Now that Sophia and Dylan have been in school for two months at Brown Kindergarten (I initially posted “Why Chinese Kindergarten” right before they started school on March 1st), I thought I’d give an update on how they’re doing. It hasn’t been easy for us to find out much about the details of their days, aside from the intermittent stories the kids share with us (does anyone else recognize this problem!?). Last Sunday, however, we finally got a chance to get into the school and spend the morning with the kids, as it was the one day a year when parents are allowed to come and observe a normal day.
The first question you might have is why would they go to school on a Sunday. It turns out that when there’s a holiday, the days are not simply taken off, but must usually be made up on the weekend before or afterwards. In the case of last weekend, the kids went on Saturday and for a half-day on Sunday, because there was a three day May 1st Labor Day holiday this week. They then had a three-day vacation, returning to school on Thursday. Having the kids go to school seven days in a row turned out to be pretty strange, with the three-day mid-week holiday throwing us off even further. I can’t tell you how excited I am for the kids to return next week to a normal, five-day week of school!
Before we attended their classes, there were a couple aspects of their school days that we understood clearly: both of them hate naptime (estimated to be about two hours long), as well as the length of the school day (8:00 a.m. – 5:15 p.m.). Since there isn’t a lot we can do about that, aside from taking them out early, when they complain we let them know that it’s just the way it is in China and remind them that we’re only here for a short time. Aside from that, both of them are doing pretty well, it seems, in spite of the language and cultural differences. Maybe because Sophia’s older and the kids in her class know more English than the younger kids in Dylan’s class (plus, the one other American in the school, Soren, is in Sophia’s class and they’ve become friends), Sophia seemed more socially content much earlier than Dylan. It wasn’t until a few weeks ago, when an English speaking Australian-Chinese boy rejoined Dylan’s class, that Dylan actually seemed to be happy at school. In fact, in the recent “comment book” installment that we received from his teachers (they write to the parents every few weeks and then the parents can respond), the following was explained: “Dylan has the common language of good friends. He is Joshua. They enjoy themselves. In order to baby’s attention is more focused, in their class, I will separate them, but Dylan will not be happy. So I will let them together. Because I think the happiness is the best important.” Well said!
We’re really glad that they’ve decided that Dylan’s personal happiness is a priority, because the general approach to the school is very different than the play-based half-day co-op pre-school he attends in Charlottesville and I can see how Dylan might find it a little constrictive. For example, there’s very little free-play, even on the playground. Instead, there’s organized dance with objects like plastic rings, as well as obstacle courses, keeping the kids occupied and involved in group activities. We found out after about the first month that Dylan didn’t like the playground dancing and “decided” to stay inside with the teachers while the other kids were outside. After we said that we really wanted him to be on the playground, we think he’s been going out, but it’s clear that he rarely actually participates in the group dancing, as I witnessed during the performance they gave last Sunday. He did follow along in other group activities, including line standing and walking (I’m amazed that thirty four-year-olds can be so good at standing in lines, but they certainly have gotten the practice!) and the method of doing certain activities, which seem Montessori-inspired (each child takes a mat, carefully unrolls it on the floor, chooses a single toy, and then sits quietly at the mat playing with it). Most of the kids were incredibly disciplined and quiet during the whole activity demonstration (unlike in Dylan’s preschool in the States, you could hear a pin drop!), which shows how remarkable the system is in teaching values that are important to Chinese society: discipline, the greater importance of the group over the individual, repetition and structure over creativity, etc. On a side note, Dylan had a bit of a hard time with this first activity and, in fact, cried during most of it (see pictures!). We were a little bit late, so I think he was missing us when they got started with the activity!
One of the most significant differences between school in the U.S. and Sophia’s classroom here is the early knowledge and subsequent publicity of who is the best in the class. Apparently, Ming Ming (English name: Barbie) is the top student and the teachers make sure to let all of the other students know it. In fact, at the end of December she even received a prize in front of the class for being the best student: a pet bunny rabbit! The teachers also have the kids work with math problems in small groups and then compete against each other to be the best. Coming from the U.S., where it took me almost the entire year to figure out which level of reading group Sophia was in in kindergarten, this overt praising of the top student was definitely a cultural shock of sorts. I had already read in Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother about this different approach to education (click to read an earlier post I wrote about her book), but it’s still surprising for me to see it in action. However, even if kindergarten may seem young for this sort of singling out, when the kids enter Chinese primary school next year, they will be very much a part of a system that ranks and praises top students. While I’ve heard that some Chinese parents at Brown wish that their kids had just a little more competition-free time in kindergarten this year, the reality is that soon the children will be burdened with the knowledge that their success or failure on the college entrance exam (the Gaokao: click here to get a sense of the process) will determine the rest of their lives (some children, especially in rural and minority areas, will start taking exams much earlier to get into schools that will help ensure greater success on the gaokao). Most kids start to really feel the pressure to perform strongly by middle school, but the intense testing and ranking will begin right away in first grade.
