Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Making Classroom Connections

Since our return to the United States, many of the teachers who participated in our study tour have had opportunities to share their experiences with their students. These direct classroom applications are what make a culture come alive for students. They feel immediately connected to the people and places they see in pictures because their teacher has actually been there to experience the smells, sounds, and sights of China. We have featured three of our participating teachers who have shared their stories and pictures with all of you. This is just a taste of the amazing work that is now happening in classrooms in New England as a result of this travel experience.

David Bosso
Because my freshman course, "The World and Its People I," covers ancient China to the present, there are many extremely useful elements of the program and study tour that will be incorporated throughout the school year. Just as one example: upon my return, we were just beginning the Mao era of China. The Forbidden City, the host family stay, speaking with our guides who lived during the Cultural Revolution - all of these experiences provided a much more holistic understanding of this time period than what I could have learned from textbooks and personal research. I believe that I have much more insight into why Mao is still greatly respected despite many of his detrimental policies, and most importantly, I feel I can adequately convey to my students the many aspects of Mao-era China.

There are so many experiences: visiting the Great Wall and getting a better sense of its size and construction, seeing the Terra Cotta Army and sensing the power of Qin Shi Huangdi, touching loess soil near the cave homes, the security at Tiananmen Square, visiting the school in Pangliu Village and experiencing rural life, witnessing the hundreds of construction cranes in Beijing and Shanghai, the food. In each case, the real-life experiences, especially in the form of anecdotes, photographs, and literature strongly supplement the textbook, lectures, discussions, etc. which will provide a more informed approach to our understanding of China. The trip will continue to play a significant role as I gather source material related to current events, controversial issues, and discussion topics for my students in order strengthen the China component of our Social Studies curriculum.

Sally Lividini
Over the last few weeks, I have found many opportunities to share my experiences in China with my elementary school students. Because I teach art I see every child in the school. Upon my return I shared some of the objects that I purchased, including a lovely silk kite in the shape of an owl. My second graders were making fish kites before I left on my trip, so I was very excited about showing them how a real kite is constructed. After a week, I arranged many of the objects and photos from China in a display case located in the front of our school. It is the first thing my students and their families see as they enter our building. The students look forward to going down to the case and spending part of the class period talking about all the "treasures" I brought back to our school. My students are encouraged to ask a question about one object or picture in the display. The first question always leads to a deeper discussion about the object or subject matter of a photo; what it is, where I got it, why I bought it or photographed it. Over the years I will continue to use my experiences, pictures and the artifacts I collected to enrich my classroom teaching.

Katie Carpenter and Shannon Famigletti
Before we left on the trip, we shared our itinerary with our classes and the other teachers at our grade level. We posted our travel plans and relevant links on our classroom webpages. We created a bulletin board that the students could consult so that they could follow the geography of our travels. In true elementary school fashion, we glued photos of our faces to popsicle sticks and a colleague moved them through China as we traveled. Our teammates had copies of the destination reports our colleagues wrote to share with the kids. The students were excited for us to get going so they could hear about our trip.

While on the trip, we were in almost daily communication with the students in our classes. Through our posting of photos, our blogs and podcasts, the students really felt like they traveled with us. They asked questions that we were able to respond to quickly. They used the information we posted combined with the websites we left for them to research areas of particular interest (or to answer a question we may have posed for them.)

Earlier in the year, during our study of ancient China, students learned about the Great Wall, Qin's Terra Cotta Soldiers, the existence of city walls during the early dynasties, as well as the cave houses. Seeing images of their teachers and hearing the anecdotes of our time spent at these sites allowed the kids to connect all that they studied with our personal real-life experiences.

The kids were also excited to share their experiences about following our trip with us. They were interested to see the movie that we created with all of our pictures from the trip and had enthusiastic conversations around the curriculum, materials and resources we brought to share with them. We look forward to using these photos, movies, and resources with future classes and colleagues. It was an invaluable experience that we recently shared with our staff, which has inspired many to look into study tours of their own. Clearly the trip is an experience we will always remember, and through the wonders of modern technology we hope it made a lasting impression on our students as well. Our only problem now is, choosing which study tour to do next...

Friday, April 25, 2008

Zai jian, China!

Believe it or not, today was our last full day in China. We left early this morning for Suzhou, a medium-sized city of 7 million people located about two hours outside of Shanghai (yes, 7 million is medium-sized here). There is an expression in Chinese that says “Up in the heavens is paradise; down on earth are Hangzhou and Suzhou.” This is because these two cities are known to be paradise on earth. Together with Shanghai, these cities also make up the wealthiest area in China.

Suzhou is said to be the Venice of the East, as it is full of canals and bridges—168 to be exact. The city is also known for its amazing gardens. During the Qing dynasty, there were over 200 gardens in Suzhou. Over time, many have been destroyed leaving 70 gardens today (only 10 or so are open to the public). We learned that the Humble Administrator’s Garden, which we visited today, along with three other classical gardens in Suzhou have been named a UNESCO world heritage site. It was clear from our visit that this garden was a serene balance of water, hills, beautiful architecture, winding pathways, and peaceful corners in which to rest, meditate, and engage with nature. We were amazed by our visit and could have stayed all day—but the silk factory was calling!

