This article is written by Aviva Berkowitz
Looking back at the whirlwind of colorful images, smells, and experiences that made up 3 weeks of my summer, I cannot help but be amazed at how the time flew. It is positively dizzying to recall all of my activity and song-filled days at the Jin Mei, or New Hope, School and it is hard to believe that it is all over for I have been anticipating my volunteer work there for a good few months.
On my first day, armed with plenty of poster-board, markers, scissors, and tape, I naively thought that I could easily win over and be able to engage my 3 classes of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders. I quickly learned, though, that it would be a bit more complicated than that and that I would need to be a lot more creative in order to hold their attention! I embraced the challenge, cooking up clever plans as best I could, organizing matching games and activities, recalling catchy songs and jingles that stuck with me when I was a kid. Each day I came into class with a prepared topic. I would teach them various vocabulary words related to that topic with the aid of the blackboard and drawings from chalk as well as colorful poster-board. I then came up with a game, song or activity to keep their interest alive and ensure that they were actively learning instead of just mindlessly repeating a string of words. In this way we learned all about colors, shapes, fruits and vegetables, the parts of the body, and pieces of clothing, among other things. We made colorful cereal necklaces to review shapes. We played “pin the fruit on the basket” (my own made-up version of “pin the tail on the donkey”), which they were most enthusiastic about, in order to incorporate the names of the various fruits into their growing fund of knowledge. I was so gratified and impressed when I held a review session at the end of my second week and witnessed how much they remembered!
I was most inspired by the students in each class who were so motivated and eager to learn. They took initiative to forward their learning experience by drawing collections of pictures on the blackboard, asking me how to say those things in English, and diligently repeating everything I said. And whenever I was having a hard day or getting discouraged, they were the ones that lifted my spirits and reminded me what I was there for.
One of my favorite parts of those few weeks was acting as the student and allowing the children to assume the role of teachers, trying to help me learn Chinese! They taught me how to pronounce various words and names and would squeal with such delight when I responded correctly. I enjoyed watching them take such pleasure in this venture and I also was surprised at how difficult I found it to keep up with them; to remember how to make all the different sounds and form the words that they had taught me only a few minutes earlier. I grew to appreciate then how challenging it must be for them as well, to learn a new language so different from their own and I admired them, marveled at how quickly some of them picked it up!
It would not be true to say that I did not have fears and doubts about this project before I began. Mostly, I worried how I would communicate with the children when I did not speak a word of Chinese. I was anxious that none of my ideas would work and that I would not be able to teach them anything. However, the truth is that this opportunity surpassed my expectations. I forced myself to look beyond my worries, to embrace the challenge and I was surprised to find how natural and effective it was to communicate with smiles and thumbs-up when I couldn’t use words. I realized that I loved my students and that these would be a very rewarding and valuable few weeks indeed, ones I would always look back on and remember.