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Hearts and Minds In the World

By Lauren Goldberg

Since 2006, Humanities Department co-chair Deb Riding has been to Changsha more times than she has traveled to her own hometown (Salt Lake City, Utah). Next month, when she leads our ninth grade trip to China, will mark her 13th visit to New Haven's sister city. Ready to manage the most basic logistical details and eager to share the profound moments of discovery, Deb knows how powerfully this experience will affect each member of the group. 

Deb's students are preparing for their journey in a variety of ways. As with all of our curricula, the ninth grade humanities program is organized around a set of essential questions. In Deb's classes, those questions deal with culture and identity: What is the value of seeing a culture from multiple perspectives? How do our cultural backgrounds and experiences influence how we interpret the world?

These questions encourage students to be aware of their own attitudes, beliefs and values as they learn about the ways that other people live. The class has been following current events in China, and they have been studying the meaning of culture through investigations of ethnic groups around the world. They have been reading Ji-li Jiang's memoir Red Scarf Girl, which documents a young woman's experiences during the cultural revolution.

"We read the book and chose passages that we thought were important," a student told me. "I found a lot of quotes about how cultures change," added another girl. "My favorite quote says that change comes from the younger generations."

This week, the class began individual research projects related to key sites and themes that they will experience in China. Each student will be responsible for delivering a presentation and leading a discussion about one of the points of interest on the trip. This "docent project" is an integral part of the ninth grade social studies curriculum, bringing together skills and habits of mind that the students have been learning throughout their years at Foote. 

During a recent library-based class, conversations reflected the challenges and discoveries at the heart of inquiry-based learning. A student investigating Taoism contemplated the idea of a creed when he read that Taoism does not dictate a central set of beliefs in the manner of religions that are more familiar to him. "Does the United States have a religion?" he asked. "No! separation of church and state!" replied one of his tablemates. "I know that, but it still seems like we have religion in a lot of stuff here," the researcher noted.

His presentation will take place at a Taoist temple at the top of a mountain, a location that this year's Chinese guest teacher, Tong Beina, is especially excited to visit with the group. Next to him, a classmate was poring over a book about the discovery of a preserved corpse in a 2,000-year-old Han Dynasty royal tomb. "We're going to see this place on the trip and I'm going to tell about the history of the dynasty," he explained.

One entire library table was taken up by an intricate map of the Forbidden City. "How do I cite this source?" asked the student who is preparing her presentation about the ancient palace complex. Deb helped her locate the name of the publisher as they both admired the details of the map. Meanwhile, another student was deeply immersed in a website about the Great Wall. Someone else was trying to make sense of the complexities of government structure in modern China while discussing traditional housing with a friend at his table. 

Four girls are learning about major cities that the group will visit. Sitting together in a library nook, they searched the China Daily website for news and current events. "I haven't seen a single story about a mass shooting," mused one girl. "But, there are lots of articles about air quality."

When asked how the project related to the essential questions, all of the girls shared thoughtful responses. "Our views about America might affect our views of Chinese cities. Studying another country is eye-opening. We can form our own opinions from seeing another place," said one girl. "One big difference is how old China is. My city was a major stop on the Silk Road. We don't have the equivalent of that here." Adding onto that idea, another student said, "My city is more than 1,000 years old. I'm reading about buildings that are soooo old! Here in the United States, an old building might be 200 years old." 

Each year, the China trip follows a core set of experiences and locations, with a few changes in the schedule or itinerary. This year, instead of ending the trip in Hong Kong, the group will visit the scenic city of Guilin, known for its iconic vistas and misty mountains. Our cultural exchange will also include a linguistic milestone: This class is the first group that includes Mandarin speakers. Ten of our ninth graders have been studying Chinese since third grade at Foote. "We'll be able to ask directions, order food, and read some of the signs," said one Chinese language student excitedly. "And our relationship with the Yali students will be less lopsided," added another person. "We can do some of the translating for each other."  

Taoist philosophy is based on harmony. Taoists strive to find joy and wonder in the world through acceptance and grace. Aspects of these values transcend religion and culture, and are embedded in the Foote School's mission to give students "the skills to explore the world with joy and purpose." Our China trip embodies these values in a thrilling, deeply resonant way for our students and the entire community. 

Lauren Goldberg is Foote's curriculum coordinator.

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Since 1916, The Foote School has provided child-centered education that nurtures creativity, excellence and joy in learning.

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