Students teach English to children in China

beijing school

Walking into a McDonald's and ordering a Big Mac with fries may not seem like a major achievement for a college student. But for a group of ACU education majors, such everyday activities took on a new level of complexity last summer.

Eleven students in ACU's Teacher Education program spent five weeks in China teaching at the International Academy of Beijing.  They found themselves immersed in a culture radically different from their own - where food, architecture, customs and even the alphabet were unfamiliar.

The trip brought unexpected multicultural experiences for the students - such as eating scorpions at a Chinese marketplace. But more than that, it gave the students a chance to provide a multicultural experience for the children they taught.

The International Academy of Beijing is a fully accredited private Christian school in China's second largest city.  About 80 percent of the academy's students are Korean, and many speak little English. The ACU students taught English classes to first- through sixth-graders, while taking Chinese language lessons themselves.

That in itself makes for a unique situation. 

A tale of two cultures

"They are teaching English as a second language, and then on a daily basis they are having to navigate a world in which they are the second language learner," says Stephanie Talley, one of two faculty members who accompanied the group. "I think it makes them empathetic in a way that we can't recreate anywhere else."

The experience at a Chinese McDonald's Restaurant made students aware of just how different even familiar-looking landmarks could be, Talley says. When the employees realized the Americans couldn't decipher the menu, they produced a picture board from which the ACU group could make its choices. That led to the idea of the ACU students using similar picture boards as they taught their Korean students, Talley says.

Sarah Drummond, a senior from Pueblo, Colo., remembers how bewildered she felt when she first arrived in Beijing.   "Not only are you in a new place, but you have no way of asking people for help or directions," she says. "You sometimes feel so lost and helpless."

But that sense of helplessness quickly transformed into a newfound confidence both in and out of the classroom.  

"I learned that I can pretty much do anything," the elementary education major says. "I went to an entirely different country and found my way around and was totally comfortable with it in a matter of weeks."  

A place for growth

Dr. Sam Stewart, assistant professor of education, saw confidence in the classroom grow from Day 1. 

"You need to see our kids interacting and teaching," he says. "You can see that first day when they're just scared to death to the last day when they are basically competent professionals. They have ownership in what they've done and the kids they've taught - just like any other teacher."

What's amazing, Stewart says, is that this transformation takes place in such a short period of time. 

"Applying what they've been learning in their classes at ACU into a real setting where they are allowed to be teachers is very unique," he says. "It prepares them extremely well to teach a diverse population later on."

A big reason for the confidence building is that the ACU students "own" their classroom at the academy. They are the teacher of record, which most graduates won't have on their resume when they leave college. They are responsible for running their own classrooms, setting up their own lesson plans and conducting assessments before and after their teaching time.  They do everything from bulletin boards to parent conferences.

"I was able to experience first-hand the life of a teacher," says Emily Folwell, senior elementary education major from Abilene.  "Not every teacher candidate has that opportunity upon having their own classroom. It was a chance for me to get out of my comfort zone and be in a new place, growing as an independent adult." 

Discovering China 

Outside the classroom, the students immersed themselves in the Chinese culture. They visited such ancient sites as the Great Wall of China, the Olympic Village, the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square.

Brian Johnston, a junior from Abilene, who plans to teach social studies on the secondary level, found the excursions especially intriguing.

"As a student of history and the social sciences, I've always been interested in China and jumped at the chance to visit the country I had only read and seen movies and documentaries about," he says.

Shelby McElvain, a senior from Oakley, Calif., says, "I feel as though I was able to embrace the Chinese culture." Part of embracing the culture for Shelby was sampling deep-fried scorpion-on-a-stick at one of the famous street markets in Beijing.

The senior communication sciences and disorders major says her favorite excursion was to the Great Wall of China. "To be in a place that has so much history and was so far ahead of its time was simply breathtaking," she says.

"They get to see so many sites that they hear about," Stewart notes. "But I think more important is they get to interact with Chinese nationals and Korean nationals on a pretty intimate basis, especially as they interact with parents of the children they are teaching." 

Confidence builders

This was the second year for ACU students to teach at the academy. In 2008, headmaster Tim McDonald formed a joint venture to bring ACU students to Beijing. The academy pays for the airline tickets and lodging. ACU students pay tuition plus $1,700, which includes food and excursions to famous sites. The first two years have been such a success that Dr. Dana Hood, chair of the Teacher Education Department, expects a long-lasting partnership.

Talley, who has accompanied students on both trips, looks forward to next summer and encourages students to take advantage of the opportunity.

"There's something about this situation, about being in a place that's foreign and about being away from your comfort zone and about being with a small group of fellow believers that really allows you to develop confidence in your teaching," Talley says. "If you can go to a foreign country and teach with limited supplies, and without the support system of your family and your peers and your parents, and without students who look exactly like you do and parents who look exactly like you do, I think at the end of this the students come out with a confidence and a poise that is very rare for an undergraduate."

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Serving Local Schools
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ACU Teacher Education majors get hands-on with students at a local elementary school.