Man from Hunan farming village gets doctorate, speaks at Harvard commencement

Man from Hunan farming village gets doctorate, speaks at Harvard commencement
JISHOU, HUNAN — A man from a small village near Changsha has become the first Chinese person to address a Harvard commencement ceremony. Hé Jiāng 何江 is the older son of a farming couple in Ningxiang county. Though the family barely had two coins to rub together, Hé did very well at school and his college entrance examination (gāokǎo 高考) scores gained him admission to the University of Science and Technology in Hefei, Anhui province. On May 26, he graduated with a doctorate in molecular and cellular biology from Harvard, and was selected to be the graduate school speaker at the graduation ceremony. In his speech (text in Chinese and English), Hé said he is concerned that modern medicine is unevenly distributed, so that poor people, like his own family and their neighbors, don’t have access to adequate care. He related a dramatic incident from his childhood, when his mother wrapped his hand in cloth soaked in liquor and set the cloth on fire after he was bit by a spider.    You see, the part of China I grew up in was a rural village, and at that time pre-industrial. When I was born, my village had no cars, ...

In which I recall the wise words, ‘Never assume’ 3

In which I recall the wise words, 'Never assume'
JISHOU, HUNAN — Journalists are often reminded to “never assume” they know the truth, or in fact if anyone knows the truth. Teachers need to follow the same advice, as I found out a few weeks ago in class. One of the activities in our Oral English textbook, which is published in the UK, asks the students to pair up and tell each other about a book they read as a child. Easy enough, right? Well, that’s what I assumed. In fact, it was not an easy task, because for a fair number of my students, the only books they had as kids were their textbooks in primary school. For these students hailing from the countryside, their first real chance to read a book for pleasure didn’t come until they boarded out to middle school. When I give my students this kind of assignment, I usually let them talk among themselves. If the hubbub seems to be winding down, I’ll ask a few of them to tell the class what they’d been discussing with their partner. Other times, I’ll join a group, or a student will ask me a question and I’ll stay and chat for bit. On this occasion, ...

VIDEO: Why do Chinese students come to American colleges, universities?

The BBC posted this video in June. Chinese students at the University of Illinois-Urbana/Champaign explain why they prefer to study in the USA. The main reason: they can study what they want. In China, your major is pre-selected for you, based on your performance on the college entrance exam (gaokao). High school students list five preferred majors on their exams, and the exam section with the highest score determines which of the five possibilities is assigned. So, this is why I’ve had students who prefer physics and math, but ended up being Business English majors. Their gaokao scores on the physics and math sections were too low. Parents are also fed up with the Chinese gaokao system. If they have enough money, they will send their children abroad for their university education, sparing those kids three years of intense, high pressure preparation for the gaokao. You can read more at the BBC.

Making a scale model of the solar system (video)

Some of my American students may recall our attempt at drawing the solar system to scale along Broadway in front of SFHS. It’s not easy to get both the size of the planets and the distances between them to scale. This video explores that question.

Right-wing culture warriors attack new AP US History plan

JISHOU, HUNAN — America’s culture warriors have found a new battlefield: the new College Board Advanced Placement US History framework. Most of us would just yawn, and say, so the College Board revised the course, what’s the big deal? But to those people who fear any change is a threat to Life As We Know It, the new framework to AP US is a liberal, anti-American plot to indoctrinate high school students in liberal, anti-American ideas. Conservatives are so alarmed that they persuaded the Republican National Committee (RNC) to issue a resolution opposing the changes, and have also succeeded in getting Republican-controlled state assemblies to do the same thing. The wording is nearly the same in each case. Their reactionary approach to the “new” APUSH alarmed Jefferson County, Colorado, students and teachers so much that they staged a sick out late last month. National Review columnist Stanley Kurtz spent more than two-thirds of a rather breathless column tracing, a la Glenn Beck, the invidious anti-American influence of one liberal historian on the new AP US curriculum. The origins of the new AP U.S. History framework are closely tied to a movement of left-leaning historians that aims to “internationalize” the teaching ...

Essay questions from China’s college entrance exam

JISHOU, HUNAN — China’s teenagers took the dreaded gaokao 高考 — the two-day national college entrance examination — two weeks ago. The gaokao tests specific knowledge of literature, politics, history, math, science, English and Chinese (putonghua 普通话), and requires an essay in putonghua. This year, almost 9.4 million students sat the gaokao. That’s more than the entire population of New Jersey! Students have an hour to wrote an 800-character response to the essay prompts. (Some versions require 1,000 characters.) Each province has a slightly different gaokao version from the others, and that includes the essay prompts, which are pretty cryptic — much worse than the freshman essay prompt I had, about the many uses of the paper clip. Shanghaiist has compiled translations of several gaokao essay prompts, some of which I share here. Hunan Province (where I live): There was one a place where everyone was very poor. Most of the people who worked here left after two years. However, someone stayed for years and turned it into the most beautiful village with the others. Write an argumentative article or a descriptive article on this topic. Sichuan Province (west of Hunan): The world belongs to you only after you stand ...

