In May, I traveled with the Honors Program to Spain. The main purpose of the trip was the Camino. The Camino is a pilgrimage that has several variations that all culminate in a walk (biking or sailing is also considered acceptable) to Santiago de Compostela. Santiago is believed to be the place where St. James the Apostle is buried. When the Muslims ruled Spain this pilgrimage became of great importance to the Christians still living in Spain. Our particular journey was the “Camino Ingles,” which takes place in the region of Galicia, in northwestern Spain. The walk on the Camino Ingles is approximately 75 miles. Yes, 75 miles.
One week down, one to go. And what an incredible, eye-opening week it has been. Today, May 23, was the day that all of us had been looking forward to for a long, long time — Dr. Li’s Simple Interactions Workshop. This was something that all of us working with Simple Interactions had always heard about, but never experienced in person. Over the years, we have been hearing and watching the almost unbelievable stories from the village in Qingdao — stories of women with hearts too full to describe doing everyday actions to help better the lives of the children who come to their center — and today it was becoming a reality. The day started off as usual—breakfast and lots of yogurt — then it was time for the fun to begin. Come 9:00am we were all in our seats ready for the workshop to begin. The previous night we were all up much later than usual for this trip going through videos and discussing what we had seen, so I think we were eagerly waiting to see how the workshop would play out and how the team’s hard work would come together. There were two parts of this workshop — the first session being directed toward teaching the staff and visiting workers about the foundations of Simple Interactions, and the second allowing the staff to watch videos of themselves interacting with the children and learn from what they were seeing. Watching the audience’s reactions during the workshop was so profound to see. These people, who from observing them throughout the previous days, were the most caring individuals I had probably ever met, were not prideful of their tremendous work here at the center, but were utterly humble and eager to expand their knowledge of child care. If it so happened that one of the staff members was shown in one of the clips, she didn’t take that as her moment of glory, but from what I saw, each staff member was filled with pure joy and love — so happy and excited that they could help care for and love these children. I could really notice their excitement to learn throughout the workshop. Every one of the staff members was ready to go with pen and paper in hand, making note of any and every bit of knowledge they thought would be beneficial to them, and therefore, beneficial to the children. It was a really special sight. This was, I thought, the perfect environment to showcase Simple Interactions. A place bursting to the seams with such pure love and desire to make each child’s world better. After the workshop had ended, we all had the opportunity to have a small roundtable discussion with all of the staff members, and what a marvelous time that was. If it wasn’t clear how much everyone in this village loved and respected everything Dr. Li has done before, oh my goodness, could you feel that energy now. They had so many questions — nearly everyone had a story or an inquiry about something they were worried about. And the crazy thing was that they not only wanted Dr. Li’s opinion, but ours as well! That nearly blew my mind away. I couldn’t even imagine myself teaching these amazing women anything after seeing how much I had learned from them just in a few simple days in the village. But of course, everybody was happy to chime in and give any bit of advice they thought would be helpful, and the staff genuinely appreciated it and were really grateful for all the contributions made. It was a long day, especially considering that we couldn’t understand a majority of the workshop because we don’t speak Chinese, but I for one, felt like I had learned so much just from being in that room. The passion and ideas were practically bouncing off the walls and it was impossible not to feel completely a part of the entire experience. We ended the day with a seafood feast! So many different types of food, and all so fresh! Some were braver than others and tried things like jellyfish and mantis shrimp — I was too scared to try that one because it looked too much like either a BIG bug, or a small dragon . . . either way, I couldn’t do it. Anyway, to conclude this long post, this whole day was a phenomenal way to really see into the heart of Simple Interactions and see head on how “professional” resources and complex activities are not necessary to have a beneficial outcome on a child’s life.
