09 September 2017

Camp Teaching in Chengdu, Part 1 of 3 . . .

So I am writing this post as we wait with bated breath for Hurricane Irma. She is set to hit Tally by 2pm on Monday, September 11th. It should be a category 2 or 3 by the time it gets to us. I am less worried about flooding than I am about giant trees falling onto my apartment and smashing through the window. Here is what the outside of my apartment looks like . . . 

I think we'll be okay. But, I may head up to Georgia tomorrow to hang with colleagues. Now, China!

I am organizing my blog posts on my recent trip to China into three posts, each featuring one week of classes and sightseeing.

I left for China two days after returning home from my three week road trip across the Southeastern part of the United States. I’m not sure why I thought this was a good idea. But it’s how everything happened. In fact my whole summer was like that: one thing on top of another thing on top of another thing. I just wanted to teach a couple of camps and relax a little. Nope. No soup for you, Ms. Bailey!

Sidebar: Teachers should never do this to themselves. Those breaks are put into a teaching contract for a reason! They are well-deserved and needed in order to properly prepare--mentally and physically--for the next school year. Anyhow . . .

China . . . Well, China always has unexpected surprises around every corner. Some of them good--really great--and some of them, well . . . Not so great. This particular experience in China was not a favorite. In fact I quite enjoyed my time in Beijing a whole heck of a lot better then this experience in Chengdu. I was really surprised that this particular experience was so terrible. I think there were a lot of factors involved: pay, timing, expectations, area of the country, language, housing, teaching experience, etc. I will try to explain everything out as I go through each week that I was there. It was hard guys--longest three weeks of my life.

On July 6th, I left Tampa, Florida for Chengdu, China to teach a three-week camp focused on art and society. The camp was through MaxIvy, an offshoot of Great China which is a well-known and established SAT/ACT/English immersion program in China. The mission of MaxIvy is to prepare children to become global citizens through delivering high-quality learning and enrichment opportunities.

From MaxyIvy marketing tools, “The English Immersion Programs and Enrichment Programs provide a wide range of educational and recreational opportunities that support young children’s language, cognitive, and social development. Language programs also focus on teaching English within the context of different disciplines and topics to build students' conversational and contextual abilities for communicating in English. This aspect is important to the holistic preparation of children for future rigorous academic environments abroad.”

After a terribly boring flight across the ocean (on China Eastern you are not permitted to listen to anything on your personal cell phone: no music, no audiobooks, no podcasts, no nothing), I arrived in China just after midnight on Saturday morning. My roommate--a 27 year old male--greeted me on the street and led me upstairs. I slept for a few hours, then woke up to find that I was living in an absolutely beautiful apartment and neighborhood. Not unlike a fancy and relatively quiet part of New York City.

We left the apartment around 9:30am, grabbed some coffee at Starbuck’s (it happens), and arrived at the school at 10am. By 2:20pm, I was sitting on a panel in front of a room full of Chinese parents talking about education in the United States and how beneficial inquiry and exploration are to a child’s potential for critical thinking. (This was the first of many surprises that my roommate and I were unprepared for.)

That night, my roommate Michael and I went to the largest mall in China—Global Center—and watched as families played in the water at the indoor beach and took notice of the multiple arcade areas in this 7 story/multi-block mall. We decided to go to an IMAX movie: Despicable Me 3. This seemingly small event was life changing. I fell in love with the Despicable Me characters and series, and I’ve been watching all three movies on repeat since. For dinner, we had Chinese BBQ at a family establishment around the corner from our apartment. This was super entertaining, as there were happily inebriated people on one side of us that kept sharing their beers and cheering with us, and three little girls on our other side who kept singing Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance while dancing.

On Sunday, we spent the day downtown at Dufu Thatched Cottage, a poet’s house and meditation center. It was beautiful, but so incredibly crowded that it was hard to focus on any one thing.

On Monday, I arrived at school around 8am to prepare for my first class. Classes began at 9am, so arriving at 8am seemed like a logical deal. No one was there. I waited by the elevators to go up to the school until 8:30am, when someone finally arrived. It was then that I started to kind of realize that this wasn’t an art camp. This was a day camp to keep kids busy, or--worse yet--glorified babysitting.

That is not what I do. Nor was that what was explained to me when I agreed to this position. I also found out on this day that students were only signed up for one session. We would only be paid for one camp and not two, as promised. On our contracts we signed off for being paid for teaching hours. This would have been fine, if they had given us two sessions. But they only gave us one. So going into the three weeks, I was already down half of my take-home pay. No bueno.

I also found out that most of the students registered for our "classes" were children of the people we were working for. This was frustrating to me because I asked this company a few weeks prior to arriving if I had students to teach or not, was anyone registered. At that point, they sounded like they were still searching for students when they were signing me on to teach. But camps/summer classes should be registered for by January or February at the latest. So how could they not have students registered by July?

I was also required to stay in the office whenever I was not teaching. I taught between 9 and 11:30am. But I had to be on campus from 8:30 - 6pm every day. There was hardly any air conditioning and the students were sometimes left to run up and down the hallway. I dealt with this by taking 1 - 2 hour walks for my lunch break.

