Treasure In The East
(Our former oral English teacher, initiator and promoter of our school’s student exchange program withMt. Edgecumbe High School,Alaska,USA)
It is likely that from time to time most senior citizens enjoy reviewing some of the highlights of their life. Nearly all of my professional life has been in the field of education. One part is my absolute joy in being a part of Yunnan University Secondary School (YUSS). It is still true today.
In 1993 my wife, Marilyn and I came toKunming. Marilyn was to teach at the University level and I was offered a job teaching spoken English at High School. That first year I did not teach at YUSS but did begin in the fall of 1994 and have had teaching or other involvement there ever since.
It was easy to see that there was and still is a very strong spirit of camaraderie among the faculty. Now and then some of the faculty and administrators would get together and socialize and frequently would invite me to join them. There was always a lot of food and laughter. Sometimes the gathering would be in a restaurant, sometimes in the home of one of the group. I sometimes wonder if that influences the camaraderie in the student body as well. Of the many very nice happenings some stand out. One is a trip to Nine Villages Gorge (Jiu Zhai Guo). I had recently had knee surgery so walking was a little difficult. Knowing that, Ding Le went with me to help. Good companion. Another was when a car full of faculty and administrators invited me to go with them to a small countryside minority school for girls. It was a place where the girls not only made their own clothing from cotton; they planted the seed to grow the cotton. They also danced for us.
The first couple of years the administrative offices and some class rooms were in very old buildings. Then in a very few years a new classroom was built and I had the pleasure of teaching there. Nice construction, student desks, electronic equipment, and marking board. Now they are located in two completely new campuses!
The amount of English instruction the students had had was a very big surprise! Still, it was a second language so if I were speaking to the class, it would be a little more slowly than if I were back inAlaska. My approach to teaching is quite different from what they were used to. One must understand that it is different but that does not mean that one is better than the other. Since I was to teach spoken English, the administration divided the classes into 2 parts which gave enough time in class for nearly all of the students to answer questions and recite and for me to comment.
The first day of instruction each student filled out a 3 × 5 inch card for me. It included their Chinese name in pin yin, their English name if they preferred that I use that with them, their date of birth and their home town. Then throughout the term as a student’s birthday came around, we would all sing the “happy birthday” song.
Also on the first day I would explain to the class that if in speaking they made a mistake either in word choice or pronunciation, it was OK and to me it is a concept of positive reinforcement. Mostly, I would ask questions and then choose a student to respond by picking one of the cards they had filled out. We began with very easy questions, things they knew but not things they could look up. Each student was to bring a dictionary. The first day or so I would ask things like “tell me what you ate for breakfast” or “tell me what color your shirt is,” etc. As time went on the questions would become more and more abstract. Once we talked about travel and they were to tell me where they would like to go, why that place, and what would they do while there. Once on the last day I asked “what is trust” and that is even difficult in a first language. Usually we spent the last 5 minutes with what the people there call English Corner. In that, students could ask me most anything they wanted. It was usually about American students,Alaska, travel, American customs, etc.
I feel strongly that some degree of international understanding is a small step toward world peace and enjoyment. It is hard to shoot a friend. Early in my career inKunming, I had a long chat with Mr. Gan Xuechun who was assistant director of the University International Exchange programs and the Waiban. I was a member of the Sitka Alaska Rotary club which is one club in an international organization. Rotary sponsor’s student exchange programs between countries and each club sends and receives a high school age student. Mr. Gan and I explored the idea of something like that for one or twoKunmingstudents to come toSitkaand attend high school for a time. Each year a student from YUSS is selected and comes toSitkafor a semester of study atMountEdgecumbeHigh School. There have also been four delegations from the YUSS faculty toSitkaand spend a week visiting the school and the small city ofSitka.
The process for selection is thorough and takes some time but seems to work very well. Early in the fall students are informed about the program and those who say they would like to apply are first told they need to have permission from their parents. After they have that permission, the students are given a written test. It has only one question and they have 1 hour to write their answer in English. A committee of teachers, administrators, someone from the Waiban, and I score those papers and the top 3 from YUSS and also from theForeignLanguageHigh Schoolare selected. It is always my pleasure to come toKunmingand work with that committee. The next step is an individual oral exam given to each of those three and a winner and an alternate are chosen. There are no right or wrong answers to either the written or oral exam questions. The purpose is to see if the students understand the questions in English and can give an appropriate answer.
The first few years students coming toSitkaAlaskalived with families. Since 2001 the students have attendedMt.EdgecumbeHigh schoolwhich has dormitories. The Chinese students live in the dormitory and have anAlaskastudent as a roommate. Chinese students can choose many of the subjects they will study and will be involved in the same after school activities as all other students. The Chinese students learn a lot aboutAlaskaand life here and of course theAlaskastudents learn a lot aboutChina. The first student from YUSS was Wang Ai hua who is now finishing her PhD Degree in international education atFloridaStateUniversity.
In the same spirit of expanding knowledge of parts of the world, YUSS sent teachers or administrators toSitkafor a one week stay on two separate occasions. While inSitka, they were the guest in the homes of local families and are fondly remembered by those hosts. Mt.EdgecumbeHigh Schoolhas sent a delegation toKunming. In one small way, people from both sides of thePacific Oceanhave expanded their knowledge and feelings about people from the other side. This is good.
David R. Knapp