Volunteering at Migrant School

There are a lot of migrant workers in China, over 130 million. Most migrant workers are leaving poor, rural villages and moving to cities on China’s eastern coast in search of better job opportunities. Most of these jobs are in factories, low-paying according to American standards, but much higher wages than what these workers would receive if they remained in their rural villages. If you are not familiar with China’s migrant worker situation, I recommend watching Last Train Home, directed by Fan Lixin. It tells the story of a migrant family from Sichuan province and the difficulties they encounter as a family. As of a few weeks ago, you could watch it for free on Hulu.

Shanghai alone has over 9 million migrant workers (Shanghai’s total population ~ 24 million people). This means that 9 million people in Shanghai do not have a Shanghai hukou (户口). A hukou is a residency document that one receives at one’s birth. This document states where (city/province) one was born and is very important because it determines whether you must live in the rural countryside or an urban city. Now, that’s not to say that someone with a rural hukou cannot move to a city (case in point: migrant workers), it is just that they will not receive the same benefits as a resident with an urban hukou. The main disadvantages that face migrant workers, since they have rural hukous, is that they cannot access medical care without paying large sums of money and their children cannot attend public schools in Shanghai (again, there are exceptions).

To help ameliorate this problem, 151 migrant schools have been established all over Shanghai. They mostly cater towards children of migrant workers, but there are also some children whose parents are Shanghainese. In general, these schools do not receive as much funding as the other public schools and their teachers are often not as qualified. Stepping Stones, a not-for-profit organization, was founded in 2006 to help improve the students’ English capabilities, which is the biggest difference between urban and rural students. Stepping Stones sends volunteer teachers into various classrooms throughout Shanghai and even holds some after school programs. They are a great organization for connecting ex-pats to the local Shanghai community.

I along with three other CIEE students go to a migrant elementary school every Friday and teach English for an hour and a half. We have two classes so there are two CIEE teachers in each one. Each class has between 20 and 40 students (age 8-10) and, oh boy, they can be quite a handful!

The first few lessons were incredibly stressful. For starters, Chinese children are taught to scream the answer when asked, so the first day, when we we doing colors, all of the sudden we would be bombarded by 40 voices screaming the answer at the top of their lungs. There were also these three little boys who were constantly getting out of their seats to wrestle or jump off their desks. This one boy even kept running up and down the aisles and then sliding on the floor at the end. Trust me, I tried to get them to sit nicely and listen, but unless I was standing right in between all three of them (we were not allowed to change their seats), they were completely out of control.

I personally do not have much experience with little children. In high school, I volunteered at a food pantry (Families Forward in Irvine, CA) and did some bank restoration on the Newport Back Bay. In college, I am a volunteer with Whitman’s Adopt-A-Grandparent program, which connects college students with an elderly patient living at the Odd Fellows Home a block away from campus. My brother is only two years younger than me, so I also didn’t have the experience of having a significantly younger sibling to take care of.

As the weeks have gone by though, teaching has gotten progressively easier. Honestly, the key is really simple: stickers. The kids LOVE stickers. I picked up a pack of Mickey and Minnie Mouse ones from a little office supply shop in Shanghai—best 5 kuai investment of my life. The kids will do ANYTHING for stickers. Sometimes, we can get them to play the same game for 20 minutes without losing interest because they really want to win a bunch of stickers.

For each class, we usually spend 10 to 15 minutes learning the new vocabulary words. This includes holding up flashcards and yelling the word back and forth  until their pronunciation is close to accurate. Then, we play games for the rest of the class that try to incorporate a key phrase they are learning. Our most recent lesson was about the moon, stars, clouds, and sun. Here are explanations of two of the games we played:

1)   We select eight students to come to the front of the room and split them into two groups. Then, each student is handed a piece of paper with a key vocabulary word drawn on it. We line them up on opposite sides and then one of the teachers (me or my CIEE partner) says the vocabulary words aloud and the students have to run to get in the right order. Fastest team gets a sticker and sits down.

2) For the second game we usually practice the new phrase. For the moon and stars lesson it was…

Person 1: Can you see the ______?

Person 2: Yes, I can see the ____. or No, I cannot see the _____

We drew pictures on the chalkboard of the vocabularly words and then pointed to one when it was the student’s turn to ask a question. A soft ball was passed/thrown (depending who had the ball) around the room so every student got a chance to speak and it was really clear whose turn it was. When we moved to the more difficult concept of Yes/No, one of the teachers would sometimes hold up a notebook to cover the picture.

And then (thankfully) class is usually done. Sometimes we add more words if the kids already knew some of the new ones or we add more games if they seem to be getting bored. It is so much more difficult to teach 10 year olds for an hour and a half than I had anticipated it to be. I have so much respect now for elementary school teachers—teachers of any age group really. It is so difficult to engage so many students for such a long period of time. Tomorrow is our last day because finals are fast approaching. It’ll be a bitter sweet good-bye (those crazy boys really made teaching a headache those first few weeks!).

-Little Sparrow

PS- For privacy reasons, I can’t include any pictures of the students or of the school (because there are always students wandering around). Try to imagine cute little Chinese children all wearing white shirts with green hankerchiefs.




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