At first glance Beijing's New School
of Collaborative Learning does not appear extraordinary.
Handfuls of children huddle around tables, expressions
of quiet concentration on their faces. They work by
themselves, occasionally asking questions of their
teachers who patiently make their way between the
students. Maps, study materials, and student artwork
line the walls. A pair of turquoise iMacs hum quietly
on a desk in the corner. But as I am shown around
by school headmaster Jon Zatkin, 54, a San Francisco-native
who has been living in China for the past 13 years,
evidence of the unique nature of the New School's
curriculum is slowly revealed.
On kindergarten wall charts, the
English alphabet's ABC is displayed next to the bo
po mo fo of China's pinyin phonetic system. In the
library, copies of Kipling, Hawthorne and Shakespeare
share shelf-space with Lu Xun and classics of ancient
Chinese literature. Posters around the school urge
readers to honor the "pledge of the junzi" - a Confucian
term equating roughly to the English "gentleman,"
advocating cleanliness, cooperation and tolerance.
Out of the more than 15 international
schools in Beijing, the New School of Collaborative
Learning, a relative newcomer on the school circuit,
is the only one that aims to produce totally bilingual
(Chinese-English) students. Each subject is taught
in both Mandarin and English, regardless of the child's
native tongue. Additionally, one period of every day
is completely devoted to Chinese language learning.
Of its 72 students, approximately
40 percent are from the United States; 26 percent
from Korea; 17 percent from Japan and the remainder
from Europe and Africa. A number have already been
enrolled at the New School for four to five years.
Some came knowing neither Chinese nor English, including
Ira Zaka, a 14-year-old Albanian girl, who is now
"Children lap up languages like
puppies lap up milk, and the younger they are the
faster they learn," observes Zatkin, who holds a degree
in linguistics and has a 12-year-old daughter who
attends the school. The entire school, which was founded
six years ago, seems carefully crafted not only to
provide a bilingual and multicultural educational
environment, but to foster the impression that such
an environment is a normal, necessary and positive
aspect of modern life.
As I stroll around, Annie Ota,
an 11-year-old Japanese girl, comes up to me and begins
telling me about her favorite game, basketball, and
how she wants to be an artist when she grows up. Nothing
spectacular in and of itself, but impressive when
you consider she starts off in Mandarin and switches
to flawless English when the Mandarin conversation
gets beyond me. Later I ask David Zhang, a 17-year-old
Chinese-American who enrolled four years ago, what
he most enjoys about his school. "We're all friends,"
he says. "We help each other like brothers and sisters,
like we're in a family."
Given the surfeit of school choices
in Beijing, Greg Kulander, a U.S. expat working in
Beijing, is quick to explain why he chose the New
School for his son, two daughters.
"I really appreciate their inclusive
attitude toward China. They're not trying to create
an enclave," Kulander says. "The emphasis is on developing
independent learners and thinkers with responsibility
for their own education. They create very strong individuals."
The concept for an independent,
totally bilingual school in Beijing originated in
1994 with American Stephanie Tansey, who has since
returned home but who still serves as New School's
senior curriculum advisor. While growing up, Tansey
herself attended an international school in Japan
for 12 years, during which time she felt segregated
from Japanese society and learned comparatively little
about the place or people. From this experience and
subsequent academic work she decided that students
from different cultures should work together, speak
each other's languages and benefit from each other's
By 1994 the number of expats in
Beijing was growing rapidly. Pressure on existing
international schools was mounting. The International
School of Beijing - a school designed for children
of diplomats from the U.S., Canada, U.K., and Australia
- gave priority to embassy children, resulting in
long waiting lists.
Taking inspiration from cutting-edge
schools in Japan and Hong Kong, and with support from
the Sidwell Friends School of Washington D.C., Tansey
took advantage of these favorable conditions and set
up the New School of Collaborative Learning to offer
an alternative style of education for the children
of foreigners living in Beijing.
Zatkin explains that international
schools in many parts of the world are run on the
assumption that their clientele are short-term expatriates
who have no real interest in their host society.
