Saturday, June 30, 2012

Trip Takeaways

I am writing this on the plane from Hong Kong to Newark. I know that I will do a lot of processing in the days, weeks, and months to come, but with the experience fresh in my mind I wanted to gather my thoughts together. I have divided these thoughts into three different categories: themes/topics, lessons, and hopes.

-the pace of growth and change: in so many ways the pace of growth and change in China is extraordinary. Everywhere we went the skyline was dotted with cranes, and it was obvious that we were driving on many new roads and highways. What was farmland when I visited Xi'an in 1999 is now an urban area. Stores that boast luxury goods from across the globe are being opened in high numbers. It is important to remember, though, that not everyone is benefiting from this boom and that there are other consequences as well, like terrible traffic and pollution.
-the Chinese education system: the focus and academic achievements of Chinese students are impressive, and a system that creates students that consistently perform at a high level internationally must be doing many things well. This is in contrast to what many feel about the US system, which it is filled with what Ted Sizer, one of my college professors, called "shopping mall high schools," which offer so many different courses at the expense of mastery. But a system based on rote memory, single-minded achievement, narrow goals, and test scores is missing something crucial- the opportunity for students to discover and explore their passions; the encouragement of students to take academic risks, problem solve, and be creative; the focus on students becoming well-rounded people.
-shifting educational landscape in China: the government has allowed the creation of private schools that follow the national/provincial curricula but are allowed to have some flexibility and are able to create their own school cultures. The boards of these schools are generally made up of current parents, not government officials. It will be interesting to see how this plays out over time.
-one child rule: this issue was discussed several times during our trip. The challenge is how to protect people's human rights while making sure that there is not a population explosion that could lead to incredible hardships, shortages, and other challenges that would mainly affect the country's poor. Several Chinese expressed the concern that the policy is creating a generation of indulged, spoiled children.
-Chinese history: Chinese history is rich and fascinating. The fact that sizable remnants of it are still present all over the country so that one can experience them first-hand is incredible. There is nothing like it in the US. The oldest historical site that I have visited in the US is the Kahokia American Indian mounds in Missouri that date back to around 1200; it was interesting to visualize a city of thousands along the Mississippi, but I had to do just that since only large mounds are visible.
-beauty of China: whether looking at the Great Wall winding its way through the mountains or a lake filled with lotus flowers, the country is filled with both man-made and natural beauty.
-freedom: in mainland China freedom of speech and expression are limited. The Internet is blocked and monitored, protests are illegal, and there is no freedom of the press. One might be surprised by the fact that there is not much of a visible police presence in China; I know, though, that there is a vast, behind the scene apparatus that is ready to spring into action when necessary. The consequences of crossing the line are swift and severe.
-technology: it is amazing that one can get cell phone access all over, even on The Great Wall! And it was incredible that I could post an entry through my Blogger app in China one moment and it could be read by someone in the US the next. On a personal note, I did not bring my laptop on this trip partly because I wanted to test the capabilities of the iPad. It was an amazing tool- it was easy to carry, has a long battery life, was easy to use, and has an incredible camera (I only used my actual camera when I needed a flash or to zoom with video.)
-pride: the Chinese people are extremely proud of and knowledgeable about their history. They know the role of their particular provinces in the history of China including how many emperors were born there. Everyone was eager to show off their local dishes and delicacies. It is certainly a history and culture to be proud of. And all of the people working at the schools we visited were kind and gracious hosts.
-traditions: traditions run deep in China. Everyone seems to know the symbolism of different animals, plants, foods, sculptures, etc. and these traditions often come up in conversation, during meals, and when visiting historic sites. I really don't think there is an equivalent in the broader US culture. A major reason is probably that our country is truly multicultural while China is largely homogeneous.
-firsthand knowledge and experience: there is no substitute for learning things through experiencing them firsthand. Short of that, it is powerful to learn from someone who experienced something him or herself. I will never forget some of the stories that Xiumin shared about growing up in China. It is a good reminder of the importance of primary sources, guest speakers, and field trips in education.
-children are wonderful everywhere: unfortunately we did not get to spend too much time with middle and high school students because they were in exams, but the ones we met were delightful and acted exactly as one would expect them to- I will never forget it when the seniors began singing "Country Road." My time at the elementary school in Wuxi was so special- I had so much fun speaking with, learning how to make dumplings from, and dancing with the students. I feel so lucky that I get to experience this joy at SSSAS every day!
-professional growth: I have learned and grown so much from being in China, but I have also learned a great deal for my independent school colleagues on the trip. I have a long list of ideas to follow up on! This highlights the importance of building a PLN (professional learning network) outside of one's own school.

-be flexible: our itinerary changed daily. Going with the flow makes everything more enjoyable!
-be adventurous: I tried so many new foods and saw many amazing things. Be safe, but push yourself to try something new and discover your own interests and passions, as we always encourage our students to do.
-it's okay (and even good) to feel uncomfortable sometimes: I was tentative about jumping into a taxi by myself in Beijing to visit Travis Thompson '07, but it was so wonderful to see him, especially in his own neighborhood. It's good to take risks and be uncomfortable sometimes, because it's an important aspect of truly growing and learning.
-don't assume that everyone does things the way you do: Did you know that the Chinese exchange business cards in a formal way- with two hands and much focus on what is printed on it- and that they'd never write on someone's business card upon receiving it? Being aware of another person's culture is broadening and enables one to act in a respectful way.

-My greatest hope is that we will be successful in creating meaningful connections with some of the schools I visited. There are certainly barriers such as time zones, government bureaucracy, and Internet platforms, but if both schools want to make it happen I am confident that we can!
-I want to share my journey with members of the SSSAS community in a way that will be thoughtful and helpful to everyone. I hope this blog is a start.
-I want to make sure that I carry the knowledge and experiences that I gained from this trip with me always. One of my high school teachers would often say that "life is cumulative." Experiences build upon each other to create new ideas and perspectives.

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