In addition to being known for gardens, Suzhou is also famous for its high-quality silk. Our group visited the Number 1 silk factory in the region and learned all about the silk-making process. We were most amazed by how machines and human workers are able to take individual cocoons and unravel the silk into long threads. We were further struck by how many threads are needed to produce the products we most enjoy, such as scarves, bags, and clothes. We learned that it takes 600 cocoons to make a 1 meter2 scarf; 10,000 cocoons to make a king-sized silk quilt. After visiting this factory, we had a deeper appreciation for the process and for the beauty of this fine fabric.

At the end of the day, we gathered together one last time for a final celebration. We listened to classical Chinese music, feasted on duck, sticky rice, and fresh corn, and reminisced about an unforgettable trip. We are so appreciative of this opportunity to not only visit China, but to feel, touch, smell, and taste all that China has to offer. The more we live these experiences here, the more we see endless opportunities for sharing these stories with our students. These teachers’ classrooms will never be the same again. Their curricula will be forever enriched by real-life experiences, cultural artifacts, and personal anecdotes from their time here in China. I feel a sense of profound satisfaction and pride knowing that thousands of students will be impacted by the lessons learned on this study tour. We have truly appreciated how thoughtful and hardworking these teachers have been on this trip—their dedication to their craft and to continued learning is an inspiration.

We hope to maintain this blog at least for a couple of months to show how the teachers are using their experiences and planning their curricular changes for the new year. We hope you will continue to check back from time to time to follow their progress.

It is with a heavy heart that we say, “Zai jian,” (goodbye) to China. We hope to see you again very soon.

Today’s Interesting Tidbit: It takes a silkworm 7 days to spin a 1 km long thread of silk. Most silkworms only live 60 days.

Photos: 1. Group at the Humble Administrator’s Garden, 2. View from the garden, 3. Machine to unravel the silk from the cocoon, 4. Musical performance at our final dinner.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Shanghai: Old and New

Our last day in Shanghai began with a tour of the Shanghai Museum. This fabulous museum opened in 1952 and has over 120,000 artifacts depicting the history of China. The most valuable artifact is the Da Ke Ding, a bronze food vessel from the 10th century B.C. In addition to valuable bronzes of food, water, and wine vessels, we viewed ancient bronze weapons and drums, Buddhist sculpture, Chinese painting, calligraphy, ceramics, and currencies of China and the Silk Road.

We then went to the Bund area, the riverfront district of Shanghai that was the center of politics, business, and culture for hundreds of years in Shanghai. We all enjoyed some free time this afternoon. Some of us wandered the Yu Yuan Garden and bazaar, while others walked down Nanjing Road, a pedestrian shopping area. Others visited Daoist and Buddhist Temples. Many of the teachers shopped for artifacts for their classrooms, posters of Cultural Revolution propaganda, and books about Shanghai and China.

Tomorrow we leave for Suzhou and our last full day in China. We plan to visit the gardens of Suzhou and learn about the making of silk.

Today’s interesting tidbit: The Shanghai Museum has two underground floors and 5 above ground floors. It covers 38,000 square meters and has 11 galleries, 3 exhibition halls, and a multimedia studio.

Photos: 1. Da Ke Ding food vessel at the Shanghai Museum. 2. Group picture outside the Shanghai Museum. 3. Inside view of the Shanghai Museum.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Xi'an to Shanghai

This morning we said goodbye to Xi’an and flew to Shanghai. With more than 20 million permanent and temporary residents, Shanghai is the largest city in China. The Huang Pu River divides Shanghai into the Puxi and Pudong districts. The Puxi district is home to Old Shanghai and the former foreign French, American, British, and Japanese concessions, settlements that were governed by their occupants and untouchable by Chinese law. The Pudong district is the modern business center of Shanghai.

After lunch we visited the Shanghai Municipal History Museum, located in the Oriental Pearl TV Tower. The museum gave us an excellent overview of the rise of Shanghai as a major trade city and center of economic development in China.

Our evening wrapped up with a show at the Acrobatic Theater. We enjoyed watching hoop jumping, plate spinning, umbrella spinning, and mid-air ballet. Every day has brought a new cultural experience and this one was not a disappointment.

Today’s interesting tidbit: In 1985, Shanghai had only one skyscraper. Today, there are more than 3,000 buildings in Shanghai with 18 stories or more.

Photos: 1. A skyline view of Shanghai. 2. Plate spinning at the Acrobatic Theater.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Last day in Xi'an

Our last day in Xi’an snuck up on us rather quickly. After many days of rain, we had the most gorgeous day of sun and a cool breeze. We started the day by visiting a wild animal preserve in the foothills of the Qinling Mountains. We saw several pandas roaming around and munching on greens. We also had a chance to see other exotic animals, such as golden monkeys and peacocks (who put on quite a show for us).