Teaching, 30 years on 5

Teaching, 30 years on
JISHOU, HUNAN — Thirty years ago this month, I started teaching. It seems like an incredibly long time — nearly half my life — but at the same time, those years have slipped by quickly. In that time, I have taught more than a thousand students on three continents, in several subjects, from kindergartners to adults. And I gotta say, I still like it. As with most careers, everyday work in teaching is fairly routine, run-of-the-mill stuff. At times, it is downright boring (reading essays, grading homework, marking tests, in-service meetings — ACK!), but most times it’s one of the most rewarding occupations in the world — not in the financial sense, but in a deeper and more significant sense. I get to watch young people grow and learn, and at the same time, I grow and learn. Every teacher can list his or her success stories, I think: students who were nondescript at first, but who later achieved something, no matter ow small, that was noteworthy in some way. It’s those moments that make teaching so worthwhile. After 30 years, I have lots of stories to tell, but I will offer three examples from the last several weeks to ...

Astonishingly bad teaching materials

JISHOU, HUNAN — Multiple-choice tests may be one of the easiest kinds of tests to take, but they are the hardest kind for a teacher to write. This may explain why some MC tests are so astonishingly bad, such as the ones highlighted at Jonny Scaramanga’s blog, Leaving Fundamentalism. Scaramanga’s blog includes MC questions from the Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) series, which are widely used among homeschoolers and so-called “schools” run by fundamentalist churches. Most violate every known principle of designing useful MC questions. Let me explain. Most MC questions give three to five choices, from which the test-taker must choose the best. Good questions challenge the student’s knowledge and understanding by providing answers that seem plausible, but are not quite correct. Some choices are called “distractors,” because they are there to mislead an inattentive or ill-prepared student into choosing them. Some teachers (like me) throw in a few joke choices from time to time, just to lighten things up. At my former school, there is a teacher surnamed Miron, which made for a perfect joke answer for a question involving subatomic particles: proton, electron, meson, miron. But designing MC tests is a nightmare, especially if you want the test ...

China’s dreaded college entrance examination — the test from Hell 1

JISHOU, HUNAN — High school students in China suffered the annual college entrance exam (高考 gaokao) earlier this month. Unlike the SAT and ACT exams in the US, the gaokao is given only once a year and tests specific knowledge about content. In addition, it is basically the only criterion for admission to a university in China. Needless to say, these factors (and the country’s huge population) create a lot of stress. The Telegraph carried a story from a small city in Hubei province, which is just north of Hunan. It seems one high school had had a surprisingly stellar record for several years in getting its students placed in China’s top universities. Provincial officials checked it out, and discovered widespread cheating on the exam that was condoned by the school’s staff. So, this year the education office sent a small army of exam proctors (invigilators) from other parts of Hubei, who were ruthless in removing any possible method from students’ persons, including checking for cell phones hidden in students’ underwear. Students were left in tears (since they hadn’t really prepared for the exam) and parents were irate. The school had to call the cops to put down a near ...

All hat, no cattle

JISHOU, HUNAN — I’m referring to Michelle Rhee, who has turned a short time as a classroom teacher and head of the Washington, DC, schools into a full-fledged career as One Who Has All the Answers to “save” America’s public schools. I remain unimpressed, given that she has few concrete accomplishments to support her claims, thus the headline here. Rhee is the subject of a short article in the Washington Monthly, and her new book, Radical, is the subject of a longer critical review in The New Republic by Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Lemann’s review is worth the read, especially if you think Rhee is the Queen Bee of school reform. Rhee has a single-minded approach to school reform, one that is fervently anti-union and test-oriented, but which ignores other factors that are related to student (and teacher) performance. StudentsFirst [Rhee’s latest school reform project] represents the next step in the journey Rhee has been taking all along. All policy and no operations, it frames education reform exclusively in anti-union terms, and ramps up the rhetoric even higher than it was during Rhee’s chancellorship in Washington. (“No more mediocrity. It’s killing us.”) Rhee actually ...

So, you think your trip to school was hard?

So, you think your trip to school was hard?
JISHOU, HUNAN — In Sangzi, Loudi, Hunan, which is a few hours from here by bus, children have to climb ladders up the side of a mountain to get to school. Watch this video, courtesy of The Guardian and Reuters. Hunan is a mountainous province, so we’re used to climbing hills, but the last time I took a trip like that was visiting a park in Zhangjiajie. Those ladders were metal, had safety cages around them and the angle was less steep. These kids are negotiating 70-meter (229-foot) vertical drops in some places. I can only imagine what they’ll tell their grandkids: “You think you have it rough? When I was a boy, I had to climb up ladders 300 meters to get to school — coming and going!” I’m including a screencap from Google Maps to show where Sangzi lies in relation to Jishou. Jishou is on the left (west) and the red pin is Sangzi village. If you want the satellite view, enter “Sangzi, Loudi, Hunan, China” in Google Maps. And no, I haven’t been there. Yet, anyway.

Teacher technology upgrade 4

Teacher technology upgrade
JiSHOU, HUNAN — Last week our classrooms all became multimedia rooms. Four years of waiting, and it finally came to pass. Here’s what the master console looks like: Operation is easy. Everything starts up as soon as I unlock the console desk: screen comes down, projector lights up, Lenovo ThinkCentre boots up. Internet is not yet working, but I don’t need it immediately anyway. They came just in time for my lectures on Western music in two weeks — part of the Western Culture course I have this term. You can see a slide in the pic from my lecture on literature this week. This is second time I’ve taught the course, using the same all-English, Chinese-made textbook as before. This time around, I set aside the book’s chronological presentation and organized my own topical syllabus. It creates more work for me, but I hope the subject becomes somewhat more approachable. Here’s the plan. See what you think. Quick review of Western civilization: Mesopotamia to the Modern Era Political systems Religion Midterm exam Science and Technology Literature Art and Music Economic systems Final exam The course is only for one term, so we have to move quickly. Too quickly, I ...
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