Days 2 & 3: Wall-to-wall tourism

OK, a delay in getting this going, so striving to catch up…

June 17 and 18 were jam-packed with amazing tourist experiences in and around Beijing. We were shepherded by Lee (Li), the Chinese guide who accompanied us throughout the entire trip. His English was very good, and as a native of Beijing he was extremely knowledgeable about all of the sites we visited. He also shared fascinating insights into the Chinese perspective on history, traditions, social change, education, and life in general.

On the first morning we visited Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. A few shots of these:


In the afternoon we visited a silk workshop, and then did some shopping at a large indoor market of vendors selling all sorts of gifts and souvenirs. We capped off our first full day in China with a Beijing duck dinner.


Next morning the bus took us outside the city to a section of the Great Wall. A chair lift took us partway up; after that we had to climb a LOT of stairs to get to the highest watchtower. Such iconic views!


Going back down was unexpectedly exciting because we had the option of taking individual toboggans instead of the chair lift. Here’s a tourist shot they took on my way down:

toboggan ride

After lunch we explored the Summer Palace, which is actually a garden (the name in Chinese translates to “summer garden”) and Houhai Lake — both beautiful.

In the evening we walked through some hutongs, alleys that wind through old, traditional-style neighborhoods. I was strongly reminded of neighborhoods in Latin America, where each house is surrounded by walls and has a courtyard in the center. Walking by we could occasionally glimpse through an open door to see home interiors, each its own little world. I didn’t take photos because it felt like it would be an invasion of privacy.

Day 3 wrapped up with a dinner at a private home in the hutong area, followed by a night-time walk through a shopping district.

The following day was our first school visit, which I’ll discuss in detail in the next post, since learning about schools was the meat of this trip.



Travel summary: Day 1

Since I’m writing these posts after the trip to China instead of during it, I’ve decided start by reporting on travel activities, because tourism is fun and that’s what folks usually ask about first. Later on I’ll reflect on what I learned about Chinese schools, their implications for Asian EL students, and ideas we might want to consider in our schools.

Early morning on Friday, June 15 my travel companions (18 educators plus 2 program leaders) and I embarked for the long flight to China. I was entertained by the fact that we flew over the top of the globe, rather than across the Pacific Ocean! Here’s a cool (pun intended) shot of ice in the ocean, with the plane’s wingtip barely visible on the left:

Flying over the Arctic Ocean – no polar bears sighted.

When we arrived in Beijing, it was mid-afternoon of the next day (and 3am East Coast time). In order to tough out the hours until local bedtime, we delayed going to the hotel and instead went directly to our first tourist destination, the 798 Art District. It’s a former factory (#798) that’s been converted into several blocks of art workshops, galleries, and of course gift shops. With its murals and outdoor sculpture, it reminded me of artsy parts of California. After exploring the area, we had our first Chinese meal, checked into the hotel, and collapsed into deep sleep.

Pedestrians and shops
798 mural1
Example of mural (and teachers following leader)
Bike-share run amok
Warhol Mao
Public sculpture – worker as artist
798 T-Rex3
Why? Because T-rex




















Essential Questions

Final countdown! We’re leaving for China early tomorrow morning and arriving in Beijing on what will be Saturday afternoon there.

I’m completely geeking out about the tourism aspects of this trip (We’re going to see the Terracotta Warriors! OMG!), but since the primary purpose is educational, the teacher/student in me demands that I keep learning goals in mind. I always post “Essential Questions” when I teach, so up front I want to lay out some EQs that will guide my learning during this trip.

Regarding education:

  • In what ways do Asian educational practices differ from American ones, and what effect do they have on their students’ learning style?
  • How do cultural differences interplay with educational practices? Specifically, how do Asian students’ cultural background and educational experiences influence their performance in the American educational system?
  • Specific questions about Chinese schools:
    • What is the scope and sequence of their curriculum?
    • How is the academic calendar structured?
    • What is a typical school day like?
    • What is a teacher’s typical teaching load? Ratio of planning/instructional time? Teacher/student ratio?
    • What kinds of instructional materials do they use?
    • What is instruction like for the core content areas (math, Chinese language, science, social studies/history)? If there is English language instruction, what kind of practices to they use?
    • What do teachers believe creates academic success?
    • What do students believe creates academic success?
    • What differences in organization or scheduling might provide ideas that we should consider trying?
  • Based on what I observe in Chinese schools, what instructional changes might I want to recommend to my school district in order to better serve some of our EL (English Learner) students? (In Eduspeak: How might we provide more culturally responsive instruction?)

Regarding the experience of being “a stranger in a strange land”:

  • What do I find most surprising about Chinese culture? Most appealing? Most irritating or distressing?
  • What are the people like? How do I navigate social interactions?
  • What geographical features have I never seen before?
  • What everyday challenges does a person face when not literate in the local language, and what strategies can be used to cope? (This will be my first experience being in an environment where I can’t read anything; I expect it will help me better understand what some of my students go through when they first arrive.)
    • How do you take care of basic tasks and needs such as shopping, transportation, etc.?
    • In a school setting, what challenges are presented by being unable to read even basic signs?
  • I’m an adventurous eater, so will I like the food?
  • And perhaps most important, will the bathrooms be difficult to use?

So many questions, and no doubt I’ll think of more once I get there!


So, I’m going to China…

Once the school year wraps up in June, I’m embarking on an exciting trip to China with UNC World View, an organization dedicated to teachers’ life-long learning. The group of 21 educators will visit schools in 5 different cities to learn about China’s educational system, as well as visit historical and cultural sites. I’m grateful to Fund for Teachers for granting me a fellowship to pay for this unique opportunity. My overarching goal for this trip is to learn about the country’s educational practices and expand my capacity to “think outside of the box,” in order to spark ideas for alternative instructional approaches that might better serve the Asian refugee students in my school district.

I’ve been a K-12 ESL teacher for almost 3 decades and have taught students from all over the world. I enjoy guiding students through the process of learning English and navigating American culture, as well as learning about other languages and cultures from them. However, periodically I need to take a break from the teacher role and be a student again, immersing myself in new learning experiences. I’m familiar with Latin America and Western Europe, but I’ve never been to Asia. So, off to China!

My travel background

I was bitten by the travel bug early. During my childhood, my father frequently traveled overseas for his job, and an uncle made a career of living and working all over the world (and learning multiple languages along the way). Hearing their impressions of different countries and cultures fascinated me, and it sparked a life-long interest in other cultures and languages.

During high school I studied two languages (Spanish and Italian) and was an AFS exchange student to Ecuador. I’ve never forgotten what it was like to be submerged in a different language and culture — it was exhilarating, terrifying and exhausting, and it challenged me to grow in ways I never would have at home.

The student exchange experience left me hungry for more. I was lucky enough to be able to do it again in college, via a study abroad program at Oxford University in England.

Eventually, these experiences inspired me to become an ESL teacher. A few years into my career it dawned on me that because teaching is a portable profession, overseas living experiences were still possible. I yearned to revive my rusty Spanish and have opportunities to travel, so I got a job teaching English at a bilingual international school in Cali, Colombia. I lived and taught there for 3 years, and had some amazing travel experiences: I got to know different regions of Colombia, toured the Galápagos Islands and Machu Picchu, and reconnected with the Ecuadorian family that had hosted me as a teenage exchange student.