Exchanging cultures, teaching methods

Published 2:31 pm Friday, December 17, 2010

Exchange teacher Fang Lei poured steaming cups of traditional Chinese tea for students at Polk County Middle School two weeks ago.

She offered them tea to sample, taught them just the right way to hold their chopsticks and watched over them as they filled dumpling wrappers with savory meat and veggies.

Fang began teaching Chinese culture when she came to the school early this fall.

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I’ve learned so much about our (Chinese) culture I had to do a lot of research before I taught them this information because I wanted to be accurate, Fang said.

Fang traveled to the United States as part of a program connecting educators with teaching opportunities all over the world. Polk County Superintendent Bill Miller, Polk County Middle School Principal Hank Utz and Polk Central Principal Dottie Kenlaw all traveled to China last June as part of a similar program connecting American school systems with foreign schools. While there, the group visited Polk’s partner school and attended education workshops in Beijing. The last half of the program involved hosting an exchange teacher such as Fang.

Utz said the life lessons Fang presents to her students and fellow teachers fall in line well with the school’s year-long focus on global awareness.

For me to teach or talk about China, it doesn’t really validate what the students learn from their textbooks, Utz said. It’s a little more credible and it brings it more alive for the students to see lessons presented by Mrs. Fang and actually hear her discuss her own experiences.

When Fang discovered the opportunity earlier this year she quickly jumped at the chance though the interview process was lengthy.

Fang first completed a telephone interview, a personal interview in Beijing and a mental examination. Interviewers considered more than 400 teachers, yet selected only 120. North Carolina currently has 13 of the 120 educators selected teaching in its schools.

Fang said she’s been intrigued by the differences in schools in her home country and America.

The most tangible difference would be that I have 50 students in one class in China and I have five in one class here, Fang said. I wasn’t able to know students on a personal level but here I do get to know the students and I like that.

In China Fang Lei worked in a boarding school. This made her responsible for the students many nights. Her Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays would start in the wee hours of the morning so she could arrive at school before 6:30 a.m. when students were required to arrive early in order to study their English. On Tuesdays and Thursdays she stayed late to oversea study hall. Study hall often lasted until 9:30 p.m.

She also pointed out that in China the daily process of learning is different. Typically students listen to lengthy lectures from teachers and soon after test on the material. Rarely are book reports, science projects or skits required for grades.

Now, I’m trying to make my lessons not so boring, Fang said.

Fang said students in China also experience pressure to excel in school much earlier than American students. Where American students feel the stress of obtaining good enough grades to be accepted into a good college, Chinese students must do so to get into a good high school. Even after being accepted into a particular high school, Chinese students must pay for education past the eighth grade.

Utz said while Fang hasn’t had time to do a workshop or seminar with PCMS teachers to discuss the differences in teaching methods, he believes just her presence has a good effect.

It’s been good to have someone from a different point of view, but to see they experience some of the same challenges, Utz said.

Next semester, a select group of eighth-graders will have the unique opportunity to learn beginning Mandarin under Fang’s direction. Utz hopes to see some of these students carry on their study of Mandarin through virtual classes available at the high school level.

Fang learned to relish in American culture in the past four months as well. She’s attended the Sunny View Fall Festival playing Bingo and watching the dunking booth and she’s gone kayaking on Lake Lanier.