Beijing now has nearly 150 English-medium, K-12 international schools, and the number is growing every year. Priorities for these schools are usually focused around providing high-quality academic education, and offering a range of extracurricular activities to encourage students’ interests and talents. But what are schools doing to help students cherish their own unique cultural characteristics, while also discovering, experiencing, and possibly adopting the cultures of the country that they currently call home?
Whether you are from a multicultural family or a third culture kid (TCK), the process of finding your identity or sense of home is never crystal clear. That’s why culturally-focused study and increased sensitivity to the needs of a diverse student body are taken very seriously in Beijing’s international schools.
Ralf Mayenberger, in addition to being an English and German teacher at Beijing World Youth Academy (BWYA), is a parent of two Third Culture Kids. Last year he was asked as part of a BWYA student’s independent study project to take part in a TEDx talk on campus exploring this topic of TCKs. He began his research by creating a 78-question online survey for students to get involved. What he began to realize through his findings is that many children don’t have the luxury of the universal idea of home being a single place filled with familiar people, and a sense of familial history, like he had grown up within Germany.
New definitions of home are created by the connections made through being in and exploring a particular place, specifically the schools which these students attend. It was through this that he realized the importance of friendship and the school environment for TCKs. It’s friendship which not only allows kids from multiple cultures to find comfort in very foreign settings, but it also gives them the necessary skills to adapt and create a sense of home anywhere around the world.
Being an international student means receiving an education that was created to establish globally-minded individuals. While many consider this to be one of the essential skills of the future, becoming globally-minded doesn’t come without its own set of challenges and confusion.
About this Mayenberger commented: “One thing about identity is that it’s not so easy to say what you are. So if I ask my children, ‘What are you? Are you German, or are you Filipino?’ it’s not so easy to answer. They might say ‘I’m Chinese’ because they were born in China. At one point my daughter said she was English because that was her first language. I’m from Germany, and my wife is from the Philippines, so both of those choices have nothing to do with our household.”
For many expat children born in China, being considered Chinese by the general populace is not an option. There are obvious hurdles in regards to receiving physical proof in the form of a Chinese passport, but then there are other differences that are glaringly apparent. For many, when it comes to being viewed as Chinese, you either are or you are not.
So there is a big responsibility for international schools to compensate for this deficit and create a classroom environment that’s equally accommodating to foreigners and locals alike, building the perfect foundation to influence students to think more globally, and adapting traditional and local methods to make sure the needs of all students are met.
One example of adapting a curriculum to fit the needs of a diverse student body can be found at The International Montessori School of Beijing (MSB), where currently 21 nationalities are represented. One thing that’s notable about MSB is that its approach towards Montessori learning has been altered to better suit the needs of Beijing’s foreign children, along with the children with foreign passports who might nonetheless identify as being Chinese. They call this the Dual Language Program (DLP). Kids are made to split their day between both English- and Mandarin-focused instruction to make sure they get equal exposure to each language, along with its respective cultural and social offshoots.
MSB’s Principal Rufus Samkin, says; “There’s a big part of the Montessori curriculum called Cosmic Education, and so, kind of ironically, Cosmic Education focuses on how civilizations of people are the same, what their similar needs are. From early elementary school, the children are challenged with this concept that there are all of these people coming from different places. They look different, they speak different, they eat different things, they have different religions or beliefs or ceremonies, but they are tied together by similarities.”
As a child, Samkin was in a similar position to many of his students. He too was a TCK, following his father as he was assigned to work on engineering projects across Africa. He went to local schools, learning the local language, and did his best to assimilate into these cultures. These formative experiences also influence his understanding and governance of MSB, as he’s well aware of the importance of providing students with a learning environment which is mindful of the local culture, but which also needs to remain in line with the international standards of the Montessori pedagogy. It’s about finding balance.
Though MSB’s dual language program has an established track record, providing young students with the best of both worlds, currently they are also looking into the One Person, One Language model (OPOL), which has also proven to be highly effective in this sort of multilingual learning environment.
Samkin said “One of the beautiful things about the Montessori model is that it’s so adaptable. By design, and something that Maria Montessori wanted from the inception, it is something that could transcend cultural barriers and could be taught anywhere by anybody because it’s taught in the language of humans and not in the language of any one culture.”
Thinking about what we share as human beings is essential in keeping students engaged in what they are learning, and able to apply it to their own lives. Instead of school just being a lengthy and tiring exercise of rote memorization, kids need to be able to take materials learned in class and apply them to situations common to their own experience.
When talking about choosing the right teaching materials that align with the experiences of his students, Mayenberger explained: “Based on their interests they start using what’s presented in the unit and transform it, creating connections to their own lives, and with that, they work on something they want to work with. Though still working on the unit, they are doing it with people with the same ideas, and it helps to create a sense of community.”
In addition to the selection of appropriate materials used to teach throughout different units of a particular subject, students are given opportunities to dive deeper into ideas of culture and identity outside the classroom.
“Students learn a lot through the unspoken, and through interactions with each other. After-school activities are very rich experiences because you are putting the kids together, they’re socializing and interacting in a way that’s not a traditional classroom environment. It’s very much real world. Whatever the activity is, they stop thinking about who they are and where they come from. Actually, when you’re talking about cultural diversity or cultural education, that’s what you want. It’s not ‘my friend who’s Chinese; it’s just ‘my friend’. That’s exactly what happens through the subconscious and the unspoken, and it’s really important,” Samkin stated.
At Harrow Beijing, the founding of the Zhi Li Society, a club intent on injecting more elements of Chinese culture into the school through a collaborative effort between students, staff, and parents, was inspired not by the lack of Chinese culture on campus, but by the need to have more of a student voice in the process of planning these activities.
This need led to the society’s founding last year, in January 2018. At that time the school was also considering this question, because of the increased popularity of Harrow among Chinese families, and more students expressing interest in Chinese culture.
Rosemary Zhao, Assistant Head Mistress of Harrow Beijing said: “Through the Zhi Li Society we want to help and facilitate our students to understand who they are, where they come from, and what they would like to be in the future. Because they are all, in a way, in a third culture environment at this school.”
While the arts and crafts, which are very much a part of the Zhi Li Society, provide entry points into a greater understanding of Chinese culture, their main focus is the organizing of events and other school-wide activities that correspond to the Chinese holiday calendar. So far they’ve run poetry contests, left Lantern Festival-themed riddles around campus, and are even hosting a “Dragon Boat Race” between Harrow Houses on the football pitch in June.
While the society’s weekly meetings are only open to students in Year 4 and above, Nathan Moore, Economics and Business Studies teacher, said; “I think it was the activities that we’re running within the wider school community which allow us to include everyone. So the lower school students very much take part in the Zhi Li Society just by participating in the activities that we’re running.”
Vicky, one student who is heavily involved in the Zhi Li Society, told beijingkids: “The Zhi Li Society has had a lasting impact on my future because as I’m applying to schools to study politics, I wrote about conflicts in cultures and civilizations and how these shape the world. I wrote in my application how my experience in the Zhi Li Society, in such a multicultural environment, helped me to see the world and to rethink what I want to do in the future.”
Emily, another advocate for the group, said: “It offered me a lot of opportunities because many of the events are discussed by everyone including teachers and parents, but it is mainly run by us, the students. It has given me a lot of leadership opportunities.”
An international school is a complex ecosystem of identities, which has to address the needs of students who come from many parts of the world. At the heart is the paradox that the globally-minded citizens of the future need to start by having a clear sense of who they are and where they come from. For children growing up in a culturally complex environment, this is a challenge; but with careful handling, helping them rise to this challenge can be empowering and enriching.
This article appeared in the beijingkids May 2019 Identity issue.
Photos: Kipp Whittaker; courtesy of Harrow Beijing