After the preserve, we headed to the town of Huxian, which is the capital of Hu County. This area is know for its “peasant paintings.” These are brightly colored folk art paintings that often depict images of rural life in China. We visited a gallery of peasant paintings and met two of the artists who work on them. We were mesmerized by the colors as well as the simple patterns and images that depict some often complex issues and themes. Needless to say, many of us walked home with reproductions to add to our own art collections.

At the end of the day, many teachers visited the Xi’an city walls which offered an amazing vista of the city. Some participants even biked the entire perimeter of the city, soaking in one last view of Xi’an before our departure. Other teachers went to a cooking demonstration/class to learn some Chinese cooking techniques. We watched a noodle making demonstration and even cooked a sweet potato dish ourselves.

Tomorrow, we leave for Shanghai where we will begin our final leg of the trip. Two cities down, two to go (Shanghai and Suzhou).

Today’s Interesting Tidbit: the word for panda in Chinese is xiong mao, which literally means “bear cat.”

Photos: 1. Panda at the nature preserve, 2. Peacock at the nature preserve, 3. Sample of a peasant painting, 4. Noodle making demonstration.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Cold days and cave dwellings

I am sure everyone in our group would say that the highlight of our day was visiting a peasant cave house in the mountains near Xi’an. This morning, we headed northwest of the city to visit the tomb of Wu Zetian, the only empress in China’s feudal history. Known for her cruelty and thirst for power, she imprisoned or killed those who stood in her way and claimed the throne for herself in 690 during the Tang Dynasty. In the hills about an hour outside of Xi’an, one can find Wu Zetian’s tomb as well as 17 other satellite tombs (which likely belonged to family members). Of the 20 emperors of the Tang Dynasty, only 18 tombs have ever been found. Of those 18, the tomb of Wu Zetian is the only one that has not been disturbed by tomb raiders. We visited the site of the tomb and also entered one of the subsidiary tombs, which was open to the public for viewing.

It was near freezing at the tomb site, which took us all by surprise. We hadn’t experienced cold like this since arriving in China and we were all underdressed. While at the tomb site, we were told that our tour guide Richard had arranged for us to visit the cave home of a local peasant farm worker. We jumped at the chance, since many of us had observed these cave homes from the train window when rolling into town a few days earlier, and we had many questions about what these homes were like. Many teachers teach their students in the U.S. about cave homes and were eager to see one in person.

We huddled together against the wind and hiked down into a valley where the cave home was located. Our host led us down some precarious mud steps to a small complex of caves inhabited by her, her husband, her parents, and her three children. We were welcomed into one of their bedrooms and were offered tea to warm up. The room was simply furnished with two armchairs, a table, and a bed. The bed was a concrete slab covered with a woven reed mat, some cotton padding, and a top sheet. Under the bed was a small oven that could be lit for warmth.

We toured the home, which included a small communal kitchen, a horse stable, and two more bedrooms. We were struck by the ingenuity of the home’s structure and the similarities between this home and others. The cave home stays cool in the summer and holds its warmth in the winter, making it a practical dwelling. You could see relatively modern furniture, a TV, and other basic appliances, which surprised many of us who were expecting to see more rugged living conditions. It was clear that these farmers had created a home that was a part of the earth and in line with their living needs. Our hosts also showed us the newly made coffins for their parents. It is tradition to build coffins for parents before their deaths, creating peace of mind.

After a brief stay at the home, we returned to Xi’an to enjoy some free time in the rainy city. The weather is finally supposed to turn tomorrow, when we will visit a wild animal preserve (in search of pandas).

Today’s Interesting Tidbit: Legend has it that grave robbers went to Wu Zetian’s tomb to raid it of its riches. It is said that a torrential rain arrived that day, causing the army of raiders to retreat, leaving the tomb untouched. Present-day archeologists have evidence to suggest that in fact, the tomb was extremely well-built and solid, making it difficult to disturb.

Photos: 1. Arial view of the cave home complex, 2. Teachers visiting the kitchen, 3. A view of the work shed.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Village life, Exciting meals

This morning we greeted each other at our hotel lobby, fresh from spending a night with our host families around Xi’an. We spent the morning at Pang Liu village, a place with close ties to Primary Source. The Pang Liu village school library was built with the help of Primary Source and more than 1,000 teachers from the United States have visited the village school and volunteered there. There are now more than 170 students enrolled at the school and some begin kindergarten at the age of 3.

Even though it was a Sunday morning, we were greeted by the children from the school. After a tour of the school, teachers from the study tour divided into groups of 5 and 6 and spent an hour teaching the kids songs like “Bingo,” “The Itsy Bitsy Spider,” and “I’m a Little Teapot.” They also played games and worked on English numbers and colors with the kids.

Next came lunch at local houses. Again we divided into groups and enjoyed delicious meals of fresh cucumber, green peppers, garlic shoots, lotus root, and Chinese pancakes. As we left Pang Liu village, we wished we could stay longer and talked and laughed about our time spent with the children at the school and our short glimpse of village life in China.

We returned to Xi’an and visited the Hong Wen Guang Art School located near the Muslim Quarter of the city. The Art School provides instruction to children ages 5 and up in calligraphy and painting. It is only opened on Saturdays and Sundays for children to participate in the arts as an extracurricular activity. We were so impressed by the beautiful paintings and extraordinary talent we saw.

Our evening was filled with new experiences including a Chinese hot pot meal. Hot pot is a way of cooking meats and vegetables in boiling water or oil, similar to fondue. Each person can choose from a variety of ingredients such as tomatoes, eggs, bok choy, noodles, beef, or lamb and create their own hot pot meal. Following this adventure in eating, we wrapped up our night with a foot massage. Our foot massages were like nothing any of us had experienced before and we all came back to our hotel happy and tired from a great day!

Today’s interesting tidbit: Pang Liu village has a population of 2,570 people. The average yearly income is 2000 Yuan, approximately $300.

Photos: 1. A shot of Pang Liu village. 2. Children at the Pang Liu village school. 3. Betsy C. with a student at the Hong Wen Guang Art School. 4. Kathy M., Maureen B., and Sally L. enjoy a hot pot meal.

Experiencing life at home

Last night, we each stayed with a host family in Xi’an, spending one afternoon and one night living with our generous hosts. Instead of our traditional blog entry, we will feature the stories of three different teachers on our trip to give you a taste of what the host family experience was like.

Dan G.
After meeting for the first time, my host father took me to the impressively preserved city walls of Xi’an. Steady rainfall did not stop us from climbing to the top and exploring the 13th century Ming fortifications. As we walked passed medieval towers and walls filled with arrow slits, my host father discussed the difficulties of teaching English in a prestigious Chinese High School. It was amazing for me to hear how school politics, unequal access to education, and standards-based learning are not unlike what we experience as educators in the United States. Sharing stories about our similar—yet in some ways completely different—school systems in such a historical setting was a surreal experience.

The next sixteen hours would hold many more adventures. From discussing the Communist Revolution with a veteran of Mao’s Red army to debating China’s role in Tibet through spirited conversation with my host father, I gained new insights into Chinese culture and history. A ten-course meal and an unfortunate run-in with a partially cooked dumpling introduced me to the finer aspects of Chinese cuisine.

This rich experience with my host family was the highlight of this trip so far and is something I will never forget.

Shannon F.
I went with my host, Bai Xiaoni, 7th grade English teacher and her husband back to their apartment. There I was greeted by her 9 year-old son, her niece and her mother-in-law. None of them speak English so it was a bit hard to communicate. My host acted as a translator for us. Shortly after we got home, three of my host's former students arrived. They had traveled 30 minutes by bus on a Saturday to meet me so they could practice their English. At first they were shy and giggled a lot. They also thought I talked too fast and had a funny accent. But since I use my hands a lot, we did fine. They even taught me how to say some Chinese words and print the characters, too. One of the girls brought a list of questions with her. She asked me them, and I asked her some my students had sent with me. After the girls left, I was instructed to rest while my host prepared dinner for me. Once dinner was ready, I was invited to the table. There they had dumplings, peanuts, cucumbers, peas, chicken, lotus root and fried mushrooms, all prepared in traditional Chinese fashion. There was also a special soup. After my host had cleaned up from dinner, we went off for a walk around the neighborhood. I was able to see part of the original Xi'an city wall. On Sunday morning, we had a quick breakfast of heated milk and bread before heading back to the hotel.

David P.
My experience with my host family will stay with me for a long time. Here I am, a stranger from the other side of the world, and my hosts welcomed me as though I was a family member that they had never met. “James” (my host’s English name), his wife “Alice,” and their 7 year-old son “Gerry” live in an apartment which they own on the eighth floor of a building that is part of a cluster of buildings that form this twenty-first century Chinese village. This complex of high-rise houses is the contemporary home of an ancient village called Li Jiao Bu, which is part of an outlying section of Xi’an called Shihlibo.

James had originally planned for all of us to hike up a small mountain about a half-hour outside of Xi’an — but the steady rain foiled that plan. Once I convinced James that I didn’t mind the rain, the two of us headed out for a walk. We went through the old village gate to where the paved road ended and a steep, downward-sloping dirt road led to a brand new multi-lane road and a paved, modern park by the Chan river. The rain had turned the dirt road to a slick, mud and clay mix that clung to the bottoms of our shoes in slabs. I began to understand, perhaps, how those beautiful Neolithic pots were made at Banpo just a few miles downstream from where we were. James remarked that having the earth of such an ancient village on ones shoes was a good omen.

