Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Children study at a rural school in Dingxi, Gansu Province, China. At the time this photo was taken, in 1988, this elementary school in a poor area was in need of repair.

Lessons in English – and democracy

At a summer camp in China, U.S. teachers had an idea that may be resonating still.

When I saw the faces of young people in Hong Kong demonstrating for more democracy, I wondered if any of my former students were there.

My former students would be in their 20s now. In 2003, I taught in an English-immersion summer camp in Shenzhen in the southern part of the People’s Republic of China. Shenzhen is only about 11 miles from Hong Kong, which is now designated a special administrative region of China.

Twelve of us, teachers and community workers, had come to Shenzhen from Juneau, Alaska, thrilled to be working with young Chinese students and their teachers and eager to encounter the people and their country. We taught 400 students, from 8 to 16 years old. 

As anyone who has taught English as a second language knows, language comes with culture. And so every day and into the evening we taught the kids rhymes and hip-hop dance moves, how to count using US currency, how to order a hamburger and French fries, and – of course – how to do the hokeypokey. We brought peanut butter and maple syrup for them to taste. We played Memory and Bingo and Uno. We talked about the weather and calculated the temperature from Celsius to Fahrenheit. With the younger ones, we sang endless rounds of “The Wheels on the Bus.” We talked and sang until we were hoarse. The kids loved it and they loved us. We loved them, too.

I don’t know who thought of it, but the idea of holding a campaign and an election sounded like a good idea to us. New vocabulary, someone said. Another reason for the kids to write and make speeches, someone added. Looking back on it, an election was like the hokeypokey – something they had never experienced.

We explained the electoral process: what voting was, why it had to be secret, what representatives are supposed to do. We spoke a bit about what representative governance is, and the meaning of Lincoln’s words, “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” 

We told our students that anyone could run for office, for a seat on the student council. It made me realize how grade school homeroom elections, with the students’ heads down on the desks and hands raised to vote secretly, give American children a very concrete example of majority rule and the secret ballot. Those are the kinds of experiences that contribute to the education of people in a democracy. Looking back on our experiment in Shenzhen, I am a bit surprised that the Chinese school administration let us go through with it.

We began by staging a campaign that was wild with speeches, posters, and enthusiastic cheering. In each of our classes, the students, after nominating their candidates, had painstakingly written out – in English on big pieces of poster board – the virtues of their candidates. We coached the kids on their speeches, and each class collaborated to write the speech that their candidate would give. 

When we brought the classes into the auditorium, the atmosphere was electric, and candidates outdid themselves promising all sorts of magnificent treats if elected. For the actual voting, we set up a long table. I still have a poignant photograph of that table: all the teachers are sitting solemnly on one side, the students bent over their ballots on the other. 

We oversaw the secrecy of the vote by placing stiff paper barriers in between so no one could see another’s ballot. 

Once they had marked their ballots, we counted them and announced the winners, the student council members. We treated it with the seriousness we felt it deserved. 

Afterward, I remember watching one of the teachers carrying one of the winners around on his shoulders as everyone cheered. I wonder what the students remember? The fact that anyone could choose to run, or perhaps the speeches they made, the campaign posters they created, the secret ballot? 

We never actually got to the governance part, as our camp ended shortly after. I wish we had. We wanted them to realize that an election is only part of the process. Ideally, the rest is the hard work of governing, the carrying out of the will of the people for the good of all.

Then and now, my deeply felt wish for our students is that they carried with them a powerful new idea: that their voices – indeed, all voices – matter. That is why so many people strive, in our country and others, to manipulate the electoral process. Every time I saw the young protesters in the streets of Hong Kong, I wondered if I knew any of them. 

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