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Bringing China to Life for Teachers

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Mary Barber, a curriculum specialist in the Issaquah School District, figured she knew a thing or two about China. She minored in East Asian history at the UW and has taught a workshop about China for K-12 teachers. But she gained a new perspective when she finally visited China last summer through a program for K-12 educators offered by the East Asia Center in the UW's Jackson School of International Studies. 

A statue on the Spirit Road to the Ming Tombs

A statue on the Spirit Road to the Ming Tombs

"Now I see that my approach to teaching about China was flawed," admits Barber. "I thought that things had stopped in China, and they definitely have not. The modernity of the cities was stunning to me. I feel like I need to do everything differently the next time I teach about China."

That's the benefit of experiencing China firsthand, says Mary Hammond Bernson, associate director of the UW's East Asia Center, who has led eight study tours to Asia and organized this year's three-week China study tour with outreach coordinator Mary Cingcade. They planned the China visit--funded by the Freeman Foundation--with educators in mind.

"Our goal was to take teachers who already had some knowledge of China and build on that," explains Bernson. "We envision them becoming leaders in teaching about China, playing a role in educating their peers and making changes in their schools." 

Although most of the trip's 22 participants had attended a previous summer institute about China offered by the East Asia Center, few had been to China. Recognizing this, Bernson designed the trip to provide "a really broad overview. But we worked hard to make it a deeper experience than just tourism," she says. 

In Beijing's Tiananmen Square, study tour participants pose as a group.

In Beijing's Tiananmen Square, study tour participants pose as a group.

There were visits to the Great Wall and famous Chinese gardens, but the group also met with local schoolteachers and children. And they travelled to sites not open to tourists, including a new archaeological site in Xi'an, known for its terra cotta figures. 

UW International Studies Professor David Bachman, a China specialist, travelled with the group and provided insights along the way. "Professor Bachman's presence was invaluable," says Bernson. "One of the things that differentiates a study tour from simple travel is being accompanied by an expert who helps you understand what you see." 

Heading Out on Their Own

Although the group visited many sights during the trip, Bernson also scheduled large blocks of free time for the participants, allowing them to pursue individual interests-and the group took full advantage. "They were so curious and confident and open to new experiences," enthuses Bernson. "There wasn't a soul who holed up in the hotel in their free time."

A teacher from Othello, who has a large orchard and an interest in farming practices, headed for a rural area and was invited inside local people's homes. Another made a point of frequenting non-tourist stores to make minor everyday purchases and see what the locals were buying. A teacher with an interest in calligraphy met with various calligraphers throughout the trip, through prearranged connections.

Anne Fitzpatrick, a sixth grade teacher at Seattle's Asa Mercer Middle School, admits to being nervous before her first foray without a guide, but soon she was hooked. "After I did it once, I really wanted to go out on my own in every city and talk to people," she says. She and several other teachers decided to search for Internet cafes, and found them in two cities. "People watched as we'd send email to our friends at home," she recalls. "They were really interested in what we were writing about China."

Seattle sixth-grade teacher Anne Fitzpatrick chats with a student at a school in a rural Sichuan village.

Seattle sixth-grade teacher Anne Fitzpatrick chats with a student at a school in a rural Sichuan village.

Other opportunities to talk with Chinese citizens came during visits to schools. Mary Barber recalls asking questions of local teachers and being impressed by the honesty of their responses. But she also remembers being caught short when the group visited a middle school and invited students to ask them questions.

"They asked us, 'What modern Chinese person do you most respect?'" she recalls. "It was like being punched in the stomach. One of us was able to sputter out one name, but that was it. It made me realize how little we know about them. We all went away thinking that we have a lot to learn."

Bringing China Back to the K-12 Classroom

The teachers returned from China brimming with information and new perspectives. But that's not the end of the story. Their final assignment was to develop curriculum materials that would bring China to life in their classrooms.

In October, the educators met again on the UW campus to reconnect, debrief, and share their new curriculum materials. They also compared notes on how their materials were being received by students. Eventually, many of the materials will be distributed more widely, for use by teachers across the country.