Volunteer--Jessica Gordon's diary at Dandelion



August 02, 2006

So much has happened since I last wrote. My other class has finished and English camp has begun. English camp is organized for the incoming students to get them started on their English before the school year begins and introduce them to the school and some of their classmates. Many of the students have never studied English before and this program is created to give them an introduction to English and make it fun. 

The camp was not well planned though and two days before it begun the foreign volunteers, 15 volunteers from Beijing Teaching University, the school English teachers and a school administrator met to decide what we were going to teach, how to divide the classes and other logistics. It was a disaster as most of us did not know what to expect in terms of the level of the students. The meeting ended up with the foreign teachers (basically Angela and I) fighting for smaller classes and more teaching time with each class. Although, there were altogether about 20 teachers they wanted to divide all the students (over 100 of them) into 4 classes. This we later found out was to make sure every class had a foreign teacher but definitely did not make use of all the teachers that were available. We wanted to divide the students in at least 10 groups because from our experience smaller language classes worked better, allowed the students more speaking time and more individual attention. They said there was no space and we offered to teach in the cafeteria, the meeting room and even our own rooms. Finally, consensus was reached and the students were divided in 8 groups.

It was also decided that the structure of the camp would be 4 hours of class in the morning, lunch, rest and four hours of other activities in the afternoon including computer, music, art and P.E. (all supposedly in English) and a movie in the evening. The principal and founder encourages using alternative education methods and wants the camp to use music, art and games to aid in the study of English rather than just the traditional Chinese teaching methods which include rote memorization and many tests. This created a challenge for the Chinese teachers to think about new ways to teach other than how they had been taught and people have been taught in China for generations. Many did not understand the concept that learning could be made fun and felt there was a separation between wanting the camp to be fun and wanting the students to learn English.

The first day of camp was filled with nervous excitement as the students arrived. Many came with their parents often on tricycles with trailers on the back for their blankets and few belongings and some walking from the nearby street. We met the students and their parents and ushered them into a room to take an English test to help divide the students into groups. The test had three parts, oral, listening and speaking. The other American volunteers and I gave the listening and oral part of the test. The students were so nervous and the majority of them could not say the alphabet or count to ten. I later found out that this was the first time most of them had ever interacted with a foreigner. With the test finally finished the classes were divided up. Angela, a American volunteer from Stanford and I were given the smartest students but those with the lowest English level. We therefore had a large challenge ahead of us. We were also each paired to teach with the two English teachers with the lowest level of English to hopefully reach the duel goal of improving the English of both the students and the teachers at the same time.

That afternoon, the students were all quiet, shy and still nervous. I started with 12 students but the number gradually grew to 15. Most of my students are from Shangdong, Anhui and Hubei provinces although some were from as far as Sichuan. They are from 12-15 years old and most are about to begin 7th grade. Many who had been in schools in Beijing before had studied English (some for 3 years) but still could not make a simple sentence.

The Chinese love ceremonies and every event deserves one. The opening ceremony of camp began with every class marching with their class flag (that we had created that afternoon) and shouting the school slogan at the top of their lungs in Chinese. The school slogan is:

We are:
Confident Dandelions
Brave Dandelions
Happy Dandelion
Healthy Dandelions

It was so reminiscent of communist marches I couldn't believe it. Each class marched around the auditorium and then took their seats. Then the principal handed a huge red flag over to the vice principal who is in charge of the camp. Then there were speeches by the (Communist) Party Secretary who works at the school urging everyone in a booming voice to study, learn and be happy. It was a sight.

The next day the whole school took a field trip to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. Most of the students had never been before and were so excited they could not sleep. We all lined up at 6 am by class, every student was wearing the camp lime green t-shirt and armed with their lunch bag which included: 2 hard boiled eggs, bread filled with red bean paste and a hot dog like meat wrapped in black plastic and some water. Although the teachers looked tired, the students most of which had been up since 3, were full of energy. It is too expensive to get a bus so we all (130 of us) took public transportation. There is no direct bus though so we had to take one and then transfer to a second bus and somehow managed to stay together. We arrived at Tiananmen and of course took the necessary million photos. None of the students have cameras but happily sat through all the pictures and posed with smiles and peace signs.

We finally arrived at the Forbidden City. The principal had arranged for the trip in March so we all could all get in for free. It was drizzily and cold, a welcome change from the oppressive heat, and did not damper the mood one bit. All the classes then split up and the walk began. We walked through all the main buildings, the museums and through back ways I had never seen. We walked for hours with breaks for bread, meat and boiled eggs. We marched with our flag to keep everyone together and counted everyone about every 3 minutes. There are so many tourists at the Forbidden City in the summer that it was almost impossible to keep everyone together. It's like trying to keep track of 15 students at Disney World on the most crowded day of the year. No one was lost though which was a miracle.

