The teacher is writing a classic verse by the Tang-Dynasty poet Li Bai on the blackboard. As he explains the inner meaning of the poem, a student suddenly blurts out: “Why did they write poetry? Were they so bored they had nothing else to do?” The teacher is at a loss for an answer.
Tang and Song poetry form part of the essential canon of ancient Chinese culture that has stood the test of time. But today, a thousand or more years after the fact, students whose time is occupied with the Internet, smartphones, and tablet computers find it hard to take an interest. But one teacher—Chen Weishi of Le Shan Elementary School in Taoyuan—came up with a novel idea to motivate students. How did he do it? He gave Li Bai his own Facebook page! Students who had once been uninterested changed their attitude 180 degrees.
Check out this “Facebook” page for Li Bai. It says under recent activities: “Chatting and imbibing with good friends, what a great time! With Meng Haoran. One hour ago.” The post is “liked” by Du Fu, who nonetheless quips: “Drinking without me? You guys are no fun!”
In the column on the left hand side for basic biographical information is the astonishing fact that Li Bai was born in the year 701. Under work experience it says “member of the Hanlin Academy of the Tang Dynasty,” and his current employment is listed as “professional poet.” Friends include Du Fu, Meng Haoran, Wu Zhinan, and many more. Here you will find everything that is on the page of a modern Facebook user.
Obviously Li Bai has not travelled through time just to get on social media. This and other imaginary Li Bai Facebook pages are in fact the work of fifth-graders at Le Shan Elementary School. It all started with a student’s simple question: “Didn’t poets have anything better to do? Why were they always writing poetry?” It was a question that gave their teacher, Chen Weishi, a brilliant idea.
和李白有約四部曲Li Bai: Liked!
A few days later, Chen came back to the student with an answer: “All the stuff in your lives, like the meals you eat or where you go for fun, you update your status on Facebook. But people in the Tang Dynasty didn’t have social media, so they used their own ways to make a record of what they were doing.” While Chen was giving his answer, he handed out paper templates of a Facebook page that he had prepared and said, “Let’s imagine for a second, what would Li Bai have done if he had had Facebook?” When Chen finished, the students at first were agog, and didn’t know how to begin. But it wasn’t long before they started getting into it, and they began producing their own Facebook pages for Li Bai. It’s not often you see students actually laughing with joy as they do their schoolwork.
Students enjoyed this approach so much that Chen continued using it with follow-up classwork, including writing poetry in the Tang-Dynasty style, or having the students make their own pop-up books. For the final paper, “A Meeting with Li Bai,” student participation was extremely enthusiastic, surprising even Chen himself.
Chen also organized a poetry session in the style of Bai Juyi and Sima Guang. These literati of old would meet in what today we might call a “poetry slam,” trading off to create lines, with each attempting to top the other. If someone came up with something especially brilliant, they would be rewarded with a cup of wine. They referred to these events with the word zhenshuai, which roughly means “keeping it real,” as the verse-makers emphasized simplicity and straightforwardness, stripping their poetry of esoteric embellishments and unnecessary extravagance.
For the event at Le Shan Elementary, the students took turns going on stage and reciting Tang-style poetry that they had previously composed. With the school principal serving as judge, if the poem was deemed good enough the student would get a cup of tea, served in lieu of wine.
After the poetry readings, there were also games with themes associated with Li Bai, such as “dredging the moon out of the water” (getting a yellow “moon ball” out of a small pool of water) and “the imperial consort holds the inkstone” (someone acts as a servant holding the box of chalk for a person writing on the blackboard). This kind of participatory learning made a huge impact on the students. “No matter whether these things come up in the exams, the students will remember them for the rest of their lives,” says Chen.
學習的關鍵：生活體驗Connecting study with play
Chen Weishi’s pedagogical approach has been extended beyond literature. In fact, a lot of things that leave students stumped when posed as dry academic questions become much easier when combined with activities they can identify with. Chen offers one example about a student whose mathematics grades were never very good, and who had particular difficulty adding or subtracting three-digit numbers.
