Friday, September 21, 2012

Precisely Where I Am

Dear Friends,

When people from home think of where I am the thought is “China”. China is a big thought. Most people I know have never been here. They know it as the most populous country in the world. They think of it as a communist country where the people are controlled by a powerful central authority. From watching the Olympics, they know the gold-star studded red flag. The Chinese language is either an impenetrable set of thousands of written characters or something to mock verbally. They know the Great Wall, Chinese food, and maybe they have heard of Mao or Tiananmen Square.

Really, they don’t have much of an idea of where I am, or of China all together for that matter.

I am in a city named Shenzhen, in southern China, in the province of Guangdong. The climate is subtropical. Heat, humidity, and frequent rain showers or thunderstorms keep plant life lush and one’s skin moist and sticky. But this place is mostly concrete, glass and steel up into the sky or in the form of broad and bustling boulevards. Finance, factories, commercialism and education are the name of the game here. Impressively, this place was nearly all mangrove forest thirty years ago. Now it is considered one the fastest growing megalopolises in the world. Nothing is old here, including hardly any people. 88% of the population is between 15 and 59. In the province most people speak Cantonese, but because Shenzhen is a city of immigrants, the lingua franca is Mandarin, the dominant dialect of mainland China.

I am in a neighborhood called Shekou, in the Nanshan District of Shenzhen, on the western end of town. This district is known for its good schools, including Shenzhen University and where I work, YuCai High School. It’s a bit more suburban feeling that other parts of the metropolis. Streets are tree-lined, the air is good, and it’s near the waterfront, Shenzhen Bay and the port. An hour-long ferry ride once through customs gets you to central Hong Kong.

I am in an apartment on the eighth floor of a 22-story building that occupies one corner of an intersection. I have two balconies that hang above the intersection and Sihai park across the street, which is a welcome respite from the forest of towers that surround most views in this city. In the park I play pick-up soccer with young to middle-aged men on some evenings. There I recently met one of Shenzhen’s immigrant residents, an engineer who came here from the north for a new job. He taught me that San Francisco in Mandarin is called the “Old Golden Hill” (旧金山). It’s the old golden hill because the famous gold rush of the “forty-niners” only lasted so long. We’ll see how long the gold rush lasts here.

I am at 22.496540069580078° N and 113.91957092285156° E if you want to zero in on me with Google Earth. You will see that yes, I am in China, the “Far East”. But there is a lot more for you and I to learn about precisely where I am, and while we are at it, maybe a little bit about where both of us are from.


P.S. Compare this "Precisely Where I Am" entry to my "Precisely Where I Am" entry of 2009, when I was living in Eastern Uganda working on a joint poverty alleviation and rain forest conservation project with Village Enterprise Fund and Jane Goodall Institute. You can find the entry on the lefthand sidebar under Enjoy These Oldies but Goodies > 2009 > April > Precisely Where I Am.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Work and Play in China

Click on this picture to be linked to a Picasa web album of my first few weeks here in Shenzhen, Hong Kong, and Guangzhou, China. The best way to view is as a slideshow. Give yourself at least five seconds per slide to be able to read the captions.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

My Speech at the YCID Opening Ceremony

What follows is the speech I gave at the opening ceremony of the Yucai International Department (YCID) at Yucai High School in Shekou, the neighborhood in the Nanshan District of Shenzhen where I live and work. I am the head of this program on the American side as we collaborate with Chinese administrators and educators to prepare students for applying and then being able to perform well at American universities.

YCID is an experimental program for the public schools here in China. Students who want to study abroad for college ordinarily will attend a private school or be sent to the US for high school at a very high cost ($15,000-$30,000). This program tries to improve on the model by offering it at half the cost, thus making it accessible to not only very wealthy families, by keeping it in the public school system so students' social and family lives are not disrupted, and by giving not only intensive TOEFL and SAT test preparation but discussion-oriented classes that are akin to what students will experience in Western universities.

While the typical Chinese classroom is tracked by ability level and is desks in rows towards a lecturing teacher, YCID includes students of varying English language ability between early intermediate and intermediate and uses discussion circles, group work, projects, expository or creative writing, and other methods that encourage self-expression, creativity, argumentation and innovative thinking as we analyze texts and other media. These ways of thinking are something that many Chinese people appreciate about the West. Many parents hope their children (yes many families have more than one child - more on that in a future post) will be able to attain a degree from a school in the US, UK, Australia or Europe and return to the benefit of their family and Chinese society with the competitive advantage that a more open and clever mind can bring.

Of course, teenagers are teenagers and not all students are highly motivated every day. The program, which ran an initial test semester last school year, saw a 60% on-time homework turn-in rate. At the same time students and YCID are under pressure to be successful. Thus my speech exhorts students to "completely commit" to the learning process and their work in and outside the program to develop their English. In the final analysis, it is their TOEFL and SAT scores that will open doors to American universities or not, and the scores are the main preoccupation of paying parents. In attendance at the ceremony were the forty-five students of the program and some of their parents, YCID staff and school officials.

I read the speech in English and after every sentence or two, Gloria, a YCID assistant, would translate into Mandarin. The format worked well in that it allowed me time to focus on my delivery, though it was saying "Good morning" in Mandarin with the correct intonations that was my main concern going into it. Well, I received quite an ovation for my pronunciation! With that out of the way I was on a more familiar road, aiming to make expectations clear for parents and students and light a bit of a fire underneath them.

Zhou shang hao (Good morning). Welcome honored guests, parents, students, and colleagues. Today we celebrate a second beginning to the international education department at YuCai High School. This second semester is full of promise based on what we have learned from our pioneering leaders, teachers and students in the first semester of this special program.

We thank Superintendent Liu Gen Ping and Interlangua President Elisabeth Montgomery for their visionary leadership. We thank the YCID and Interlangua staff members for their hard work to establish a strong academic foundation and sense of community. And finally we thank the parents and students for their courage to challenge themselves by participating in a new way of learning.

Let me emphasize the necessity of complete commitment to this new way of learning if we are to see students make their dreams reality. The research clearly demonstrates two main factors that lead to high student achievement. The first I will discuss is the quality of the teaching. The second is the commitment of the student to the learning process.

I can assure you that the YCID teachers are hard-working, experienced professionals who are skilled at using the best Chinese and Western teaching practices. They will provide a challenging curriculum that can result in students scoring highly on the TOEFL and SAT tests, and them being prepared to not simply survive but thrive at excellent American universities.

However, the complete commitment of the students is also necessary. As the proverb goes, “Be the first to the field and the last to the couch.” Focus eye contact on students. You must work hard. You must complete all assignments on time. You must take extra time to get help and develop your English outside of class. You must read and write, speak and listen in English as much as possible. English must become your new best friend if you wish to see satisfactory scores.

I know what it takes as a student and an educator to excel at a top university. I received my bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in education from Stanford University. In my career as an educator I have helped many students to achieve their dreams. So please trust me when I say that the staff of YCID can provide a path to success, but the student must walk with purpose and commitment every step of the way.

At the end of this path is the opportunity for dreams to become reality. So let me leave you with this: “Are you just a dreamer or are you willing to work especially hard to make your dreams reality?” Decide now. The first step on the path is Monday.

Shyeh, shyeh (Thank you).

I welcome any comments or question about this speech. As an American educator with a social justice oriented philosophy, it was an interesting experience, not without some moral considerations, for me to write a speech in a very different cultural and educational context. If I can get a hold of the video and/or pictures I will post that as well.