He is Special Needs

When first arriving in China to teach EFL, the first year and a half was quite the ride. It was during the Chinese New Year of 2012 that I realized where my heart lies. Children with special needs and the time I spend with them does something very rarely other acts can do for me. It gives me unspeakable peace and joy. Therefore, when I was asked by a Chinese colleague what my passion was, I told her I’d like to be with the children sitting on the side of the road here. Provide food for them. Show them they have purpose. Guide them in truth and love. One experience left an impression on me. I was blessed to visit a school only for children hard of hearing or with developmental disabilities (see below).

I had one particular student in my 3rd grade class who other students looked down upon and didn’t regard any of her comments and actions with respect. I took time with her in class and outside of it, even if English was her L2. It was with these thoughts in mind that my wife and I returned to America for the 2012-2013 school year.

handing out gift bags our school put together

The year back in the US was very informative and helpful. I ended up having a caseload of 25 students who had mild disabilities, and I enjoyed growing with them very much. While working as a Special Services teacher, I learned quite a bit about differentiation, how to advocate, and little ways to make change. All of these qualities are vital for any teacher, but when we moved back to China in 2013, I had no idea how much had changed with the school, particularly in its struggle with some students. The student I had before had improved greatly, and she is now allowed by her peers to be more involved in academic events. The athletic ones still not so much. I have a few students currently in 2nd and 5th grade who require more support in their individual ways, and I love that my classes have these needs.

On the rise as of lately is one boy I’ll call Jay. He possibly has no special need, and I say “possibly” because I haven’t observed him. His mother was told by the school she has to come and observe him daily. I say “no special need” because of my collaboration with other special education teachers via Twitter, email, blogs, etc. The reason why Jay may have a “special need”? He’s different from the other 99% of the school. That indeed is an overstatement, but you get the picture. Jay is in an education system which heavily relies on culture and tradition. Students are demanded to sit up straight, fix mistakes in any subject (Chinese, Math, English) by the tens and at times hundreds, not touch their pencils while teachers are talking, look down and grunt in agreement with whatever the teacher or admin say, and pass standardized tests that are one size fits all. I know, I know…students looking down and agreeing with authority is cultural. But what if culture and tradition don’t know much about children with special needs? Our Chinese elementary principal has told me thrice she doesn’t trust doctors who say our students have “sensory issues” or “no problem at all.”

Now our school leaders don’t know what to do. Thus they’ve decided to weed these students out before accepting them. Say what?! I know, I thought the same. Because of “not having the resources or the team,” future 1st graders have to attend a few subjects on a Saturday in a classroom setting to see how they do. From there, the admin and teachers observe to see from their perspective who may have a “special need” and can’t fit our bill.

people fear
This breaks my heart, but I understand why the school has done this. There are a myriad of reasons that would take more posts to delve into, but again, it breaks my heart. These students, children…are misunderstood. How would you feel? What would you do in my situation? Comments from teachers and parents alike would be great! I’m all ears.


Want Tech in China? Start With a “Special Zone”

The morning of meeting our Chinese elementary head, I went to a Chinese-English teacher for advice. This was a continuation from a day earlier when I told him that I believe our elementary leadership had one feeling toward integrating technology tools, fear. What he said yesterday morning has stuck with me since. He said that, though he is in strong support of what I’m doing, he has the same fear because of a situation that happened last year. A student published information on QQ publicly for his peers to read on a topic not appropriate for their age. It’s stories like these and countless others that have me as a teacher strongly believe that we as educators should be guiding the youth in a direction of positive use of the tools they’ll need to operate for professional and personal reasons.

Thus, Thursday afternoon this week, the head of our elementary and I firstly went over the vision of the school taken from the school website.

“We strive to provide a holistic education by uniquely combining national and international curricula with character building and cultural experiences. We endeavor to help students recognize and fully develop their optimum selves spiritually, intellectually, emotionally, physically, aesthetically, and socially so that he or she may become lifelong learner and responsible citizen who can influence our society and community positively for the long term”

We quickly got into details because I asked how we were providing “cultural experiences” and carving our students into “responsible citizens.” We talked specifics and then I was able to emphasize how our school admin could be using WeChat, Weibo, and/or QQ for branding and a for a reason Eric Sheninger always says. “If you don’t tell your story, someone else will.” This, along with a few other points, were well worth mentioning because of cultural differences in education. Though this was the case, I made it a point to draw her attention to the fact that obtaining the tools necessary for better, more improved student learning is a worldwide issue because “the Internet age” (as one of my student’s dubbed the present) is much more global than it ever has been. It’s not just a US problem.