July 23, 2006


The experience of being here has been much more difficult than I had initially expected for the following reasons:

1. I am living at the school with students and the teachers. I share a small room with two other volunteers. There is no floor space and we trip over each other and our stuff all the time. Our room also has bed bugs and tons of mosquitoes. We sleep under the mosquito nets but somehow still get bitten. This week one of the other volunteers got bitten on the eyelid and her eye swelled up to the size of a golf ball. (It's doing much better now though.)

2. Beijing is incredibly hot in the summer. We have no air conditioning and in the middle of the day there is nothing you can do to escape the heat.

3. We are in the middle of nowhere. The most exciting thing to do is to buy a watermelon and have a watermelon party. In fact, this district is known for its watermelon which are really good. It has been hard to not be able to go anywhere though and be mostly stuck inside a 100 foot radius. Luckily, the students are entertaining and we have nightly frisbee or basketball games.

4. The students do not understand English. They have all been taught English in Chinese so although they can read and write pretty well, they do not even understand simple instructions like "Read this. " Also, their pronunciation is so bad that often I can't understand what they are saying either. The other volunteers and I are working on that though with the students and the teachers.

5. The bathroom. The toilet consists of a long trench. If we are lucky, it gets cleaned once a week. I won't go into detail but we are all getting good at holding our breath for long periods of time. The showers are down the street so the other volunteers and I walk to the neighborhood showers together. It is a communal shower and we shower with the rest of the neighborhood.

All of my complaints remind me of the immense inequality that exists in the world and in China. These students, teachers and neighborhood live in conditions that people in the United States cannot even imagine. I have spoken with the teachers here and they often forget that their standard of living is so much lower than that of other Beijingers. But this week they went into the city to pick up some furniture that a college was giving away and they saw the new furniture and the college rooms and it hit them once again.

July 20, 2006


I have been teaching 7 students daily. They are some of the best English students in the school that have been chosen and have agreed to continue classes although the school year is over. Although this is a middle school, my students are between 14-16 years old. They are smart, kind, cute, funny and so generous. They have nothing to give but will give you anything.

They all come from provinces outside Beijing. Some of their parents live the area around Beijing while others families are still in their hometown. Many of them miss their hometowns and the life they had there.

A few days ago in class, they gave speeches about their hometowns and they all spoke about how beautiful it is there. One mentioned the stars, the other the mountains and another the clean air and woods surrounding their former home. Nothing like the scenery outside the school gates. No piles of trash spilling, plumes of black smoke rising into the air or pungent smells of sewage. They did though talk about the changes that had occurred in their lifetime. One student said that the forests were being destroyed because villagers were selling all the wood. He said that it used to be much more beautiful but still missed it.

They also talked about all the good food in their hometowns. The fresh fruits and vegetables that were part of their daily diet as their families are farmers. In Beijing, fruit is a luxury they can not afford. They can talk about it for hours though. They also talked about the fresh noodles which are much better than the ones in Beijing.

They said they didn't like Beijing when they first got here but this school changed that. They told me that Pugongying has given them opportunities that would not be possible in their hometowns. "Schools like this don't exist there." There are no computers or foreign teachers. In fact, one student said he had never seen a foreigner before he started studying here. This school is changing their lives and they all understand that.

July 10, 2006


I am spending the summer teaching at The Dandelion Middle School or Pugongying Zhongxue in suburbs of Beijing, China. The school was opened last fall to provide affordable and quality education for migrant children. These migrants though are not from outside of China but they are internal migrants mostly moving from the Western provinces to the coastal cities to search for employment. Their children are my students.

Although most of the students at Brown are from outside of Rhode Island, in China, asking someone where they are from is not a simple question. In China, there is the household registration system or the hukou system. This system has been in place since 1950s and divides rural households from urban households. The hukou system also determines a person's rights within a locality including where they can live, the types of jobs they can have and access to education, health care and other social services. It is this system that has barred many migrant children from the opportunity to go to school or severely limited their options to only low quality schools. In 2004, The People's Daily reported that there were 299 registered schools for migrant children but only 13 met the requirements of the Beijing Education Bureau. The Dandelion School has met these requirements and is the first non-profit private middle school for migrant children in Beijing.

The school is located about 45 minutes by cab or 2 1/2 hours by bus from the center of the city. But it is as far away from the tall buildings and cloth napkin restaurants that are popping up all over Beijing as possible. The "sidewalk" is just dirt causing everything to have a slight brown tinge on hot days or filled with mud after it rains. The street is lined with watermelon and other fruit sellers that come in on their horse drawn carts or small motorized carts. People gather as me and the other volunteers walk through the street or stick their entire body out the window. The neighborhood is filled with women washing their hair on the street corner and men playing cards shirtless to deal with the oppressive heat. It is incredible to see the difference between the two opposing Beijing's, one of modernity and the other which looks like nothing has changed since the 1980s and China's transition to a market economy.

The internet at the school works occasionally and the electricity and water goes off almost daily so I want to post this before it is lost forever. I will write more soon about the students and my classes.


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