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.


  1. Chris,
    A well-written, thoughtful speech as we have come to expect from you. I am interested in reading more about the "moral considerations" you are facing. I was surprised at your exhortations to "work hard", since, perhaps stereotypically, I think of Chinese kids having a such a strong work ethic. Is the low homework completion rate experienced in the pilot anomalous? Another question - to what extent the goal of attending American university the parents' dream? The kids' dream?

    1. Thank you for the comment and good questions Mother! Yes the exhortations to work hard were based on the fact that we saw a low homework completion rate last year, and to make clear to students and parents that they can't simply buy a ticket to a good Western university by paying for the program. Like in any academic program the students must put forward their due diligence to graduate with grades, scores, and other resume pieces to create opportunities for themselves at the next level.

      So far I am not seeing the stereotypes play out as fully as we might imagine them when it comes to Chinese students working hard and parents driving students towards their own ideas for their child. There does seem to be a stronger work ethic on the average if I were to compare the students I am working with to the Berkeley High students I know, but the difference would not be much. Both sets of students seem to work especially hard while trying to manage personal development and dynamic social environments. From what I have gained so far on the matter of parental versus student control of their academic direction, I think it is similar to the US, though again with on the average there being a bit more parental control. However, the average student perspective of this situation seems to be different than what you might encounter in Berkeley. This perspective can be described as "my parents know what is best for me" as opposed to "my parents are trying to control me." Here we might be seeing a manifestation of a bit more of a collectivist, strongly family-oriented culture versus the individualism and independence us Americans tend to highly value. Most of the students in the program do seem to have a genuine interest for themselves in going to North America or Europe for study.

      Finally, the moral considerations that came to me during the writing of my speech were regarding how much I was going to emphasize working hard. The concern is that students have extremely heavy academic loads as it is, and that pressure to work harder could lead to unhealthy stress and/or anxiety for some students. I decided to make a full push in the end because of the supports we intend to provide students such as informal and formal counseling meetings or the use of Edmodo, which is an school-oriented Facebook of sorts. Students can ask questions of teachers or each other, share information, read and submit assignments online, check their grades and other helpful tasks through the website. For a video of us introducing Edmodo to students via song, check out this link: