The American Classroom in China
The meeting began in a stark, white-tiled lecture hall on the largest island of the Chinese archipelago of Zhoushan, where the East China Sea meets the Yangtze Delta. The sole decoration was a greeting written in English in multicolored chalk on the blackboard: “Welcome Parents and Students.”
It was to be my first parent meeting at Zhoushan high school. Being the only laowai, or foreigner, in attendance, I sat in the front row next to my translator, who had just completed a degree in linguistics.
After the headmaster finished his speech, Maolin Liu, director of our program, the High School Course Joint Educational Project, spoke about how our students could improve. Then it was my turn. With the help of my translator, I conveyed my optimism about the students’ progress. I mentioned that participation was key to their success because students can learn from one another, and I asked that parents encourage their children to engage more fully. A few parents nodded.
校长讲完话之后，这个高中课程联合教育项目(High School Course Joint Educational Project)的负责人刘茂林（音）就我们的学生可以如何获得提高发表了讲话。然后就轮到我了。在翻译的帮助下，我表示自己对学生们取得进步非常有信心。我提到学生们的参与是未来取得成功的关键，因为他们可以相互学习，我还请求家长们鼓励自己的孩子更充分地参与进来。一些家长点了点头。
I elaborated on my belief that our students needed to become more self-directed in their studies, and enthusiastically described a student-centric teaching style. As my message was translated, it seemed to create unease. And then the questions came.
“We understand that a student must learn more than 7,000 English words to get a high score on the Toefl test,” one concerned father asked. “Will they be ready in three years to be accepted to a good foreign university?”
The next question came from Vivian’s mother, the military officer. “How do I force my child to learn independently?” she inquired.
Before I could answer, a father cut in. He wondered if this “independent learning” was just a way to allow the American teachers to be lazy and not deliver lessons.
At this point, one of the Chinese teachers objected to such a disrespectful question being asked of the waijiao, or foreign teacher. Mr. Liu’s assistant leaned over and whispered apologetically: “They have no way to comprehend what this type of learning is about. We have to teach the parents, too.”
I learned some surprising things that day, as well as throughout the two years that followed. It was the last time, however, that I was invited to a parents meeting.
I had come to Zhoushan high school in September 2012 with instructions from Southlands Christian Schools, in suburban Los Angeles, to teach exactly as I would in a California classroom. Zhoushan had partnered with Southlands in a revolutionary experiment to give students a chance to participate in a joint Sino-American curriculum. Independent learning was to be the core, as preparation for an American university.
2012年9月，我被洛杉矶郊区的南岸基督中学(Southlands Christian Schools)派到舟山的中学授课，派遣指令要求我使用与自己在加州的授课完全一样的方式。这是因为，舟山的中学与南岸基督中学合作开展了一项变革性实验项目，让学生们有机会参与一项中美联合课程。自主学习本该是这个项目的核心，让学生们为将来上美国大学做好准备。
I had come to China with the conviction that I could teach these young people to think independently, and that they would see how valuable a tool it could be in their education. But I would discover how aggressively China’s education system resists the notion of student-centric learning, as I watched students scramble for the simplest metrics of academic success.
Because the gaokao score is what matters to Chinese colleges, grade-point average seemed a secondary concern to students and parents. Oral participation in the classroom and critical thinking were often lost in the test’s looming shadow.
One day, after dealing with rampant cheating and plagiarism, I felt it was time to have a serious talk with my students. I even had the lecture translated into Mandarin to avoid any claims of mistranslations from my English-proficient students. The lesson was obvious, I thought: If you wrote down an answer that you didn’t think up, and you wrote three or more words of it in a row, you must cite the source. Otherwise it’s stealing. Your work must be created by you. Just moments later, I noticed a girl gawking at another’s brazen attempt to grab a classmate’s work (which I’d just checked) and present it as her own. Clearly, my lecture was not hitting home.
I needed some backup. During a break, I explained to their head teacher what had happened. She dutifully explained to the guilty girls, as well as to the entire class, how this English class was different. “When Mr. Metz is here, this is an American classroom. I told you, cheating is not allowed in the American class.”
I began to understand an underlying difference in educational philosophy. China focuses on the end result; America cares about the process of getting there.
During a surprise visit to my classroom, a Zhoushan assistant principal and the Southlands overseas principal observed a lesson during which students were silently writing five-paragraph essays as I conferenced with each of them to see if they understood the material.
About a month later, in a QQ exchange (a popular instant messaging program in China), my supervisor, Mr. Liu, wrote: “Your lesson was not successful.”
I was struck by the uncharacteristic directness of the comment — and its content — and asked how I could remedy the situation. “We will have suggestions for you to follow and then observe you again,” Mr. Liu wrote.
They did have suggestions — individual conferencing is inefficient, make full use of teaching time in class, write difficult parts of the lesson in red on the board — which I followed.
And they did observe me, day after day. Sometimes up to seven people began to appear at the back of the classroom to chatter and take notes on my lesson delivery. They also privately interviewed my students, who reported they were indeed benefiting from these American learning methods. One even confessed that she enjoyed having me as a teacher. Soon after, there were more suggestions, but Chinese administrators stopped appearing in my classroom.
One afternoon during my second year, I told students to make a quick character sketch in their notebooks. I asked them to write down a name, a job and an age for their character. After five minutes, most still had a blank piece of paper in front of them. I then implored them to skip the name and job, and just write an age. Still nothing. I then asked them to write down a number between 1 and 100. After some time, they all had written down a number, but not without difficulty. I was stumped.
Tenth-grade language arts courses commonly call for a student to create an entire story, from beginning to end. My students had trouble creating a simple character. How to unblock their creativity? Having been an actor for years, I had a hunch: theater games.
As far as the administrators were concerned, however, we were just wasting time. I later learned that moving desks was frowned upon. As were videos, despite their inclusion in the Southlands online teaching materials.
Yet despite the frustrations, when I think back on Zhoushan Island, I smile. I recollect intrepid students sneaking into the faculty dining room to practice their English with me at lunch. They lingered after class, and discussed their visions for China’s future.
I remember a student named Sam who often popped by our clock tower living room for after-dinner chats, driven by curiosity about the outside world, quietly amassing ideas and opinions.
His learning was happening outside of the school, frequently on the Internet. Sex education, for example, is not taught in Chinese schools, but it was evident from conversations with Sam that he and his classmates were desperate for information on the topic.
Sam, who currently studies hotel management in Switzerland, recently chatted with me about how his generation is unique for not only taking their education into their own hands but also expressing critical opinions via social media.
And I thought that, in the end, perhaps neither I nor the American Common Core could take credit for teaching these students to think independently. Some were acquiring what Sam called “the equipment for learning” — the ability to learn how to learn — all on their own.