On the morning of Oct. 31, Lawrence High School staff, students and administrators gathered in the school’s lobby feeling ready to meet some new friends face-to-face for the first time.
After about a year of Skyping, emailing and chatting through Google, students and staff from the Jin-Shan High School in New Taipei City, Taiwan, walked into Lawrence High to applause and hugs. They traveled from Jin-Shan, Lawrence’s sister school, to the United States to meet their LHS counterparts, six students from one of Tsun-Ju Lin’s Mandarin courses at the school. It was the first time students from any country visited Lawrence in this capacity.
Through Lin, Lawrence High School is a member of the Asia Society’s Confucius Classroom Initiative, said world languages supervisor Mary Pancoast. The school receives grants and support through the College Board, which go towards promoting learning Chinese language and culture in American classrooms.
onfucius grants facilitate events like this sister school visit, as well as tours of China, guest speakers, trips to museums and more.
Lawrence students Ryan Carter, Nikhil Kotta, Destiny Hemmer, Yulia Gu, Nadia Williams and Anuna Pollock were each paired with a “buddy” from Jin-Shan: Chien-Yu Hsu, Ming-Hsuan Tsai, Chun-Sheng Lai, Ting-Hsuan Wang, Yu-Chieh Lin and Yen-Ling Pan. They shadowed the Lawrence students throughout the day, which started with a gift exchange and photos.
Lai-Chan Lai and Shun-Yu Lin, principal and supervisor at Jin-Shan, were also in attendance and joined Lawrence staff and administrators throughout the day. The adults headed to Lawrence Middle School on Nov. 1, while the students stayed at LHS for another day with their partners. That day kicked off with a group Chinese yoyo session. The Jin-Shan students gifted the school a number of yoyos and taught their buddies and LHS staff members how to use the toys.
Two years ago, Lin met a group of administrators from New Taipei City at a conference in Freehold. Lai was interested in creating a link with an American school, and Lin visited Jin-Shan over the summer. During that visit, she and Lai discussed the possibility of becoming sister schools. Lin introduced the idea to Pancoast and LHS principal David Adam, who were both on board, Lin said.
“Our facilities are very different from what they have in Taiwan, so we wanted to showcase some of the buildings’ facilities that we have that they don’t: an expansive library, art rooms, culinary classes and new science labs,” she said. “Most importantly, we wanted to show lessons that featured our students engaging in learning. We have a lot of that, so that was pretty easy to find.”
The students started video chatting through Skype a year ago, Lin said. Regular emails and group chats started in September. Sometimes, all 12 students and Lin chatted all at once. Other times, the students talked only with their buddies.
If that sounds chaotic, Williams assured it wasn’t. Communication came easy, she said. They talked about their hobbies and differences and similarities between living in Taiwan and the United States.
Williams’s buddy was Yu-Chieh Lin.
“Her English was really good,” she said. “She didn’t think it was, but it was good. It was fun introducing them to my teachers. By walking them to class, it was kind of like a mini tour because the school is so big. I got to show her the cafeteria and the library and places like that.”
It was a special experience, said Yu-Chieh Lin.
“I’m glad to join this activity,” she said. “To experience their culture is very different. This school is very big, bigger than my school. Their teachers teach way different than our school. I really like it. If I have any chance to join next time, I will come.”
Gu said their were other differences she and her buddy, Pan, discussed, like the length of the school day. For Jin-Shan students, the day starts at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m.
Lai, the Jin-Shan principal, added that one teacher during a lesson he observed had students underline important information in a passage, circle what they didn’t understand, ask questions and make comments in the margins, and write down the central idea after reading. He liked what he saw, he said.
“I’m impressed that all students are very involved in lessons,” Lai said in an e-mail.
Pollock added that her partner, Wang, said they don’t really use textbooks. Instead, their learning experience is more hands-on—projects and labs are a hallmark of Chinese education, though the courses and curricula are similar to what is taught in Lawrence, Pollock said.
After classes, the students went to the Toddler Town Halloween parade, where they watched performances by the LHS cheerleaders and marching band.
“I think it was cool for them because they could see an experience that they wouldn’t see in Taiwan,” Williams said.
For Lin, the experience as a whole was the happy culmination of a year’s worth of preparation and communication that bridged continents and language barriers.
“The best part for me was seeing the students smile together,” she said. “The way they were able to connect despite the language barrier and the way they worked together shows how kind and compassionate these students can be.”
“It’s fun to see them interacting,” he said. “We all laugh in the same language, don’t we? We had fun together. It doesn’t matter where you’re from. We had a great experience being together and learning together. We’re learning something in our own home. That’s a cool experience, if you think of it that way. They feel more comfortable being experts in something and bringing it to us. They had fun doing it. I had fun, too.”