MODESTO — China's students aced international tests in 2011. But its straight-laced schools appear poised to take a page from the U.S. playbook, challenging students to go beyond the drills and innovate.
"They use direct instruction, where you sit and listen. They don't use creativity in their learning," said Melissa Bylow, a sixth-grade teacher at Martone Elementary who heads to China this week to help train Chinese teachers in the hands-on lessons favored here.
"After school, (Chinese students) go home and study. They don't usually do sports or extracurricular activities, and they're finding that comes at a bit of a cost," she said.
One of her jobs will be to help students prepare a PowerPoint presentation, a song or a dance about their hometowns using the arts and writing assignment to get them to think creatively. "I hope to give the students another way to look at learning," she said.
Bylow is one of four teachers leaving from Modesto on Thursday, giving up Fourth of July celebrations and half of their summer vacation to take U.S. teaching knowhow to China and bring back ideas to use in their own classrooms.
"It's kind of scary, because in China, you don't question anything, and here we are, going to there to teach them to question," said husband Andrew Bylow, a sixth-grade teacher at Creekside Middle School in Patterson.
His assignment includes giving a joint geometry lesson with a Chinese teacher. The standard rote lesson is first, then he will lead what he calls a discovery lesson, using compasses to bisect triangles and find the midpoint. Then the "ta-da!" moment, when students will try to balance their paper triangles on a pin at that midpoint.
"They'll learn so much right then! That's true center. That's how you learn in life," he said.
"My goal is to have fun with the curriculum. Then the kids will learn by accident. If someone were to say, 'You made learning fun,' that would be the ultimate compliment. I'd probably cry on the spot," he said.
The Bylows and friends Pedro and Monika Teves will join eight teachers from Kansas for a monthlong stint at three summer school camps: in Suzhou, near Shanghai; in Beijing; and in Weihai, on a peninsula facing South Korea. All have volunteered their time, with expenses covered by the Huada Shiyuan Research Center of Wuhan, China.
They will arrive home just in time for the start of school here, Monika Teves said. She teaches seventh- and eighth-grade English at Creekside and said she'll return with a better understanding of what her English-learner students face by not knowing the language.
She's looking forward to learning how teachers in China get such results, and sharing classroom strategies and traditions.
"I think we're breaking borders," Teves said. "It's that realization we're all the same, and making those amazing connections."
Her husband added, "We're really ambassadors for our country, and for teachers. I hope they see that our way of teaching is passionate, supportive, loving and structured."
Pedro Teves teaches high school history and economics at Lathrop High in the Manteca Unified district. California's world history standards don't include China, he said.
"We don't teach anything about Asia," Teves said. But his economics course does cover China's meteoric rise as a commercial power. Its buying power is expected to outpace the U.S. economy by 2016.
As an example, finding little bits of Americana to bring as gifts turned out to be a challenge, all said. Everything they picked seemed to have a "Made in China" sticker.
Peanut M&Ms became the Bylow choice. The Teveses plan to bring a selection of cute and kitschy erasers "I like the message that it's OK to make mistakes," Monika Teves said.
They found out about the China program through a friend of a friend and were accepted in May. Since then, the weeks have been a whirl of getting visas and immunizations, readying lessons and packing. They got warnings, such as don't eat the chicken, and lessons in Chinese customs, such as don't finish your plate, because it implies your host didn't give you enough.
"I told my students, 'I'm scared,' " Andrew Bylow said. "It's like a giant roller-coaster ride where you hear everybody screaming and your stomach's in knots. But then you get off and it was the best thing."
The sheer adventure of it appealed to all of them. "When an opportunity comes, you take it," Monika Teves said.
Her husband added, "I always get something out of (travel)."
She finished his thought: "It opens your mind."