We made it to the river without a complete mud bath and happily walked along the river eventually circling back to James’ home by way of the busy main street of Shihlibo. Our conversation ranged from sharing English and Chinese words for things to our shared love of hiking in mountains to contemporary Chinese religion to Chinese and American education. More than two hours after we had begun, we had made a circle and found our way back to James’ family’s home. And we had both found a friend in a former stranger from the other side of the world.

Photos: 1. Dan G. and his host at one of the drawbridges for the Xi’an city walls, 2. Shannon F. and her host family, 3. David P. and his host at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda.

Sharing a common goal

So much has happened in the last two days that we have decided to break up our blog entries into three. So after you read this one, please stay tuned for more stories to come later today.

Yesterday, we conducted our second of two educator-to-educator symposia. This one took place at the Xi’an Jiaotong University affiliated middle school. This university is one of the best in Xi’an and in the country and has a full-sized middle/high school attached to it. It was so different from our experience at the Dandelion School in Beijing, leaving us with a more complete picture of education in China. When we entered the auditorium, we were greeted with the music of Pavarotti and roaring applause from a sea of teachers and students wearing navy blue suits and crisp white shirts. We were struck by the formality of the event and the beauty of this modern university facility.

After our presentation on K-12 education in the United States, we engaged in a question and answer period involving all of the teachers in the room. Our Chinese counterparts asked some intriguing questions: What is ‘No Child Left Behind all about?’”; “How many hours of homework do students have each night?”; “How do your elementary school teachers manage to teach all subjects equally well?”; “How do you handle the pressure of preparing students for college?”

From the Q&A time, we got the strong impression that much pressure is put on students to succeed. Our hosts explained that most of the pressure comes from each individual student, but it is compounded by high expectations from teachers, parents, and society as a whole. The teachers were shocked to hear how little time American students spend on homework and they were interested to learn about the college entrance process in the United States. Our counterparts shared our common concern for educating the whole student, but also felt the pressure to prepare students for state-mandated exams.

After giving a variety of professional development workshops, we each met our host that would house us for the coming night. Together we went to lunch at a local restaurant (with food from the Hubei region) and got to know each other before we were each taken to our host family’s home.

Today’s Interesting Tidbit: Primary Source teachers have conducted workshops for over 200 Chinese teachers over the past week.

Photos: 1. Sally L. and teachers in the Teaching Through Art workshop, 2. Teachers and their hosts at lunch.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Fascinating Archaeological Sites

We began today with a tour of The Banpo Neolithic Village Museum. Banpo village was discovered in the 1950s and is an important archaeological site depicting life and culture in Neolithic China. The Yangshao people inhabited Banpo village and the society flourished between 5000 and 3000 BCE. To give you an idea of how old the site is, Banpo village was a thriving society a few hundred years before the Great Pyramids at Giza were built.

While at the site, we were able to see excavation sites showing outlines of homes, burial sites, and kilns as well as the skeletons of 4 women and 2 men found at the site.

Our next stop was a pottery and furniture workshop. Here we saw some life-sized Terra Cotta Warriors as well as beautiful lacquer furniture. We learned how the replica Terra Cotta Warriors are made and saw artists painting dragon sculptures and finishing furniture.

The largest part of our day was spent at the Museum of Qin Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses. In 1974, peasants discovered clay pottery pieces while digging a well close to the mausoleum of Emperor Qin Shi Huang. These pieces turned out to be artifacts from the mausoleum, a construction effort that took 11 years to build in the 3rd century BCE. Emperor Qin is considered to be the first emperor of China. During his reign, he defeated the six major kingdoms of China, unifying the country and giving it its name (a “Q” in Chinese is pronounced “Ch”). He also began the construction of the Great Wall of China. Terrified of death, Emperor Qin ordered the construction of his mausoleum at age 30 and intended for his tomb to be guarded by life-size replicas of his army soldiers.

The museum covers 16,300 meters and consists of 3 separate excavation pits with life-size clay soldiers, horses, and charioteers. Pit 1 is the largest and contains rows of life-size soldiers with horses and chariot drivers lined behind them (the chariots were made of wood and destroyed by fire). Each soldier in the 3 pits has unique features and clothing. Originally the clay figures were painted, but very little remains of the paint today. Pits 2 and 3 contain pieces of soldiers, horses, charioteers, and weapons as they were found at the excavation site.

Today’s interesting tidbit: Over 7,000 pottery soldiers, horses, charioteers, and weapons have been found at the site of the excavation pits near the mausoleum of Emperor Qin. Pit 1 opened to the public in 1979. Pit 2 opened in 1994 and Pit 3 in 1989. In 1987, the site was named a World Heritage Center by UNESCO.

