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  Beijing Scene

 

 


Nothing Old School About this New School

At first glance Beijing's New School of Collaborative Learning does not appear extraordinary. Handfuls of children huddle around tables, expressions of quiet concentration on their faces. They work by themselves, occasionally asking questions of their teachers who patiently make their way between the students. Maps, study materials, and student artwork line the walls. A pair of turquoise iMacs hum quietly on a desk in the corner. But as I am shown around by school headmaster Jon Zatkin, 54, a San Francisco-native who has been living in China for the past 13 years, evidence of the unique nature of the New School's curriculum is slowly revealed.

On kindergarten wall charts, the English alphabet's ABC is displayed next to the bo po mo fo of China's pinyin phonetic system. In the library, copies of Kipling, Hawthorne and Shakespeare share shelf-space with Lu Xun and classics of ancient Chinese literature. Posters around the school urge readers to honor the "pledge of the junzi" - a Confucian term equating roughly to the English "gentleman," advocating cleanliness, cooperation and tolerance.

Out of the more than 15 international schools in Beijing, the New School of Collaborative Learning, a relative newcomer on the school circuit, is the only one that aims to produce totally bilingual (Chinese-English) students. Each subject is taught in both Mandarin and English, regardless of the child's native tongue. Additionally, one period of every day is completely devoted to Chinese language learning.

Of its 72 students, approximately 40 percent are from the United States; 26 percent from Korea; 17 percent from Japan and the remainder from Europe and Africa. A number have already been enrolled at the New School for four to five years. Some came knowing neither Chinese nor English, including Ira Zaka, a 14-year-old Albanian girl, who is now trilingual.

"Children lap up languages like puppies lap up milk, and the younger they are the faster they learn," observes Zatkin, who holds a degree in linguistics and has a 12-year-old daughter who attends the school. The entire school, which was founded six years ago, seems carefully crafted not only to provide a bilingual and multicultural educational environment, but to foster the impression that such an environment is a normal, necessary and positive aspect of modern life.

As I stroll around, Annie Ota, an 11-year-old Japanese girl, comes up to me and begins telling me about her favorite game, basketball, and how she wants to be an artist when she grows up. Nothing spectacular in and of itself, but impressive when you consider she starts off in Mandarin and switches to flawless English when the Mandarin conversation gets beyond me. Later I ask David Zhang, a 17-year-old Chinese-American who enrolled four years ago, what he most enjoys about his school. "We're all friends," he says. "We help each other like brothers and sisters, like we're in a family."

Given the surfeit of school choices in Beijing, Greg Kulander, a U.S. expat working in Beijing, is quick to explain why he chose the New School for his son, two daughters.

"I really appreciate their inclusive attitude toward China. They're not trying to create an enclave," Kulander says. "The emphasis is on developing independent learners and thinkers with responsibility for their own education. They create very strong individuals."

The concept for an independent, totally bilingual school in Beijing originated in 1994 with American Stephanie Tansey, who has since returned home but who still serves as New School's senior curriculum advisor. While growing up, Tansey herself attended an international school in Japan for 12 years, during which time she felt segregated from Japanese society and learned comparatively little about the place or people. From this experience and subsequent academic work she decided that students from different cultures should work together, speak each other's languages and benefit from each other's educational methods.

By 1994 the number of expats in Beijing was growing rapidly. Pressure on existing international schools was mounting. The International School of Beijing - a school designed for children of diplomats from the U.S., Canada, U.K., and Australia - gave priority to embassy children, resulting in long waiting lists.

Taking inspiration from cutting-edge schools in Japan and Hong Kong, and with support from the Sidwell Friends School of Washington D.C., Tansey took advantage of these favorable conditions and set up the New School of Collaborative Learning to offer an alternative style of education for the children of foreigners living in Beijing.

Zatkin explains that international schools in many parts of the world are run on the assumption that their clientele are short-term expatriates who have no real interest in their host society.