"They are designed specifically
to minimize the students' sense of dislocation, and
to protect them from an environment they cannot cope
with. The students don't want to be there, the teachers
don't want to be there, and there's a vicious circle
of not liking it. This leads to a negative, or at
best condescending, attitude to the host society,"
says Zatkin. New School students are actively integrated
into their new environment so they can play an interactive
role in it. The school strives for maximum interaction
with Chinese culture and society, and has worked closely
with the Chinese government from the start. Although
the school, as with all international schools in Beijing,
is prevented by law from providing a place where foreign
and Chinese children can learn together, it does liaise
closely with local schools, and gives students the
opportunity to experience China firsthand.
Despite what would seem like obvious
reasons for enthusiasm, there is currently some debate,
particularly in the U.S., as to the efficacy of dual
language academic programs. The state of California
last year voted to discontinue them in high schools,
after statistical evidence showed they could leave
students with competency in no language, rather than
fluency in several. However, it is generally recognized
that the California programs were underfunded and
lacked the right personnel to ensure success. They
also tended to teach primarily in the child's mother
tongue (usually Spanish) to the detriment of their
English acquisition, whereas the New School places
equal emphasis on both.
Class sizes are kept deliberately
small, 15 students maximum, and teachers generally
have an individual lesson plan for every student every
day. Discrete language environments are provided by
dividing classes into two groups and team-teaching
in separate rooms with one native-English and one
native-Chinese speaker. After each lesson the groups
switch over and continue learning in the second language.
In this way youngsters simultaneously develop language
skills and make progress in a broader range of academic
The New School's bilingual curriculum
is popular with parents who value an innovative, progressive
education. Despite a decline in the number of expats
in Beijing, enrollment swelled by 30 percent this
year. "We're a niche market school," Zatkin says.
"Previously, the expat community has not placed high
value on students learning Chinese. We mostly get
children of people who are interested in China, including
those here starting their own businesses, Fulbright
scholars and other academics." The school is small
compared to embassy-affiliated international schools
in Beijing, with only 72 students from kindergarten
to grade 12. As such, its facilities are not as impressive
as those available to students at larger, better-financed
schools. However, in addition to the core studies
in English, Chinese, math, science and social studies,
all students participate in art, music and physical
education. In addition, a number of unique opportunities
For example, there is the practicum,
an annual week-long program that sends students out
into the Chinese community, outside of Beijing, not
merely as observers, but as active participants. To
date, these have included field trips to the Wolong
Panda Reserve in Sichuan province, and living and
working with Miao minority villagers in the southwestern
province of Guizhou. The Beijing model United Nations
program, part of the Hague International Model United
Nations program, is also an integral part of the curriculum.
"We want our kids to become global
citizens," Zatkin explains. "We want them to be comfortable
in the U.S. and in China, two nations that are going
to play increasingly important international roles
in the twenty-first century."
An American Teenager in Beijing
As a 16-year old living in America,
my own culture was the most alien thing I could imagine.
But last spring, when I came to China through the
School Year Abroad exchange program between U.S.-based
Phillips Academy and Beijing's Middle School No. 2,
my small, teenage world was flipped upside down.
My arrival in China can best be
described in one word: surprise. I didn't expect the
kind of modernization that Beijing is undergoing.
In preparation for my year-long journey, which would
include living with a Chinese host family, I read
China Wakes, by former New York Times Beijing correspondents
Nicholas Kristoff and Sheryl WuDunn. I remember feeling
depressed as page after page described a bleak and
under-developed country. Imagine my surprise when
I arrived in Beijing and found skyscrapers located
next to a McDonald's and kids walking around in bright
clothes with dyed hair. On an early trip to the Forbidden
City and Tiananmen Square, one of my new classmates
summed up our collective surprise with the question:
"Where are all the Mao suits?" This is typical of
the type of misconception that I held not only about
China, but about my host family as well. I was told
before meeting them that my host parents could not
speak any English, but my new "sister" had studied
the language for five years. I knew that the communication
barrier would be difficult to overcome.
My "new home" rather squat in comparison
to the rest of the apartment buildings and I couldn't
get over the number of bikes parked out front. My
home is an average three-room apartment, with a very
tiny kitchen and even smaller bathroom. But the room
I was given is comparatively big and comfortable.
