education

lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer

Posted on June 24, 2009. Filed under: American culture, chinese culture, education, Japanese culture | Tags: , , , , , , |

I see it coming, like a runaway train, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it. The day after tomorrow school is over.  The kids will be home for the summer.

One of my kids’ favorite summer activities is  sitting on the floor behind my chair while I’m working, and fighting.  Another favorite activity is opening the refrigerator.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, Americans go to school about 180 days a year.  We have more days off than in school. Other countries, of course, think this is ridiculous. European and Asian kids spend more hours each day in school. Many attend school Saturdays. They have fewer vacations.  If a foreign school has 15 days more each year (from K-12), that equals another 180 days of study, or another entire school year.

I’ve met many Japanese and Chinese expats who are amazed to see how little homework their children get in the US schools. Many teachers give 10 minutes homework per grade (1st grade:10 min, 2nd grade:20 min), so by 6th grade students have 1 hour homework. American kids are asked to focus less time, and in one study gave up on tasks faster than their Asian counterparts who focused on solving the problem for a longer time.

And why do American high school kids finish class by 2:00  in the afternoon? What are they doing the rest of the day and who is around to supervise them?

US kids get 10 weeks vacation from school during the summer. Since we no longer need the children to harvest the fields, they should be sent back to the classroom. 4 weeks vacation seems generous. As an American,  I don’t think cramming kids all day, every day is a good idea. I value free time for kids  creativity, self discovery and social development.  But the summer vacation is archaic. The teacher’s union, probably the biggest block to a longer school year, needs to realize 183 days a year won’t cut it today in a global economy.

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Starting school in America? Time to pick a race!

Posted on March 23, 2009. Filed under: American culture, diversity, education, race | Tags: , , , , , , , , , |

For decades, students entering the American school system have been identified by race. Tracking of students by race was meant to identify trends, measure successes and allot funds. Children could belong to one and only one of 5 categories:  

  1. American Indian or Alaska native
  2. Asian or Pacific Islander
  3. Hispanic
  4. non-Hispanic black
  5. non-Hispanic white

Since America is known as the great melting pot, this seems quite arbitrary. So many children, especially in newer generations, are of mixed heritage, and don’t fit neatly into only one category.

When I registered my son for kindergarten I didn’t check off a race on his paperwork, because mixed race wasn’t an option. The principal went ballistic. “If you don’t choose a race, the kindergarten teacher will assign him a race.”  I will never, ever forget hearing that from an educator. 

Starting 2010, new, more inclusive categories will be included on school intake forms for mixed race children. However, these only apply to new students entering the system, not to kids already in school. Also, using these expanded categories it is not mandatory, but the government is encouraging all schools to use this new system.

I find this desire to assign people one and only one race as ironic, given our love of the hyphenated American, when we proudly declare ourselves to be Italian-American, Irish-American, etc. Many hyphenated Americans have never visited their “homeland” and don’t even speak the language. Still, most Americans can proudly tell you their roots, and where their ancestors came from.

By continually slicing and dicing our student body into ever expanding categories of races, we start to miss the obvious. At this point in American history, it seems to me that class trumps race in terms of educational opportunities and successes.  I am guessing that middle class and wealthy students will have greater educational oportunities and successes than poor students, regardless of race.

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Are some cultures more gifted than others?

Posted on March 6, 2009. Filed under: American culture, Asian culture, cross cultural, education | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

My son is highly gifted in math. He is very advanced in all his subjects, but he is off the charts gifted in math. I’m not sure where this came from, although I personally believe the hand of God is involved.  I first noticed something was unusual when, as an infant, he started lining up raisins in a pattern. By kindergarten he was adding mixed fractions in his head when everyone else was counting to 10, and by 5th grade he started teaching himself calculus by downloading lessons from the Texas A&M math department website. Our school district supports gifted education and has let him accelerate 3 years in math.

Being gifted in America is a big secret, where “all children are gifted!” If he were a star athlete, or a prodigy musician, that would be fine. But America, the land of equality, really doesn’t like the idea that some people are innately smarter than others.

We attended an award ceremony at the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth for the top 400 middle school children nationwide, based on SAT scores. (SATs are college entrance exams).  The children were called up alphabetically in groups to receive their awards, and when the W,X,Y,Z group was called,  an enormous amount of students stood up.  They were the Wangs, Wus, Wongs, Xias, Xies, Xins, Xus, Xues, Yans, Yangs, Yaos, Yes, Yoos, Zhangs, Zhengs, and Zhus. The most highly gifted students were overwhelmingly Asian.

This is my dilemma. I don’t believe one race is smarter than another. And I know that Asian culture highly values education and these students were there because their parents pursued this testing to identify their child’s ability. I know that, unlike in America, it’s fine to be gifted.  I’ve also read that the math systems in China, Japan and Korea are easier than English, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in his book Outliers. But these were Asian-American children. They were learning math in English.

These were not just good students, they were the top students in the nation. You can’t coach a 12-year-old to score a 700+ in math on the SAT. You can barely coach an adult to reach that score. These students weren’t recognized for their hard work, but for an innate ability. So given their small percentage of the general population,  I’ve got to ask–why are so many of our top math students Asian?

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Chinese teachers and American students

Posted on February 28, 2009. Filed under: American culture, Asian culture, chinese culture, cross cultural, education | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , |

My company ran a number of beginning Chinese conversation classes for one corporation, with locations in 5 states. While I was at first concerned about coordinating the multi-state program, what turned out to be the biggest challenge was working with Chinese teachers.

The differences in teaching styles, as well as expectations surrounding classroom management, were enormous. The instructors were not very familiar or comfortable with a communicative approach to language instruction (emphasizing interaction and real life communication; not grammar focused).  The Chinese instructors were used to top-down instruction, and were not as skilled acting as facilitators.

The American students (all adults) expected to be active participants in the class. They wanted teachers who were knowledgeable in the subject area, dynamic, creative and energetic. For the Chinese instructors, being dynamic and creative were not as important.

Our beginning level language classes use a great deal of  Total Physical Response (TPR). TPR is a fast-paced activity that helps students develop listening comprehension skills and increase their vocabulary. In TPR, students follow the teacher’s instructions to complete certain actions over and over. (think Simon Says). Commands grow in length and complexity as the course continues. Students can feel immediate success without having to produce utterances.

All of the Chinese instructors were unfamiliar with this technique, which is standard in ESL, and had to be coached. They found it very useful, but I was stunned at the lack of creativity and spontaneity. After a few class sessions, I got calls from some teachers asking if they could purchase flash cards of different pictures to use for the TPR lessons. They said they had “run out” of things to talk about. Run out!  That’s the beauty of TPR–you can’t run out. Even if you use every single noun in the room with every possible verb, you still have pronouns to run through, not to mention all those prepositions. And all of these, in an endless variety of combinations. Run out?

All of the teachers were committed professionals. They were eager to learn new teaching methods, and were willing to try out new techniques. At course completion, they all recieved excellent student evaluations. I wonder if the results would have been the same if they had not been coached in American teaching methods and student expectations?

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Where do you draw the line?

Posted on January 30, 2009. Filed under: Asian culture, cross cultural conflict, education, family, Japanese culture | Tags: , , , , , |

We all know about “when in Rome, do as the Romans do”.  Culturally sensitive people will try to fit in and not offend members of the culture they are visiting. For me, this included wearing long sleeves and long pants in Malaysia, even when it was hot, hot, hot. I’d rather be too hot than insulting. I wasn’t comfortable, but it was something I would put up with.

But where do you draw the line? When do you say, no, I can’t abide by that part of your culture. It goes against my deepest beliefs, and I just won’t do it.

I was delivering a workshop on Communication Strategies for Asians Doing Busines in the US, and we were discussing the importance of selling yourself in American culture. You need to be comfortable, I pointed out, discussing your strengths without self-deprecation. What’s great about you? Speak up. In US business culture, it’s not bragging if it is an honest assessment of yourself presented in the proper context. (for example, a job interview or request for a raise)  You need to know your strengths and be able to talk about them openly and with conviction.

This trait is so valued, I said, that school children are taught about it in the context of developing self esteem. I then showed them a worksheet my daughter had in school.  It was a fill in the blanks worksheet:

The best thing about me is _________

I’m really good at ___________

I’m proud that I can ____________.

and so on.

One Japanese gentleman in the workshop, who had been sent by his company for a 3-year rotation in the US, said that his daughter had brought home a similar worksheet from her school. He and his wife were so upset, that  soon after they pulled her from the school and put her in a Japanese school instead. His explanation was this: He didn’t want his daughter (who was 6) to develop these types of American values. At first, he thought it would be a great opportunity for her to attend an American school, perfect her English skills and learn about a new culture. But he worried that when they returned to Japan when she was 9 that she would bring these values back with her. She would face all sorts of problems. These were not the values he wanted for his daughter.  Talking about how great you were is where he drew the line.

Learn more about navigating the American school system here.

Have you ever been in an intercultural situation where you said, no, I can’t support that.  This goes too much against my beliefs. What happened to make you draw the line?

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