Although education is a proven long-term solution to ending poverty, one in three high school students in rural China drop out for a variety of reasons, financial pressure chief among them. Of that drop out rate, two-thirds are girls who are encouraged to stay home to help with family chores or get married.
The PEACH Foundation (Promoting Education, Art, and Community Harvest) hosts summer camps for students from remote mountainous areas with one overall goal: to show them the infinite value of education. By providing financial support and instilling in these children the importance of continuing with their studies from middle school to high school and then through to college, the organization hopes the students can get better job prospects to break the vicious cycle of poverty. Since 2015, I have been serving as a volunteer English teacher at PEACH in China’s Yunnan Province. I am a teacher to 12 curious but economically challenged high school students who, under my guidance, learned important aspects of the English language; pronunciation, conversation, vocabulary and reading which are reinforced by repetition, singing and playing games.
I used the CSCG grant money to purchase teaching materials and brought the supplies to the rural Yuanyang County in my checked-in luggage. We flew into Kunming city and then took an 8 hour bus ride into the mountains famed for their rice terraces and minority tribes. All my students are from low-income families in the surrounding areas. Some are orphans, some from single-parent families, and most are left-behind children living with their illiterate grandparents. Their parents are either rice and corn farmers or migrant workers who have left home to seek work in the cities. The loss of a solid family structure at a young age and the lack of love can lead to severe emotional and mental health issues and financial woes make it worse. I hope to show my students that we care for them and want the best for them. In previous years, I noticed that two weeks of teaching English only goes so far to help a student: Instead, I wanted to incorporate other aspects into my teaching to increase their confidence and motivation.
Borrowing ideas from my liberal arts education at Deerfield, I decided to incorporate three other classes into the curriculum. Firstly, I purchased art materials for them to do freestyle drawing. A lot of these students rarely have the freedom and the time to pursue their creative selves because of route learning at school and the need to help out with farming chores. I wanted to give them the opportunity to express themselves freely. I myself am not an avid visual arts person, so my drawings generated a lot of laughter. But still, I continuously encouraged them to just “try”. Secondly, I purchased badminton, basketball, and ping-pong supplies and we engaged in recreational and competitive play. The purpose of this is for them to develop a passion for sports and to work as a team to achieve a collective goal. I organized games where my class ‘competed’ with students from other classes. The winners got prizes in food and beverage. Thirdly, I purchased poster-sized scratch-off maps and taught them geography. I had them engage in various activities regarding cities, countries and continents and through these activities, ignite their hopes and ambitions. For example, their first mission was to scratch out one country they most wanted to visit and write why. All of my students have never left their hometown and had little idea about the world beyond their village. Nevertheless, I hope this activity helped them fantasize about life beyond the mountains and served as constant reminder that they can work hard to fulfill their dreams and subsequently travel the world.
I believe that no matter where you are from or what your economic background is, by instilling a profound belief toward a goal, anyone can get there. My classes are specifically designed to inspire confidence and a sense of purpose in these student’s lives. All materials I bought with the grant were given to the students at the end of camp. I also bought them each a colourful Zip-It pencil case as a parting gift. I bid my class farewell after the talent show where our class danced and sang ‘Something Just like This’ by The Chainsmokers. That night, I had already started to miss my students so early on departure day, after witnessing a beautiful sunrise, I hiked back up to the school and had breakfast with the departing students in the cafeteria for one last time. I still remember having so many questions about their families and experiences, and we vowed to stay in touch.
This teaching experience has been profound on so many levels for me as well as my students. Thank you PEACH Foundation and thank you CSCG. I hope I have made a difference in their lives and taken at least a small step towards combating poverty in my home country.