ChangXing Island Center Primary School: May 7th-26th

Teaching a second-grade class

After Norwegian volunteer Silje left the school on May 5th, and before my wife Grace arrived in Shanghai on May 26th, I taught the oral English lessons for all the children in grades 1 through 4.  During these three weeks I was very busy preparing and delivering lessons and things went fairly smoothly except for one difficult third-grade class. In this post, I’ll share some of the highlights of this period, including some things that happened outside the classroom.

First Weekend

Although only an hour away from Shanghai’s center, ChangXing Island has retained a very rural character.  Accessible only by slow-moving ferries until the recent opening of the tunnel, the island has developed much slower than Shanghai.  The river crossing has kept the culture somewhat insulated from western influences, providing a place where one might experience traditional Chinese life styles, customs, and ways of thinking.  But the island offers very little for an outsider to do for entertainment… no movie theaters, no sightseeing destinations, and only a few nice restaurants.  For this reason, most island volunteers head back to the Shanghai volunteers’ flat every Friday afternoon where they can enjoy the weekend offerings of Shanghai in the company of other volunteers.

But, since I had already seen most of the sights of Shanghai and because I have good friends on the island, I decided to spend my first weekend at the school.  Guoming and I had discovered we both enjoy fishing and he planned to take me fishing in a fresh-water lake on the island on Saturday.  Unfortunately, it rained heavily all weekend so we didn’t go fishing. I spent most of the time in my dorm room working on my blog, developing English lessons, and catching up on emails.  The school is very quiet on weekends.  Even though approximately 10 or 15 other teachers live in dorm rooms there, they are a quiet bunch and I rarely even ran into them.  At lunchtime, I donned my poncho and waterproof hiking boots and headed out for a long walk, thinking I might go as far as the tunnel entrance.  The rain was heavy and it was windy and I never made it to the tunnel – the tunnel road is basically a highway with no walking path and it was just too dangerous.  Despite my rain gear I felt pretty uncomfortable after my pants became rain-soaked below the knee-length poncho and I was happy to get back to my room.

After drying off and changing clothes I decided to pay a visit to a friend I had made in 2008.  Her name is Ms. Du and she owns and runs a small cigarette/convenience store just around the corner from the school. She had been very nice to me and my fellow volunteers in 2008, offering us free drinks and ice creams whenever we stopped in.  She even prepared a delicious meal of crabs for me on my birthday in 2008.  Her main business is selling cigarettes – a winning business plan in China – but she also sells lots of snacks, drinks, and convenience items.  She’s about 40 years old, is married and has a son a little younger than mine. Her husband and son apparently live and work in a different province and I get the feeling she doesn’t see them very often. In 2008, I visited her frequently on weekday evenings after dinner and we became friends.

With Ms. Du in her store

I had anticipated seeing her again and brought her a small gift from home – a cotton top with “New York City” emblazoned on the front. As I approached her little store, she surprised me by coming out of an adjacent clothing store where she had been visiting a fellow shop owner. She was SO surprised and excited to see me it was really fun and she quickly ushered me into her store, pulled out a chair and used one of the few English phrases she knew… “Please, sit down!” We picked up our conversation right where we had left it in December of 2008, meaning she would say something and I would reply “Sorry, I don’t understand.” Then, she would write it in Mandarin on the back of an empty cigarette carton and I would say, “Sorry, I cannot read.”

Over the coming weeks, she introduced me to her younger brother, who would come by on his motorcycle to join us in our efforts to understand each others’ languages. Using my pocket dictionary and the occasional help of a customer who spoke a little English, we slowly improved our ability to communicate and I enjoyed many pleasant evenings at the store.

Ms. Du and her brother look up a word in my dictionary

Ms. Du’s little store is a great place to meet a lot of different island people. Customers range from the elderly to toddlers, from professionals to laborers.  As I was usually sitting in a chair in the very small floor space between the counter and shelves, I became an item of interest for customers entering the store.  Some would ask about me while they were paying for their purchases, sometimes in Mandarin but more often in the Shanghai dialect, and

Outside store

Ms. Du would tell them I was her American friend who taught at the primary school just around the corner. Some people seemed very interested in meeting me and conversing a little in Mandarin while a few seemed a bit uncomfortable with my presence. I often felt a little weird being on display in the center of the store, especially when I could tell people were talking about me but I couldn’t understand what was being said. But, it’s interesting how much you can get out of non-verbal cues and I could tell that most people were inclined to be friendly and welcoming toward me. For me, the store was a great place to practice my Mandarin in an environment which didn’t give me the option to switch to English – as was always the case at the school. However, trying to understand and communicate was hard work so I usually only stayed an hour or so.


