I just spent a weekend hosting four teachers from a traditional public middle school in Shanghai. Our school has an exchange program with them, where they take a small group of their students here to visit in the fall, and we take a small group of our students over there to visit in the spring. The kids stay with host families and go with their host students to classes, and the adults are hosted by local adults in order to get an authentic feel of the place.
It turned out to be very useful that I can speak Chinese. Two of the teachers spoke English very well, as they are English teachers at the school. A third one understood a decent amount, but a fourth one did not speak any English at all. It was not necessary, therefore, for me to speak Chinese, but the fact that I could helped all of them feel comfortable. Geoff tagged along to also be a tour guide, and we took the teachers to see all the usual touristy places.
We started off in Alexanderplatz on Saturday, took some pictures at the Rotes Rathaus (Red City Hall), and then they declined paying to go up the TV Tower, which is the highest point in Europe. I then took them shopping (as per their request), and after lunch we went over to the beautiful Reichstag, which is where the German laws are made. We had made a reservation beforehand, so we got to go up to the beautiful glass dome of the Reichstag, and to take a self-guided audio tour that introduced us to the features of the buildings surrounding the Reichstag and the features of the dome itself.
On Sunday, we first went to Schloss Charlottenberg, which is a beautiful palace built hundreds of years ago during the Prussian dynasty, and still today reflects the luxury of those times. During WWII, much of the palace was bombed and destroyed, so much of what you can see today is the result of reconstruction in the 80s. Still, you can get a sense of the grandeur that once dominated this palace. After some hours at the palace, we headed over to the famous Checkpoint Charlie to take some photos, and then we walked along the Eastside Gallery, which is a stretch of the remnants of the Berlin Wall that has since been turned into a symbol for hope and inspiration as artists have made the wall into an elaborate art display.
During the course of the day, I got a chance to ask about the school in Shanghai. One of the girls told me that in Shanghai, there are four tiers of schools: city-level magnet schools, district-level magnet schools, "normal" schools, and private or independent schools. At the end of every level of schooling (ie. elementary school, or middle school, or high school), kids need to take a city-wide test and apply for the next schools. The system is very competitive, because in order to get into a good college (or perhaps any college at all), you need to be from a top high school, which means you needed to be from a top middle school. There are some exceptions to this system, however, such as the fact that a kid who lives within a certain close proximity to a school has the right to attend that school, even if the kid is not academically qualified. And, on top of that, there is a lot of pressure from the government to make sure that ALL kids pass every class by the end of middle school, regardless of whether the child was qualified to attend this school in the first place. So, that creates a lot of pressure on the teachers AND on the kids who need to struggle to pass just ONE class, let alone all classes.
In Shanghai, this teacher tells me that they teach roughly only half of the time that I teach, but that in every class they have 40 kids. I asked her if she thinks she has enough time to reach every kid and to take care of them, and she said no. Most of her prep time is spent on correcting the daily homework that was assigned. The kids go home and most of them do their homework through midnight each night. So, it is an eye-opening experience for their kids to come to our school and see that our middle-schoolers have barely any homework and enjoy so much freedom at home and in school.
I look forward to visiting their school in April to see for myself what it's like!