Now, for teacher-to-teacher communication, the stumper came when I asked how we teachers are able to still actually get on the internet even while there is no wifi. She didn’t know. Our elementary director said she hadn’t thought of that before so I had to tell her because it happens daily. It’s the reality. Yes, students will possibly work ways around sites blocked and other mumbo jumbo, but funny enough, so will teachers. And we do. If we want it bad enough, we’ll get it. Thank you, 3 and 4G. 😉 What to keep in mind is how things may work top down in China. The Firewall likes to keep certain past events sensitive, and for the case of our admin and not to get kicked out of the country, I respect that. This had me understand why she as our leader came off with a slightly controlling manner when we spoke briefly last week. It also has me pondering how the school admin will respond in the future. This is where the key to unlock possibilities lies. We cannot, at a private Chinese school, have Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) on our computers and devices and use American IP addresses. The government and Internet won’t work that way. What we will have to do is coordinate collaboration & communication through avenues different from that of the norm, Twitter and Facebook. Whatever it takes, right?


How will this happen?

Remember how I said I met with teacher who said things I would keep in the back of my mind? That convo continued to an idea he had. Back during the Revolution, Deng Xiaoping put into action the idea of starting new economic ideas in a small contained environment called 特区, or Special Economic Zones. There were many cities like this around China at that time, but for our case, it will probably be just one. One classroom, or “special zone,” will be where we test out for teachers to integrate tech with simultaneous student usage. And as former Chairman Hu Jintao said on the 30th anniversary of the SEZ, these areas need to “be bold in reform and innovation in their roles as “first movers.”” I totally agree so I plan to quote Chairman Hu to our school admin and hope that there will soon come a time when Chinese teachers can collaborate with one another and use mobile learning tools to guide students while admin can be mouthpieces for the school and the students will learn with 21st century education and skills in mind. To my surprise, the Chinese elementary head agreed with all of this and more because she knows our students are growing up digital natives. Now, she said, it will take convincing the rest of the admin and putting much more focus on improving our resources. But we need to start somewhere and starting with a “special zone” will be best since we currently have weak signals and connections as well as just one tech worker for a K-12 school with over 600 students.

Up to this part in the journey, I cannot thank enough people for your support, but I shall start my list now since I know the resources and encouragement come from around the globe and the team is ever-increasing. In no particular order:

Eric Sheninger – @E_Sheninger
Scott Capro – @ScottCapro @BFC530 #BFC530
Ritu Sehji – @rsehji
Rosy Burke – @rosy_burke
Jessica Raleigh – @TyrnaD @BFC530 #BFC530
Michael Boll – @autismpodcast
Chris Carter – @christocarter
Ryan Harwood – @rharwood17
and many more, especially a couple vital teachers at my school… THANK YOU!

We’re not done yet. And for the sake of the students, we’ll continue to “be bold” as the “first movers.”

One Small Step for a Chinese School…

I include this first post of a series on my personal site for a couple reasons:
1) I work at a private Chinese school (and this blog is about Chinese culture), and
2) for more communication since Schoology‘s blog will only let users comment. Speaking of comments, once sending out the below original question to the world for assistance, tens of people have reached out with hearts that have the same passion and care for my students. This crowd has come from the U.S., Australia, Korea, China, and beyond while it’s not just teachers. Ed tech game changers, American education influencers, Apple Distinguished Teachers, Google Ed Trainers, superintendents, and much more have retweeted, made suggestions, and shared resources in the midst of collaboration.

It’s been a blessing in the midst of an inner struggle. Where is “inner peace” when you need it? Sorry, Kung Fu Panda, not this time…I’m not giving up or in because good is not good enough.

