Kane Thomas '14 Johnson Opportunity Grant Winner Travels to China with Harvard World Teach

Kane Thomas is a double major in politics and East Asian studies from Seattle, Wa. He traveled to Zhangjiajie, China, with the Harvard World Teach program to teach English to middle school students this summer.

My daily alarm clock is the Hulusi. Many of my fellow volunteers find the Chinese flute player annoying, probably because he starts playing at close to 5 a.m., right next to our hotel window. However this is perfect for me, since 5 a.m. is the time I have to get up in order to have time to run, shower, and eat before my first class at 8:40. I throw on my shoes and bright yellow running shorts and head out the front door.

I am met by a wave of heat and the acrid smell of industry. Though the sun isn't all the way up yet, the street is still abuzz with activity. Zhangjiajie is considered rural in China, the Chinese equivalent of a rural small town. However, being in one of the most populated counties in the world, it's a rural small town of close to 1.5 million people. Located in the interior Hunan Province of China, Zhangjiajie is known for both its beautiful scenery and oppressive heat. Hunan is also the birthplace of Chairman Mao Zedong. When I told him that I was headed to Hunan, my Chinese professor told me, "Hunan people are known for their hot food, hot weather... and hot tempers."

Our hotel is on the outskirts of Zhangjiajie proper; within 10 minutes I can either be in lush fields of grapes, or in the middle of a bustling Chinese city. The contrast between city life and farm life, prosperity and destitution, is evident on the streets, where ladies toting "Gucci" purses and high heels stride past men and women without shoes pulling carts of produce. Regardless of their socio-economic background, most people still turn and stare at the crazy Westerner in bright yellow shorts running by.

After slurping down a quick noodle breakfast, its time for class. China's rags and riches contrast carries over to the barebones classrooms, which have decrepit chairs, broken windows, the withered remains of torn curtains... and fancy computers with giant overhead projectors. I am greeted everyday with applause and shouts of "Thomas! Thomas!" from the middle school students that I teach. Though exuberant about learning English from an American, the students are remarkably well behaved and rigorous about their studies.

Perhaps because the stakes are so high. English is increasingly becoming the language of international business, and for a young Chinese student, the ability to speak English may determine their eligibility for attending university later in life. Without a viable education, many of my students could end up being one of the many small shopkeepers or farmers in Zhangjiajie, and never have the opportunity to leave the Hunan Province, or even Zhangjiajie. The reason the school district has brought me and the eight other WorldTeach volunteers is to improve their students' oral English. English is taught all through elementary and high school, but students in Hunan rarely have the opportunity to interact with a foreigner, or even speak English out loud.  

My daily schedule is relatively uniform. I teach three classes a day, and then have a two-hour siesta followed by a two-hour activity time, during which we teach the students American songs, dances and play different sports and games with them. After classes are over, the school will take the volunteers on cultural trips to learn calligraphy, Chinese musical instruments or Chinese language classes. In the evenings, I spend time planning my lessons for the following days. We are given a large amount of flexibility in planning our lessons, and are able to implement the teaching strategies and activities that we feel will best educate and engage our students.

Having already travelled to Shanghai and Beijing my freshman year, volunteering in the interior of the country was an eye-opening and enriching experience. While Beijing and Shanghai are international cities with plenty of Western influences, the smaller cities in the interior of the country have remained much more insolated. As a result of my Johnson Opportunity Grant, I was able to serve as a global ambassador for many students who had never had the chance to speak with an American, and make a positive difference in their lives.