Friday, February 25, 2011

good things come from China

...like me! Well, either indirectly if you only count my parents who were born in mainland China, or directly if you count Taiwan (where I was born) as part of China.

My real point is that lately I've noticed LOTS of public discourse that relate to east/west encounters and some inherent value judgments about the quality of products "from China". In my teaching profession, exchange programs in local schools are as common as exchange of educational ideas in the media (see below).

At our recent faculty meeting, we watched a movie "2 Million Minutes" that compared high school students in three countries - USA, China, and India - in the pursuit of academic excellence. The movie generated quite a bit of discussion among colleagues - comments ranged from "wow, I feel lazy and stupid" to "that movie is biased and doesn't show the whole story". I searched online for more information about comparisons of education in different countries, and found the following articles to be insightful:

- "Schools in China and U.S. move in opposite directions" article from Education Week points out (to me) the need for balance between discipline and creativity - but where's the balance???

- Unhappy with east/west comparisons? How about Finland? - NPR article

- Some interesting information about educational systems in different countries - I've never heard of this source before - greatschools.org - The article cites a few national/international reports, and this statistic jumped out at me: "40% of children in India enter high school." I don't know how much to trust that statistic, considering the whole article is second/third-hand information, much less interpret what it means exactly, but I think it's safe to make the general statement that Americans believe in K-12 education.

Many teachers seem unhappy about east/west comparisons, specifically China/U.S. They automatically point to the egalitarian philosophy of American public education and the unfair apples-to-oranges comparison with countries that supposedly leave many (more) children "behind". I understand this response since I teach many students who are not prepared for school and ALL with diverse learning needs and interests.

I attended public school in Taiwan - kindergarten and 1st grade, then after four years in New York City, we moved back to Taiwan for grades 4, 5, 7 and half of 8 (long story, involves repeats and skips) in the 1970s and 1980s. When I watched the movie, I chuckled through scenes that brought back many Taiwan school memories. My parents' decision (and sacrifices) for me to live and attend schools in the U.S. was based on educational opportunities, pure and simple.

I interpreted the movie "2 Million Minutes" as commentary on the lack of excellence in American schools, where we celebrate mediocrity and inflate grades. The desperate struggles of the high achieving (and unbelievably hard working) Chinese and Indian students in the film were heartbreaking to watch. I don't wish to turn back time on our relatively comfortable living standards in the U.S. I want our students to value hard work - ACADEMIC work.

I emphasize "academic" to include all school content areas - ALL the arts, math and sciences, health and physical education, home and careers, technology education, YES vocational education. That's a lot of school and studying and working, huh? Year-round school and longer school days, I'm there. Let's not run the rat race that our current daily schedule dictates. (My school - 41 minute class periods, 3 minute hall pass time between periods, 20 minute lunch.) Let's plan smarter class/study/rest&recreation schedules.

Back to general discourse about products from China, specifically related my OTHER favorite topic - food. In my search for "good food" (thanks to writers like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman as well as many like-minded friends and local farmers), I'm familiar with the idea of local food sources being healthier for individuals and the planet. We've made conscious consumer decisions to choose local foods often over the past few years, supporting our friend's CSA (Good Food Farm) in North Java, NY, the wonderful Duink Farms in Hamburg, NY, and natural food store Farmers and Artisans in Williamsville, NY.

And yet... once in a while... my mind (heart?) does a reflexive, defensive thing when I read something like "much of the stuff on the market has been imported from China" (beefolks.com explanation of why they don't sell clover honey) or an email promoting locally grown garlic (22 varieties!) that decried the mass popularity in the U.S. of a single type of garlic imported from ... CHINA. Wait a minute... SOME things from China are good, right???  Local is usually better, but not always? Even Mark Bittman says real Parmesan cheese comes only from Italy. (The Food Matters Cookbook, 24)

Sure, my mind is capable of juggling these internal conflicts to make good choices. Today I decided that my Chinese ancestors probably grew MANY varieties of garlic themselves, and I bought some locally grown garlic from Singer Farm Naturals at Farmers and Artisans.

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