I did the best that I could do with the supplies I was given. For example, I was given model magic in random colors (purple, orange, blue, lime green, and grey) instead of air dry clay. And the yarn came in the smallest skeins I’ve ever seen. I mention this because supplies make a difference. Respecting art enough to give it what it needs makes a difference. Cheap Charlie-ing everything is my biggest pet peeve. It is one thing to get creative with new materials and see how things work, but I know that this organization had the money to spend on materials. They flew two people from the United States to China to teach a camp. But the respect wasn’t there for the classes in the beginning, so they weren’t going to purchase the proper supplies. This is also why I felt like I was a 20-year old babysitting kids in an aftercare program again. (See also the paragraph about pay, above.) 

It was during this first week of classes that I found out from my supervisor that my roommate and I were being paid the same wage. He did not have a college degree or teaching experience. I was furious that they would even consider paying us the same wage. I also thought it was rather strange of them to put a 43 year old women in the same apartment as a 27 year old man, sharing a bathroom. We had never met, nor were we on the same page for why we traveled to China. My goal: art teaching. His goal: Chinese women. 

As an international teacher, I have heard countless stories such as this one. A teacher signs a contract to teach and on the other end of that contract are crazy situations. One teacher told me her school was in charge of her electricity and sometimes the bill wouldn’t be paid, so mysteriously her electricity would get shut off. (Wait until the next post to hear more fun things about my situation.) It’s very important to check every institution out backwards and forwards.

As far as teaching is concerned, I think I did okay in the first week. There were a lot of things I had to figure out. One of them was language. I was told that the students understood English. They did not. They understood about as much English as I knew Chinese. (This means none.) And not only did we not know each other’s languages, but the students did not want to be there. It felt like they were forced by a parent, an administrator, you name it . . . I could tell by both their behavior and attitude.
I combated this by having my Chinese speaking assistant help to translate an activity where I had the students create their own classroom rules. We talked about the rules they came up with and how they boiled down to: 1. Respect each other. 2. Respect our artwork. 3. Respect our classroom and supplies. Then, each day--for three weeks--I had the students repeat the rules outloud as a group in both English and Chinese. They really liked doing this! Especially when we got to the Chinese part! We started every day like this. Then I would launch into a small PowerPoint that I put together showing strong visuals of what we were doing for that day’s activities and what our point of inquiry might be. After I would go through the visuals (and I could physically see their eyes opening wide, and some ooooohing and aaaaaahing taking place), I would have them sit in a seating chart so that I could learn their names. Then I would have them draw an Art for Kids Hub guided video that matched our point of inquiry for the day. Students of all ages from all walks of life LOVE this YouTube channel. Mr. Rob is so great at explaining line and shape and taking time to let a drawing come to life. And it’s all in the name of fun! So the kids had a blast!

The first week I was in China, the students' lessons were focused on the theme, “All About Me”. We talked about family, likes and dislikes, talents and skills, dreams, and similarities and differences. By the end of the first week, the students were understanding my expectations. It was still a challenge, but manageable. 

Did I mention that I also had to teach PE? (Surprise number 302.) I love doing active things and being an active person, but I do not enjoy teaching this. I am also not fond of games. I do not like board games or group games or physical games. I’m not sure where this comes from. I have always been talented physically, but I just think games are sort of lame. So I don’t like initiating games. My only way around this was to engage the students in relay races. I would set up paths for them to circumvent. Usually it involved a ball, a hula hoop, and a series of cones. It ended up being great fun. But PE coach, I am not.

By the weekend, I was exhausted. I couldn’t believe that 2.5 hours each day left me so tired when I teach close to 6 hours straight every day during the school year. I. Was. Beat. The weekend was when MaxIvy arranged for us to go on tours. Everything was paid for, so I didn’t want to skip anything. The first stop we went to was Leshan. 

Leshan is this neat city about 2 hours from Chengdu. There is a giant 72 meter Buddha in a park there, built right off the water and straight up. You climb stairs up to a temple where monks live, you see the tip of Buddha’s head, and then you walk down a skinny and frightening staircase on the side of a cliff to see the Buddha from the bottom up. It was fascinating!! More than anything else in the world, I love to visit temples. So this trip was perfect for me.

Leshan was incredible! These were our awesome tour guides on our first day of touring. Both of these young men are students with Great China and roughly 17 years old. 

After seeing the Buddha in full, we went to a different section of the park where we were able to go into ancient caves with carvings of all sorts of gods and goddesses. This part of the day was absolutely amazing! I felt just like Indiana Jones.

The next day we went to the panda park. I thought it would be more like Yellowstone, but it was basically a zoo. It was so frustrating to see so many people there, bothering the pandas. Honestly, I have never seen so many people in all of my life. And just crowding around the animals, trying to take pictures. It was so bizarre. Those poor pandas just needed some peace and quiet!

But after the panda park, we went downtown to a part of town where the older part of the city was turned into shops and eateries. We ended up ordering some bubble tea and watching an opera, which thrilled me to pieces! The costumes in the opera were absolutely gorgeous!

We went to Sichuan Art Museum and saw a beautiful show with images of rural China by Feng Yang. We also met a mural artist. The scroll murals took him 7 years to complete!

After eating dinner, I caught a cab and went home. The day--nay, the week--had been long, and I needed to catch up on my sleep before starting the next week of classes . . .

Please stay tuned for week 2 of China. Up next: Australian Matt and his collection of images featuring painted stobie poles in and around Adelaide, Australia!

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