(See the full conversation of @shyj and me here)

After I finished Eric Sheninger’s Digital Leadership: Changing Paradigms for Changing Times, I picked up Daniel Pink’s Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Maybe this was a bad transition in my reading material, but Sheninger has quoted Pink in the book and webinars and I’m quite interested in motivation since I teach elementary-aged Asians in a private Chinese school where 95% or so of the students are learning English as a Foreign Language (EFL). The more I’ve gotten through Drive, the stronger my belief has grown in the necessity of mobile learning tools, their relation to modern life/jobs, and how much fire can actually reside and be tapped into within one’s innate motivation. Not to mention, if teachers don’t take the opportunity to train the students to become well-rounded citizens, which includes being a digital one, who will? As all of the Chinese staff have reminded me so far, the students’ parents don’t know how to guide them. Playing games is the priority of a tool that could foster one’s love of learning. I’d like to change that since Candy Crush can only teach you so much. 😉 Hence, the above question was asked of me after sending out an SOS.

Yes. My students rely solely on curriculum, teachers, and dictionaries for their language learning. We have one TV and computer in the classroom, but only the teacher is really allowed to use these. A computer lab/class is where basic skills are learned and then games or social media (point made?) take place. What then can be done to further the educational abilities of our students? Well, I believe we first need wifi.


And since our administration doesn’t believe wifi can be beneficial, I’m going to meet with them to display and discuss the endless positive possibilities. I just hope not to overwhelm them with the experiences I’ve had over the past few days alone as well as the last few years. And that’s one of the hardest parts about all of this…feeling alone at school yet consistently connected with hundreds outside of it and the country. But I’m encouraged because I know many of you are behind me. My students will be very pleased to know this and to see your support. I show them and my peers at times via my VPN.

Around ten of those 6th graders helped me make a movie to be presented to the admin next week with English and Chinese because they’re all in for change. As a Chinese colleague reminded me, students are not their real selves in front of the admin. I knew this thus I had the students find me personally to record short videos of themselves providing reasons why we should have wifi. And some of these students stand out by standing up so I admire them even if they’re 11-12 years old. They have grit. They have a gut that tells them there must be a more modern way of learning, and they’ll do whatever it takes. As Chris Carter put it so eloquently above, a few of the students have spoken plainly and frankly for our school leaders. One even stood in front of a book case and said that with the internet, he can know or search for anything. Without it, he is limited to only what is in on his desk.

Keep the conversations going…because #internetmatters, especially for ELLs in China.

Chinese Class

If there’s one thing I take seriously while living in China, it’s learning the language of the nationals. With having a baby recently, it has gone a little on the back burner. But my latest language lesson was when I was introduced for the second time to a Chinese children’s book. I chuckle every time at the sight of a book like this because it’s something a kindergarten or 1st grade student would read. It reminds me of my place in learning Chinese.

a Chinese Children’s Book

Of course it includes pinyin (the romanized way of reading Chinese) and pictures different from any children’s book I’ve seen in the US. But hey…I’m having fun, acquiring new words, and using them all within a 40-minute time period. My teacher even chose this particular book because a friend and I bike to and from work every Thursday! (How could it get any better? Just wait…)


We have two lessons every week, and I’m really excited because my teacher said it would be okay if we played some chess in class. (Some chess!) This idea bloomed from the time I asked my teacher *Dannie if she knew how to play Chinese chess. She does, but it’s much more complex. Thus we agreed to start with a simpler form such as the chess I know with black and white teams. She doesn’t know how to play so I’ll teach her how while she teaches me the lingo and grammar.


Language learning is always a two-way street. One of the things I enjoy the most about attending these lessons is how I learn so much about how my students probably feel in certain situations within my classes. Following this understanding comes empathy in the struggles and joy in the successes. My expectations, in essence, are more realistic.

I guess it’s good to speak another language too. (Thank you, @GlobalEdNow)

Morning Street Sweepers

Street Sweepers getting out of their morning ride.
The “boss” explains the ropes to a rookie. Or so it seems.

I’ve seen these morning street sweepers at least several times now while waiting for the school bus in the morning. Not every day do they appear on our road, but I notice them each time. Chinese don’t take a second glance, but that’s probably because the workers here are expected to do their jobs. I’ve heard they’re paid quite low, which is sad if true since it can be quite back-bending. It must be enough to live on though I assume every one of them is close to retirement, if not retired already.