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Applewild School Faculty and Staff Visit China

Faculty and administrators from Applewild School in Fitchburg recently returned from a visit to four cities in China including a visit to a Chinese school. The seven travelers were guests of David Wang, parent of a current eighth grader at the school, who was eager to show his pride and confidence in his home country.

Travelers included Christopher B. Williamson, Head of School; his wife Peggy, who does marketing and communications for the school; Emily Bracchitta, Director of Admissions and Financial Aid; English teacher Jennifer Caldwell; history teacher Todd Goodwin; and math teachers Janet Cowen and Lynda. The group visited Beijing, Xi'an, Shanghai, and Hong Kong.

Highlight of the trip was a visit to Lintong Qinling Middle School on the outskirts of Xi'an. The visit was a result of both diligence and serendipity. When Head of School Williamson visited Lawrence Academy's Board of Visitors last fall, he sat, by chance, next to a teacher from China, Amy Zhang, who was on a US tour with several colleagues from her school district in Shenzhen, in southern China. In conversation Zhang learned that Williamson and his colleagues would be visiting China in the spring. Since the group was not venturing to Zhang's city but hoped to visit a school, she offered an alternative. Her parents live in Xi'an and are former teachers. Through perseverance and connections, the visit to Qinling came to be.

On the morning of the visit, the Applewild group was surprised and flattered to see the school's name and a welcome in both Chinese and English flashing on the school's electronic message board at the main entrance. They were met by Zhang, who had traveled by train more than 1000 miles to be present, and representatives from the school and the Lintong school district. This was not only the first visit to China by a group of Applewild teachers, but also the first visit for the school from any Western educators. A film crew captured the arrival for the local news. The visit began with introductions, presentation of gifts by the Applewild visitors, and an informal question and answer between the two groups, with translators facilitating.

Eager to see the Chinese educational process in action, the group divided up to visit three eighth grade classrooms: a Chinese literature class, history class and math class. In each of the three rooms there was modern technology for the teacher to use to demonstrate during the lesson, approximately 55 to 65 students per class, and open windows on a chilly morning. Most students wore white nylon "sweatsuits" as a uniform, which was common to other schools.

In the Chinese literature class, students were studying a well-known Chinese poem. They recited individually and as a large group, completed small group exercises, stood to answer questions, drew pictures and listened to music to capture the emotion of the poem. The history class was studying the Silk Road and many of the same teaching techniques were used. As part of the lesson, Goodwin, a story-teller, told part of the Johnny Appleseed story. All students in China study English, but they said they only understood "about half" so Goodwin re-told the story at the invitation of the school head. In the math class, the Applewild teachers saw a lesson that would be common in a tenth grade classroom in the US. Students have a long school day and return home with several hours of homework to prepare for the next day. Classes are about 45 minutes long followed by brief recesses.

Students were invited to ask questions of the American visitors. Questions included cell phone policies at school, how to improve their English, how long the school day was and how to get into Harvard. One student asked how he could become a student at Applewild.

According to Zhang, most of the students in Qinling Middle School come from farming families. In general, their parents are not rich or well educated. But China's tradition is to support and encourage children to get as much education as possible. She said that in all China just under 70 percent of students will be admitted to senior high school through qualifying tests, though the enrollment rate in this area was about 50 percent. The rest can go to career and technology schools so almost all will continue their educations. Parents pay no school fees through middle school but there are modest fees for high school.

Teachers from Applewild hope to connect their students with those in China for an ongoing relationship. The group also had brief visits at two other schools located in Beijing.

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