By Adam Hocking
MARSHFIELD — Madison Elementary principal Greg Kaster said he does not know of any other grade school in the state undertaking a project similar to the one his just completed. Twenty-eight students from Zhangjiagang, China, recently traveled to Marshfield and enrolled at Madison for two weeks.
What’s the goal?
The Chinese students’ visit comes on the heels of a trip school district administration took to China last year, which, according to the district’s Director of Business Services Pat Saucerman, was designed to “establish partnerships and relationships with our Chinese counterparts for purposes of international exchange.”
The students that came to Madison were ages 10-12 and spoke varying degrees of English. The most advanced students were able to converse almost fluently. The cost to visit Marshfield was covered by a fee that the families of the Chinese students paid, Saucerman said.
The Chinese students first arrived at Madison on May 3, and their last day was May 11.
According to Kaster, the families of the Chinese students want their children to be exposed to an American education, which can be philosophically quite different than a Chinese one. The Chinese, Kaster indicated, have a curriculum that is more narrowly focused on the subjects of math and science, and there is less exposure to the broad range of topics typically experienced by an American student.
Last year Saucerman said the goal of the international program as a whole was to expose students to new cultures.
“We don’t have any desire to stop with just the Chinese partnerships. Our hope is that we are able to create a multitude of different partnerships with different countries and different types of student exchange,” Saucerman said.
“We also hope to have a future teacher exchange and possibly a group of American students travel to China for a cultural exchange experience,” Saucerman said in an email to Hub City Times this week.
Culture shock goes both ways
Kaster noted that the appearance of Madison, with vibrant paint colors, open space, and student art hanging on the walls, is different from the environment the Chinese students are accustomed to. He said the students remarked on how “colorful” the building is compared to their own.
Twelve-year-old Chinese student David Miao said one major difference was how much students at Madison use computers for their work.
“In the classroom here, everybody use(s) computers … for like studying. In China they don’t really do that,” Miao said. When asked what his favorite activity had been in America, Miao said, “Well, there’s a lot of very interesting things. It’s kind of hard to list them out.”
While the Chinese students became familiar with a new school, language, and culture, they also brought some of their practices from home, which surprised Madison staff and students.
“They take naps every day, so … 12:30 to 2:30 they’ll be napping. It’s kind of wild,” Kaster said. The students occupied the library for nap time with mats and blankets laid out and lights switched off.
The naps are just one of the ways that that the Chinese students present a more laid back attitude, said third-grade teacher Amy Beil-Larson. She noted that the Chinese students have less of the sense of urgency typical at Madison. Lunch time, Beil-Larson said, had to be extended to accommodate the more leisurely pace of the Chinese students.
Though their pace may have been more relaxed, there was nothing laid back about how hard the Chinese students worked at their academics. Sixth-grade teacher Jeff Fischer, who had several of the Chinese students in his classroom, said their high level of discipline and work ethic was immediately evident. He added that, in terms of math, the Chinese students were ahead of their American counterparts. He cited an example where one Chinese student was able to multiply 9 ½ times 16 ¼ in his head.
“The level at which they compute is higher,” Fischer said.
Chaperones who accompanied the students said it was typical for class sizes to reach 50 students in China, much larger than what would typically be seen in local schools.
“American schools will pay more attention to every single student. But because there are so many students in a school in China, … we can’t,” said Yu Gu, one of the chaperones.
The language of children is universal
Kelly Trulen, a first-grade teacher at Madison, opened her home to be a host family for one of the Chinese students. Though the Chinese students stayed at a hotel each night, they did spend time with host families after school to get a feel for American home life. Trulen has two sons, and she said they made fast friends with the Chinese students.
“The pure joy and laughter that was coming from them as well as my two children was just amazing. It kind of gave me goose bumps. It was like two countries coming together and just enjoying each other,” Trulen said.
Each Chinese student was paired up with an “American buddy,” and Beil-Larson said the commitment those students made to help their Chinese counterparts assimilate was amazing to watch.
“The coolest thing is seeing how our American buddies have grown the past week. They have come together as a team, and it’s just been unbelievable. They don’t leave their Chinese buddy behind,” Beil-Larson said.
“The kids are better interpreters than the adults are by the way,” Kaster added. “They have a way of connecting that’s different than an adult it would seem like.”
Both Chinese and American students went on a number of field trips together, including a visit to the Minnesota Zoo, Mall of America, and Kalahari Resort.
“The American students were so happy and proud to show the Chinese students all these animals and to tell them about them,” Trulen said. “It was just neat for me to see them take on that role of … the teacher.”
“My staff has stepped up huge, huge on this (project),” Kaster said.