I took over from Silje teaching oral English to all kids in grades 1 through 4. It had been 18 months since I left the school in December 2008 and all the kids had advanced one academic year. I had taught grades 2 and 4 in 2008 so the only kids I was teaching again were the third-graders. The fifth-graders, with whom I had developed a special bond in 2008 when they were my fourth-graders, were still attending this school but housed in a separate building. They didn’t receive any lessons from the foreign teacher and they had their own lunchroom so I rarely ran into them unless I made a point to walk over to their building. At one point, I stuck my head into several of their classrooms to say hello – they all seemed happy to see me but a little restrained given our emotional goodbyes in 2008. I did have a nice reunion with my young friend Ni Renjie that was captured in the (very) brief video below. Renjie is the boy who’s mother gave me the free haircut in 2008 and whose snow-globe gift I was sad to lose at the O’Hare airport security check on the way home.

Video: Reunion with Ni Renjie

I found teaching the primary school kids to be harder than I had remembered. No doubt this was partly because I taught twice as many classes/students this time. But another cause is that, compared to middle school kids, it’s just more difficult to develop and deliver good English lessons for primary school kids. When students have a limited vocabulary and ability to express themselves, lessons must be carefully constructed and the teacher has to carry most of the conversational load during class. I did have a major advantage in that I had Powerpoint lessons I had previously developed for grades 2 and 4 in 2008. I tried to get by using a grade 2 lesson for both grades 1 and 2 and a grade 4 lesson for grades 3 and 4. But this didn’t think work very well so I gradually modified them to create separate lessons for each grade level.

Like Silje before me, I found keeping the attention of some of the younger classes difficult. Surprisingly, it was one of the third grade classes that created the biggest problem. During my first lesson in that class, the regular teacher didn’t show up. For about 30 minutes, I struggled to keep their attention. I made one boy, who couldn’t seem to stay in his seat, stand facing the corner in the front of the room. When he continued to distract the class, I moved him out into the hallway. This quieted the class for about 3 minutes but then it was back to chaos. Near the end of the lesson I just gave up and let them talk. When class ended, I went next door to the teachers’ office and told them I would not be teaching that class again. One teacher seemed a bit alarmed by my announcement but another seemed to be a little amused and said that would be fine. I learned later that this class is known to be particularly “naughty.” Guoming taught them computers and said he found the only way to quiet them was to promise 5 minutes free time on the computer at the end of class – if they were good.

Morning Flag-Raising Ceremony

One of my favorite things at the school is the morning flag-raising ceremony.
Every morning at 8AM, weather permitting, all students proceed to the playground just behind the school. By this time, the kids have been in their homerooms for about an hour studying under the guidance of one of their student leaders. Getting all 500 kids from their classrooms to the ceremony and back is a carefully choreographed process and quite impressive to witness. The video below shows the kids moving to the playground, singing the national anthem, receiving announcements and then performing their fairly complicated exercise routine. You’ll notice that kids come out of the building from three different doors – the younger kids (green uniforms) are queuing at the far end of the field. Homeroom teachers stay with their class during the entire process and they attend the ceremony every day. Other teachers attend only on Monday mornings and you’ll notice them on the side of the playground in two lines – women in front, and men behind them.

Video: Morning Flag-Raising Ceremony

Sharing an Office With Guoming

One of the main reasons I went back to this school was to spend some time with my friend Guoming. I was assigned a desk in the teachers’ office on the first floor but I didn’t use it much. Guoming is the IT administrator for the school and has his own little office in the corner of the 3rd floor auditorium so I spent most of my time there. Teachers’ offices have one or two shared computers but no connectivity for laptops and Guoming provided an internet connection for my Netbook. When neither of us were teaching we enjoyed each others’ company and continued our English-Mandarin lessons. The video below shows us ensconced in our corner office and captures a little of our ongoing Mandarin-English language lessons.

Video: Sharing an Office with Guoming

Eating on ChangXing Island

On weekdays, I enjoyed the delicious lunches provided by the school cafeteria (this 2008 video shows the lunchtime routine).  Guoming and I usually had lunch together and we often took a walk around the school’s playground area afterward.

Bilingual restaurant tab

Weekday breakfasts and dinners were provided by a restaurant near Ms. Du’s store: all we volunteers had to do was to sign our name because the school picked up the tab. The ledger the restaurant used to track our expenses so they could be compensated by the school is shown at right (for a closeup, click on the photo.) The cashiers seemed to find our western signatures as interesting as we found the Mandarin characters.

Chinese breakfast foods are quite different than western breakfasts but I grew to really like them.  They are also very inexpensive and many people eat out for breakfast, either grabbing something from a street vendor or visiting one of the small restaurants found in every neighborhood. My little restaurant was always full of people from all walks of life – many with their children on their way to school – and I enjoyed sitting at the same table with these folks. Most seemed a little shy about striking up a conversation with me (or perhaps it was just that no one was really awake yet!)

You Tiao (fried bread)

One very popular Chinese breakfast item is a fried bread stick called “you tiao” (you rhymes with dough, tiao pronounced tee-ow as one syllable.) Literally, you tiao means “oil stick” and that gives you an idea of how healthy it is (not.) It’s slightly sweet but nothing like our doughnuts and I rarely had one.

Xia Long Bao Dumplings and Hot Soy Milk

A more popular breakfast choice is dumplings – fried or steamed and filled with meat or vegetables. The adjacent photo shows the breakfast I had most mornings while at school. The basket is filled with steamed dumplings known as “Xia Long Bao” – a Shanghai specialty. The bowl is filled with hot soy milk which the waitress ladled from a giant pot in the corner of the room. Usually, I added a little sugar to the soy milk.

At dinner time, I often asked the restaurant owner to choose something for me and I was usually not disappointed. Occasionally, I opted for one of my favorite meals in China: “la mian” or hand-made noodles. For this, I had to go to a different restaurant and pay for it myself, but it only cost about 5RMB (80c). La Mian restaurants are easy to spot: just look for the little store with a large stainless steel pot billowing steam out front. The pot is usually tended by a young Chinese man wearing a Islamic prayer hat. I saw these restaurants everywhere I went in China and there were several on ChangXing Island. They are owned and run by people from Western China of the Islamic faith (men wear prayer caps and ladies wear head-scarves) and it’s usually a family affair – fathers make the noodles, mothers serve and cashier, and kids play with their toys inside or out front. The noodles are made right in front of you and you end up with a delicious, large bowl of noodles served in a tasty broth with some sliced beef added. The ChangXing Island La Mian restaurant near the school was tiny, with room for only about 6 people to eat at one time. The nice young man who ran it allowed me to make this video while he prepared my meal. He asked me to film only the noodles and not his face – not sure why but I tried to honor his wish.

Video: Making La Mian Noodles

Invitation to a Dance Rehearsal

Although I spent very little time at my assigned desk in the first-floor teachers’ office, one of the people I met there was a first-year music teacher. Miss Liu, who goes by the English name Honey, looked a bit familiar to me from a video of the 2009 Xu Bo Christmas party held at the volunteer’s flat in Shanghai. Sure enough, she had attended the party as a guest of a volunteer who was volunteering at ChangXing Primary at that time. Honey speaks only a little English but we were able to communicate using a combination of simple Mandarin and simple English. I learned she was busy directing some first and second grade girls in a dance number that would be performed at the upcoming Children’s Day celebration. I thought it might be fun to see a rehearsal so I asked Honey if I could come to watch them after school the next day. She said I was quite welcome and invited me to the music room at 4:00 for the daily one-hour rehearsal.

When I arrived I was a bit shocked to walk in on 10 little girls changing from their school uniforms into their dance costumes. Many were wearing only underpants and I quickly left the room, asking Honey to call me when they were dressed. When I returned to the room, all the girls except one were wearing their new dresses. This was the first time they had worn them and they were quite excited about them. However, one little girl remained on the floor in her school uniform, her head down and crying inconsolably. I asked Honey what was wrong and she said the girl didn’t like her costume. As you’ll see in the video below, besides being just incredibly cute, the girls are quite talented and performed a fairly elaborate choreography to the song “Nobody” – a pop hit from the South Korean group “Wonder Girls.”

Video: Dance Rehearsal

Other Weekend Events

On the other weekends during this period I returned to Shanghai. One Saturday I spent checking out the World’s Fair known as EXPO. Guoming and his family had tickets to take Grace and me on the first Saturday after she arrived. Guoming and I had been exploring the maps and could tell there was no way we were going to be able to see much in one day. So we worked together to develop a “plan of attack” to make the most of our day together. Toward this goal, I spent one full Saturday at EXPO by myself, trying to learn as much useful information as I could. I didn’t carry my camera on that day and I’ll save my discussion about EXPO for a later post. All I’ll say for now is I think I was on my feet for about 12 hours and was quite exhausted when I got back to the volunteer’s flat!

Lunch with with Vera and Simon

I got to know some nice new volunteers on these weekends. In the photo at right, I’m enjoying lunch with Vera from Switzerland and Simon from Holland.

Simon and Ronald at Xintiandi

At left, Simon and another Dutch volunteer named Ronald pose for a photo in Shanghai’s XinTianDi district, a trendy area with many western restaurants and bars. It’s very popular with the young Chinese and with westerners who want a taste of home, as long as you don’t mind paying exorbitant prices.

Not far from XinTianDi is FuXing Park, a beautiful, well-groomed public park where people can enjoy a respite from Shanghai’s loud urban environment. One of the popular activities here is ballroom dancing, which is in full swing on weekends.
Video: Ballroom Dancing in the Park

Enjoying a pizza with Mieke

On one other Sunday, I was happy to catch up with an old friend. Mieke, a 2008 teaching volunteer
from Holland, was back in China, this time as a tourist traveling alone. She came to Shanghai for a few days and we arranged to get together on the Sunday she arrived in Shanghai. After meeting her at the airport we spent the afternoon together and enjoyed a pizza at a XinTianDi restaurant – very tasty but expensive!

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