PKS is a growing bilingual elementary and middle school based in San Francisco that emphasizes practical and realistic use of Chinese language, as opposed to having students memorize 100 terms a day. The Presidio Knolls School (PKS) website states: “Our mission is to nurture the young heart and mind in a joyful learning environment, where the convergence of progressive education and Mandarin immersion ignites curiosity, connectedness, and engagement in the world.”
This mission statement came to life this past October in Xizhou when the sixth graders of PKS took over the Linden Centre’s educational site “Yang Zhuo Ran” (otherwise known as “our Linden Centre” by the students) for 10 days. From the first activity, a scavenger hunt designed by the PKS teachers to acquaint students with the geography of the town, it was obvious that despite jet lag and travel fatigue, the kids were excited about finding the town landmarks. Furthermore, they were not hesitant to use their Chinese with locals to ask for directions. There may also have been a promise of ice cream to teams who found at least 6 of the landmarks.
The sixth grade class of PKS is made up of a total of 14 bright, unique personalities who, I feel it is safe to say, are united in their love of Xizhou snacks Er Kuai and Baba. Matching their energy was the equally amazing team of teachers Ophelia Ma and Qiu Yan Wu as well as head of the middle school, Mike Levy.
The idea to create the program came about when, according to Ma: “I met Brian, Jeanee, and the Linden Centre staff at the Hutong in Beijing when they did a national talking tour in winter of 2015. I was curious about their education programming and visited in April 2016 to see the Sidwell China Field Semester program in action. What I saw was mind blowing and it became a dream of mine to bring a group of students to Xizhou to live and learn together.”
Each year the students of PKS take a field trip – and I’m not talking about hopping over to Alcatraz Island. Beginning in 5th grade, students travel to Asia. Last year this same group of students, the inaugural middle school class, went to Huangshan in Anhui province, and next year they will go to Japan. The goal of these trips is to teach students “how to be a traveler, not a tourist.” In addition, the teachers hope students can develop a sense of place by experiencing the place in a non-superficial way.
The PKS students’ time in Xizhou was centered on their storytelling project, the third of four projects taken on by the sixth graders. Other projects include: building a boat and putting together an Asian-American food museum. Each of these projects is an experiential hands-on way for students to practice their Chinese in a realistic way, while also learning other skills. Before arriving in Xizhou, the students did a mini-storytelling in San Francisco by interviewing members of the community and sharing their stories. After their arrival in Xizhou, students were paired off and introduced to local interviewees who were previously contacted by the PKS teaching team and Linden Centre staff. The overall theme tying the interviewees together was that almost every local had a craft or job that involved working with their hands. Interviewees included: Xiao Yun a local tie-dye and Jia Ma instructor; Ms. Li the owner of an embroidery shop; and the husband-wife team of Mr. Yin and Ms. Yang who make the local Dali cheese “Ru Shan” in their home. Students would spend 2-3 hours every day with their interviewees learning about their daily lives, asking questions, listening to their stories, and even getting to try their own hand at the different crafts.
In addition to the storytelling project, the sixth-graders learned about local culture through daily excursions and activities. Student cultural and natural excursions included: Bai tie-dye class, Jiama (wood block print & wool book binding) class, bird watching at the Erhai wetlands, a cangshan hike, and a bicycle tour of local temples. The sixth graders also were able to join in this year’s rice harvesting festival, which takes place right outside in the fields surrounding the Linden Centre.
Throughout this whole experience, the Linden Centre’s educational courtyard Yang Zhuo Ran served as a home base for the students. Ms. Ma commented: “Yang Zhuo Ran allowed us to come and have a home in Xizhou; it’s very comfortable for our kids. After intense study, it’s a good place to relax and the size was really good for our number of students.” In between lessons, interviews, and cultural excursions, students could always be found playing badminton in the main courtyard or learning how to “overthrow the landlord” – a popular Chinese card game. At the end of each day, students would sit in a circle either in the courtyard or in the comfy TV room to have “closing circle.” At this time students would take turns sharing their rose for the day (positive thing that happened), their thorn (a challenge they faced) and their rosebud (thing they were looking forward to).
Head of the PKS middle school Mike Levy shared: “PKS students tend to be savvy travelers- they are curious, open-minded, and like to be stretched. But they are still kids, and they still need to feel safe and cared for in order to blossom. Living in Xizhou for ten days and staying at Yangzhouran allowed for this to happen. Yangzhouran was like their nest- the food prepared by the ayis was healthy and delicious; the rooms were beautiful; the classrooms were perfect for their learning. From this nest, they were able to explore Xizhou in authentic and heart-warming ways. Each day, we noticed how they were growing in confidence and falling more in love with the place. The Linden Center is a perfect place for students to learn the difference between being a mere tourist and a thoughtful, observant traveller.”
Aside from providing a home base for the students, the Linden Centre also provided half-day and full-day support for activities and interviews. Princeton-in-Asia fellow May (that’s me!) acted as point-person for the group which involved accompanying students to interview their local partners and assisting with activities like cooking class at the Linden Commons. The Linden Centre staff, including local activities coordinator Michael Yang, also helped to set up the interviews and daily activities. Michael is also the head of the Linden Centre’s cooking school and taught students how to make eggplant and “Grandma’s Potatoes.”
On the final day of the program, Brian also came to Yangzhuoran to talk to students about his experiences with travel and alternative paths in life.
At the end of the program, students shared their stories with locals at the Linden Commons. The sixth graders not only memorized their stories, but also overcame stage fright and spoke entirely in Chinese. The audience was incredibly impressed with their tales that touched upon local folk heroes (Trista), Cultural Revolution history (Simon & Anthea), and even the personal history of a local bubble tea vendor (Athena & Lucy). Audience members were eager to ask the students questions after their presentations, with one local asking students to: “use one sentence to describe your experience” Eli responded, in Chinese I might add, “I would say give me an hour and I’ll tell you.”
The Linden Centre plays host to many education programs throughout the year, but what makes PKS different? While the program does have a set framework, the PKS kids are free to explore Xizhou on their own terms. In addition, the fact that all of the students are incredibly proficient in Chinese aids this immersion in the local landscape. But more than anything there is a pervasive spirit among the teachers and students that makes every moment feel like a teachable moment, and turns everything from the rice fields to the hidden town temples into an exploratory playground.
Check out some of the student-made websites about the trip below: