Penn Charter hosts first summer exchange program with Tianjin school

 Penn Charter teacher Jim Fiorile leads Tianjin students through a lesson on idioms. (Carrie Hagen/for NewsWorks)

Penn Charter teacher Jim Fiorile leads Tianjin students through a lesson on idioms. (Carrie Hagen/for NewsWorks)

Twenty Chinese students from Yaohua High School in Tianjin sat in a William Penn Charter School classroom last Thursday, reading dialogue from “The Big Bang Theory” and practicing idiom usage. The teenagers were finishing the first of a two-week exchange trip during which they studied English conversational skills and toured Philadelphia with Penn Charter students. 

The program is the brainchild of veteran Penn Charter history teacher Ed Marks, who spent five months at Yaohua High School during the spring of 2012, when Yaohua school officials agreed to foster a student exchange.

While at the 5,000-student school, Marks lived on the 13th floor of a school dormitory and taught 16 classes of 50 students every week. “It was a very difficult experience, wonderful, but really challenging,” he remembered. The rigor of the school’s English grammatical curriculum, said Marks, “makes the SAT look like a Monday morning pop quiz.”

Immersing in a new culture 

Since Marks established a connection with Yaohua, Penn Charter sent a group of students to Tianjin, and Yaohua has sent two groups to the U.S. But this summer is the first time that Penn Charter has hosted a summer program for Chinese students. During mornings last week, students engaged in conversational workshops led by Jim Fiorile, a language teacher at Penn Charter. In the early afternoons and evenings, they took various trips throughout the area, and every afternoon, they spent time in a true cultural immersion experience: learning Disney-inspired musical theater with Penn Charter students. 

Liu Huiju, who has been teaching English at Yaohua for 10 years, is visiting America for the first time as a chaperone on this exchange trip. Both she and Marks speak to the importance of helping her students develop conversational skills that will complement their grammatical intelligence.

“This program is very helpful in improving English proficiency,” said Huiji. In Tianjin, she explained, students are more shy around their teachers. She complemented Fiorile, Marks, and English teacher Jim Pilkington on making students feel comfortable so that they could play with the language and “become more competent.”

Jim Pilkington explained the use of The Big Bang Theory in Fiorile’s lesson. “The students are big on western movies and television shows,” he said, noting the popularity of this particular sitcom in China. By reading dialogue from one of the shows, Fiorile illustrated the importance of idioms in English conversation. Students laughed as they practiced using “hit the books” and “when pigs fly” in sentences they composed.

‘Building the guanxi’

After the group lesson, small groups worked with Penn Charter students on a short oral presentation about a topic of Chinese culture or history.

Carolyn Brady, a junior at Penn Charter, visited Tianjin on a school trip in 2010. She was one of a several American students assisting the groups as they organized their presentations on Prezi presentation software. “For the most part they are doing the work,” said Brady. “We are more Prezi [facilitators].”

Fifteen-year-olds Jiang Mengqui, Chang Linfei, Liang Wenxin, and Ma Hui Ao concentrated on a presentation about the Chinese New Year. Ma Hui Ao shook her head and giggled with her friends when asked about the week’s cultural experiences, which included a trip to Chinatown, an outdoor comedy performance at McMichael Park, and dancing to American music. “The music is very difficult,” she said. “And American Chinese food is not Chinese food,” one of her classmates said to laughter.

The Chinese term “guanxi” refers to empathetic connections, communication, and respect shared among people. At the end of last week, each of the 20 teenagers from Yaohua took part in the planned oral presentations and presented a collective dance number that they learned throughout the week. Saturday, they went to the Atlantic City beach with a few of their new Penn Charter friends, and this week Ed Marks will accompany them on a tour of other cities along the northeast corridor.

“With all of this,” said Marks, “we are building the guanxi.”

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