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April 19, 2001

I awoke far too early. I had been so tired that I had fallen asleep at 8 PM the night before, and so it was no surprise that I awakened at 4 AM alert and ready to go, but with nowhere to go. I worked on my journal for a while and then went over my presentation which was to be that afternoon. I tried to think about language choices which might be clearer for my translator and for ,my audience. I knew they would be Chinese educators attending the conference, a mixture of principals, administrators, teachers, and university professors. Fortunately all rooms have a stainless steel thermos with hot water in it (and incredibly, it stays hot for about 24 hours or more) and makings for tea so I could sip while working.

When it became the least bit light outside I went for a walk around the campus of Qufu Normal University. It is a very nice campus, with many, many new buildings, most of them quite impressive by American standards. Students and others were already up early and on their way. There is an older building and each end of the building has no windows and a black surface almost like a blackboard, and on it had been written "news" of some sort in Chinese characters, and it was dated 4-14-01. I never did find out what it said, but later when I passed by I did see people reading it. There are many trees, grassy spaces and even a beautiful garden among the buildings, indicating a high level of sophistication both in terms of design and aesthetics. The day before Prof. Sung, chair of the department of education, had walked with me across campus and pointed out original buildings from 1955 (still in excellent shape) as well as new buildings under construction, and he talked about their value being multi-subject classrooms with all the latest technology. Not all of the classrooms I visited had the latest technology, but many did, with installed computers, opaque projectors, and big screen projection for video, computer screen, or graphics.

I went down to breakfast and our jolly crew seemed very well rested. We were ready for the start if the academic part of our adventure. I was worried that my translator did not know my presentation had been changed to today, but Juefei assured me that she had been informed.

We went off to the conference opening, and it took place in a large and opulent room with wonderful chairs. Bonnie Ayer an elementary school teacher and Dotty Danforth, also a Burlington teacher, and I got lost and found the conference room just before things began. We were asked to sit in front because we would be introduced individually. We heard greetings from our Chinese hosts, including the President of the University, and then Juefei introduced us one by one to polite applause. Then Donna Howell, Superintendent of Burlington Schools and our delegation leader, gave a brief message of thank you for hosting us and then presented two gifts, an embroidered wall hanging depicting the University of Vermont, and also an American flag, which she added "had no political implication."

Before the Conference | VIPs prepare for the opening session

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Next came a trip to the front steps of the building for a group photo of everyone. It was a lovely, bright, clear and sunny day and we were quite a troupe, about 16 Americans and 150 Chinese educators, along with 8-10 Chinese officials. This was the Sino-American Seminar in Educational Leadership.

Song Huanxin, President of Qufu Teachers University |Wang Juefei and Holden Waterman

We went back inside for the keynote speech, delivered by the director of the Beijing Educational Research Institute. He talked about a cooperative program between China and UNESCO to experiment with reforms in Chinese schools and then carry on evaluations. He went into some detail about reforms which were targeted to break the stranglehold that traditional teaching methods and focus on examinations has on Chinese education.

He finished and there was a call for questions. There were none. Since I hate silence like that, I stood up and asked about implementation of these changes in a system where methods have been in place for many centuries and where teachers treasure their use of repetition (I had read the book Juefei had given us about the Chinese educational system) and I got an interesting answer that did not confront HOW to implement these things, but examples of what had been done. The FIRST example, oddly enough, was the use of debating in high schools. He talked about debates over the primacy of examinations and how students had researched them and implemented them as a way for students to take control over the content and conduct of the classroom. He mentioned Yunan province (in the translation) and as I mouthed "Long March" Prof. Sung and the speaker both nodded enthusiastically. In my first interaction at the conference we had made a connection -- their interest in debate and my knowledge of Chinese history, and I got a very warm feeling about how beneficial this experience as going to be. Other questions followed, and I was particularly impressed by how direct and almost confrontational the questions from the Chinese scholars were. I don't know about all of Chinese society, but things seemed pretty open here, because I had sort of expected the audience to be "sucking up" to the big guy instead of pointing out where his presentation was incomplete. The session ended and we went off to lunch.

