Signing off on a School Registration Form I Couldn’t Read: Experiencing the Other Side of the Fence

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Sophia's first grade class at Greer

Sophia’s first grade class at Greer

In Charlottesville, Sophia goes to a very multicultural public school. With approximately thirty languages spoken by the student body, there are kids from all over the world (at least twenty different countries) at Greer Elementary. When Sophia started kindergarten last year, there were five students in her class of twenty who didn’t speak any English at all. When we attended parent-teacher conferences over the past 1.5 years, there was always a group of translators in the cafeteria ready to help translate conferences, as needed. As I thought about the difficulty of sending my kids to a school in a language I couldn’t speak, I felt really grateful to be a part of educated, American society and to be able to advocate for my children in a system that I understand.

Once we decided to send our two older children to a Chinese Kindergarten (I’ll write more about why we made this choice in another post), which generally serves kids ages 3-6, I knew that there would be challenges for both them and for us. For Sophia and Dylan, they will be going to a school almost exclusively with native Chinese speakers. Aside from about one hour a day during English class, they will be listening to and attempting to understand what is being said to them in Mandarin. I’ve assured them that when they start they will understand virtually nothing. But that it is okay and that they will learn a little more each day.

In front of Brown Kindergarten

In front of Brown Kindergarten

For us, I assumed the communication gap would be the most challenging (during our two visits to the school, we’ve brought along friends both times to translate). However, I hadn’t thought about the sensation of having a two-paged registration form generally translated for me orally and then my filling in each child’s name and my signature in the designated spot. I had to trust that everything was indeed as it was stated, since I would have no idea if it were otherwise. It made me think of all of the non-English speaking parents at Greer and the trust they must necessarily have in the U.S. school system to be able to sign off on forms that they can’t read, allow their children to get onto school buses, and the accompanying confidence they must have that their children will be okay, hopefully even learning and thriving.

After finishing part of the registration process, it became clear that the kids’ physicals and vaccination records (Sophia’s was completed in September and Dylan’s at the end last month) were not going to be sufficient for them to begin school in China. I’d read on the Beijing Mamas yahoo group of which I’m a part that it’s virtually impossible to escape the necessary hospital blood draw for kids before they can enter school in here (apparently, they’re testing for Hep A and Hep B, both common in China). So we will have to go to a local hospital for that and a basic physical, hoping that their vaccination records will be satisfactory enough to avoid any further vaccinations here.

The only other American parent I know at the school told me that she was assured that they do not vaccinate in the school. This was the first time I’d heard of what is apparently a rampant practice in schools throughout China: kids are vaccinated at school without receiving the permission of their parents! (you can read about mass vaccinations here). It makes sense in an authoritarian, top-down society where the state has a history of knowing what’s *best* for its citizens, but when I thought of this being applied to my own children, I could no longer simply nod in intellectual understanding that this is a cultural difference.

Now I’m seeing that one of the most challenging aspects for me of our kids being in a Chinese kindergarten will be the top-down attitude of the school and my inability to be involved in any way. On the first day that I visited the school, I asked to see Sophia’s and Dylan’s prospective classrooms, but was told that there were two days a year when the parents could visit. I also asked about free play and was told that in Dylan’s class, there will be about 15-20 minutes of “class,” followed by free-play in any given hour. However, when we observed a group of his peers in the main indoor play area, they were walking in a line to the count of “Yi, Er, Yi” (one, two, one) and then singing as they walked in a large circle. Every time someone meandered out of line, they were coaxed back into it (our three kids, who were playing freely in the area, seemed to be the only undisciplined ones around). I have no idea how this walking and singing was designated, but I sure hope it isn’t considered free play!

When I asked today about dropping off the kids in the morning at their classrooms, I was told that the drop-off occurs at the front door under the oversight of the school security staff (security at schools in China has been greatly enhanced following the disturbing spate of stabbing incidents in schools over the past 3 years – you can also read about the social context of these dramatic events in this NY Times article). After 3.5 years of involvement in pre-school co-ops and 1.5 years of volunteering weekly in Sophia’s elementary school classrooms, the idea of leaving them at the door, especially when I know they’re going to be nervous and scared on their first days, seems counter-intuitive to me. And, as time goes on, I want to see them in action! I want to take pictures and be able to visualize them in their school settings. I want to see who their friends are and then get to know them.

It seems that I’m going to have to let go of such expectations and simply trust that they’ll be okay (and that I’ll get some details of the school day from the kids themselves).  Even if I don’t speak their language yet, I did get a good feeling from the administrator and teachers with whom I briefly interacted and/or observed.  If nothing else, you better believe that I’m going to be feeling lots of empathy for the non-English speaking parents I encounter next fall when we go to Sophia’s second grade parent-teacher conference.

Pam

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2 responses »

  1. Pam, I’ve had similar feelings here in Germany as I’ve made mistakes with school schedules and pickup times (Amira waited outside the house for an hour yesterday because her school inexplicably let out early and we haven’t yet gotten spare kids made). However, I did realize even before we left that I would probably never get certain questions answered about the experience of being in a German school, despite my own desire to know. Heck, even at home, Amira had one semester in her new school and I knew very little about her daily experience there. The routine was new to me, the building and teachers never became familiar, and she was at a more taciturn age…. and that’s all in my home country and language. I realized all of that would be true here too, plus an unfamiliar system and language. Makes me a little sad, as I really want to know more about the cultural elements of the school system and my kids’ personal experiences there.

    • I know, I get bits and pieces each day, and definitely more from Sophia than Dylan. I’m really hoping that we won’t be away (we’re traveling with my parents for a week) during the one day a year when parents get to attend with their kids for half a day – the teachers tell me it’s “mid-April,” but won’t set the date ’til the week before. The advantage we do have to the kids telling us stuff is that they end up competing with each other about who’s being listened to more on the walk home, so they each want to tell stories. With your kids in different schools, there may not be as much of a desire to compete in that way.

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