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May 14, 2012
When Journey East students returned from China about three weeks ago, they were, in the words of JE director Tom Connor, “different people than those who had left.” This week’s edition of Monday Notes is devoted to an interview with Tom, who has led JE from the beginning in 2000.
First, an introduction to L&G’s Journey East…
JE is an immersion in Chinese studies for one spring semester, which includes one month of traveling in China. About 20-30 participants study Chinese language, history, philosophy, geography, politics, literature, and film. Journey East faculty and students create a unique performance that incorporates music, theater, and dance, which they present to Chinese audiences during their spring program in China. At the Arts College of Inner Mongolia University, JE students and their Chinese peers share crafts, songs, and dances. Together they give a final collaborative performance to an audience approaching 1,500. Once home, JE students visit other Vermont schools to perform and share their traveling experience. All participants return to their elementary schools to presentwhat they’ve learned. In addition, each student chooses a focus area to study in greater depth and delivers a presentation to their peers, parents, and community members.
DD: Tom, how did Journey East begin?
TC: In 2009, I wrote something for the 10th anniversary of our relationship with the Arts College. My first visit there was in 1999, when I led the first group of teachers with the University of Vermont’s Asian Studies Outreach Program. We attended a performance of the arts college and we were blown away. Holden Waterman, former WCSU Superintendent, who was also in attendance at the performance, and I agreed that I said right then, “We need a relationship with this college.” Former principal Ron Stahley, English teacher Ann Landenberger, music teacher Ron Kelley, and I wrote a proposal to the Freeman Foundation for a pilot project – an arts exchange between our schools. We were given $62,000 for an after-school and weekend program for 16-18 students. In spring 2000, we took sixteen L&G students, our first group. Part of the grant included bringing the Mongolian performers to Vermont. We set up workshops and performances in high schools and colleges around the state. This was wildly successful. Based on that success, we wrote a proposal for a three-year grant for a much more comprehensive program. That, and subsequent successfully funded proposals called for the establishment of an Asian Studies Academy and arts exchange program with the Arts College; the revision of the social studies curriculum in WCSU schools to include the study of Asia for all students at least three times during their K-12 educational career in WCSU schools; professional development for teachers; and the introduction of the Chinese language into select district schools. Two elementary schools added Chinese language, Jamaica and Windham, and we began with Tong Chen, who continues now full-time at L&G, which was a loss for the elementary schools, but her classes were filling up at the high school.
The Freeman Foundation funded the Chinese language program for a number of years. We had been awarded three grants, each for a three-year period. In ten years, they gave close to $1.5 million. JE is much more comprehensive than most people realize. Leaders and teachers, specifically from WCSU schools, have gone to China, Japan, and Thailand. Over this time, we have probably had over one hundred families who have hosted Chinese teachers, scholars, and students. Approximately 200 Inner Mongolian Art School teachers and students have come to L&G. 245 L&G students, teachers, and parent chaperones have visited China.
DD: What were some of the initial cultural challenges, both in China and back home?
TC: This is a performing arts exchange. In many of the places where we performed, there were varying degrees of English comprehension. There were challenges in creating shows that were approachable for all the audiences in China. There were some major cultural issues that we worked our way through early on. For example, in China, you only know something’s going to happen when it actually happens. There were times we needed and expected to rehearse. Then we’d get ten-minute notice that the college president would be coming during rehearsal time. China is all about relationships and trust, and it took us, probably as much as three or four years before the relationships were really solidified. We accept the fact that our intentions are good, but we both might mess up, and we can forgive each other and even laugh about it later. In China, the rites and rules and ways of doing things are pretty foreign to Americans. The deference to authority and who is where in the pecking order – those can be difficult things for Americans to deal with. We understand each other a whole lot better now, and this has been years in the making.
DD: Why did Leland and Gray move in this direction? Why not another country or continent?