Photos: 1. David B., a teacher from Berlin, Connecticut, as a Terra Cotta Warrior. 2. Pit 1 at the Museum of Emperor Qin Terra Cotta Warriors and Horses.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

On the road again

After a short delay in blog writing, we’re back in business! We have been busy traveling. There’s so much to write about, so I won’t pretend to be brief ☺ Hopefully, it will all be interesting for you. Yesterday, we spent the day at Dandelion School, a school in Beijing for the children of migrant workers. They named it dandelion because this flower has strong roots, but spreads its seeds far and wide. Primary Source has had a relationship with this school for three years and has now brought seven groups of teachers to the school to work with students. This year, we had the privilege of launching the first-ever professional development symposium for teachers. Primary Source study tour participants have been busy preparing workshops on a variety of pedagogical topics that they shared with their Chinese counterparts yesterday. Anything from classroom management strategies, to creating rubrics, to Gardner’s Multiple Intelligence theory.

After a brief tour of the school and student dorms, we were welcomed by students and teachers and watched the almost 600 students do their morning exercises. Through a brief ceremony complete with the unveiling of a red silk banner, we were presented with a plaque to recognize the formal partnership between Dandelion and Primary Source. The plaque read: “Primary Source Global Community Service Collaborative Teaching Site in Beijing.” Our teachers were then welcomed into classrooms to have lunch with students and their teacher. Some of our participants were grilled with questions from students about life in America. Some had the chance to talk with the Chinese students about their classes and hopes for the future. Others played pingpong and basketball with students. Still others were simply stared at in fascination while trying to use chopsticks to eat their rice in front of students. Most of the teachers said that this time spent with students was one of the best parts of the day.

When reflecting upon the day at Dandelion, many of us observed that there were more similarities than differences between the education systems in China and the U.S. We were surprised at how much student-centered learning was going on in the school and how many exciting initiatives were taking place, such as recycling, tree planting, and solar energy experiments. We were left to wonder how many of these practices were typical in China and how many were particular to this one, rather amazing school. Either way, we left with a feeling of satisfaction having worked hand-in-hand with teachers and students for an entire day.

We arrived in Xi’an today after an 11-hour overnight train ride. We rode in a “soft sleeper,” the best of the overnight train options. Soft sleepers have 4 beds (2 bunks) and a locking door. Hard sleepers have 6 beds and no door. The next level is soft seats, which is exactly what you imagine, followed by hard seats. So we were excited to see how comfortable our rooms were. Waiting in each cabin was soft bedding, a hot water pitcher for tea, flowers in a vase, and a TV for each bed! We crashed hard, slept well, and woke at sunrise to see the wide expanse of Shaanxi province unfolding before us. There were tall mountains surrounded by fields of wheat and rapeseed, creating a colorful vista. Teachers noticed small caves carved out of the side of the mountains and canyons, which turned out to be dwellings for farmers working in the fields. It was so much fun to gather as a group, hang out in the hallways of the train, and take in our new surroundings.

We pulled into Xi’an train station in the early hours of the morning. Xi’an is a moderate-sized city of 8 million people (one of the largest in China) and is surrounded by walls—the most well-maintained city walls in the country. Xi’an is also the home to Wanli, one of our tour leaders, and Richard, our tour guide. It has been great getting to know “their city.” In the morning we visited the Forest of Stelae Museum, a collection of historical tablets of literature and philosophy from China’s ancient past. The museum contained a peaceful garden that was full of ancient epitaphs and stones covered in calligraphy from various dynasties. We felt honored and moved to be in the presence of such well-preserved history.

We then stopped for lunch at a typical Xi’an noodle house, where we essentially stuffed our faces with homemade noodles and broth. It was the equivalent of the greasy spoon back home—real food for real people. We loved every bite. In the afternoon, we spent time in the Muslim quarter of Xi’an. When visiting the Great Mosque, we were stunned by how different the structures looked from what we had in mind. After seeing mosques that follow a more Arab model, we were surprised to see a collection of pagodas as the prayer space for Chinese Muslims. Our tour guide, Richard, happens to be friends with the Imam, whom we had the privilege to meet. We then had some free time to wander around the Muslim district, seeing markets with heaps of dried fruits and nuts, teahouses, and traditional wares.

This evening, we ended our first night in Xi’an with the meal to end all meals—a traditional dumpling dinner. Believe it or not, we tried over 20 different kinds of dumplings. Each one had a different filling and a shape to correspond with it. Our favorite shapes included a chicken, a monkey, and a walnut. We ended our meal with a clear broth that contained pearl dumplings for dessert. Never before had we seen dumplings this beautiful and varied, and we left feeling more stuffed than ever before.

Tomorrow, we have a big day ahead of us. We will be visiting the Terracotta Warriors, a site than many of us have been waiting for.

Today’s interesting tidbit: The Hui, a Chinese ethnic group that practices Islam, speak and write Chinese instead of Arabic.

Photos: 1. Students doing morning exercises at Dandelion, 2. Receiving the partnership plaque, 3. Overnight train to Xi’an, 4. Eating at the noodle house, 5. The Great Mosque, 6. Dumplings

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

It's a Great Wall After All...

