Saturday, July 25, 2009

Our Final Stop in Shanghai

Our last two days of the tour were spent in Shanghai. On Thursday morning, we visited the Shanghai Museum, a well-known museum of ancient Chinese art. The building itself is designed in the shape of an ancient bronze cooking vessel called a ding and is quite interesting to look at. Once inside, we headed first to the painting gallery. Since Huajing is an art historian with expertise in Chinese painting, she gave us a detailed, informative lecture on key works and artists. Further exploration took members of the group to galleries on ceramics, traditional furniture, bronzes and more.

After lunch we visited the Yu Garden (Yu Yuan) in the Old Town section of Shanghai. This beautiful garden, which includes ponds, halls and pavilions, dragon walls, and rock formations, was owned by a single family whose patriarch was an official in the Ming court. Construction was begun in 1559 and took 20 years to reach completion. Though we battled crowds to get to the garden, we understood why the name Yu Yuan (meaning "peace and comfort") was chosen for this tranquil refuge.

The rest of the day included the shops of Old Town, our final banquet dinner, and a trip to the top of the Pearl Tower for a night view of the city. At the banquet we celebrated Anne F.'s birthday and toasted each other for such a memorable and life-changing trip. What an amazing group of educators. Though we are all ready to get back to our lives with our families and friends, it was difficult to see the trip come to an end. We will definitely maintain the friendships and connections that we have built over the last two weeks and support each other as we consider ways to bring our experiences in China back to our classrooms.

Photos: 1) Shanghai Museum, 2) Yu Garden, 3) Pearl Tower, 4) the group

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Teacher Exchanges and a Solar Eclipse!

[posted on behalf of Abby D.]

Our trip just gets better at every step. On Tuesday we had a marathon day of visiting schools and exchanging ideas with teachers and administrators. We visited schools of all levels (elementary, middle and high). Time and again, our hosts talked about educational reform in China: changing teaching methods, updating curriculum, and encouraging collaboration and innovation, among other things. Like yesterday, we were also treated to displays of student work and performances. A full orchestra of children playing traditional instruments and conducted by a 10-year-old student was a personal highlight (see video clip below).

Halfway through the day we visited Wendeng #2 Experimental Primary School and learned quite a bit about the regional education system. This was followed by an open discussion. Anne F. asked about teacher preparation in China, and what types of courses/experiences candidates must complete before being eligible to apply for teaching positions. Huajing asked about the hiring process, and we learned that the process is much more centralized in China and that individual school leaders do not hire their own teachers. Later in the day we had a very lively discussion about teacher assessment.

Since we were very close to the ocean, we were treated to a 30 minute respite by the sea. After a full day of visiting schools and meeting countless educators and students, the ocean air and water on our toes was exactly what we needed to revive ourselves. Another banquet hosted by education officials from the region awaited us, which provided a very celebratory end to the day.

We just happened to be in China when the solar eclipse was taking place, and thankfully Huajing had decided that we should bring special viewing glasses for everyone. Though the full eclipse was only visible from the Shanghai area, and we were still in Shandong Province, this morning we were able to see an almost-full eclipse from our location and it was really amazing! Though it didn’t get dark, it got noticeably cooler and the light was a bit muted.

After the eclipse, we drove to Lanmugou, a small rural village where Huajing lived until age 8. She walked us through the streets and paths of her childhood, telling us about her life there. We were so appreciative to be Huajing’s guests in the countryside where most visitors to China would never get a chance to visit.

Photos: 1) Jeanne being interviewed by student reporters, 2) Mike at the beach, 3) the eclipse, 4) Lanmugou village

Video: the orchestra playing

Monday, July 20, 2009

Time for School

[posted on behalf of Abby D.]

What an exhausting but memorable day. Today we visited several schools in Weihai. In the morning, half of the group visited a middle school and the other half visited an elementary school. We were treated to tours of each school, which included dance performances, art exhibits, calligraphy demonstrations and much more. At these schools we also taught short lessons to groups of middle and high school students who are in summer programs to learn English. Students, visiting parents, and observing teachers all loved the lessons and expressed their appreciation for our teachers’ work. Helen and Anne O. were even interviewed by a local TV station that was covering our visit.

After lunch, our group split again to visit additional schools. Two of the schools we visited had a focus on the arts, and the student work we observed was unbelievable. Even elementary students were creating beautiful calligraphy and brush paintings.

In addition to classroom observation, we were able to sit with teachers and administrators from the schools and exchange questions. The Tiancun Elementary School seemed quite innovative. They had a particular focus on parent involvement, and the principal described the many ways they help parents to support their children at home and help them to be successful students.

The day ended with a banquet hosted by the Chair of the Weihai Education Association. It was a bit overwhelming to absorb so much in one day, but the welcomes we received were so warm and hospitable. We will never forget the experience.

Photos: 1) a young student doing calligraphy, 2) Annie O. and Helen being interviewed, 3) the audience for some of our lessons, 4) elementary students drawing
Video: dance performance

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Mt. Tai at Sunrise

[posted on behalf of Abby D.]

There is a lot to report this time around! Our overnight stay on Mt. Tai, the holiest of China’s five sacred Daoist mountains, was amazing — the favorite part of the trip so far for many in the group. We broke into three camps: those who climbed from the bottom of the mountain (Ian, Jess, and Lisa), those who climbed from the halfway point, and those who took the cable car and climbed at the very top. No matter which way we ascended, we all had a wonderful experience. Thankfully the weather was overcast and cooler in the morning, so the thousands of steps we climbed weren’t quite as challenging. Along the way we saw examples of calligraphy carved into stone, many of them written by emperors who made the climb long ago. When we approached the top, the clouds cleared and the sun came shining through. After lunch we were all able to explore the temples, lookouts and paths all around the mountain with spectacular views.

