Most children in rural China have little chance to leave the school grounds or study subjects outside their textbooks. In response, RCEF Rural Education Innovator Teacher Sun Huimiao is a trailblazer in developing place-based education that helps students to apply their skills and develop their knowledge in the real world. In September, she started teaching students at Nanzheng Elementary School how to make a map of their village. They brainstormed different aspects of the village environment that they were interested in, and eventually settled on studying elements of village home design. After more investigation, they chose to examine the tall, colorful doors that their parents and neighbors select to decorate home entrances. So far, they have done a survey of the different styles of village doors, collected measurements, organized data using spreadsheets, and interviewed a village elder about the history and significance of rural architectural changes.
On the weekends, Teacher Sun also organizes free Parent-Child Reading Activities in a Community Education Center that she founded in her home village. She partners with two local kindergarten teachers to read stories to children, demonstrating to parents how to read aloud, and the benefits of promoting habits of reading in children. The free weekend activities have been well-attended and Teacher Sun is planning to hold more sessions over this coming winter break when children are out of school and more parents are home from their migrant labor jobs in cities.
RCEF provides free, enriching education to children in rural China. We support rural elementary school teachers as they implement innovative teaching methods in Chinese villages. One of our partner teachers, Ms. Wang Yanzhen, teaches engaging Reading Classes to students at Xiaochao Elementary School.
Her students have read literature ranging from Tang dynasty poems to stories about dreams, animals, science, and the environment. Through in-class activities and teacher facilitation, students have gained understanding of the literary themes and shown great improvement in their reading habits. As a result of the coaching and support she has received from RCEF, Ms. Wang has already been invited by other NGOs and schools in China to share her teaching experiences and insights with more rural teachers. Some of these lessons are below.
Children in rural China don't usually have access to books in their homes or schools, and independent reading outside of the textbook is rare. Ms. Wang found that "...when students read in class, they could only concentrate for about twenty minutes so I adjusted the time into 10 minutes of sharing interesting plots with each other, 20 minutes of sustained, silent eading, and 10 minutes of storytelling activities. For example, we read Shixi Chen's animal-themed books together. The students and I discussed interesting parts of the plots, read the books together, and told stories. The students' interest never ceased, they read the books carefully, and traded the books with each other."
Learning to Discuss
Ms. Wang found that when she asked students to form small groups to answer questions, or have a group discussion, there were always a few students who did not participate, worked on other homework, or just acted lazy. She explains her response: "Now I first give my students time to write down their thoughts and then have group discussion. This allows every student to contribute their unique ideas. In one activity where I asked students for their opinion about Shixi Chen, the author, I did not expect that they would come up with so many attributes: smart, curious, brave, imaginative, loving, persistent, etc. From the look of things, this activity definitely benefited the children."
Learning to Create
After reading, Ms. Wang encourages her students to create. "I asked to use different kinds of tree leaves to create collages that showed their love for animals. This method encouraged students to investigate their natural environment and, cultivated their imagination, and aesthetic sensitivity through active practice. Students had a passion for it! It was the first time for students to participate in this kind of activity. I was very suprised when I was looking at all my students' work. For example, Haojie He does not really like to speak and he fails to take most of his reading homework seriously. For this assignment, however, he pasted different kinds of leaves together to create a suit with wings. He hoped to make it so that everyone in the world could fly. Xuening Jia, who is often quiet and has a hard time expressing herself created a butterfly flying in a flower field."
During the creation process, my students said that at first they felt they wouldn't be able to do it, but through effort they discovered that they were able to do a good job. Also, during the activity a few students followed the tree leaves characteristics to decide what to make. So although the original requirement was for students to create their favorite animal, they ended up making various kinds of animals, adapting to the materials and coming up with new ideas."
Yiling just finished fourth grade at Xiaochao Primary School in rural Shanxi Province. She has been a student in RCEF Teacher Wang's Reading Class for two years, and shows the kind of positive change that RCEF teachers and Reading Classes can promote for rural children in China.
To see Yiling now, one is struck by her intelligence, outgoingness, and self-confidence. But Yiling wasn’t always this way. She did not speak up in class and read very slowly, lacking concentration. One day, Ms. Wang’s class read the book Reunion by Liqiong Yu. It tells the story of a village girl who looks forward to seeing her migrant worker parents during the Chinese New Year. Ms. Wang recalled, “When we finished reading, Yiling said out loud, ‘Teacher, I feel like I’m the girl in the story.’” In fact, Yiling’s parents are also migrant workers far from home, and she lives with her farmer grandparents.
Every week, Yiling's class would go to the school library to check out books. At first, Yiling had a hard time picking a book so Ms. Wang paid special attention by recommending books to her and trying to understand what kinds of books she likes. It seemed that stories of people with special powers and imaginary worlds appealed to Yiling. As Yiling began to read more, Ms. Wang saw her open up in class, even reading a book aloud in front of the whole class with great feeling. She represented her group in presentations and participated enthusiastically in the poem recitation contest. She even wrote poems for her absent parents.
Yiling began to notice things around her and connect them to the stories. She was especially moved by the translated stories of Christian Jolibois in which the main character, a hen, dreams big dreams. She wrote about how she dreams for eternal life because she doesn’t want people to undergo grief when a loved one dies. She wrote about watching a funeral in her village and how sad the relatives of the deceased were. Although she could not change reality, she and her classmates created an “Angel Plan” to help make the lives of the elderly easier, by talking to them and helping them out with household chores. In the last two years, Yiling has truly undergone many changes. She is more confident, courageous, clever, responsible, and knowledgeable and Ms. Wang reports she is also closer to her teachers.
The peach blossoms are out in Houjia Village, where RCEF Teacher Ms. Sun Huimiao works. Last week, she designed a special outing for children and parents to provide a chance for bonding and learning in nature. Ms. Sun's goal was to show rural parents in her community how to cultivate a sense of beauty, observation and creativity in their children from an early age.
The children excitedly danced and ran ahead as the group walked into the fields around the village "looking for signs of spring." Ms. Sun encouraged everyone to use their hands, their noses, their eyes to touch, observe and feel the wheat, peach blossoms, and meadows of vibrant yellow rapeseed flowers. Afterwards, they gathered natural materials -- twigs, petals, leaves -- and made mosaic art projects.
Ms. Sun held a discussion with the parents. "What use does this activity have for your child's development?" Through exercising their powers of observation, the children strengthened their connection with nature and sensitivity to beauty. The parents talked about how young children's learning begin with feeling, and how important it is to activate their all their senses and curiosity.
This kind of activity is all too rare in rural China, but also very suited to the natural environment surrounding rural families. However, it takes inspired and dedicated teachers like Ms. Sun to thoughtfully facilitate and lead. RCEF exists to find and support teachers like Ms. Sun and to share their meaningful work to inspire more teachers in China.
The vast majority of children in China grow up in the countryside. How this next generation of citizens in the largest country on earth are educated shapes the future of our world. Thank you for caring about them and supporting the development of rural teachers for them.
One of the RCEF rural teachers supported by our project is starting a new Community Education Center in her home village, Houjia Village, Shanxi Province. RCEF funds allow her to paint and fix up four classrooms in the village elementary school that are getting a new lease on life, and provides her with advice and volunteers. The first activity will be an extracurricular Winter Camp held in January for children and teenagers on break from school. Not a tutoring or test-prep camp, it will instead be aimed at engaging children's interest in new topics relevant to their lives through books and movies. There will also be a playroom for younger children and fun, organized activities that bring parents and children closer together. This kind of center and such activities are extremely rare in rural China and this pioneering project is only possible with your support. The lessons learned will be shared with other pioneers in rural China who may be able to start and run similar initiatives in their rural hometowns!
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