Lunch was fine, but Dean Vervoort, principal of North Country Union Junior high School in Derby, Vermont and my partner for our sessions) and I did some planning. We decided to head over to our room and get things set up early. Robert Duback had volunteered to video my presentation and came with us, and I really appreciated his assistance. Robert is an accomplished artist and I look forward to viewing some of his work, which others in the party were raving about.

Pre-Conference photo session | Xu Qingli and author

We arrived a few minutes early and our translators were there. They helped us negotiate with the Chinese facilitator (Dean would be the American facilitator today and I would do that on Saturday) and the Chinese presenter (I was the American presenter today) about procedure and order, and all seemed to be smooth. The camera got set up easily but we had some problems with the transparency projector which I would be using. My translator seemed nervous because this was one of her first big assignments and her supervisor would be coming in at some point to watch her. I tried to build her confidence. She had already translated my entire presentation into Chinese characters and provided me with a laserprint copy of it.

Click here to read my presentation in English, click here to read it in Chinese.

It seemed to go over very well, and her translation seemed excellent. I turned the microphone down because I really didn't need it. There followed a series of questions which I found to be informed and relevant, and the teachers present seemed very interested in using debate as a method in class, especially after I explained how creating teams with coaches and researchers as well as students as a group of judges that it might work in the large class sizes they have (40-60 students in a class). One teacher had very good questions and I saw in him the making of a future debate coach. I distributed WDI brochures and a Chinese language version of my paper was presented to all present along with my name card. This was another nice touch by my translator, Xu Qingli.

After my time was up, we turned to our Chinese presenter. He made a presentation on how to use a four part participation sequence in social science classes, and it was very imaginative and well thought out. There was no translator for him, so Xu Qingli, my translator, filled in to assist him, and did a wonderful job given that she had never seen his paper before that moment. He was asked a series of questions based on how to implement his ideas and whether it would detract from training for the national college entrance examination. After his time was u[p we took, a ten minute break before we had free discussion.

During free discussion we were joined by Juefei and Donna Howell, Burlington superintendent, which I was glad of. Also, the translator who had done such an excellent job on the keynote speech (and who was the supervisor of all translators) joined us as well. During free discussion they could ask any questions they wished and Dean and I (along with help from Juefei and Donna) would try to answer them. I quickly tired of this one way "ask the Americans" format and began asking questions of my own to the audience about Chinese educational practice, and this seemed to help a lot, at least as far as I was concerned. Debate did come up several times as a good practice for engaging and empowering students and it wasn't brought up by me. Chinese educators seem interested in finding learning methods which are more participative but still rigorous, as is their educational tradition. All of this ,made me more and more optimistic about the prospect for debating in China.

Before we knew it out three and a half hours were up and still there was more to talk about, but I have come to realize that nothing is ever covered completely, the discussion is never really thorough, and the debate never ends. We parted after snapping a number of photos of each other.

We met for dinner at the International Exchange Center and everyone seemed much more loose, having been through the first day, made half of our presentations, and everyone seemed to survive and thrive. Some of the presenters had technical problems, but that seemed not to have stunted things too much. In many ways the papers were just a way to loosen each other up for the more valuable free discussion. I even broke down and had a couple of beers. It was very celebratory in mood, and everyone shared their stories.

I had hoped to tape a Flashpoint that evening, but Juefei was late getting back from the train station where he had taken our keynote speaker so he could return to Beijing, and besides I had left my tripod in the room where my paper had been given, but my panelists present were tired and anxious to go to bed (although some went to a student dance) so we decided to reschedule.

I worked on my journal and reviewed the events of the day, realizing how quickly the time was passing and how busy the days were. I thought how stupid I had been not to go to the student dance with those who had invited me, but I easily drifted off to sleep. No disturbing dreams on this night.

There is debate in China, and they are clearly ready for more.

GO TO APRIL 20, 2001