At the end of October, The New Century School elementary teachers Kiley Stasch and Dan McGonigal traveled to Beijing, China to present at the International Cooperation Project for RiSE Teachers. The actual conference was held in a town that was a 2-hour drive outside of the city.
Mr. McGonigal explained that TNCS Co-Founders approached him and Ms. Stasch with the idea to lead a 3-day conference in China involving extensive educational professional development at the “RiSE Center,” which is an afterschool and weekend educational program. “In China, afterschool and weekend programs does not have the same meaning. There, such programs mean extensive education, so RiSE takes advantage of that time and immerses students in the English language by teaching all of their subjects in English. Very much like what we are doing at TNCS—teaching core content in another language. So they want to Americanize their approach to get students more engaged, incorporating more hands-on activities. They wanted to see how we handle classroom structure and appealing to different learners,” he said.
For some background, in China, younger students have about 6 hours additional learning each week; older students have about 8. This is on top of an already 10-hour school day, so on the 2 days a week the students attend the RiSE Centers, their school day stretches to 12 hours. They will also spend 4 to 6 hours there in weekends.
Many of the approximately 100 conference attendees were teaching at the pre-Kindergarten level and looking for tools for English language learning. “So, we had to adapt some of the materials we had prepared in advance to better target their needs,” said Ms. Stasch. “Yes, they were especially excited about the Language Arts aspects,” agreed Mr. McGonigal.
Ms Stasch provided this overview:
With one exception, the RiSE teachers were native Chinese but had all taught English abroad and spoke English very well—no translators were needed. They were all so excited and really enjoyed the opportunity we were bringing to them. Some of the STEM-teaching concepts were different for them and a little harder to grasp, but they were eager to implement a lot of our teaching recommendations in their classrooms. Their curriculum is already designed, and they do not have a lot of say in that matter, but some of the founders and top members of the program were participating and were listening very carefully to our presentations. They seemed amenable to restructuring some of the curriculum to incorporate more STEM and maybe the Daily 5, for example.
The teachers were trying to convey two primary concepts: the value of independent learning and how to better manage the classroom. Their presentations are available for download at the end of this post.
Said Mr. McGonigal:
What they kept coming back to in their questions was how to get and keep students engaged. As part of their culture, Chinese students are naturally reserved and maybe a little shy, so getting them to actively participate can be a bit of a struggle. Instructors also wanted suggestions on how to help their students understand that answers are not always black and white and that they do not always have to be ‘right,’ or perfect per se. But they are scared that if they share something in class that they will be wrong and will be shunned for it.
“Yes,” agreed Ms. Stasch, “they seem to have a very matter-of-fact way of thinking. Rather than explore ideas, they want to know what is the correct answer because they know they will later be tested on it. Even the RiSE teachers had some trouble understanding how to teach using questions and open-ended lines of inquiry. They were bewildered that we were giving them questions instead of answers!”
“But we helped them see that if students ask their own questions, they are in charge of their own learning and will get them thinking on their own,” said Mr. McGonigal. He continued:
Another recurring topic was behavior management. We tried to instill in them the idea that these are practices that help manage behavior, too, because if you get students asking questions they are more focused and there are naturally fewer behavior problems as a result. In everything we did, we tried to incorporate why independent learning is so valuable. Using a stations approach instead of whole class is also helpful because you’re more able to meet students at their particular levels and help them individually, which also helps reduce behavior problems.
Believe it or not, even given the respect for teachers and for the classroom ingrained in students since before kindergarten, they do “act up” from time to time. Ms Stasch explained that, “this might be because the RiSE teachers tend to be newer teachers with less experience and therefore less-developed classroom management skills.” Another factor is that because this is an afterschool and weekend program, the kids probably feel more relaxed than they would in regular day school, where the environment is more rigid (see TNCS Visits Schools in China!)
“We saw this when we did our demo lessons,” said Mr. McGonigal. “The kids were very loose and relaxed with their teachers. It was similar to an America classroom. But the minute we started teaching , they became very attentive, very minds on. Part of this might be because we were speaking in English so they had to pay close attention in order to understand what we were saying. Some other reasons could be that we were new faces to them and also that there were cameras in the room. But I think behavior is always relative. What is considered a behavior problem there might not be here.”
When asked about their overall impressions of the trip, Mr. McGonigal replied, “One of the things that really hit home with me is that the teachers there are amazingly dedicated. We were doing this professional development with them until 5:30 pm, and then they were also given homework to complete before the next day’s session. They would often be up until midnight working with their teammates.”
Ms. Stasch agreed: “And they ask lots and lots of questions. They really needed to know that they were headed in the right direction and are eager to please. They expected assessments the next morning and were very excited about those. They charted the assessments and then had a cumulative assessment at the end. We really adjusted our process to add these assessments and to allow more time for questions.”
Mr. McGonigal explained the rationale for the cumulative assessment: “They did this to determine who was the valedictorian. They also wanted a points system for in-class work. Everybody earned their certificates at the end!”
Although with 3 days for their conference, 1 day for teacher interviews, and 1 day for the demo lesson, it sounds like an all-work, no-play trip, they actually also had 2 1/2 days for sightseeing and visited the Great Wall, the Summer Palace, and the Forbidden City. They loved the food and tried lots of unfamiliar dishes. (However, eating fine-boned fish with chopsticks proved a challenge.) “It was a really great experience,” said Kiley. “For both of us it was the first time to take on a leadership role in professional development, and we both learned a lot,” said Dan.
For their presentations, please download the following powerpoints: