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Two principals from China visit Ridgefield schools

Shown are, from left, Shunling Dong, Rebecca Pembrook, Ariana DiLaura, Liz Anderson, Wenjun Liu and Xuiqin Wang. —Jennifer DiLaura photo

In the midst of hurricane Sandy and winter storm Athena, Ridgefield was host to two elementary school principals from China’s Shandong province, Connecticut’s sister state in China.

Dong Chunling and Wang Xiuqin were part of a group on a three-week tour of the U.S. funded by Hanban, a non-profit organization affiliated with the Ministry of Education of China and arranged by Dan Gregg of China Education Exchange Services in Connecticut.

The mutual goal was to share educational methods and investigate the opportunity for an ongoing cultural exchange partnership.

Principals Dong and Wang arrived a few days after Hurricane Sandy. Jennifer DiLaura and Wenjun Liu hosted the women and the first few days were a challenge with no power and streets impassable.

With schools closed, their carefully planned itinerary was put on hold. Instead, Principals Dong and Wang got to see our clean-up efforts and community outreach first hand. They visited The Garden of Ideas, did some shopping and took in the sights in town, including all the large trees and power lines down along the roads. They visited the polls on Election Day, seeing democracy in action. They were also welcomed in several homes for home cooked meals.

Once school was back in session, their first early morning stop was to Barlow Mountain Elementary School for the before school enrichment Mandarin class. They were impressed with the children’s enthusiasm and surprised to hear that parents would pay extra to have the class.

Scotland Elementary School was next, where they observed the classroom of first grade teacher Liz Anderson, who had traveled to the Shandong province several years ago with the same program. “After experiencing their schools, it was interesting to hear the principal’s perspective about how American schools and classrooms operate. As they took photographs of our charts and visuals around our room, it struck me that they had not had the same types of decor in their classrooms,” said Ms. Anderson. Afterwards, Principal Mark Solomon treated them to a tour of the building.

With the snow starting to fall, they made their way back to Barlow, where principal Rebecca Pembrook was busy preparing for the early dismissal. Maintaining contact with the front office, Ms. Pembrook was able to provide a quick tour of the school, stopping to introduce the women to several staff members, including nurse Loretta Steinman. She explained her duties, which include providing daily medical care, including injections, nebulizer treatments and more, to those children needing it. “Those children would not be in school in China,” said Principal Wang.

The next days were spent at Barlow visiting classrooms and observing everything from morning meeting to closing circle. They spent time with Dr. Constance Taibi-Lewis, Pre-School coordinator and toured the rooms used for physical and occupational therapy. Thanks to the interpreters who volunteered their time, Grace Reddy, Cecelia Keefer and Wenjun Liu, everyone involved was able to participate in the exchange of information.

“I learned so much about my own school. I had no idea that so much preparation by Ms. Pembrook, the teachers and staff went into every aspect of my daughter’s education,” said local organizer Jennifer DiLaura.

Principals Wang and Dong were most impressed by the high quality of the teachers and willing participation of the parents in school activities. They enjoyed seeing the interaction between teachers and students. The Responsive Classroom program is so much different than procedures in China, where teachers stand in front of the class and teach with little or no interaction — probably due to the size of each class, which ranged from 40 to 60 children! Principal Dong was surprised to see how Ms. Pembrook interacted with the children — at times getting down on the floor to talk to them. “That would never happen in China,” she said.

It wasn’t just the adults that were appreciative of the visit. The children were curious about the visitors as they passed through the various classrooms. Ms. Anderson reflected on her class’s visit, “It is so valuable to be able to venture into a new culture and appreciate education in a new light. It was wonderful to see my students excited about having visitors from so far away. They were immediately asking questions about their home country and the students there — Definitely a “teachable moment.”

On the night before they left, Shunling and Xiuqin treated some of those involved in the week to home made dumplings. There was also discussion on how to continue the exchange of information. “I would like to have exchange with students, teachers and parents,” said Principal Dong.

“I look forward to a continued partnership with China,” said Ms. Pembrook. “I learned a lot from the principals during their visit and was surprised to learn that they struggle with some of the same issues in education in China as we do in the US. We discussed the difficulties of balancing standardized assessments with creativity and the arts and the need to measure a child’s success based on their own individual progress. It was a great exchange of ideas.”

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