My family has made a few sacrifices to accommodate
me, one of which is their sleeping arrangement. My
sister has been moved into my parents' room (since
I took over her room) and my father was moved to the
couch in the living room.
Over the past few months my family
and I have grown closer than I could have ever imagined.
My father has a strong desire to show me and teach
me everything about Beijing and takes my sister and
I on regular trips around the city. Even at the dinner
table I get lessons in Chinese history, culture and
politics. In addition is my constant banter with my
host mother. She teaches me to cook, helps me with
my homework, and pokes polite fun at my "bourgeois"
American ways. But when all is said and done she calls
me her daughter with a warm smile and a lot of love.
The first time I ever really felt
as though I was her daughter was when she wanted to
carry my backpack, and I kept politely refusing.
"Buyong (there's no need),"I kept
telling her, but after too many times of this, she
yelled at me in front of everyone at the temple we
were visiting. "You are a bad child. You're not listening
and you're being difficult," she told me.
I felt extremely bad about upsetting
her, but also good that she could tell me what she
wanted to bluntly, just as if I was her own daughter.
My sister and I have become good friends since I moved
in. One day I took her out for an "all-American" bonding
session. We went for lunch at Pizza Hut, picked up
dessert at Dairy Queen and finished off with a coffee
at Starbucks. I could tell that my sister was not
enjoying the day. I realized, unfortunately too late,
that not all people like Western staples. "Did you
have a good time today?" I asked when we finally returned
home. "Yes. Thank you for taking me," was her half-hearted
response. "Ok. Now tell me the truth."
"Bu, bu, bu. Hai keyi! (No, no,
no. It was alright)," she insisted. I smiled gratefully
even though I knew that she was just trying to make
me feel better.
We have come a long way from these
little white lies and are now closer than ever. We
act more like real sisters because we are always teasing
and telling secrets to one another.
My sister and I attend the same
high school, but even though she is only half a year
older than I am, the gap between the way we live our
lives is immeasurable. My sister hardly ever leaves
her room, and if she does go to a friend's house it
is only to study.
"Why don't you ever go out on weekends?"
I asked my sister one Saturday afternoon over lunch.
"You and your friends should go out and meet some
boys!" I realized that my friendly joke did not go
over well when I noticed the cold stare from my mother.
"She's too young to have a boyfriend.
She also must stay home and study, she has to go to
college, and she is already too lazy!" After hearing
my mother's harsh words, I realized that I should
be more culturally sensitive. My sister is in gao
er, equivalent to a junior in high school, and her
single-minded focus on college is something I'm not
very familiar with. Ever since she passed her exams
to get into high school she has been taking 10 major
courses a term in order to graduate. Her daily routine
starts at 6 am and doesn't finish until 6 pm. All
these hours are taken up with school and extra classes.
Only after she has passed exams in all her subjects
can she take the college entrance exam. The pressure
on middle school students, from teachers and parents,
to succeed and get into a top college is so intense
that students never have time for themselves. I have
become more aware of the everyday things I take for
granted, like hanging out with friends after school
or even going to bed at a fairly early hour if I'm
Now that I'm attending a high school
in Beijing, I get to see firsthand the life of a typical
Chinese teenager. Every morning students are at school
before 7 a.m. performing duties like bike patrol,
gate duty and campus cleanup. Uniforms are required
as are short haircuts for girls, unless they are visual
My experience in China has been
one far beyond studying a new language. I have learned
more about Chinese culture and history than any textbook
could have taught me. The language barrier that once
made me feel like an outsider has now decreased to
the point where I feel almost comfortable. And I have
become a sister and a daughter to amazing people who
treat me as if I am a part of their family and not
an outsider. In a few weeks, I will be leaving China.
I feel like my teenage world has been broadened, and
I am leaving a little older but a lot more open to
the world outside of America.
For more information on School
Year Abroad: contact Phillips Academy, 180 Main Street,
Andover, MA 01810-4166, tel. (978) 725-6825 or via
email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In China, contact Middle School No. 2, 12 Xinjiekouwai
Street, Beijing 100088, tel. 6235-4503, or via email