Linda Materna didn’t know what to expect on her trip to China, but she certainly didn’t anticipate getting a lesson in swordsmanship.
“When we were in the Hebei province, there was a park across the street, and in every area of it there were people doing something different,” she said. “I went up to one of them to ask if I could take her picture, and she invited me over, and gave me her sword and was trying to teach me how to do it. She was moving my hips and swishing my hands. They had never seen Westerners before, and they were very quick to embrace us.”
The visit to China was the ultimate cultural experience for Materna, who serves as the Scotch Plains-Fanwood School District’s world languages supervisor. She went with about 300 other educators from across the U.S. for a special program sponsored by the Hanban/Confucius Institute, a group whose mission is to promote Chinese language and culture around the world. Expenses were fully paid by Hanban. Materna only had to pay a $900 registration fee.
Each day of the trip, which spanned from June 22 to 30, was tightly scheduled with activities. The teachers spent part of their days visiting Chinese landmarks, and the other parts having extensive conversations with Chinese educational leaders.
“It was interesting just to compare notes,” Materna said. “Some of the questions asked were regarding discipline issues, and it seemed that they had very much the same types of issues that we do here. But then to listen to their school day, for example, they said school goes from 6:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. at night. It just seemed that they were very intense with their learning experience. They were very concerned about creativity; they wanted to know how they could be more creative.”
The teachers visited a number of educational facilities, including Peking University, one of the nation’s premiere institutions for higher learning.
But Materna said her favorite part of the trip was the time she got to spend in the Chinese schools in the province of Hebei. The U.S. educators were broken up into groups and sent to different provinces across the country to visit students and talk to teachers. In Hebei, Materna got to visit primary, middle and high schools.
“We got to see different arts classes, music classes, English language classes,” she said. “I found in the world language classes that we visited, that the English classes were very similar to our classes here. They’re doing the same types of activities.”
Students there were very quick to welcome the Americans, as were the people of the province.
“It wasn’t a town where they had any modern stores, the shops were all authentic Chinese,” Materna said. “People were saying we were probably the first Westerners they’d ever seen. They’d just follow you around or be riding their bikes and stop. But once you said hello they warmed up.”
The adventure was more than just beneficial to Materna. It could also benefit the Scotch Plains-Fanwood schools.
The idea of teaching a non-European language has been a hot topic in the school district lately, and while Materna’s trip isn’t meant to imply that the district will choose Mandarin, Materna did say that given today’s world it seems an important one for students to learn.
“I do believe that there is a big interest in non-European language, and Mandarin does seem like the up-and-coming language, but before we went ahead and made that decision, we’d need to get approval,” she said.
Materna said she plans to send a survey out to parents soon to determine what non-European language the community would be interested in pursuing for its students.
If Mandarin was chosen, the connections Materna made on her trip would serve the program well.
“I came home with e-mail addresses and contact information so if we were ever to proceed with implementing Mandarin, then I would have help there,” she said. “It was a wonderful experience. We had a lot of activities packed into a very short amount of time, but we really did enjoy it.”
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