"They are designed specifically to minimize the students' sense of dislocation, and to protect them from an environment they cannot cope with. The students don't want to be there, the teachers don't want to be there, and there's a vicious circle of not liking it. This leads to a negative, or at best condescending, attitude to the host society," says Zatkin. New School students are actively integrated into their new environment so they can play an interactive role in it. The school strives for maximum interaction with Chinese culture and society, and has worked closely with the Chinese government from the start. Although the school, as with all international schools in Beijing, is prevented by law from providing a place where foreign and Chinese children can learn together, it does liaise closely with local schools, and gives students the opportunity to experience China firsthand.

Despite what would seem like obvious reasons for enthusiasm, there is currently some debate, particularly in the U.S., as to the efficacy of dual language academic programs. The state of California last year voted to discontinue them in high schools, after statistical evidence showed they could leave students with competency in no language, rather than fluency in several. However, it is generally recognized that the California programs were underfunded and lacked the right personnel to ensure success. They also tended to teach primarily in the child's mother tongue (usually Spanish) to the detriment of their English acquisition, whereas the New School places equal emphasis on both.

Class sizes are kept deliberately small, 15 students maximum, and teachers generally have an individual lesson plan for every student every day. Discrete language environments are provided by dividing classes into two groups and team-teaching in separate rooms with one native-English and one native-Chinese speaker. After each lesson the groups switch over and continue learning in the second language. In this way youngsters simultaneously develop language skills and make progress in a broader range of academic disciplines.

The New School's bilingual curriculum is popular with parents who value an innovative, progressive education. Despite a decline in the number of expats in Beijing, enrollment swelled by 30 percent this year. "We're a niche market school," Zatkin says. "Previously, the expat community has not placed high value on students learning Chinese. We mostly get children of people who are interested in China, including those here starting their own businesses, Fulbright scholars and other academics." The school is small compared to embassy-affiliated international schools in Beijing, with only 72 students from kindergarten to grade 12. As such, its facilities are not as impressive as those available to students at larger, better-financed schools. However, in addition to the core studies in English, Chinese, math, science and social studies, all students participate in art, music and physical education. In addition, a number of unique opportunities are available.

For example, there is the practicum, an annual week-long program that sends students out into the Chinese community, outside of Beijing, not merely as observers, but as active participants. To date, these have included field trips to the Wolong Panda Reserve in Sichuan province, and living and working with Miao minority villagers in the southwestern province of Guizhou. The Beijing model United Nations program, part of the Hague International Model United Nations program, is also an integral part of the curriculum.

"We want our kids to become global citizens," Zatkin explains. "We want them to be comfortable in the U.S. and in China, two nations that are going to play increasingly important international roles in the twenty-first century."

An American Teenager in Beijing

As a 16-year old living in America, my own culture was the most alien thing I could imagine. But last spring, when I came to China through the School Year Abroad exchange program between U.S.-based Phillips Academy and Beijing's Middle School No. 2, my small, teenage world was flipped upside down.

My arrival in China can best be described in one word: surprise. I didn't expect the kind of modernization that Beijing is undergoing. In preparation for my year-long journey, which would include living with a Chinese host family, I read China Wakes, by former New York Times Beijing correspondents Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn. I remember feeling depressed as page after page described a bleak and under-developed country. Imagine my surprise when I arrived in Beijing and found skyscrapers located next to a McDonald's and kids walking around in bright clothes with dyed hair. On an early trip to the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, one of my new classmates summed up our collective surprise with the question: "Where are all the Mao suits?" This is typical of the type of misconception that I held not only about China, but about my host family as well. I was told before meeting them that my host parents could not speak any English, but my new "sister" had studied the language for five years. I knew that the communication barrier would be difficult to overcome.

My "new home" rather squat in comparison to the rest of the apartment buildings and I couldn't get over the number of bikes parked out front. My home is an average three-room apartment, with a very tiny kitchen and even smaller bathroom. But the room I was given is comparatively big and comfortable. My family has made a few sacrifices to accommodate me, one of which is their sleeping arrangement. My sister has been moved into my parents' room (since I took over her room) and my father was moved to the couch in the living room.

