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


The Sandoval Six said...

Ni Hao!

The Sandoval kids in Illinois are so excited to learn about our Nonna's adventures. We're sharing your blog site with our teachers so that our school can find out more about your travels through China. Kudos to the bloggers - you are doing a wonderful job keeping us informed!


Lisa (Sally's daughter)

Anonymous said...

It sounds like the trip has been a great success so far. Listening to the all of the wonderful places that you have been makes me want to go back! The students are glad to know that Mrs. Gabriel is doing well on her adventure. Enjoy the trip! Thanks for the great blog.

Chris Maher and the Whitman-Hanson kids

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy aka Grandma!
Sounds like you're having a wonderful adventure...a once in a lifetime adventure! We hope you are enjoying every moment.
Love, Melissa, Michael, Nathan and baby on the way!