by Teri Liu

This spring break I participated in the Branch Out trip to DC. The theme of our trip is urban education. We explored different aspects of urban education in DC. During the trip, we visited different organizations, schools and talked to alumni working in the educational field. This experience helped us to connect a web of different perspectives and opinions about the challenges that urban education is facing.

The place where we spent most of our time is the KIPPS Discovery Academy. We volunteered in KIPP for three days. We were divided into groups and helped in different classrooms. I helped in two pre-kindergarten classrooms and worked with three and four-year old kids. The first thing that I noticed was that the class is very college-oriented and teacher-centered. Each classroom is named after the college that the head-teacher graduated from. Also, while teaching the class, the head teacher would stress the idea of going to college over and over again. For example, she will say something like, “Some of you are ready for kindergarten and for college.” The ending point is definitely college. When we did group reflection at night, many of us pointed out that this isn’t necessarily good because the kids will think that going to college is the only way to success and they will tend to judge other people who didn’t go to college but have other talents. But some of us pointed out that for kids in low-income areas, introducing them to the idea of college is important since their parents and siblings might not be able to go to college and they are even unfamiliar with the possibility of going to college. Also, as we have noticed in KIPPS, they spend a lot of time going over math and reading, so the classroom is highly teacher-oriented, they do not have much time to play around with their classmates or do creative works on their own.

In comparison, we went to another elementary public school in a wealthier area in DC—Horace Mann. It’s very interesting to see the differences between that school and KIPPS. We visited a pre-kindergarten classroom. The first thing that stood out to me was the classroom layout. It was cozy and comfortable, and there were many stations—painting, decoration, book corner and etc. When we got there, they just started the afternoon class and some of the kids were still sleeping. We talked to the head-teacher Dalen—an amazing educator. We also played around with the kids and asked them questions. They were very engaged in whatever they were doing and I was surprised at how much they know and how creative they are! Dalen told us that early education should focus on emotional and social development of kids, and that’s what they’ve been focusing on. They read a lot, do some math, and go on field trips. I noticed that the classroom was more students-centered compared to KIPPS School. As we were talking about the differences between these two schools, I thought that relevance is one important factor in the different teaching styles between these two schools. For KIPPS School, they serve the community where there are not many opportunities for kids to get in touch with college ideas, so they need to be exposed to this idea. However, for kids in Horace Mann, their parents might have gone to college and they might have done a lot of readings and math at home, so in the school, they can focus on more creative and more challenging tasks and on social skills.

Another place we visited is the City Year office. City Year is a NGO that aims at helping students in public schools to succeed. The high school drop-out rate in DC is very high, so City Year has been active in helping get these students to college. I was very excited to meet and talk to people who are dedicated to public service. One of the people I talked to is Dan, Dan graduated from the architecture department in UVA, and after graduation, he decided he should do something meaningful before going to graduate school, and he chose City Year. He said he had learned a lot from his experience in City Year and his job is very satisfying: he felt that he is changing someone’s life in a better direction.

I grew up in China, and I came to the States for high school and college. Reflecting on my own education experience, I learned a lot and can’t help making comparisons. The first thing that I want to talk about is respect for students. In Chinese classrooms, the culture is very different, most of the classrooms are teacher-oriented and most of classes are test-oriented. Students are usually “classified” in terms of their grades; there is no other criterion. In order for teachers to like you or your classmates to respect you, you have to have good grades. In other word; they don’t care about your life outside of classroom. Your scores define you as a person. Different people have different talents, and they need to be respected and set to the same criterion as the “good students”. Other abilities are just as important and should be appreciated. People are not subject to a certain criterion, they are different and the difference should also be appreciated.

As a further application of my insights, I will keep doing my education research. I’m really interested in environmental education. I did a research on activities for environmental education for elementary school students in China last summer. I will apply what I learned in this Branch Out trip to my own research. Activities should be age-appropriate and area-appropriate. Also, I was touched by people who are doing meaningful jobs and I think I will spend one year or two doing public services after graduation. I really appreciate this Branch Out trip, and our site leaders and group members are truly amazing!