Pharos-Tribune

July 7, 2013

School's out

Three LHS teachers return from month-long trip to China

by Mitchell Kirk Pharos-Tribune
Pharos-Tribune

---- — The three Logansport Community High School teachers who left in early June to teach English in China have returned with stories, life experiences and insight on how two education systems on opposite sides of the planet can benefit each other.

Melanie Lang, Beth Myers and Jitka Nelson, all English teachers at the high school, were the first to teach abroad as a part of the Logansport Community School Corporation’s sister school agreements with the Chinese province of Zhejiang.

Along with having to adapt to an entirely different culture, the teachers were also responsible for educating students who were accustomed to a teaching style quite different from the ones the teachers use in the U.S., they said.

When the vice principals of one of the Logansport Community School Corporation’s sister schools in China visited Logansport in May, they both praised the city’s educators for their emphasis on development and expressed a desire for Chinese schools to make a move in a similar direction.

Lang, who taught the equivalent of elementary through middle school students, said her Chinese students’ former training in English had come mainly in the form of memorization and recitation. Part of her lessons included getting the students out of their desks, lining up at the back of the room and having them race to the chalkboard to complete English sentences.

“I wanted to do things that weren’t sitting and reading out of a book,” Lang said. “It was learning through playing almost.”

Nelson, who also taught the equivalent of elementary through middle school students, described her classes as “regimented” and “lined up in their desks.” With about 50 students in her classes, she knew it would be difficult to get them moving and still retain control of the classroom, which is why part of her lessons included teaching body language associated with English words.

“They’re used to sitting at their desks with their arms folded,” Nelson said, resting her own folded arms on top of a table to illustrate her point. “I tried to use kinetics. Body language is very important.”

Myers spent her month teaching the equivalent of high school students who could understand phrases and read in English, she said, although they had trouble picking up her sarcasm.

“I quit that after the second day,” she said with a laugh.

The teachers said they felt creativity among Chinese students was lacking in comparison to their American counterparts and more education that encouraged innovation and and outside-the-box thinking could help them bridge the gap.

Another difference they said they noticed between the two country’s education systems is that in China, a student and student’s family is responsible for their learning, as opposed to in the U.S. where teachers are mostly held accountable.

This sense of looking out for one’s own education was especially apparent in male students, Myers said, adding that female students collaborated with each other more.

Lang said a balance between both country’s extremes would likely be the best way to go. She also said she admired the level of respect Chinese students and citizens give teachers, adding that there’s even a national holiday in the country to celebrate those who work in education.

“I appreciated the respect we got,” Lang said. “I feel like I spend most of every August earning the respect of my students, which isn’t bad, it’s just the way it is.”

As the first teachers in the program to travel to China to teach, Lang, Myers and Nelson said they can take their firsthand experiences to provide guidance for those who will follow in their footsteps, from insight on the educational background of Chinese students to what to expect when it comes to the differences between Chinese and American cultures.

For instance, one thing they said future Logansport teachers heading to China might want to know before leaving is that they may not receive a lot of information when out and about on ambassadorial duties. And it’s not that the Chinese prefer to keep guests in the dark, they said, but rather a part of their culture.

“If they have a guest, they just want them to know they’re taken care of,” Lang said.

Nelson elaborated by saying they were rarely given details about where they were going and what they were doing when on ambassadorial and recreational outings and that their questions on these matters were often met with confusion.

This cultural gap often led to surprises on their trips, the teachers said, but Lang said the biggest surprise of all was just how significant she would find the whole experience to be.

“I expected to go and teach and be an ambassador for Logansport,” Lang said, “and I left with with an understanding of another culture that made me more empathetic to the melting pot that is the United States and for my own multilingual students.

“I didn’t expect to be as emotionally invested in the trip as I was,” she continued. “I didn’t expect it to be quite so hard to leave... I feel like I have a home on the other side of the world now.”

Mitchell Kirk is a staff reporter at the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at 574-732-5130 or mitchell.kirk@pharostribune.com.

Blogging in China Visit teacher Melanie Lang's blog at thelanglog.blogspot.com to read more about teaching in China and to view her photo albums.