Whether your family’s in Beijing for a short stint or an indefinite period, most parents hope their children will develop and retain an appreciation of their host country. Beijing’s history is immediate and tangible. We’re fortunate to have an endless array of museums, walking tours, and sites at our disposal when it comes to teaching our kids more about the place we call our temporary home. However, nothing matches the impact of formal education and a well-crafted curriculum on learning. For this reason, in many of Beijing’s international schools, Chinese culture is woven into coursework, allowing students the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of Chinese traditions and its layered history on an everyday basis. We speak to five students from Keystone Academy about some of their classes, and how their learning makes them feel more connected to Chinese culture.
Q&A with Keystone’s Strategic Advisor, Dr. Sally Booth
Tell us a bit about how the Chinese Thread was inspired.
While it’s important to prepare students to be globally minded citizens with international perspectives and communicate effectively in two languages, our objective is to celebrate the culture and promote the identity of the local host culture of the school. One of the three keystones is bilingualism; we try to educate our students to be bilingual not only in two languages, but also in two cultures. The best way to do this is holistically. One cannot understand a culture by looking at its arts alone. Instead, one must see how the arts are influenced by history, and history is influenced by society, economy and politics, and so on. It’s important our students understand the rich complexity of Chinese culture.
When developing the curriculum, how did the school decide on the subjects to represent the Chinese thread?
It is best to approach the study of culture in different ways related to the developmental stages of the students, through integrated units in the Primary School curriculum, through detailed concept and skill-based study in the Middle School, and through serious academic scholarship in the High School. In the Primary School, Chinese themes from the Chinese national curriculum are woven throughout the units of study in both English and Chinese language classes.
Our goal in the Middle School program is to ensure our students are proficient in one of the traditional Chinese arts these arts including music, performing arts (wushu, drama) and visual arts (ceramics, painting, calligraphy) as key elements of Chinese culture. The meaning of culture can be abstract for students to understand; for that reason we use concrete examples from beautiful art, compelling music, expressive literature, and exciting events to help students grasp the development of ideas and the meaning of art in a coherent historical context. Thus, in middle school humanities, students study the complexity of Chinese history in a historical global context. They learn about developments in China, shifts in the evolution of culture, and the arts as they relate to world history. This is the key to developing creative and analytical thinking; critical thinking.
What qualities should parents look for in a school when considering a curriculum that successfully integrates Chinese Culture?
A curriculum should be coherent; it should have a narrative that provides a meaningful explanation of both what and why students are learning at different points in their course of study. An effective curriculum gives structure and meaning to the choices of content and skills being taught. A curriculum like that we’re developing at Keystone Academy has its own distinctive character. While we use IPC (International Primary Curriculum) and the International Baccalaureate MYP (Middle Years Programme) and DP (Diploma Programme) as general frameworks, much of the curriculum content is shaped by our commitment to the Chinese Thread and the objectives of international education – the teaching of ideas in a global context.
John An, 14, China – Wushu Class
“During wushu class, we learn a little about wushu’s history either by doing some reading or watching a video. Afterwards, the teacher demonstrates the moves and then we have time to practice on our own. The teacher is always a perfect example for us to copy, so it makes it straightforward for us to learn. We have more classmates in wushu than in other classes and I feel more confident with the bigger group together, like a big family. If I can’t perform a move, a classmate or the teacher will come help me immediately, and I really appreciate that.
When the semester comes to an end, the final test for wushu is to perform all the moves we’ve learned during the semester, but some of those moves are ridiculously hard and memorizing is always tough too. It took me a long time to remember the names of every single move and be able to write them! But if you pay attention and practice every day, you’ll be fine. Wushu is an interesting class to take. You can learn about Chinese culture and exercise at the same time!”
Cindy Liang, 14, China – Chinese History Class
“In the history class you’re expected to give your opinion and you’re free to speak your mind. We mostly learn by studying in groups and through discussions. After finishing different units, you can see patterns such as the rise and decline of different emperors and repeating trends. Good history books should make the reader feel alive in the story and make you think. Good books also should let students see both the good and bad aspects of what happened in the past. The Chinese thread history class is not just about learning history however, it allows students to think about different problems from history and to apply the lessons to current times. I like talking about history in creative ways. It can be very boring to just learn things that can only help with your test or projects, but this class makes you think critically and develop a comprehensive, rigorous way of thinking. Linking what we’ve recently learned about the past, connecting it to China now, and answering questions such as whether we can see similar events happening again are difficult questions to answer but it is also challenges us.
The most interesting project we worked on this year, was interviewing our grandparents and parents about lineal primogeniture. [The custom of the legitimate firstborn son to inherit his parent’s entire estate]. This project made us think about rules and unfairness created by emperors and of what the consequences of this system were.”
Kitty He, 15, China – Chinese Music Class
“Chinese music class is a bit different from our regular music lessons. We have three choices of instruments to learn: the guzheng, the pipa, or the ruan. For most of us, it’s our first time playing a Chinese instrument and we have to practice a lot. We all choose one song to play and at the end of the semester, we will perform in the Performing Arts Center. We play and practice every day and solve problems together. Our music teacher will film us and we’ll be graded on how smoothly we play.
We also learn about the history and the development of Chinese music history. We watch videos of famous musicians’ performances and the powerful, haunting music really fills us with awe. Chinese music class makes me feel more connected to Chinese culture because the guzheng is an ancient, traditional instrument and it’s easy to connect to its beauty when playing and hearing it. I recommend that other students spend time in the music room practicing their instrument. A little practice every day helps to develop your skills.”
Yana Li, 13, China – Chinese Dance class
“Dance makes me feel relaxed, so I really enjoy every class. Even if you can’t dance well, you don’t feel any pressure because the dance teachers are kind and always help us improve. The thing I like most about dance is that we are challenged to learn a lot. Before this I had never learned Chinese dance but after only one semester, I performed Chinese classical dance in the school play. I learned Dai last semester, which is an ethnic dance that requires coordination and enthusiasm; it’s very active. About ten girls from different grades level performed on stage. We had rehearsals every week and worked hard to make the show better and better. The older girls often helped me when I had questions. At the beginning of rehearsals, sometimes I was impatient and frustrated because I instantly wanted to become a brilliant dancer in a short time. I’ve taken away a lot from the experience because I’ve learned to be more patient with everything in my life.
Chinese classical dance and ethnic dances are part of our culture and through us the tradition is being passed down from generation to generation. When we study abroad in the future, we can introduce these dances to other countries.”
Betty Xiao, 14, China – Chinese History Class
“We learn about China’s past such as political systems of different dynasties. The purpose of learning history is to remember what happened before and to compare it with China’s modern society. Though our teacher lectures us on different topics, for some sections we need to read textbooks and then do our own research. After that, we create group presentations on different topics. So we’re not only receiving knowledge from our teacher or textbooks and memorizing it, we’re exploring and giving our own opinions on what we’ve learned.”
“I think the most interesting projects are essays though writing them can be difficult. We first need first find academic essays on a given topic, then analyze the essays; including information like the essay’s purpose, and its value and limitations. After that, we need to write our own essay and complete a reflection. Although history can’t be imparted and inherited in the same way skills can, but it is another way of connecting to Chinese culture.”
This article originally appeared on page 36-39 of the beijingkids February 2016 issue. Click here to read the issue for free on Issuu.com. To find out how you can get your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Photos: Uni You and Ines Yang