Free Students from the Warm Prison
Yiting Xie, Division 3, College senior #ws16e-s3d3

Dedication often sounds or seems well-intended; actually, dedication without careful deliberation risks overwhelming the recipient. After participating in many education camps, I realized that the intention to improve the quality of education in remote areas may turn out to be a superficial pity if volunteers have not contemplated the essence of education and more importantly, what those children really need.

The failure to design appealing and influential classes during my first education camp was arguably the best example to illustrate my point: students’ need for education is often veiled by volunteers’ assumptions which are based on their own experience in learning.

During the first year in the education camp, I was deeply depressed for students’ reactions to the classes. When my friend taught on the stage with exaggerated gesture and gravelly voice, I glimpsed a boy who ducked his head and occupied himself in writing his homework. I stared at him as a signal to withdraw his homework. Our eyes met. He lowered his head quickly yet kept writing. The boy was not an isolated case in the camp. Other students in the class were also distracted or bored about the classes which we had prepared for a whole semester. I began to wonder whether our dedication to education was merely wishful thinking. One day, with numerous doubts and uncertainties in my mind, I trudged back to the classroom after the art class ended. The sight of a pile of artworks thrown into the garbage bin by students disheartened me cruelly. “Why don’t they cherish their work?”, I exclaimed in my mind. “Why do they dislike the classes and even their work?” Suddenly, an influx of questions rushed into my mind. I suspected that this camp may be another prison for students since they were passively fed with unwanted information and their time were also indirectly deprived.

Despite depression and dissatisfaction, I still joined in another education camp next year. I believed our efforts could exert an impact on students, and their distraction and reluctance were merely tantrums. After joining in this camp for a few days, my belief proved to be true. Students had heated discussion in class and they took delight in performing on the stage. However, the strikingly different reaction, compared with that of previous students, resulted in greater confusion to me. In retrospect, confusion is of significance because it provides opportunities for a system or an organization to become better.

I seized the opportunity to find what students in in remote areas really need. It was not until I took the course of Instructional Psychology that I found out the culprit. It was we that deprived their ""ownership"" of creating and triggered their reluctance to learn. The mistake we made resulted from the ignorance of giving ownership to students in the process of creating. To be more specific, students were given the ownership of the product only to lose the ownership in the process. In the art class, they were demanded to conduct the same work though they still had freedom to choose the color and the shape of their product. The notion of ownership, if extended to a broader scope, can help solve the problem why numerous students were distracted in the camp.

I tried to apply the notion of ownership to comparing students’ reactions in different education camps. In most education camps, students are requested to take every class which is seemingly beneficial to them. Even in the art class, students conduct the same work which, volunteers assume, might intrigue students. By contrast, the last camp I joined provided diverse classes for students to choose. Students could take their favorite classes. Besides, in this camp, students were encouraged to demonstrate their strengths and cultural distinction rather than following every command from teachers. The distinction between two kinds of camps was the attitude toward students. Most camps expect to strengthen students’ weaknesses, especially academic performance; in contrast, ,the last camp I joined did not treat students in remote areas as marginalized population who lacked enough resource to rival those who grow up in cities; rather, students there were regarded as individuals who were eligible to choose what they want to learn.

Realizing the significance of ownership in learning, I chose it as the topic of my presentation in the course of instructional psychology. I expected my classmates who had intention of improving the quality of education in remote areas could identify the importance of ownership in the process. Above all, volunteers should put themselves in the children’s shoes to consider what they need instead of providing assistance with the assumption that students in remote areas deserve what other children have.

I told my classmates a story to illustrate my perspectives on education camps.

The feature of the camp was that it allowed students to choose their favorite classes. I was a homeroom teacher in the camp and needed to supervise them when it was time to clean the campus. One day, I, as usual, walked toward the classroom and was going to open the door. No sooner had I stepped into the classroom than I was amazed by the sight of students playing instruments and displaying diverse talents. The classroom turned out to be a concert hall where students played different roles in the orchestra. “You are so talented. Why did you not mention that before?” I asked my students with a mixture of surprise and admiration. Gradually, their talents were revealed in different classes, prompting them to perform on the stage at the farewell party.

On the day of farewell party, every student took turns performing on the stage. They stood in semi-circle to sing classic songs. Sometimes, they belted out every note to showcase the magnificent spirit of the song; sometimes, they crooned and hummed. These children’s voice was so clear and clean as if their singing was in celebration for some divine being. At that moment, I could feel their unrestricted souls confidently demonstrate what they had learned in the classes. Another group of children who danced on the stage was even more astonishing. Every clap and leap overlapped the beat of music with swing and rotation interlaced in between. Ultimately, they even blinked as if they were telling their parents who sat in the auditorium, “Hey, Dad, Mom, I am here!” From then on, the image has been deeply engraved on my mind. At the same time, the frown and resigned expression on the face of those who did not have ownership in their learning sprang into my mind. I was surprised that different pedagogies can lead to these tremendously different results.

With this story and reflection on different education camps, I expected my classmates and volunteers to realize that any so-called better education style should not be imposed on children in remote areas. What we should do is help them reveal their talents and strengths instead of expecting that they become the same copies like us, a crowd of college students who have been instilled the belief that only good grades can give rise to promising future. I can identify with some volunteers who hope to influence students, make some differences in their lives, and sometimes crave for some miracles happening after our teaching; however, miracles are based on existence just like the Biblical story in which Jesus feeds five thousand people with only five loaves of bread and two fish. Miracles never come from nothing but spring from existing facts and stuff however limited the amount is. By the same token, miracles in education come from revelation of students’ hidden talents, not what they do not have.

After my presentation, some gave me positive rewards while someone had opposite opinions against me. My purpose of presentation was not to attain agreement or recognition. Rather, I intended to provide opportunities for those who dedicates themselves to education to view education camps from another respect: the way the camp operates, the attitude teachers assume toward students, and the reactions students display toward teachers.

In addition to sharing my experience and retrospect on education, I cooperated with my friends to design a series of curriculum specially conducted for a school in remote area after contacting the principal for the children’s background, condition and distinction. Without forcing students to memorize the lengthy history and geography of their culture, the curriculum would motivate students to explore their neighborhood and then connect it with knowledge. This time, I believed, we would find students concentrate on the content of the classes with great delight because of our dedication with deliberation.
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