Today we had the opportunity to visit neighboring learning centers in the Qingdao village. Our first stop was at the local elementary school. We walked through the bright hallways and noticed the sunlight pouring in through the big windows and potted plants in every possible nook, and I knew it must be a special place. Although the school was not a brand-new facility, it was clear that the learning environment was not reliant on the physical structure of the building or the available resources, but rather the teachers. We stopped in an English class and noticed the work the students were completing. The class was working on grammar through reading and writing sentences. One student was invited to recite a scripted story in English about Christmas. She was very excited to share her English with us, ending the story with asking if we wanted to build a snowman. We were honored that she shared this with us, and I was struck with her courage! One immediate difference I noticed in this elementary school as compared to schools in the U.S. is the immense respect the students show for the class and the teacher. The students stand up by their seats to answer when they are called upon; all students sit up straight in their seats, and they are genuinely eager to participate in the class. That being said, all children have fun – during recess, the children stood near us and we exchanged many “ni haos” (hellos). We took a selfie with them and the children were so excited! After this visit, we visited the village preschool. It was a beautiful day so the children were outside playing when we arrived. Although there were some purposeful structures for climbing and exploring, most of the children were squatting in a very large sand pit. We did not hesitate to join in the fun and get dirty. I found a little girl on the edge of the group and was intrigued about what she was making with the sand. The little girl and I said “ni hao,” then it was back to work. She was busy creating a little house using the materials available to her – a small plastic cube, sand, leaves and sticks. She delicately filled the cube with sand and evaluated it. I handed her a leaf and she incorporated it by placing it on top. She found a few more leaves to make a design. Next she found a plastic bottle from the pile of recycled materials and continued the process. We continued playing until we had a little neighborhood. What struck me is that although the materials were simple, the children were enjoying the activity and were very serious about their creations. We enjoyed visiting these schools and meeting the children! Later in the afternoon we were welcomed into the multipurpose room at the Qingdao Children’s Welfare Institution to view the performance the children eagerly prepared for us. The children danced and sang for us. We greatly enjoyed the show and noticed both the effort and joy of all the children involved. The day reminded me of one of Fred’s favorite quotes, taken from The Little Prince, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
We began our first day in the village with a tour of the Children Welfare Institution. Before even going into the classrooms, we knew that we were about to witness something special just by watching the way in which the parents and children arrived in the morning. Because of the rain, most of the parents carried the children in on their backs while holding umbrellas, which made the presence of a strong connection between adults and children immediately evident. After observing in the classrooms for a bit, we had the opportunity to film the interactions that we found most representative of Simple Interactions. We plan to analyze these videos and use the ones we find most exemplary of quality interactions between adults and children in our presentation on Thursday. There were fewer children than usual in the morning (9-11 a.m.) due to rain. Most of the families have a difficult time commuting in the rain because they walk or the children are in wheelchairs. In the afternoon (2-4 p.m.), the rain stopped and more children arrived. While filming, what stood out the most was the purposeful, yet meaningful interactions. Everything that occurred in the classrooms was intentional, but the focus was not on meeting goals or objectives; rather, the focus was on the happiness and well-being of the children and the positive interactions between the children and adults. Upon reflection, we recognized that schools in the United States often fixate on the idea of meeting standards so much that the importance of interactions between individuals is lost. Here, however, we have seen no mention of standards; the intention is to help the children learn through interactions, not despite them. These ideals that we came across in the classrooms embody the principles of Simple Interactions and gave us another level of understanding of what quality interactions look like.
Today was our last day in Shanghai so Casey, Kyle, Dr. Li, Dr. Winters and I ventured out for more street food one last time. Since it was Monday, the streets were much busier than yesterday with the hustle of people going to work. Once again, we all got Jian Bing, a delicious Chinese street food of crepes folded around eggs, green onions, pickled vegetables and crispy crackers, and other breakfast items from various vendors. We also tried lychees and dragon fruit before checking out of the Shanghai Hotel. Lychees are DELICIOUS! I am so happy we have experienced so many different foods and dishes in China!
Today was full of adventures! A few of us started our day early and took a nice walk to try out some authentic Shanghai street food that did not disappoint! Later, a group of us went to Sunday Mass spoken in English at Saint Ignatius Cathedral. I was very excited to experience Mass in a different country as it was something new to me. The cathedral was beautiful as was the Mass! I was amazed at the similarities between our Mass at home and the Mass here in China. It is extremely comforting to know that even in a country across the world, the Catholic church remains the same. After Mass, we were able to take a look at a lovely Blessed Mother grotto along with some other beautiful statues before setting out for some shopping in Shanghai. The whole group of us went to the Yu Yuan Gardens to look at all of the different street shops and pick out some souvenirs for our friends and families. We also took a look at the Earth God Temple near the Gardens in between shopping. We had so much fun experiencing even more of China's exciting culture! Looking forward to another beautiful day in the neighborhood!
