Okay, it might not be the most interesting subject in the world, but as that's where I've spent most of my time for the last week, I thought I'd write about what goes on in a Taiwanese classroom.
But before I begin, to all those skeptics and naysayers out there who doubt that Taiwan has the best ice lollies in the world, I say this:
Yes, you are reading that correctly - brandied black cherry ice cream in an ice lolly.
I rest my case.
Anyway, Taiwanese classrooms. Here's one:
This is Conrad's classroom, after all the children have gone out to play.
From what I understand Conrad's school isn't particularly representative of what goes on in the average school in Taipei, so please bear that in mind as you read this post. The classes are much smaller, for example. At this school the class size is about 20, but other parents tell me that in the larger Elementary schools there are usually 30 - 40 children per class. This would suggest to me that children are usually seated in rows rather than groups as they are here, and as they are in the higher grades at Conrad's school, in order to simply fit everyone in the classroom.
You can see the long blackboard at the front of the classroom. Each morning the teacher writes the homework for the day on the right hand side and the children have to copy it down into their 'contact' books. These books are taken home every night by the children and the parents can see what homework the child must complete. Whether they've brought the correct books home to do their homework in is another question! Personally, I struggle to understand what the homework is and which book is needed for what. For Chinese, for example, there are four separate books. Conrad's teacher very kindly helps me with this but there are still some things I don't understand, such as the homework that entails the parent looking at the work the child has done during the day and stamping it with some kind of stamp. I must have had a very confused face as she tried to explain that one to me.
Across the top of the board you can just make out a line of small cards. These have each child's name written on them, and beneath them the teacher places magnetic coloured disks as merit marks. I haven't figured out yet what earns a merit mark or if they're ever taken away again.
The writing on the board is a poem. Poetry and stories seem to figure strongly in Chinese education. The week's set of characters is introduced through a story, and there is usually one poem a week too, in my experience, that the children chant aloud together. I've been told that at later stages of education the children have to learn sets of characters that have specific, non-literal meanings, and that each of these has a story behind them too.
It's really become apparent to me through the time I've spent at Conrad's school just how many thousands of hours children spend simply learning to read and write in Chinese. I'm not talking about learning grammar (which they don't) nor writing in specific formats, such as letters and stories, but simply learning to recognise and write enough Mandarin for a good level of literacy. (It's generally thought that this is roughly 3,000 characters, but this fact is misleading. The characters mean different things according to their juxtaposition with other characters. Most words are two characters in my limited understanding, so learning literacy is not simply a matter of memorising 3,000 characters and their meanings.) It's far harder than learning to read and write a language with a phonetic script (although Chinese characters do have a phonetic component), and the approach here is that you just knuckle down and do it, mostly through rote memorisation.
Back to the photo of the classroom. The steel desk at the front isn't the teacher's desk. That's behind the children and out of view in the shot. The steel desk is where the industrial-size catering containers are put at lunchtime. The children take turns to collect the lunch and serve each other. They take steel tiffin tins to school, which they queue up with to have filled, then return to their desks to eat their lunch. Just before eating, they with their hands crossed over their hearts and they recite a verse thanking their teacher and their parents, and probably more people but that's all I can understand.
On the left of the photo you might be able to make out some cloths hanging up. These are used for general washing down of desks or anything else that's got dirty, at sweep up time. This is the last 20 minutes of the day, where the children clean, sweep and mop their classrooms and the school. (Isn't that a great idea?!) There are floor mops hanging up outside the classrooms next to the long sinks in the corridors which are used for cleaning up after painting etc. Generally, it's the boys who do the mopping and they manage to have a great time.
You can see bags and coats everywhere, which is due to the fact that there are no cloakrooms. The children put their coats on the backs of their chairs and hang their backpacks by their hooks from the thick blue pegs at the edges of the desks. If you look closely you can just about make them out. The children tend to bring in all kinds of other things too, such as breakfast, which also get hung on the backs of their chairs. Consequently, there is always one or two overloaded chairs constantly toppling backwards when the child stands up, throughout the school day.
As well as the space under the desks and under their chairs, the children also have large drawers at the back of the classroom in which their keep extra books, paints, colouring pencils and cushions etc. The cushions are for the children to rest their heads on when they have a nap on their desk after lunch. Conrad finds it impossible to sleep and manages, through various means, to avoid this requirement. Looking in at the classes at this time, I have to say I don't think anyone else sleeps either! Lots of wide-awake eyes looking around, waiting until they can lift their heads again.
The classrooms are quite well-equipped with audio-visual equipment. The teachers can play cds, show dvds, and project computer presentations onto a retractable projector screen in front of the blackboard. It seems quite a lot of the curriculum is supported with interactive PC software, which the teachers use extensively. It makes the material they have to get through a lot more interesting and accessible, and is quite impressive.
One thing I'd like to include but can't at the moment is the use of music in the school to influence the children's moods and mark the passage of the school day. I'm hoping to make some recordings over the next few days which I'll include in a later post.
If you've made it this far, well done, and I hope you found the Taiwanese classroom as interesting as I do.