While the teachers might foster competition, on the nurturing side I’ve been struck by the way the teachers care for the kids in an in loco parentis sort of way. For example, both of the kids have had their nails trimmed by the teachers at school, something they do for the kids on a regular basis. Every day Sophia’s hair is redone at least once, so when we pick her up her hair often looks better than when I brushed it in the morning. Dylan usually has a lightly perfumed scent to him when we pick him up and I found out it’s because they spray the kids towards the end of the day to freshen them up (Sophia opts out). Dylan also showed me where the cream is located in the bathroom that they put on the kids’ faces. In fact, neither of them gets dirty at school (in contrast to the paint and sand on Dylan almost every day when I pick him up in C’ville!) and Dylan always gets dirtier on the way home than he does the whole day at school. The only “dirty” aspect I’ve noticed that happens at school is the sticky rice that gets stuck to their clothes every day, usually on the elbows and cuffs (although there are a variety of healthy foods served throughout the day, Sophia and Dylan still eat mainly rice).
The hygiene at school is also impressive. When they cook and serve the kids’ food (there are five feedings a day, as described by Sophia: breakfast; milk snack; lunch; snack; and after-snack), masks are worn the entire time. Sweeping occurs throughout the day during and after all activities, and the children’s hand washing is impeccable (after the children regularly wash them, the teachers inspect each set of hands). Although I couldn’t understand most of the song, while Dylan and his classmates were washing their hands at one point, the teachers sang a hand-washing song that appeared to be very detailed about all of the parts of the hand and fingers that needed to be washed (see photos of hand washing hanging in the bathrooms). Each child also has his/her own cloth hanging in a labeled area to dry hands afterwards. Clearly, there are great efforts to keep germs from spreading and from keeping sick kids out of school (as the children enter the school each day, their temperatures are taken and their throats are inspected with a flashlight). My guess is that the school has been instructed to be even more vigilant now with the recent concern with H7N9.
Finally, regarding language challenges, both Sophia and Dylan seem to be doing okay. Sophia’s been working with a tutor at our house three days a week after school, which she enjoys, and is definitely making progress. She also enjoys learning characters and is able to keep up with the kids in her class, as they are just learning characters themselves (extensive character learning doesn’t begin until first grade). At school she still doesn’t understand the majority of what’s being said by the teachers in Mandarin, but her teachers can always help her by explaining things in basic English. While there are some aspects of the class that she really can’t participate in, like putting sentences together in pin-yin (the Romanized version of Chinese), she doesn’t seem to mind. I think because she spends the nap period reading her own chapter books in English (she’s almost finished all 44 of the Magic Treehouse books we brought with us!) and working on her homework from her Chinese classes, she feels okay if she can’t do everything the other kids in her class are doing.
As I mentioned above, Dylan has had a bit of a harder time than Sophia, as there is less English spoken in his class, even though the kids have English class regularly. When we spent the morning with him, we experienced how little he probably understands and felt bad for him. Still, he’s picking up phrases, which he occasionally shares with us, and even after only three weeks of attending school, when I was trimming his nails, he counted his fingers in Chinese. We tried hiring a tutor to work with him too, but after a couple of weeks, we accepted that he doesn’t have the attention span yet to sit with a teacher and work for an hour, even if she did make efforts to make the class playful.
Now that we’re halfway into our Beijing stay, we can see our departure on the horizon. The kids, especially Sophia, mention things she wants to do in Charlottesville when we get back, like have play dates with her friends. While I wouldn’t say that they love Brown Kindergarten, they seem to have found a familiarity with its (and our) daily rhythms here that make going to school tolerable and, at times, even enjoyable. Sophia mentioned seeing Dylan in the hallway yesterday and that he was smiling. Since this must have stood out to her as unusual, I’m hoping he’s on the upward swing. Regardless, I’m guessing that they’ll be especially grateful to be back in their schools in C’ville next fall.