TC: In 1997, we had the initial connection with UVM, which was offering stipends and graduate credits to teachers for their programs in China. I had been out of education for a while and wanted to get back into it. UVM gave me a stipend, which made it possible for me to participate in a three-week program in Yunnan, the most ethnically diverse province in China. I was in China for five minutes and I decided that I was going to go back. The day after I arrived home, I drove to Burlington and met with the Asian Studies Outreach Program director, Juefei Wang. In a couple of weeks, he agreed to let us host about five Chinese guests, presidents and vice-presidents of universities in Yunnan. My friend Charles Murray, who owned the Three Mountain Inn, invited them to stay free of charge. We contacted everyone in southern Vermont who had traveled to China to join us, so we had something like a reunion. This was also a very successful event, and Juefei asked me to run an evening program for Jamaica residents. Professor Ken Hood and he came down to observe. As many as 50 people came to Jamaica Village School to hear the presentations, and I had established myself to UVM that I was somebody who could pull this off. I began leading teacher programs to China, which brought me to the Arts College of Inner Mongolia and L&G’s application to the Freeman Foundation.
DD: What happens to students participating in JE? What do they do and how does this education affect them?
TC: I started by saying that I gave a long speech for the ten-year anniversary of our relationship with the Arts College. Here are a few points:
Journey East has played a very important role in transforming the culture of Leland and Gray, the communities that it serves, and the lives of the students and families who have been connected to it.
Our students’ experience had opened up their eyes to some of life’s possibilities that they, up to this point, did not even conceive if. Many of our students have, after participating in JE, chosen to study abroad in high school and college. They have gone onto major in Chinese language, study in India, China, Japan, South America, Europe, and elsewhere. Today several students work with Chinese companies. This would have been unheard of prior to JE.
DD: How receptive are the Chinese to our students and our performances?
TC: They’ve loved them, and they have loved interacting with our kids. We go to a lot of schools. We go to Kindergartens, middle schools, Mongolian minority schools. In Chongqing, we went to an experimental school for children of migrant workers. We’ve participated in English classes. The Chinese can’t get enough of our kids; we get fried. I tell them they have to grin and bear it, and they do. The Chinese are all over it, absolutely welcoming and thirsty for knowledge about what our students’ lives are like. On this past trip, L&G parent Kim Soule and I were in an English class, a class of 64 kids in a room little bigger than Miss Chen’s room. They wanted to know what our school day is like, and when we told them, they were like, “Oh, my God!” They’re at school from 7AM to noon. Then break until 2:30, when school continues until 7pm. Go home for dinner and study till 11 or 12 at night, six days a week. They were just wistful about what our students have. There was an audible 63-kid sigh in unison. What’s interesting is, none of them like it, students, parents or teachers.
DD: What is the future of JE?
TC: I talked to kids in this particularly group. I asked them, “When did you decide to go on JE?” Most say back in third grade or even kindergarten. The expectation among kids and parents is that they will have the opportunity when they come to L&G. Someway or another, we have to make it happen. We will not have any more money from the Freeman Foundation. I think a means of sustaining this program is to enroll full tuition-paying students at L&G from China. I think there’s something cool about this – Chinese students paying our school so that our students can study about and in China. With enough foreign tuition-paying students, we can continue the program. I think the prospects look pretty good. As we know, there is an increasingly large number of families who want to send their children to the United States. There are not enough universities in China and they have the means to do it. Our kids are amazed at how America is idealized. Not that it’s the land of milk and honey, but there’s something about America they find very appealing, and our students take this for granted. Our students are not used to seeing America through the eyes of students from a foreign culture. They’re surprised at how excited the Chinese kids are to meet Americans. What impresses the Chinese about our students’ performance are spontaneity, creativity, and the fact that our kids do lots of different things. They haven’t specialized in any one thing. They play the trumpet, they dance, they sing, they act. Our kids are very well rounded. Chinese kids specialize much earlier. Our kids were shocked when asked by Chinese what their major is. All over China, the kids are performing the same hand and hip movements. It’s very tight. American culture is anything but tight. We’ve got to keep this exchange going. I read things kids have written and it brings me to tears. The other night they performed all right, they’ve been better, but the audience was huge. We had a Q&A, and I handed the microphone to sophomore Robin Joslin. She expressed herself really well, describing the time she was able to communicate in the recording studio with the Mongolians, though they didn’t speak English. That’s one story, and there are a lot of them. Really, the best thing is watching the kids grow.