On Saturday, May 19, we had our first opportunity to immerse ourselves in Shanghai culture. Our first attraction of the day was visiting the Shanghai Museum. The museum is free to the public and houses four floors of the country’s most interesting artifacts. We learned the history of artistic bronze wine vessels, the significance of more than 3,000 figurines/trinkets made of jade and the cultural implications behind traditional Chinese couplets. An especially noteworthy exhibit displayed pencil drawings and ink or watercolor paintings done by artistic masters of China. Our favorite exhibit was the Chinese minority nationalities’ art gallery. It included costumes, embroideries, batiks, metal wares and masks that conveyed the diverse musical and artistic creativity of China’s many ethnic groups. We experienced the wisdom and character of China’s deeply rooted history through our exploration of the museum. Later in the evening, we boarded a private boat with officials from the China Welfare Institute and Department of Education heads from provinces across China. They welcomed us aboard their cruise on the Huang Pu Jiang river where they discussed the recent achievements and mission of the Institute and witnessed nightfall behind the Shanghai skyline. We gained insight into the logistics behind child-educator relations and had the opportunity to view the famous Bund from the river. The Bund features a stretch along the river that includes architecture and culture from diverse backgrounds due to colonial influence. Saturday’s activities instilled a deeper understanding of how present-day Shanghai has come into existence, and how its history continues to affect the daily interactions of the local populations.
It’s the first day on the ground, and if I had to assign a Fred quote of the day it would be: "We are far more alike than we are different." Today we had the opportunity to visit a pre-school for migrant workers in Shanghai. For a little background, migrant workers are individuals who are not citizens of Shanghai but come to the city for work. As a result, their children do not have educational rights in Shanghai and are not permitted to participate in the public pre-schools there. Unfortunately, due to educational limitations, the children of migrant workers are only able to receive instruction up to the 6th grade because that is what's available to them. The preschool we attended schooled about 400-500 students. Once we arrived, we divided into two groups to observe classrooms with students aged 3-4, 4-5 and 5-6 years. Upon entering the classrooms, the excitement from our group and from the students and the teachers of the school was overwhelmingly wonderful. We had the opportunity to play number games, sing songs and do crafts to bond with the students, and although language was a barrier, play was not. Overall, there were not many differences in the classroom: the classroom environments were decorated, token systems were utilized, they practiced motor skills through games, but also stressed the importance of structure in their classrooms. Many of our group believe that the importance of structure was more pertinent in the classroom here than at home in the United States. Their class sizes were much larger than what we see in the United States, too. The kindergarten rooms had 45-50 children with two teachers. After observing the classrooms, we met with the staff of the school to ask questions we had. The principal told us more about the schedule of the children, the turnover in the classrooms due to children's migrant status and the evaluations they use to assess each child's progress.
And we’re off! Over the next two weeks, Dr. Junlei Li and I will be supervising a group of seven students on an educational service trip through China. The students come from a variety of backgrounds and majors – from early childhood education to psychology to biology – and have all worked with us for the last few years in the Incubator 143 Research Lab at the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning and Children’s Media at Saint Vincent College. We all look forward to learning as much as we can while visiting preschools and kindergartens, village orphanages for children with disabilities, and community hospitals through Shanghai, Qingdao, and Beijing. Over the last year, the students have been working together to prepare for our journey – training with Simple Interactions, an initiative of the Fred Rogers Center that promotes and affirms the human connections between adults and children as the foundational building block of children’s development, learning about Chinese culture and history, and considering how we can best be helpful and spread the legacy of Fred Rogers through neighborhoods different from our own. As we travel and learn together, we will share our experiences and journey, our own learning and growing, and the importance of carrying Fred Rogers’ legacy of helpful appreciation across geographical borders. #FredWithoutBorders
This week was my first week in Cape Town, South Africa. It has been an amazing experience so far. It has also been quite interesting to see the contrast between the Parisian culture and the South African culture.