My Experiences with the STEP Summer 2018 Cohort

“老師,這個怎麼唸?(Teacher, how do you read this?)” One kid asked as he placed his finger on a page in an opened textbook.

“Break-fast,” we read together slowly. It was a gorgeous morning and I was reviewing some vocabulary words with my kid before giving him an exam. Then we reviewed “good morning, good afternoon, good evening,” before the sound of a piercing whistle let us off for a recess and he went racing out of the classroom. I am slower and exit the classroom with the speed of an older person, smiling at all the children afoot.

Every summer, elementary students from Wang Xiang (望鄉) and Dongpu (東埔) of Xinyi Township (信義鄉), Nantou County spend five weeks attending an English and Math summer program at Tong Fu Elementary School (同富國小) run by Boyo Social Welfare Foundation (財團法人博幼社會福利基金會). Boyo’s daily structure consisted of mornings of English and Math with each of four fifty minute sessions divided by ten minute recesses for the kids to expend some of their endless energy. During class time, STEP volunteers worked with their individually assigned students. These students were between third and fifth grade and had varying levels of English.

Boyo’s mission is to “[n]ever let children fall into perpetual poverty” and they accomplish this through schoolwork tutoring, parenting education, professional support and resource assistance. The additional schooling aims to bolster the students’ skills in preparation for middle school and high school entrance examinations. This summer, through partnership with Boyo, Students for Taiwanese Educational Progress’ (STEP) spent two weeks at Tong Fu Elementary School providing individual English tutoring and a supplemental English program. With differing Taiwanese cultural backgrounds, our STEP group of nine university students from the United States and England aimed to foster a greater appreciation for English in our students and furthermore serve as mentors and motivators.

As the students came to trust us, little by little they began to reveal snippets of their lives to us. We heard about their weekends picking tomatoes, of getting hurt riding a motorcycle, or of heading off to an amusement park. They also shared their dream occupations, ranging from becoming a doctor to a fashion designer. One girl who loves drawing does not know what she wants to do in the future yet, but her instructor shared to us that perhaps she could become a flight attendant. Later on she said, “沒有啊, 飛機好可怕,” meaning “No, I don’t want to, airplanes are so scary.” One boy who enjoys running and reading about animals described a dessert he loves making and his desire to one day become a pastry chef.

During recess, some of us played basketball with the older kids, raced the younger kids, played tag or dodgeball, while others mapped out what to teach for the rest of the week. The younger ones would shout “老師, 老師!” (lǎoshī; teacher) begging us to chase after them. We laughed and at some points ran around trying to avoid lizards they caught in the bushes. This playfulness improved classroom learning , and created many bonding opportunities.

“What are we going to do then?” we asked each other during one late night meeting. Our afternoon summer programming with a group of 10-13 fifth graders had some issues. What we had prepared for them was too difficult for their varying levels of English. The goal was to film an abridged version of Romeo and Juliet to share with their teachers and parents on the final day of the program. The students played Jeopardy with us to earn candy while picking up facts about Shakespeare and his plays. After picking roles, memorizing lines and making cardboard swords, the play was filmed on the staircases and in the hallways of the school. It was a rewarding, albeit rather difficult, journey to help the kids memorize the lines and work up the courage to present in front of their giggling peers. To our pleasant surprise, a few kids took time to practice their lines after class. One girl even asked one of us to teach her the whole play again and took the time to mark out words she did not know how to pronounce in the margins.   

However, English as a second or third language to learn after Mandarin and the local Bunun language is often difficult for the kids to pick up, as there is a lack of English teachers in Wang Xiang. Education inequality between rural and urban areas is affected by factors such as high overturn of teachers, under-qualified teachers, lack of resources, and socioeconomic challenges. Additionally, most of the population is composed of indigenous peoples who have experienced historic disenfranchisement leading to continued levels of disadvantage today. The Taiwanese government issued an official apology in 2016 and designated August 1st as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The village we lived in, Wang Xiang, is of Bunun tribe, but we also taught kids from Tsou tribe, only a few of the 16 recognized tribes. There were also Minan, Hakka, and Han peoples.

The students and teachers of Tong Fu also invited us to activities outside the confines of the campus, including Wang Xiang village’s judo practices and church gatherings. The judo instructor is a community member who learned the art of judo as a policeman. His fervor and drive for teaching the children was revealed when he shared with us that these free classes aren’t only about exercise, but about developing character, discipline, and self defense. Oftentimes, students who go on to attend school outside of the local community are bullied because of their background and even judo’s most basic defense moves are useful in leveraging their opponent’s weight against them. The practice can also help students earn cash prizes and scholarships and gain the opportunity to travel across the country to spar in major competitions. Children who advance to train at another school often have to travel one to two hours to get to practice. The instructor also touched on the children’s economically challenged families, lack of role models, and limited understanding of a variety of professions besides the more salient farming and labor work. Thus, like with other visitors, he prompted us to give short speeches to motivate the children before practice began. Through this practice, we came to understand another aspect of the kids’ lives as they tumbled across the mats.

On another day, we were surrounded by the same sense of community among families who opened up their homes for church gatherings on a rotational basis. The community members prayed for us and our endeavors at Tong Fu, taught us the phrase “Mihumisang” or “peace” (平安) the greeting that they use to say hello to one another on the streets, and even invited us to stay for dinner. Through these interactions, we had the chance to strengthen our relationships, and our affinity for the kids grew.

It has been a privilege to witness the beautiful songs of the Bunun community and to teach and learn from the lovely children and welcoming families of Tongfu Elementary School. Each day was a blessing and an adventure. Through grabbing breakfast, cooking, hiking, catching fish on the beach, exploring the Dong Pu suspension bridge (東埔吊橋),Sun Moon Lake (日月潭), and Puli Paper Dome Church (埔里紙教堂) together, we found a greater appreciation for the beauty of Taiwan. Through playing with the kids during recess, attending their judo practices and community church gatherings, conversing with the teachers and our hosts, we became closer to the people of Wang Xiang and our hope to understand and serve them grew stronger. Although we were reluctant to say goodbye, we aim to stay in touch with the kids as pen pals and visit them in the coming Winters and Summers!