The best part of the experience was still to come. After a short night of sleep, wake-up calls went out to everyone in the hotel around 4:00 am. Bundled into our fleece jackets and long-sleeved shirts, we perched ourselves on the rocks and waited for the sun to come up. Surrounded by hundreds of Chinese tourists, we happily welcomed daybreak from such a glorious vantage point.
In the interest of time, we all took the cable car down the mountain and then packed ourselves into the bus for an 8-hour drive to Weihai. Along the way, we were treated to personal stories from our tour leader Huajing and our guide Mr. Zhu. Mr. Zhu was a high school student during the Cultural Revolution and suffered greatly during this time. He was sent to the countryside to work for 11 years, and like others of his generation, he was not able to continue his schooling during this time. At age 30, he was finally able to go to college and begin rebuilding his life.

Huajing shared stories about her childhood, special memories from her life in a small village, and her own experiences as a young child during the Cultural Revolution.

After such a long bus ride, we couldn’t have been happier to reach Weihai. Since Weihai is a port city, we enjoyed several wonderful seafood dishes for dinner. Most of us also took walks by the water to breathe in the sea air, watch boats coming in and out of the harbor, and stretch our legs.

Tomorrow we will visit several schools and teach short lessons for middle and high school students studying English. We look forward to meeting new friends.

Photos: 1) part of group headed up the mountain, 2) calligraphy carvings along the way, 3) a view from the top, 4) Brooke at sunrise, 5) Nancy at sunrise, 6) sunrise from Mt. Tai.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Exploring the Magic of Qufu

[posted on behalf of Abby D.]

Our morning was spent at the Confucian Temple in Qufu. There are several temples to Confucius in China, but this one is located in his birthplace and is the largest. First built in 478 BCE, less than two years after Confucius’ death, the temple was enlarged and expanded over the years by successive emperors who wanted to show their veneration for the influential teacher. Our walk took us through a series of gates, pavilions and halls surrounded by majestic trees, some of them very ancient. One of the cypress trees in the complex is approximately 1300 years old! Fern had done research on Confucius and the Qufu temple, and was left amazed that one man has left such an enduring legacy.

Our guide for this portion of the trip, Mr. Zhu, was born and raised in Qufu and has many interesting stories to tell. His knowledge about Confucius and his thoughts on life in China today have been very informative.

The afternoon took us to the Confucius family mansion and the family cemetery. Seventy-seven generations of family descendants lived in the mansion up until the 1940’s. Many of us particularly enjoyed the tranquil garden in the back of the mansion.

Tomorrow’s destination is Mt. Tai (Taishan). The question now is how many of us will climb the whole way and how many will take the cable car for a portion of the climb. To be determined…

Photos: 1) Erika, Huajing, Mr. Zhu, and Ian at the Confucius Temple, 2) Stele pavilion, 3) the group at the Confucius cemetery

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Traveling China's Countryside

[posted on behalf of Abby D.]

Yesterday was mostly a travel day. After a free morning in Beijing, we headed to the brand new and very impressive Beijing South Railway Station to board a high speed train to Jinan, the capital of Shandong Province. The three hour ride was very comfortable and offered excellent views of the countryside as we traveled south. We saw many contrasting scenes: groups of small traditional homes with tall, newly built apartment buildings in the background; piles of rubble from demolished homes among a sea of cranes and other construction equipment; dirt roads in close proximity to wide, multi-lane paved roads — many signs of change and new development. The farm land was beautiful. We recognized corn, lotus, soybeans and rice. Huajing let us know that peanuts are also a staple crop in Shandong. As we approached Jinan we crossed the Yellow River, China’s second largest river.

After dinner, a two-hour bus ride brought us to Qufu, birthplace of Confucius. Tomorrow we will explore this small town and learn about China’s great sage.

Photos: 1) Nancy and Anne, 2) Erika and Nancy

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Last Day in Beijing

[posted on behalf of Abby D.]

We started our last full day in Beijing at the Temple of Heaven, a truly spectacular complex of structures. It was this temple that Ming and Qing emperors visited twice a year to offer prayers and sacrifices to Heaven to ensure a good harvest. The primary buildings in the complex are circular in shape to represent the Chinese view of a circular Heaven. Beautiful blue roof tiles also symbolize the heavens. Erika, who had prepared a report about the temple and shared her knowledge with us, was impressed by the beautiful and unusual architecture.

Exiting the temple, we walked through long corridors and down tree-lined paths. Along the way were many local people dancing, singing, doing tai chi, and other activities which we enjoyed watching. To help celebrate Mike’s birthday, one of the musicians who had been playing traditional music switched to “Happy Birthday” and several other familiar tunes. Many of us were touched by this gesture.

While enjoying lunch at a traditional Beijing noodle restaurant, we were joined by Lisa Li, a young woman from Beijing who spent some time in the United States and is back in China studying for the bar exam. She chatted with some of us over the meal and birthday cake, and then joined a whole-group conversation on the bus. Since we were headed to the Yonghe Gong Temple, a center for Tibetan Buddhism, we asked Lisa for her thoughts on Tibet. Several people had questions for her, including Jeanne who brought up issues related to cultural assimilation and the complicated nature of the Tibetan/Han Chinese relationship.

At the Yonghe Gong Temple, Huajing spoke with us about Buddhist iconography while we walked through the statues and paintings in the many prayer halls. The 60 ft. Buddha in the final hall was an awe-inspiring finish to the day!

Photos: 1) Teachers at Temple of Heaven, 2) Amy and Huajing at Temple of Heaven, 3) Lama Temple