Travel not only helps you widen your understanding of the world, but also it allows you to deepen understanding you already have. Visiting schools in other countries provides a window into the students’ lives and provides a point of reflection about our educational system and our lives.
I first visited China in 2008 as a part of a school exploration trip. The school was adding a world language program and received a grant for teachers to travel to China to learn about Chinese culture and some Mandarin basics. Excited about this opportunity, I spent a week in Shanghai learning about Chinese culture, visiting different sights in and around Shanghai, and learning some very basic Mandarin (tones, counting to 10, how to introduce myself, and not much more). We dressed up in regional outfits and ate noodles and dumplings – a very touristy experience. I extended my trip and traveled to Beijing and continued with the tourist theme of seeing the sights. I was there just before the Summer Olympics and was able to see first hand some of the measures that China was taking to get ready – metal detectors at subway stations, forced reduction of car usage to decrease pollution, and many Olympic souvenirs being sold.
In 2011, we had our first 8th-grade class and wanted a class trip that could be the culmination of student learning – intertwining world language study, learning about others, and environmental science. My principal and I traveled to Chengdu to see if we could design a learning experience that would fit our needs. Chengdu was ideal because it fit our criteria—Chengdu is one of the locations where giant pandas live (in captivity and the wild), we had connections to local schools, and of course, they speak Chinese there.
The first week of the trip is spent in Chengdu, visiting the pandas as well as several primary schools—one private, one private and attached to a company, and one public. The pandas are adorable and learning about their conservation is fascinating (as are the reintroduction efforts) but the real learning for the students and me happens at the schools. This is where we get a glimpse into the classrooms and what the lives the students who attend these schools are like.
This first week is still fairly surface level – the schools show off their best students and teach our students different Chinese traditions – calligraphy, tea ceremonies, fan painting, dumpling making, etc. These activities make for great pictures but most of the interactions between our students and theirs are brief and temporary. We exchange gifts but little else and each night our students return to the hotel. There is a family visit attached to this first week but most families focus on showing our students the best their city has to offer—taking them shopping and to different museums.
It’s the second week though where our students start to realize what it might be like to live in China. We travel about 40 miles to the city of Dujiangyan, and even though we tell the students that they will be staying in the dorms of the middle-high school that we visit, it doesn’t start to sink in until we are unloading their luggage from the bus and showing them the room and bunk beds that the will be their home for the next four nights.
And even though the school provides our students with some of the best rooms they have, it is a far cry from what they are used to. Bunk beds, an outside sink area, and a toilet/shower room (without an actual toilet) are new and different. Eating in the campus cafeteria, even with “special” food including fried chicken and French fries is very different than what they eat at home. Having classes after dinner (even if it’s tai chi) is different. And being woken up at 5:30 am to get ready for the day is also different. These experiences provide a new lens for our students to look at their lives with.
Also, these five days are an opportunity for our students to spend time with a Dujiangyan student and to build connections. Students are buddied up and this allows our students a glimpse into the lives of their Dujiangyan buddy. Together, the buddies go to classes (even if the classes are special ones like Chinese dance and block printing), visit local sights, and eat. It all culminates with visit to the buddy’s family. Most students say that the family visit is their favorite trip experience.
The last day, when we say goodbye, you can see the impact these connections have made: students take selfies together and exchange contact information and tears.
This is why we continue to bring our students to China – they learn about Chinese culture, eat spicy Sichuan food, and take a lot of photos of cute pandas, but they also now have a relationship with someone in China. Their perspective has been shifted, and China is a not far away country, but a place where they have fond memories and a personal connection to their buddies, their buddies’ families, and the teachers who taught them about China.