Nihao! Today was an incredible day. Ten of us woke very early and walked down to Mao’s Mausoleum in Tiananmen Square to see Mao’s preserved body. What an experience! The Mausoleum opens at 8:00 a.m. and when we arrived at 7:55, the line stretched for ¾ of a mile. It wrapped all the way around the building and the people in line could have probably filled Fenway Park. Within 25 minutes we were going through security and entering the Mausoleum. A large marble statue of Mao sits just inside the entrance to the building and many people had purchased flowers outside to lay in front of the statue. A father was teaching his toddler to lay flowers in front of the statue and bow. A sign asked for complete silence. We formed two lines and filed past Mao’s body in indescribable silence. Once we were outside again, we had so many questions to ask each other and so many thoughts filling our heads. As the only non-Chinese people walking through the Mausoleum this morning we wondered who comes to see Mao’s body? Why do they come there? How do Chinese people feel when they visit Mao’s Mausoleum? What do they hope for their children when they bring them there?

Our next adventure was to the Great Wall of China at Mutianyu, a two-hour drive outside of Beijing. On the way, we stopped at a local grocery store and purchased bananas, pineapple, bread, jelly, and yogurt for a picnic lunch at the top of the Wall. While in the grocery store, we had a chance to see familiar brands of potato chips, sodas, and cookies, but in some very interesting flavors (Tomato Ketchup Lays anyone?).

Our hike up the wall was indeed quite a hike! We had stunning views at the top and more climbing to get to the 14th tower where our lunch awaited us. Many of us marveled at the immense construction of the Wall. At every turn, there was more of the wall in the distance. It seemed endless.

We were on our own for dinner tonight and took the opportunity to walk and eat along Wangfujing Avenue, the pedestrian mall just outside our hotel. Although tempted, no one ate a fried scorpion on a stick from a street vendor, but one group discovered a great Japanese restaurant while another enjoyed the Gourmet Street market, an underground prepared food market with lots of yummy Chinese foods.

Today’s interesting tidbit: It is 1,000 steps to the top of the Great Wall at Mutianyu. Those who make it to the top are considered heroes and heroines.

Tomorrow we are visiting the Dandelion School, a middle school for migrant worker’s children. The teachers on our trip will be participating in a teacher-to-teacher symposium, including leading training workshops for the Dandelion School teachers. Then we leave for our next destination—Xi’an. We will post more on Thursday about our day at the Dandelion School and our overnight train ride to Xi’an.

Photos: 1. scene outside the grocery store, 2. the group on the Great Wall, 3. the outdoor market of critters and other snack foods

Monday, April 14, 2008

Beijing: Past and Present

Today was full of incredible sights and fantastic firsts for our group. We started the day by visiting the Temple of Heaven. We learned that long ago, the Chinese emperor would go to the Temple of Heaven to pray for good weather to yield a good harvest. Well, we must have been lucky because we had the most amazing weather today—sunny and around 70 degrees all day. In present-day China, the Temple of Heaven is no longer for worship, but is a place where senior citizens can go to relax, exercise, and socialize. It was wonderful to see so many seniors doing tai chi, writing poems in calligraphy, playing a Chinese version of hackey-sack (a ball with feathers attached), dancing, and singing with musical accompaniment. It was such a different look at growing old that seemed to appreciate each person’s skills and interests, with a focus on good health. I think we were all struck by how serene the area was and just how active and engaged these seniors were in their day’s activities.

We then went to the Hong Qiao Market, where our group made a valiant first attempt at bargaining for goods with the little Chinese we have mastered (“no thank you—too expensive!). Many teachers enjoyed visiting the pearl market, where every size, shape, and color of pearl imaginable was on display. We watched as the staff hand tied strings of pearls at break-neck speed. Other teachers visited the other three floors of the market, bargaining for posters, scrolls, and Olympics gear.

At lunch, we visited the Yiwanju restaurant, which is well-known for its Beijing noodles. We watched as they cut, stretched, and “slapped” the noodles to the counter to make the most delicious and tender noodles, which we gobbled up. The showstopper of the meal (aside from the amazing main course dishes) was actually a side dish of sliced cucumbers (see photo). This cucumber was actually in one unbroken piece, carved into a spiral. We were all in awe—we couldn’t help but take a picture.

In the afternoon, we walked from Tiananmen Square to the Forbidden City, the home to many emperors in China’s history. We were most floored by the sheer size of this walled space—over 10 football fields in size with several “layers” or walls that led to different living areas. The first “layer” was the city for the government ministers, then the family of the ministers, then finally the third “layer” was the official Forbidden City, where only the emperor, his empress, and his 3,000 concubines would live. The Forbidden City includes 9,999 ½ rooms…yes, ½. We learned that the emperor, out of respect for the gods, decided to sacrifice ½ of his room. Therefore, only 9,999 and ½ rooms were reserved for the emperor.

After hours of walking, we headed to a restaurant that also housed performances of the Beijing Opera. This was probably the meal that most surprised teachers in our group. For the first time, we saw dishes that we had never seen in a Chinese restaurant in the States, including rice balls filled with pork, stir fried bamboo, and chicken feet and heads (this was the biggest challenge). After dinner, we enjoyed an amazing performance of the Beijing Opera. We saw the story of the Monkey King, complete with acrobatics, sword fights, singing, and rhythmic percussion. We all sunk into our seats on the bus, exhausted from a day full of amazing sights, sounds, and tastes.

Today’s interesting tidbit: If you wanted to sleep one night in each of the 9,999 and ½ rooms of the Forbidden City, it would take you 27 years. If you wanted to see every corner of the grounds of the Forbidden City, it would take you 3 years!

Tomorrow, we’re headed to the Great Wall—one of our most anticipated destinations. We’ll write more then.

Photos: 1. Group at Temple of Heaven, 2. Senior writing poems in calligraphy, 3. Cucumber flower, 4. Scene from the Forbidden City, 5. Monkey King at the Beijing Opera.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

From Boston to Beijing

Nihao from China! Our group of 19 tough educators braved an amazing day and a half of travel, adventure, and adaptation. We are now here, safe and sound, in Beijing and ready to have a nice, long sleep.

For most of us, this was the longest airplane flight we have ever taken. After 16 hours of flying time, we collectively traveled over 300 hours, ate 37 meals, watched 76 movies, checked 20 bags, and each slept an average of 2 hours. Our flight was packed, as were we into our tiny seats, but we made the most of it. We traveled north from Chicago through Alaska, and then up near the Artic circle. Many of us had the chance to see an amazing sight through the rear window of the plane—sheets of cracked ice as far as the eye could see. It made us wonder just how many beautiful parts of the world remain untouched by humans and how lucky we were to have a birds eye view of such an uninhabitable yet stunning place.

We motored on through Siberia and then into China, landing in Beijing around 3am Boston time. We landed at the new terminal at Beijing’s airport that just opened two weeks ago. It was gleaming, just waiting to welcome millions of tourists come the Olympics in August. We collected our bags (all in tact) and were welcomed by Richard, our national tour guide, who has worked in the business and with Primary Source for about 10 years. We were also joined by Ashley, our local Beijing guide.

We drove about 45 minutes to our hotel, riding down wide avenues, surrounded by huge modern buildings that were being constructed faster than you can imagine. We were told that 300 more hotels are going to be built between now and August to house the 20 million visitors they are expecting for the Olympics. We were told that only in the last 20 years are large skyscrapers being built in Beijing; before then, only structures of 7 stories or less were built so that one can see and appreciate the Forbidden City.

We had an amazing meal across the street from our hotel, the North Garden Hotel. The lazy susan in the center of our table was filled with pork, chicken, fish, rice, fried corn kernels, potato pancakes, dumplings, and more. The most surprising item to most of us were these little crispy rolls that were filled with potato and coconut, then rolled in sesame seeds—so GOOD! With such a spread, we were able toast Margaret of Weston who celebrated her birthday today. Happy Birthday, Margaret!

Some of us took a walk after dinner to see Tiananmen Square which was only a 15 minute walk away from the hotel. We soon headed back to turn in after a complete day of new experiences.

We want to end this blog entry, and hopefully future ones, with an interesting story or fact. Today’s interesting fact: On November 11, the Chinese celebrate Bachelor’s Day. This is essentially a matchmaking day in the park when single people look for love. Their parents write notes on pieces of paper and hang them from the trees in the park. The notes read “My daughter is single and a great cook,” for example. The hope is that singles will find each other and start a life together.

On that note, we turn in. We are so thankful to have this opportunity and to share it with you. Stay tuned for our next update and enjoy some of our photos (1. Noodle bowl served on the plane, 2. Group at dinner, 3. Potato coconut rolls, 4. View from Tiananmen Square).

Monday, April 7, 2008

Five Days to China!

This Saturday morning, Primary Source will take a group of 16 wonderful teachers to China for two weeks. In preparation for this experience, each teacher has completed a series of seminars with Primary Source on China's history, people, and culture. They have waited a long time for this amazing learning opportunity and are busy packing for our upcoming departure.

The teachers will be accompanied by Wanli Hu of UMass Boston, as well as Julia de la Torre (me) and Jennifer Hanson of Primary Source. Julia is an Associate Program Director and Jennifer is the organization's librarian. Together, we will update this blog as often as possible during our trip so that you--teachers, families, friends, colleagues, and guests--can follow our experiences in China. Cross your fingers for reliable Internet access!

We will begin our journey with a 16 hour flight from Boston to Chicago to Beijing on Saturday, where we will stay for four days. From Beijing, we will take an overnight train to Xi'an, where we will stay for six days including an overnight stay with a host family. We will then fly to Shanghai and stay there for the remainder of our trip, with one short excursion to Suzhou.

We look forward to sharing our stories and pictures with you. Enjoy the blog and feel free to share it with others who are curious about life in China.