After I confirmed with the Green & Shine Foundation to participate in the G&S Reading Week Project in late June this year, I began to look forward to the volunteer tour with great anticipation.
There was no direct flight or train from Shanghai, the city where I lived, to the school, but the staff of G&S sent me a detailed and well-illustrated travel guide with detailed graphic tips on each transfer station. On a scorching summer day and 24 hours after leaving Shanghai, my volunteering companion and I finally made it to the Daxing Elementary School in Longshan County, Hunan Province, a school in a rural village.
Since I had left school for many years, I found the classroom scene quite familiar and exciting when I first arrived at this school. However, the classroom, which also turned out to be our shared bedroom, made me realize that real life of volunteer teaching was radically different from my fanciful picture of countryside. Together with the university student volunteers from Hunan Normal University, we made this classroom feel like a college dormitory: a simple mosquito net, a bed made by joining desks together, and a pillow i.e. my travel bag. This was a fresh new experience for me. In the next couple of days, the classroom dormitory also served as our office, and the desks our beds. This humble dormitory, however, was filled with laughter. Here the ingenuous and cheerful college volunteers often talked and laughed merrily, or shared stories with the students, or made preparations for the next day.
Almost all of the children in this rural village were left behind. Their parents went out to work, leaving their grandparents or relatives to help with the care of them. However, since their family were less-educated and had incorrect views on education, little attention was paid to their learning and education. In this Reading Week Project, we had 37 students, all left-behind children. They received little parental care from an early age and lacked the necessary motivation and guidance in their studies. What parents expected their children to do was to finish school early and go out for work to earn money to support the family. Childhood was a time of happiness and innocent joy. These children would go to catch cicadas and fish with their friends. At first, I had a slight concern that they would be a little resistant to returning to school during the summer holiday, which turned out to be misplaced. Children who had been informed of the Reading Week Project came to the school early to sign up. One student who failed to sign up went home disappointedly but soon came back with his/her grandmother and beamed with joy after managing to register for the classes. When classes began, students would arrive at school at 7 a.m. every morning. At the end of the day, instead of rushing home, these children would gather around the teacher to ask questions. It was evident that they had a deep attachment to their teachers and a sense of belonging at school.
To encourage learning and fun through more interaction and communication, this Reading Week Project was designed to include varied subjects. The science and craft lessons were very engaging. A child was excited to share with me his/her growing green bean sprout the next day. Most surprisingly, there was G&S Mini Library, a “treasure corner” at this rural school. The students were eager to read in the library. They lined up and followed the volunteer teachers to the nicely decorated place. After selecting a book, they would read silently in a corner or read aloud. Having finished reading one book with great interest, they would immediately look for another book or recommend this one to their best friends. They exhibited a combination of quietness and vitality. In the classroom, they quietly followed the teachers’ instructions on how to do various experiments and crafts. Once after class, however, they would rush to the playground, jumping rope alone or playing badminton with friends and teachers.
I remembered teaching for the very first time, when the boys and girls quickly quieted down as I walked into the classroom. I walked up to the podium and looked at them. Their eyes, simple and pure, told me how ardent they were in the pursuit of knowledge. They were in the third and fourth grades of primary school but barely studied English before due to the lack of English teachers. I quickly assumed the role of a teacher, explaining simple letters of the alphabet and showing them a world map to let them know English as a widely spoken language in the globe. I also noted that people living in rural areas had been somewhat exposed to English, for example the size labels on clothing. I thought this would demystify English so that they would build confidence and interest when learning this foreign language. This was my ultimate goal of my teaching. I taught the alphabet song at the end of this lesson, and the students were smart enough to sing along in the second lesson. During the second lesson, I wanted to encourage all the 37 children to communicate and interact in class. Therefore I wrote letters and drew animals on slips of paper and then instructed them to find the corresponding letters or words on the blackboard. The classroom immediately became positive and pleasant. They even came to vie for my hand-drawn paper slips after class. At that moment a feeling of “unparalleled satisfaction” came over me.
The teachers here did not care in the least about graduation rates or scholarships, instead they were more concerned with making the world more accessible to the students in the rural village while helping them keep a simple mindset. They were just as lovely as the children. I stayed only one week during my annual leave here, but these teachers devoted their youth, and even their life for some, to teaching students in the rural village.
As renowned journalist Chai Jing once remarked in an interview with Eckart Löwe, a German volunteer teacher in rural China, “Education represents a perpetual inspiration. It always exists between people and for ourselves just like a tree shakes another tree, a cloud touches another cloud, a soul awakens another Soul. When I learned last summer that one of my best friends was going to do volunteer teaching, I told him/her repeatedly that I wanted to sign up for the program this year. When we grow old and look back, we probably have plenty of things we could pride ourselves on, for example the first salary out of college or the joy of being on the podium with a trophy. But for me, this summer has been the best summer of my life.