Educate Global travelers leave China with perspective from another’s shoes

Abby Spankroy
Abby Spankroy

Educate Global 2.0 is history. China looms in the rearview mirror. A new semester of learning is underway in DeKalb.

But the broadened perspectives Educate Global provided to NIU’s future teachers seem destined to persist in countless and unpredictable ways.

Just ask Bethany Johnson, a senior Early Childhood Education major.

“It’s just being more conscious about what it’s like to be an outsider,” says Johnson, from Arlington Heights.

And after spending her summer teaching English to Chinese students at the Beijing Royal School, she has gained a powerful understanding of the need to make learners feel comfortable and confident.

Because using visual aids to connect images to English words proved effective, she now thinks that same strategy could work in U.S. schools of young children. So would a teacher who is accepting of who and where children are, she says.

“I can apply these in my own classroom to make students feel welcomed, safe and comfortable,” Johnson says. “That’s the biggest thing.”

One of 10 NIU College of Education undergraduates who traveled to China from early July through mid-August to teach middle- and high-schoolers ages 10 to 16, Johnson loved the trip that Assistant Professor Stephanie DeSpain encouraged her to take.

Morgan Dominguez
Morgan Dominguez

“Working with the kids was incredible,” she says. “It made me step out of my comfort zone to work with a much different age range than I am used to.”

Educate Global provides round-trip airfare, room and board in the Beijing Royal School dormitory and cultural tours at no cost to the students or the college.

Students who make the journey also can apply for the university’s Engage PLUS Academic Transcript Notation, which demonstrates such skills as critical thinking, organization and teamwork to employers and graduate programs.

Licensure candidates in Early Childhood Education, Elementary Education, Middle Level Teaching and Learning and Special Education worked in teams of two to develop, design and deliver lessons plans of their own chosen theme for nine-day “summer camps.”

They tried to make the camps as fun as possible with outdoor games, water balloon battles and talent shows. They learned the need to differentiate their instruction and, if necessary, scrap their lesson plans and start anew. They discovered the importance of flexibility.

“If something came up, we’d just stop the class and talk about it,” says Allison Meurs, a senior Early Childhood Education major from Fulton, Ill. “I learned to think on my feet and to make quick changes when the students needed me to.”

For example, Meurs and co-teacher Abby Spankroy realized that some students needed writing prompts to spur their output. They also asked the students to teach them Chinese words.

“Before we left, we came up with ideas and developed lessons,” says Spankroy, a senior Elementary Education major from Brookfield. “But things change. Proficiency levels are different. Some things we completely scratched and spent the night doing over.”

One task assigned the Chinese students to draw pictures of their homes and then write English adjectives to describe them, she says, but that seemed beneath their skills. To replace that activity, the NIU teachers asked their students to write biographical poems.

Spankroy heard about Educate Global from classmate Alexis Moaton, who made the trip last year and returned again this summer.

Further encouraged by professors Melanie Walski and James Cohen, Spankroy eventually returned to the United States with the happiness of making an academic impact – and with a greater cultural awareness that will shape her career.

Water balloons!

“Diversity here is growing, and every student is growing,” Spankroy says. “You need to scaffold to meet the needs of all learners.”

That lesson also hit home for Sarah Williams, a senior Special Education major from Elgin.

Williams and her co-teacher developed a theme of music for their campers, focusing on the terminology of music, but discovered that “the bridge between basic English vocabulary and music vocabulary” wasn’t connecting.

“Sometimes you make a plan, and you have to throw it away because it won’t work,” Williams says.

Happily, she also met students with “an eagerness to learn. Most of them were excited to be there with you. They could work for long periods of time with no problem.”

Meanwhile, Williams expanded her scope of experience. While her degree is preparing her to work with students from kindergarten through age 21, most of her encounters so far have been on either side of that spectrum. The Chinese students fell in the middle.

Like the others, she also is preparing for a career in the classroom with her eyes opened.

“It was incredibly impactful. It completely reshaped how I look at things. It gave me the perspective of, ‘OK, now I’m the minority. I’m the one who has to adjust,’ ” Williams says. “I know I have to accommodate and support my students the best I can. Understanding where your students are coming from is so important. Unless you step into that person’s shoes, your teaching is not going to have as much of an impact.”

Other teacher licensure candidates who traveled to China this summer were Hannah Schlecht, Emma Shade Fischer, Moesha Swanigan and Nicole VanGarsse.

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