Monday, April 30, 2018

International School Award: School Visits in Taipei

Those who are in charge of the ongoing ISA projects, complete with the previous award winners, got invited by the British Council Taiwan and the Education Bureau of Taichung City to visit two prestigious schools, Sanmin Junior High School and Dongmen Elementary School, which have been renowned for their achievements regarding International Education. I learned a lot from these visits as well as met many educators all over Taichung that shared the same passion together.

Two Visits
Sanmin Junior High School welcomed us with the principal's PowerPoint presentation, featuring a variety of projects intended to connect with the world. Incorporating butterflies and rhino beetles into the school-based curriculum, Sanmin boasts their teachers' devotion to numerous professional learning communities and innovative products of collaborative lesson planning. Following that, an English teacher gave us a lecture about the refugees from Syria, and then we got to experience an "electronic" paintball fight. Last but not least, we had a close contact with the school's caterpillars and rhino beetles, with the "prince"'s company and vivid presentation.  

Dongmen Elementary School also began with the principal's report. The school's volunteers, mostly students' moms, developed learning materials and activities in terms of six countries' diverse cultures outside of Taiwan. The teachers used picture books to raise awareness of environmental protection and then took action by organizing a beach cleaning campaign in Taipei. The idea is that students will learn to realize that we're all part of this global village and bear some responsibilities for our mother earth. On top of that, there are 12 schools with English scenario simulation classrooms in each district in Taipei, and Dongmen has two to further promote spoken English.

What I Learned
Both Sanmin and Dongmen have something in common with regard to developing curriculum and activities to be an ISA winner. First of all, based on the school's unique resources, including the physical environment and teachers' creativity, both schools have achieved a lot with regard to SIEP and ISA. For example, I wouldn't have thought that a school in downtown Taipei can have so many butterflies and rhino beetles inside the campus, and Sanmin brilliantly used that to develop curriculum centering on that topic. Second, their great achievements encompassed many collaborative and interdisciplinary products of subject teachers. The number of learning communities at Sanmin impressed us greatly. Third, they aimed to benefit the majority of all the students, which required hard work from ALL offices. I wondered what was the real driving force behind all these if it were not coercion. Compared to that, I felt I had been all alone along the way, even after winning the ISA in 2016. 

Curriculum vs. Activity
You can have whatever activities that are really fancy, intriguing, and motivating. However, what do they have to do with English learning or international education? What do students DO with English or cross-cultural communication? How do you know students have achieved the desired objectives? Take the paintball fight for example. Sanmin solved it by including Syrian Civil War and the trauma that the refugees have been through, and thus the paintball fight was transformed from only for fun to a meaningful curriculum.

To my way of thinking, a curriculum refers to many things, including objectives, activities, assessment, materials, to name just a few. On the contrary, an activity may be used just for fun and ignore, to some extent, the rest of the elements. Moreover, a successful curriculum experience can be extended to another teaching context, while an activity can't necessarily be duplicated in other classrooms. Most important of all, a curriculum would hope to equally benefit all the students, while an activity may be only suitable for the elite ones. Well, it's the new norm now that almost all government-funded projects stipulate that they have to be action plans with clear, specific curriculum design within and can benefit most of the students.

International cultural exchange, from my point of view, requires participants from both countries to do the same topic and share what students have achieved with each other. Some of the activities mentioned in the presentations today did not sound like it because they were only conducted here in Taiwan. For example, if I want my students to present some historical significances of Taichung with Skype exchange sessions, my partner schools need to follow suit so that we can compare the differences between the two cities. 

Not likely to involve so many students with the same activity? For instance, Skype exchange sessions are impossible to engage all the students. However, by working with other subject teachers, such as computer science or social studies, most of the students can be involved all right. Then, we choose and build up some key elements to focus on, with carefully organized tasks conducted only in the International Cultural Exchange Club or a select few. 

Do What I Love
With or without the government-funded projects or competitions, I just know that I will always do what I love, which is creating an authentic environment for my students to really USE the language, including Skype exchange sessions, international volunteers, making English-speaking videos, introducing the beauty of the campus and Taichung, and so on. However, there's just something completely beyond my reach even though I'm so willing to take my projects to the next level and benefit a lot more. Until then, I'll just keep on working on the projects in hand. 

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