My long long overdue update from my trip to China. I went to China in August 2010 intent on finding a special needs school or any public school to visit. I was, and am, still curious about the education system in China. However, there is not a lot of research being done on special education pedagogy or policy, a specific interest of mine. On my trip, I really wanted to talk with some local administrators, teachers, and parents, to see what their experience has been like in China. It was not until the last day of my time in China, did I find a school nearby still in session. I was lucky enough to organize a trip to the school Beijing Xing Guang Road Development Center with my friend Xiao Ai.
THE ATTITUDE IN CHINA
From speaking with the parents and teachers, one thing is for certain, China's emphasis on special education is not nearly as strong as in the United States, for various reasons. Disabilities in general (learning, behavioral, emotional, physical, etc.) is very much looked down upon in China. There is a very strong social stigma against people with disabilities. China is a society where guanxi, or who you know and who is in your network, is one of the only ways to climb up the social ladder and get out of your impoverished or difficult living conditions. The rung you step on, isn't made from your hard work, it's the shoulder of another person that you are stepping on. Understanding that Chinese society is structured around relationships of people using each other to gain leverage or benefits in society, whether it means getting a job in government or an inside acceptance to Beijing University, helps us understand why it is that people with disabilities are shunned and literally hidden from view in society. It is a prevalent idea in China that people with disabilities have no immediate benefit to society; it is argued they harbor no political connections to let people in on certain jobs or positions and thus, people see no use in getting to know them or understanding/improving their conditions.
Chinese people with disabilities from an early age have grown up with this idea that they do not belong in society, that they should stay hidden if guests come over. This marginalized reality, I'm sure, is not just isolated to China. Depending on how society is structured and the openness of that society to talk about disabilities regardless of stigma can affect policy and how families get services.
THE CURRENT SITUATION
In China, there has been some improvements in helping finance the education of kids with special needs, according to the administrator I spoke to at Beijing Xing Guang Road Center. There is not enough funding, however, to support para professionals, social workers, physical therapists, and other various support staff at special ed schools. Much of the 1-1 individual work that students benefit from in the United States from social workers and physical therapists, is work that teachers have to do in the classroom in China. The teaching responsibilities are much greater in China because there is less staff to help.
Parents want to be proactive and improve, so many families have been reaching out of their shell to help their child. In a society where disability is rarely talked about, the government is at least issuing disability certificates that will allow families to get some special services for their kids. According to the administrator I spoke to, most special ed schools are in the form of after-school programs or all-day schools.
These classrooms, though, are not integrated with the mainstream population of kids. In other words, they have no inclusive classrooms where both special ed and general ed students work side by side. Taiwan and the United States have integrated classrooms, but it is only slowly getting started in China with a special needs class visiting a general ed classroom once per week, at best. I asked how the general ed students reacted to new students coming into their classroom and the administrator said that although their aim was amicability, there were some hostile reactions by both groups of students. As you can imagine, many students did not know how to interact with students who were very different from them. I hope that the teachers held discussions with the students about different and inclusion that would have eased misunderstanding, but it's very hard to operate in a society that still holds a strong stigma against people with disabilities.
TEACHING AND PEDAGOGY
Eventually, after touring the school and having long discussions with teachers and administrators, I gave a presentation on teaching methods that I have observed as a teaching assistant in a Kindergarten CTT (Cooperative Team Teaching) class in New York City.
The teachers were particularly fascinated by the "body breaks" and "use of pictures" as strategic tools for helping students. Body breaks, which I will also include in the "Teaching Special Education" part of my website, are essentially 2-10 minute breaks that students can take out in the hall where they do three physical activities like pushing a heavy object up and down the hall, a hand stand, crab walks, or pushing against the wall for ten seconds. These "body breaks" let students release the extra energy they may have. Body breaks interrupt the classroom and are seen as ways to help a student's body calm down.
Pictures are used in special ed to help the student identify with either themselves or friends doing the activity. By visually seeing themselves and others doing the task, they are more able to identify with doing it. There are many activities that can be constructed around this idea, which I will write about more later.
The presentation was informative to the parents and although I do not consider myself an expert on special education, an ever changing dynamic field, I told them what my experiences have been with special ed and teaching techniques I have seen work.
The teaching at Beijing Xing Guang Road School is primarily 1-on-1. The school is primarily geared for the younger grades, Pre-K to first grade. As such, parents will spend either the morning or whole day with their child, teaching them how to write and how to behave. Most classrooms have a 9:1 student to teacher ratio with parents allowed in the classroom. Many of their students need support (hence the presence of parents in the classroom), especially since there are no extra support staff. One area the school would like to improve upon is professional assessment of students, or writing Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) for their students. The next time I return to this school, I will bring sample templates of IEP reports for them.
The families, teachers, and administrators were very curious and it was interesting to see what their opinions were on special ed. Despite their being an even bigger challenge and hurdle to overcome in a country that does not support financially or philosophically people with disabilities, everyone at that school was hopeful. Hopeful that things would change and hopeful that a better future could be built that improves the education of their students, an under-served and alienated group.
Here are a few films on the system of education in the United States, especially in New York, to watch or put on your film queue.
Waiting for Superman and The Lottery.
After watching these films, read some of these counter-narratives to get an overall perspective on the education debate (taken from my program blog at TC):
“Waiting for Superman” site and trailer http://www.tc.columbia.edu/news/article.htm?id=7655
TC article on the screening of “Waiting for Superman”
Rethinking School’s “NOT Waiting for Superman” movement
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/08/opinion/l08educ.html?_r=2&part Series of letters to the editors entitled "Who Will Rescue America’s Schools?" http://neatoday.org/2010/10/05/waiting-for-superman-resources/
National Education Association’s collection of resources http://nycpublicschoolparents.blogspot.com/2010/10/were-still-waiting-for-superman-here-in.html
“We’re still waiting for Superman here in Charterland” (A charter school parent speaks out)
DemocracyNow! analysis of “Waiting for Superman”
Coalition for Public Education/Coalición por la Educación Pública response to the film
The Nation article on the film
Trailer for “A Community Concern” a documentary on the power of community organizing to improve public education. Offers one counter-narrative to “Waiting for Superman”
Trailer for “The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman” offers another counter-narrative to “Waiting for Superman”
The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and do not reflect those of institutions, organizations, or employers associated with me, past or present.