On March 19, 2019, after a full day of travel, A’dan and I arrived in Dali Prefecture’s Qifeng Village and met up with our other coworker, Long Haiyan, at the house of one of the village’s esteemed calligraphers. During our first night in the village, A’dan and I spoke with the teachers and principal of the local elementary school, the Qifeng Center Primary School, about our plans for the next day and about how the school was doing. The remains of a fire warmed our legs as mahjong tiles clicked together game after game among teachers, and empty sunflower seeds fell to the floor from people’s hands all around us. Chatter filled the cool night’s air, and I found myself feeling absolutely humbled to receive such a warm welcome from the people of Qifeng Village. People were so kind, in fact, that A’dan and I, despite having already eaten at the calligrapher’s house, ended up eating a second dinner with some of the teachers from the village’s school. Then, with our stomachs full, we left for the night, and I reviewed my lesson plan for the next day one last time.
The following day, A’dan and I made our way to the Qifeng Center Primary School. As the two of us walked through the school’s large, metal gates, students looked towards us, distracted from their morning exercise routine as they took a peek at who the two visitors were. After a quick conversation with the school’s principal, Mr. Zhang, we decided that I would actually be teaching two classes instead of one; I would have class with both the fifth and sixth graders at the school, and my first class would be that morning rather than in the afternoon as we had originally planned. Fifteen minutes or so later, I found myself entering the fifth grade classroom.
As I walked into the classroom where I would start my lesson, I could not help but stop in my tracks as every single student stood up from his or her seat to greet me with a resounding, “Laoshi hao!” Hello, teacher! Awkwardly, I told the students that they could take their seats. Then, I took a deep breath and prepared myself to begin teaching.
As I began my lesson, I had a bit of a rough start, and the language barrier between my students and I felt impossibly imposing, especially with my low level of spoken Mandarin Chinese. With some help from A’dan, however, my class was soon running smoothly, and my students were retaining more and more of the information that I was teaching them. After I went over some vocabulary, specifically directions and body parts as well as a couple of basic verbs, we were ready to play “Simon Says,” only in this class, we would call it “Laoshi shuo,” The Teacher Says. At the beginning of the game, it was clear to me that my students were still getting used to using the words I had taught them, but each one of them was nonetheless eager to do well, and I was thrilled to see them all so engaged in my class. When we moved on to our final activity, learning “The Hokey Pokey,” the kids’ faces really lit up, and I could see that they were excited to move around and just have some fun. I had been so anxious preparing for my lesson at the Qifeng Center Primary School, but what has been made clear to me time and time again is that students engage more fully when their teacher is not afraid to have fun with them and act a bit goofy sometimes.
The students at the Qifeng Center Primary School had never had any formal English classes before I went to the village—most students from the village only begin learning English when they enter middle school, and by this point, they may already be far behind their peers in this subject—but they did have a clear passion for learning. Seeing this, I could not help but wonder how much there is that the students could learn and achieve that they have not had the opportunity to try and experience.
When the Qifeng Center Primary School’s principal, Mr. Zhang, showed Haiyan, A’dan, and I around the school later in the day, I was surprised to see that the school’s music room was supplied with such a wide variety of musical instruments. A full drum set sat at the front of the classroom, and two xylophones flanked its right side. Just past these xylophones was a cabinet containing an abundance of castanets, tambourines, and recorders, and filling a set of shelves tucked into the back corner of the room were ten or so electric keyboards. Because the school has no music teacher, however, this trove of instruments has been left idle. Nevertheless, the teachers and students at the school are full of vigor, and they are trying to cultivate a meaningful learning experience.
When I first stepped onto the grounds of the Qifeng Center Primary School, I was taken aback by how magnificent the school looked. Two multistoried buildings flanked the left and back sides of a large yard paved with cement, and I could feel the energy of students and teachers as they made their way around the space. Now, after spending some time with the teachers and Principal Zhang, interacting with the students in my two classes, as well as just getting the chance to meet so many kind and friendly people, I have gotten to see how truly beautiful Qifeng Village is, and all of its immensely passionate students and teachers deserve to have their efforts recognized; the students of the Qifeng Center Primary School deserve to have the resources to reach their full potentials.
Written by: Elizabeth Tong, a student from Princeton University interning at Eco-Women