Over the past few months my family and I have grown closer than I could have ever imagined. My father has a strong desire to show me and teach me everything about Beijing and takes my sister and I on regular trips around the city. Even at the dinner table I get lessons in Chinese history, culture and politics. In addition is my constant banter with my host mother. She teaches me to cook, helps me with my homework, and pokes polite fun at my "bourgeois" American ways. But when all is said and done she calls me her daughter with a warm smile and a lot of love.

The first time I ever really felt as though I was her daughter was when she wanted to carry my backpack, and I kept politely refusing.

"Buyong (there's no need),"I kept telling her, but after too many times of this, she yelled at me in front of everyone at the temple we were visiting. "You are a bad child. You're not listening and you're being difficult," she told me.

I felt extremely bad about upsetting her, but also good that she could tell me what she wanted to bluntly, just as if I was her own daughter. My sister and I have become good friends since I moved in. One day I took her out for an "all-American" bonding session. We went for lunch at Pizza Hut, picked up dessert at Dairy Queen and finished off with a coffee at Starbucks. I could tell that my sister was not enjoying the day. I realized, unfortunately too late, that not all people like Western staples. "Did you have a good time today?" I asked when we finally returned home. "Yes. Thank you for taking me," was her half-hearted response. "Ok. Now tell me the truth."

"Bu, bu, bu. Hai keyi! (No, no, no. It was alright)," she insisted. I smiled gratefully even though I knew that she was just trying to make me feel better.

We have come a long way from these little white lies and are now closer than ever. We act more like real sisters because we are always teasing and telling secrets to one another.

My sister and I attend the same high school, but even though she is only half a year older than I am, the gap between the way we live our lives is immeasurable. My sister hardly ever leaves her room, and if she does go to a friend's house it is only to study.

"Why don't you ever go out on weekends?" I asked my sister one Saturday afternoon over lunch. "You and your friends should go out and meet some boys!" I realized that my friendly joke did not go over well when I noticed the cold stare from my mother.

"She's too young to have a boyfriend. She also must stay home and study, she has to go to college, and she is already too lazy!" After hearing my mother's harsh words, I realized that I should be more culturally sensitive. My sister is in gao er, equivalent to a junior in high school, and her single-minded focus on college is something I'm not very familiar with. Ever since she passed her exams to get into high school she has been taking 10 major courses a term in order to graduate. Her daily routine starts at 6 am and doesn't finish until 6 pm. All these hours are taken up with school and extra classes. Only after she has passed exams in all her subjects can she take the college entrance exam. The pressure on middle school students, from teachers and parents, to succeed and get into a top college is so intense that students never have time for themselves. I have become more aware of the everyday things I take for granted, like hanging out with friends after school or even going to bed at a fairly early hour if I'm tired.

Now that I'm attending a high school in Beijing, I get to see firsthand the life of a typical Chinese teenager. Every morning students are at school before 7 a.m. performing duties like bike patrol, gate duty and campus cleanup. Uniforms are required as are short haircuts for girls, unless they are visual arts performers.

My experience in China has been one far beyond studying a new language. I have learned more about Chinese culture and history than any textbook could have taught me. The language barrier that once made me feel like an outsider has now decreased to the point where I feel almost comfortable. And I have become a sister and a daughter to amazing people who treat me as if I am a part of their family and not an outsider. In a few weeks, I will be leaving China. I feel like my teenage world has been broadened, and I am leaving a little older but a lot more open to the world outside of America.

For more information on School Year Abroad: contact Phillips Academy, 180 Main Street, Andover, MA 01810-4166, tel. (978) 725-6825 or via email at mail@sya.org. In China, contact Middle School No. 2, 12 Xinjiekouwai Street, Beijing 100088, tel. 6235-4503, or via email at sya@sun.midwest.com.cn


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