When Joanna Li walked into Weston High School for the first time in September, Principal Lisa Wolak and throngs of students who were eager to welcome her aboard greeted her enthusiastically in English and Mandarin Chinese.
Ms. Li had never experienced anything like this before, and it left an indelible impression, giving her a positive outlook about the people in Weston and Western education.
Ms. Li is an expert teacher and teacher trainer at No. 17 Middle School in Qingdao, in the Shandong Province of the People’s Republic of China. She came to Weston for two weeks as part of the Weston-China Exchange, a partnership between Weston High School and its sister school in Qingdao (which is really a high school, not a middle school, according to Ms. Wolak).
This was not only Ms. Li’s first visit to Weston, it was also her first visit to the United States. During her stay, she visited the Statue of Liberty, the Capitol in Washington, D.C., West Point, and the Big E country fair in Springfield, Mass. She also wanted to see Niagara Falls, so Dan Doak, assistant principal at the high school, took her there.
“The natural landscaping is beautiful here. Everything is green, there is no bare land,” Ms. Li said in an interview the day before she left for home.
Sister school exchange
While Ms. Li is the first visitor from China to Weston under the sister school exchange, faculty and students from Weston have made the trek to Qingdao before.
In 2005, Ms.Wolak visited Qingdao to establish a sister school relationship, and in 2010 Weston’s first delegation of students and faculty visited Qingdao. Another Weston trip to China is planned for April 2013.
The sister school program is very successful. Weston joins more than 110 other Connecticut schools that have formed partnerships with schools in the Shandong province.
When Ms. Wolak visited Qingdao in 2005, Ms. Li was part of the delegation that met her, so Ms. Wolak was familiar with her and happy to have her stay with her during her visit to America. Ms. Li had a three-week visa and spent one week traveling and seeing the sights in the area, and the other two weeks visiting classes at Weston High School.
“We are so fortunate to have someone of Ms. Li’s caliber visit Weston,” said Ms. Wolak. “She was head of the English department at Qingdao and is now a master teacher and expert trainer of teachers. She is fabulous and highly respected.”
Ms. Li said her first visit to America was enjoyable and unforgettable. “Everything was new,” she said.
The way Ms. Wolak said hello and greeted students as they arrived at school is very different from how they are greeted at Qingdao, where administrators are much more quiet and reserved. “I would like to encourage our principal to interact that way with students and be closer to them,” Ms. Li said.
While observing classes, Ms. Li said, she learned some new curricula and methodologies that she would like to share with her colleagues. “In China, we have larger classes than they do in Weston. Children don’t have as many chances to speak in class as they do here,” she said.
She believes in China students work harder because their lessons are more difficult and they have to take a national examination, which is very hard. “China has a 5,000-year history, and every culture has its own history as well, so the national examination is very challenging because there is a lot for students to learn,” she said.
Visiting Weston, Ms. Li said she was happy to be a “bridge to connect both the Chinese and American schools.” She enjoyed talking to Weston students about China, and was thrilled when many who were studying Mandarin spoke to her in Chinese.
She said more and more Chinese students want to study in America. “I think education in America is more advanced, because they have solely basic foundations in the Chinese schools,” she said.
She was very impressed with the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, and thought it was a wonderful way for children to learn about science and space. “We have much fewer museums in China and there are only a few chances to visit them,” she said.
Ms. Li said she appreciated all the help and hospitality extended by Ms. Wolak, teachers, administrators, and students. She also enjoyed the school board’s invitation to attend one of its meetings.
“When I am back in China, I will share what I have learned here from the students here so our students can learn more about American culture and its education system,” she said.