Each time I asked a question, the competition to be the first to answer was fierce; each student wanted to win my attention and hear a word of praise—in fact, when I told a student, “Excellent job!” he or she would often repeat the accolade to him- or herself. The kids were excited and proud to be knowledgeable about where major cities and counties were located on the map, and quite disappointed when they were wrong.

The main activity I had planned for the geography class, however, was map-making. I divided the children into four groups, each with a map of their home province and a special topic: weather, tourist attractions, population distribution and density, and neighboring counties/bordering waters. According to instructions that I had written, they were to complete their map and present it to their classmates in an attempt to present a “detailed understanding” of the geography of their home province. It was a challenge on many levels for the kids: working in groups and presenting to the class seemed to be as foreign as their American teacher.

Our group of 16 undergraduates began in Beijing, where we familiarized ourselves with many of the obstacles faced by rural educators in modern China—from funding constraints to the exam-score based system of advancement to the unique personalities of “singletons” under China’s one-child policy.

In addition to reading articles about these issues and preparing our summer camp materials and lesson plans, we were perfecting our 20-minute PowerPoint presentations about education programs in America. Each student in the Field Studies Program had the unique opportunity to give a PowerPoint presentation to approximately 400 rural educators, principals and specialists at two conferences hosted by the Education and Science Society in Haikou, Hainan and Wuhan, Hubei. This extremely formal atmosphere tested a completely different component of my Chinese language abilities, and in an intimidating way. The curiosity of the educators often reached beyond our presentations—during one Q&A session, the U.S. students were asked their opinion about the “American war for oil.”
(In the photo, I'm waiting to present in Haikou, Hainan. The nametag displays my Chinese name, “Li Sidi.”)

I myself reported about mentorship programs, such as Big Brother Big Sister and U.Va.’s Young Women’s Leadership Program. Many conference participants told me they found the idea very attractive—especially given that most children in modern China do not have a blood-related “Big Brother” or “Big Sister”—but at the end of the day, the priority of most educators and parents is for their children to do well on standardized tests. The time spent participating in this type of extracurricular, I was told, would be difficult to find for many Chinese students.

Thinking back to my experiences teaching in Lingao and Xiaochang, I can see many of the pressures and obstacles for both Chinese educators and Chinese students. Perhaps most obviously, it was quite easy for us American students to pack our lesson plans with games and group-work activities due to the small classes we taught —normal classes in rural Chinese primary schools have more than 70 students. Secondly, in a three-day summer camp, there are no grades and no evaluation. I certainly hope they gained something from studying the geography of their home province, but my main objective was not to transmit knowledge for the kids to retain for an upcoming test.

However, even under the conditions of this carefree, enriching experience, the competition among the students was strong. The pressure the kids felt to always be “right” was incredible—to the point that many would refrain from creatively or actively doing anything without my approval. Even small questions about which colors could be used to label cities were urgently asked by the students. In addition, my hope in breaking the kids into groups was that they would work together (and it was also a rule I had written on the blackboard). Nevertheless, in many groups, students had a rather difficult time sharing responsibilities and deciding who would cut, who would paste, who would label—sometimes the outcome being one student doing everything until his or her partners came running to find me and voice their anger.

There were also many very notable exceptions. I required the students to give their completed maps an “interesting title,” and I was pleased to see that a population distribution map was called “Five Colors of a Diverse Hainan” (each color representing a different population density), a map about the surrounding provinces of Hubei was named “Hubei, the Heart of China,” one group even used a Chinese idiom for their tourist-attraction map’s title! During presentations, too, some groups totally played their parts—I think Lingao might have some future meteorologists in the making.

After interacting with more than 300 different students and conversing with numerous educators and principals, I now realize that Chinese students do not lack creativity or the ability to work together (both of which were critiques we commonly read about in Beijing), but rather they are so unaccustomed to being given those opportunities in the current school system that they feel an uncertainty about how or when to display their creativity, how or when to share responsibilities. Of course, I am hardly in a position to generalize with only six days experience teaching at two summer camps in rural China, but I was startled by the educators themselves making these types of observations and criticisms of the exam-based evaluation system that has been prevalent in Chinese history from the first civil service exams over 2,000 years ago.

The ACC Summer Field Studies Program provided me with an unforgettable opportunity and a new insight into the education system in China. I hope I can continue to learn more about the setbacks and successes that complicate the educational landscape of modern China. And I also hope that just one student feels a sense of accomplishment and pride when he or she looks at the completed maps hanging on the walls of the classroom.