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An Old China Meets a Youthful Mind

From teaching biology in England to teaching English in China, Barbara Robinson has spent a lifetime broadening the knowledge base worldwide.

Sitting in the living room of her Croton Drive home in the Waynewood section of Mount Vernon, Robinson emphasized the need to not only spread knowledge of the English language but also to do so within the context of Western mores.

Of her five weeks in China, as a teacher of English for Speakers of Other Languages [ESOL] to Chinese teachers, she explains, "It was taught in the framework of comparing the two cultures. It was not just language teaching."

Robinson traveled to China this past summer under the aegis of The Amity Foundation and the Groveton Baptist Church, 6511 Richmond Highway, where she conducts regular classes several times a week for a wide array of non-English speaking students of all ages.

The Amity Foundation, headquartered in Nanjing, China, is an independent Chinese voluntary organization established in 1985 by Chinese Christians to promote education, social services, health, and rural development from China's coastal provinces in the east to the minority areas of the west, according to their literature.

"At the Groveton Baptist Church we are teaching about 300 students in morning and evening classes each Tuesday and Thursday," Robinson explained. "There is so much interest that we had to close registration for this session several weeks ago. We simply do not have enough teachers."

THAT ASSESSMENT was buttressed by Beverly Rider who teaches with Robinson at the church. "I'm involved with the program because there are just so many students of all cultures interested in learning the language. They are willing to learn and most are very good students," she said.

Holding a degree in Secondary Education, Rider has been involved with the program for the past three years. She emphasized, "There are only five teachers in the morning classes. We all work together and promised to keep the program running while Karen Barnes, the director, is on a six month teaching program in China."

Nancye Campbell, ESOL coordinator at the church, noted that when the program started in the late 1980's "there were about 50 students. Now we enroll between 300 and 400 each semester. There's a tremendous demand and we need more teachers like Barbara.

"She is the consummate dedicated teacher, both to her students and the cause. She also helps in recruiting new teachers. I work with her because she also works one night a week as well as in the morning sessions. All my sessions are in the evening."

TUITION IS $25 per semester, which includes the text book. The program also provides free child care for students with children between the ages of 15 months and five years, according to Campbell who is employed by the U.S.Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C.

"Our greatest need is for those who can teach conversational English. This program is geared to survival skills in the every day world," she stated. Prior to commencing each volunteer teacher must complete a 16 hour training program conducted by the Mount Vernon Baptist Association.

Robinson holds a degree in Education and taught high school biology in her native area of Lancashire, England. She has worked in animal behavior in Panama and New Guinea as an associate of the Smithsonian Institution after coming to this country in 1984 when her husband became executive director The National Zoo.

"I had never been to China and thought it would be fun. Over the years, I have taught people from China, Africa, Bosnia, Russia, and a lot of other places," Robinson said. "I had also become friends with Karen Barnes. As director of the ESOL program at the church she oversees the training of volunteer teachers."

ROBINSON WAS ASSIGNED to a teachers' college in the city of Qujing located in the Province of Yunnan. It is in the extreme southwestern corner of China, near the border with Burma. "We were housed in a very good hotel and were provided with all our food and necessities," she said.

"However, throughout the five weeks we used only chopsticks to eat our meals. After the teaching assignment I decided to do some traveling. When I got into hotels that used regular silverware I had to get used to it all over again," Robinson recalled.

"Their knowledge of English vocabulary, reading, and writing are quite good. But, they have not talked very much to English speakers and their knowledge in the area of oral English was very limited," she noted.

"That was why we decided to teach the language in the context of the different cultures. I chose the framework of children in America trying to find and evaluate assisted living facilities for their parents. This was totally foreign to them because in China it is the responsibility of the younger generation to care for the older when they retire," Robinson said.

"Teachers there were used to teaching in very large classes. We tried to show them methodologies used in England and America and encouraged them split their classes into more manageable groups for more student teacher interaction," she pointed out.

"One of the more interesting things to evolve was when we employed a game approach to a particular exercise. They tended to communicate in English rather than in their native language when involved in that exercise," Robinson observed.

THERE WERE 15 Chinese teachers assigned to each American teacher with a total enrollment of 75 for the four volunteer ESOL teachers at that school, according to Robinson. There were far more Chinese women teachers than men. Robinson had 10 women and five men in her class.

"Many of them, particularly the women, stated that they did not want to be teachers. But, that is what they were assigned to do. It was that or remain on the farm or work in a factory. We were in a rural area, not one of the major cities," Robinson explained.

"We were invited to give talks at other schools. We were on television twice. We attended

Although the entire project is organized by the Chinese Christian Council in conjunction with the Amity Foundation, there are no restrictions imposed by the Chinese government, according to Robinson.

"We had no feeling of being overseen by the authorities. No government personnel came to observe our teaching. The dean and professors at the university were all very supportive," Robinson insisted.

"As part of our teaching, we also did parties — birthdays, weddings, and Christmas. The Chinese only celebrate the first of the year as a mass birthday party," she said.

As for Christmas, even though it was mid summer, "We did both the Santa Claus part and the religious part," she said. "Most knew the Christmas story, but, viewed it only as a nice story. They were amazed to find out that we actually believed it."