One day Chen spotted this student playing a role-playing card game with some of his classmates, and the boy had no problem whatsoever doing the calculations for their combats. “Okay, the attack power on this card is 2500, and if I play this magic card as well, that doubles the power, so it’s 5000. That gives me 800 more than you. You lose!” Listening to the student explain his calculation process so lucidly, Chen wondered how someone who had difficulty handling three-digit numbers could so readily double a four-digit number in his head. Chen was inspired to create his own “locked room escape games” (a recreational activity currently popular among young people in Taiwan) as a means to test kids on classroom material.
Chen turns the classroom into a locked room, and the students take turns going into the room where they try to solve riddles and answer questions that provide clues on how to find the key to get out.
On the day we visited Chen’s class, the cards with the questions on them looked like they were written in some alien script. It turned out the odd marks corresponded to the phonetic symbols that are used in Taiwan for teaching children Mandarin pronunciation. Students had to decode the “alien” marks to find out the real questions, which included idiomatic expressions, English vocabulary words, and locating places on a map. With each correct answer, the student got a number, and by combining these numbers they could figure out which storage locker in the back of the classroom was the one where the escape key was hidden.
在教室之外，更重要的東西Beyond the classroom
Having reached the age of 40, which in Confucian terms is an age of self-confidence and self-knowledge, Chen has an abundance of imaginative ideas about education.
“Middle school is where a lot of students begin to go astray, because they lack a stable foundation.” Chen says that whereas primary school teachers can rely simply on authority to keep children from getting too far out of line, this is not a long-term solution. “The real key is that students have a healthy environment for their daily lives and a proper mindset about learning.”
Chen did not in fact start out to be a teacher. At Chung Yuan Christian University he majored in mechanical engineering. But one time he joined a team doing voluntary service at a camp for children, and discovered he had a real knack for getting along with kids. So he took some electives in education, and got his credentials to become a professional teacher.
In his mind, parents are the key to education. After many years of observing students first-hand, he has discovered that many parents simply dump their kids off on the school and pay them no attention after that. Sometimes, he says, teachers who want to talk to a student’s parents can’t even find them. “The real ‘monster parents’ aren’t the ones who come to the school being pushy and shouting, they are the ones who never even show up. Children who grow up in those households are much more likely to go astray.”
For children to succeed at learning and keep advancing through the educational system, the attitude of the parents is critical. Chen not only personally visits the home of each and every student, at the end of each semester he sends out an “exam paper for parents.” Most of the questions look easy enough, such as what is the age of the child, what year is he or she in school, what is his or her homeroom, what is the name of his or her teacher, and the like. However there are also some that are somewhat more difficult, such as identifying the units the child has studied in mathematics, or the names of his or her best friends at school.
“My original idea was that the children should come up with their own questions for the parents to answer, but most children didn’t dare to do that. They were afraid their parents would feel put out or angry. So in the end I had to come up with the questions myself,” laughs Chen. When he drew up his first “exam paper,” he was a little worried himself that few parents would cooperate. Many of his students also assumed that their parents would refuse to take the test, and some even said they would definitely get yelled at.
But the results far exceeded Chen’s hopes. Not only did the great majority of parents cooperate in answering the questions, they even got quite good “grades.” Chen says with a smile, “I have to think that the kids gave the parents the answers for quite a few of the questions!”
It goes without saying that the grades are not the important part. The purpose of these exams is for parents to get the opportunity to learn more about their own children, and especially to give parents who rarely chat with their kids a reason to sit down and talk. From the point of view of the students, the questions look very simple and obvious, but if the parents don’t know the answers, it’s very likely the child will feel hurt. After all, the questions involve the most basic common knowledge about the child and his or her life. This is why many parents have come to the school to thank Chen in person, because the test has made them realize that, quite unwittingly, they had been growing apart from their children.
Bringing a playful sense of creativity to education, both at school and in the home, Chen is confident that as long as he keeps enthusiastically promoting his ideas, he will see sparks in the eyes of the children.