Sunday, January 13, 2013

Designing College Preparation Programs for Chinese students

Chinese students are coming to study in the USA in increasing numbers.  They are also coming at younger ages with families and for-profit placement agents in China showing an increasing interest in prep schools and college preparatory programs. Therefore an increasing number of institutions, both college and secondary, are exploring the possibility of creating programs aimed at taking students from China and preparing them for higher education in the USA.

What follows is a rough proposal on how to create such a program and make it effective.
It is based on the author’s life experiences, readings,  educational experiences in the USA, Taiwan and China, including time spent working in the Tufts University University Preparatory Program. It freely borrows from the strengths of that program while correcting its flaws.

Many essentials, such as housing and exact academic curriculum of the students, have been left undiscussed. Although clearly important, this document is intended to  just provide some rough guidelines and a framework for designing an effective program to take young Chinese students and prepare them for further study in the USA.

Although the program is intended for Chinese students, whenever possible, the Chinese students should be integrated with non-Chinese peers. This is to naturally reduce use of their first language in the classroom and while working on projects. Although these peers could also be Asian, especially as there is a great interest in this sort of program among students from not just China, but also South Korea and Vietnam as well as elsewhere, there is no need for them to be Asian. In some cases, they can even be American students from the same institution although the strengths and weaknesses of this would have to be carefully considered.  

Chinese students are often placed in programs by for-profit agents. Whenever possible the use and role of these agents should be reduced or eliminated. When present, their role should be clearly defined and an eye kept on how they represent the program and interact with the students. At Tufts many problems, including ethical, logistical and problems relating to health and maintenance of the students, can be directly linked to the strong yet often undefined role of Chinese agents in the program.

The students should have a mixture of classes where they are integrated and not integrated into their host academic community. These classes should have very different feels and styles to them. Some classes will be segregated and specifically designed to teach the students how to adjust to social and academic life in the USA. In these classes, the students should receive an underlying message from the teachers of “You are special. We will take care of you. If you have a problem we will spend a lot of time to fix it and make sure you are okay.”

By contrast they should have other classes where they are integrated with other students from the host academic community. These classes could be selected based on the student’s academic interests. In these classes the students should receive an underlying message of “You are not special. Do your work and meet minimum academic expectations or you will be failed in this class.” This is a harsh message but one Chinese students need to receive as the academic demands of American colleges and universities are generally much more harsh and strict than of those in China. (In China, admission to university study is difficult, but once in the academic demands are actually often much, more lax than in the USA.)

It is not necessary that the instructors of these non-segregated classes be aware that the students are in a a special program. The purpose of having dual styles of classes is so that the students in the program both feel safe and always know where they can go for help, while simultaneously learning that college life in the USA is not easy, not all instructors are comforting and that their actions or lack of actions in school will have real academic consequences.

Instructors and teachers in the segregated classes do not have to be experts in Chinese culture, although they should have some orientation and training in Chinese culture and the general sorts of strengths, weaknesses and special needs that Chinese students tend to have prior to being placed in the classroom. Such orientation sessions should be “closed door” sessions designed for maximum effectiveness rather than political correctness.  There should be periodic “review” and “discussion” sessions where students can ask questions about Chinese culture and student behavior with people more experienced than themselves as well as to discuss them among themselves. Again, these should be closed door sessions and teachers should be encouraged to ask questions of the sort, “Is this student strange or am I seeing something cultural that I do not understand?”  

Since the program is for high school age students, it should include realistic, well-thought out, legally sound yet mild punishments for normal teenage misbehavior. (i.e. throwing paper in class, forgetting homework or necessary materials, minor cheating, rude language, and so on.) If the word "punishments" makes you uncomfortable please feel free to replace it with "consequences." The important thing is that the students learn that what is said is meant and realize that if they don't meet certain expectations, for instance coming to class on time,  then there will be consequences or punishments. I will leave the exact design of such punishments to the administrators of the program but they need be nothing fancy or different than what is normally given to American high school students who misbehave. (Detentions and time in quiet study hall were the norm when I was in high school.)  These punishments should be able to be easily and quickly administered as necessary. (The Tufts program lacks these and instead punishment and discipline are complex, delayed and often overly harsh and not suited for normal teenage offenses.)

Students should have forced exposure to American food and culture and be expected to eat a variety of healthy, American foods that are new to them (i.e. not just pizza and hamburgers) at least once or twice a week and to do so in an environment where they learn the names of the foods they are eating and exposed to as well as the socially acceptable ways to consume them.

Students should also be required to participate in at least one out of class, integrated activity each semester and required to write a paper on what they gained or learned from this experience as well as any difficulties they had. Administrators should expect some resistance to this from Chinese parents who often feel that the time spent on outside activities could better be spent on studying and rote memorization of items such as SAT vocabulary. However, by building up this sort of activity not only are students developing important social and English language skills, they are also building up a better college application. Activities could include sports, clubs and volunteer activities. (Students should not just be pushed towards the Asian-American club, a problem at Tufts that showed both a misunderstanding of students’ needs but also of Asian-American identity.)

There should be someone in the program who speaks Chinese and understands Chinese culture. They should have input into designing activities and events for the students. They should also have input into judging how much “hand-holding” and guidance the students need before or during their attendance or participation in events at the host academic institution. One of their roles will be to provide students with orientations on how to act at events, such as a major school sports event, for example, before they attend. This person should also be able to serve as an emergency translator for visiting  parents. If this person is Chinese, they should be kept away from the grading processes to avoid any appearance of favoritism or corruption.

Eating Chinese food as a group is an important part of Chinese bonding and culture. All students and employees of the program should be encouraged to attend a Chinese style dinner twice a month, once at lunch and once in the evening. This food may be either purchased,  cooked b students and teachers or come from any source people wish. If as, the year goes on, students wish to experiment with non-Chinese food they may do so, but this should not be seen as a time to force students to eat new foods. (That times is elsewhere.) This is intended as a time to make students feel happy and health and to encourage bonding among program participants at all levels.      

This document should not be considered complete. It is a work in progress and intended instead as a flexible set of guidelines that should be used when creating programs intended to orient young Chinese students for study in the USA. All points are open to discussion. If there are questions please do not hesitate to contact the author using the above contact information.

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