AFTER taking what one of them describes as ``the ultimate field trip,'' a group of American teachers is making it possible for the United States and China to swap a lot more than trade and technology. Two elementary schools, one in each country, are exchanging teachers. Equipped with letters, artwork, and hand reports from a visit to their sister school in Canton, China, 16 of Hingham's South Elementary School teachers plan to surprise their Massachusetts students with a fresh perspective on Chinese education and culture. And the faculty room at the Chau Tian Lu Elementary School will no doubt be abuzz with new ideas about the US as well.
US-China educational exchanges are becoming more frequent, but, according to Kathy Hartford at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, the Hingham teachers are some of the first Americans to have taught elementary school in China on an exchange basis. During their three-week trip, the Americans spent one day teaching classes at Chau Tian Lu. Plans are in the works for teachers from the Canton school to come here next year.
It took four years of intensive study of Chinese culture, a year of correspondence with Chau Tian Lu administrators, and the encouragement of a visit from a representative of the Chinese school to make such a trip possible. South's teachers, loaded with artwork and gifts from their classes and the community, finally hit the high road to China this past summer.
Used to no more than 20 pupils in a class, the Hingham teachers were surprised to find as many as 45 children in the Chinese classrooms - two to a desk. And because their American lessons had to be translated, their usual 40-minute class periods were extended to an hour or more.
In contrast to the informal atmosphere of her American classroom, the control the Chinese teachers had over their classes amazed Suzanne Scolamiero, who taught English-language lessons. ``When the teacher came in the room, every eye was on her the whole time. All she had to do was raise one eyebrow or just look at a child, and one by one all 45 students just popped up and said the word.''
While the US teachers were delighted with the lofty status accorded teachers in China, they say they are more comfortable with the casual atmosphere of their classrooms at home.
``[At South] we don't teach that way, and our culture isn't geared for that kind of discipline,'' says Roger McClentic, who says that the looser structure in his school allows students more creativity and independence.
``I left [the classes in China] feeling like I had deposited my knowledge and left without knowing them very well,'' says Mary Alberti. ``In my class [in the US], there is a real give-and-take.''
Yet even with a more formal code of discipline, there were times the Chinese students also behaved much like their own, say the Hingham teachers.
``Every time you'd start to pass some things out, very typically, they'd start to chitchat and get all excited,'' says Judith Monahan, South Elementary's principal, who taught lessons on American food and uses of the land. She provided samples of peanut butter, M & M's, and salad for show and tell - and treat.
While some students bring a traditional Chinese meal such as soup and rice, most, Mrs. Monahan explains, go home for lunch. They wear house keys around their necks if both parents work.
Work or no, Chinese parents, the Hingham teachers say, seem much more involved in their children's education than Americans. Asked if China's one-couple, one-child policy might be making for spoiled children, Hingham's teachers say no. The children, they say, were, almost without exception, gracious and appreciative.
Mrs. Alberti smiles. ``There was a little boy in the last seat in the second row, and there was snickering when he stood up [to ask a question], and I thought, `Oh no, here it comes.' But he just said, `I've enjoyed having you here so much. I would like to take you home to my family.'''
Although the lessons were planned on such topics as American music, architecture, and clothing, the Chinese children's curiosity about daily life in the US often displaced their lesson questions.
``They asked what American children did after school. They wanted to know about snow and what you do with it - if it is hard when you make it into a ball,'' says Sally Stevens, who helped organize the variety of lesson plans.
In a nation where population density demands every square foot of available room and bicycles are crucial for transportation, lawns and recreational biking baffled the children, Alberti says.
The initial boost for South's China studies program came four years ago from a Massachusetts Council on Arts and Humanities partnership grant and the China Trade Museum, which developed the curriculum. The school has since designed such a successful program that China studies have become part of the fourth-grade curriculum for other public schools in Hingham.
State funding ended last year, but the South School Parent-Teachers Organization has picked up where the grant left off. ``It's a good example of how funds can be used as seed money,'' says Monahan, who looks forward to hosting the Chau Tian Lu teachers at South next year.
There are many lessons yet to be learned from their Chinese counterparts, the Hingham teachers say, and of course, from the children - American and Chinese alike.