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Travel Report: Yujuan (Jade) Wu
Yujuan (Jade) Wu, a PhD student in the Faculty of Education, received a Graduate International Research Travel Award (GIRTA) to further her research in Changchun, China.
During my doctoral studies at Simon Fraser University, I intend to investigate the interplay between digital literacies and English language learning in rural China. I’m particularly interested in exploring: What practices of digital literacies do rural Chinese English language learners (ELLs)—especially middle school students—engage in in learning spaces? This research topic mainly arises from the fact that on the one hand, English language has been enthusiastically taken up in the Chinese education system, and learning English language with digital resources gets increasingly popular across the country while on the other hand, there is an astonishing urban-rural divide in relation to China’s English language education. The reason that I place my research gaze into rural China also lies in my embodied experiences of growing up, having pre-tertiary education, and voluntarily teaching in rural areas of eastern China. It is from these experiences that I came to realize that rural Chinese students are generally disadvantaged by the global spread of English language while their urban peers are clearly advantaged.
I have been intending to carry out my ethnographic research for my dissertation in village(s) located on the outskirts of Changchun, which is the capital city of Jilin Province and located in the northeast of China. I had lived in urban Changchun for around ten years before I moved to Canada for study. This experience offers me closeness to situate myself as a member of local communities to document as much of the larger socioeconomic context of Changchun as possible. I believe this is key to my research since education in rural Changchun is located in local relations shaped by larger social contexts where access to resources is inextricably intertwined with power distribution.
However, residing in the city had hid me from familiarizing myself with the education system of rural areas in Changchun. I barely knew how English language teaching and learning were practiced there, and specifically how digital technologies were generally taken up by ELLs from Changchun suburbs. Therefore, I badly hoped to spend sometime in Changchun rural areas and was finally able to travel to and spend two months in Jingyue—a Changchun suburb—during the 2018 Summer semester. This could have been very difficult—though not impossible—without the help of the Graduate International Research Travel Award (GIRTA).
In Jingyue, I worked as a voluntary ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher in a middle school, where most students were in the age group of 12-15 and from low-income backgrounds. To be honest, based on my reading on related literature as well as my own experiences of learning and teaching in rural schools, I had assumed that it might be not rare to see dilapidated buildings, crowded and chaotic classrooms in the school. However, the moment I stepped into the school, those preconceptions were gone. The school was in good condition, and it had two buildings that were not high-rise but new and beautiful. Each grade had four classes, and each class was made up of around 28 students. Given that China has a large population and there are scarce resources in rural schools, the classrooms were quite small in size, which means each student could get more teachers’ attention and instruction. Although students were not allowed to use digital devices such as laptops, tablets and smartphones in English language classrooms, this did not mean that digital technologies were totally absent there. Most English language classrooms were equipped with overhead projectors so that students and teachers could express their ideas in a multimodal way—bringing together modes such as oral and written languages, images, sound, videos and gestures. Nevertheless, it is important to point out that the projectors were not used frequently; rather, most classroom activities were completed in traditional ways—the teacher giving oral-and-written-language lectures and students taking pen-paper notes.
In addition to the above observation I gained from my physical presence in the middle school, I also benefitted greatly from being a part of the local education system, albeit temporarily. During the two months when I visited the school, the school co-operated with a private education organization, which was initiated by some education experts and known for its expertise in helping rural primary and middle schools, to work out new pedagogical methods and management skills. I was lucky to work with several English language teachers, who were passionate about teaching and kept an open mind on new pedagogies brought by the cooperation. One significant change we made was rearranging the sociomaterial organization of the classrooms. The classrooms used to be composed of rows of immovable desks, with two students sharing one desk and looking toward the dais where teachers gave lectures. Guided by educators of the private education organization, the teachers seated students in four- or five-person groups, hoping students could work together and help each other. I did find that the rearrangement produced new forms of learners as students became active in participating in-class activities instead of being silent or absentminded through the class, showed more interests in learning English as an alive language instead of just viewing English as a boring compulsory course, and started trying to build a close relationship with teachers instead of being timid to freely share their thoughts with teachers.
In conclusion, this experience contributed a lot to my development as a researcher. It not only showed me a general picture of the local English language education, but functioned as a pilot study of my dissertation research, which helped me identify possible methodological and ethical issues before my main research would be conducted. I was also excited about making friends with some amazing teachers and students of the school, and I believe they are treasures for my research and life.
Thank you, GIRTA!