- Upper Grades Program
This past year, for the first time, Avenues Global Journeys offered two overseas trips—to Italy and Taiwan—as part of Fifth Term electives for upper grades students. Both programs had strong curricular foundations and required significant project work once students had returned to New York. The Taiwan program, which I helped to develop and lead alongside upper grades science teacher Mr. Mike Maccarone and upper grades Chinese teacher Ms. Haiwen Lu, was focused on culture and climate change.
Our itinerary was not for the faint-hearted. From the get-go, the students were immersed in Taiwan’s culture, taking public transit, eating Taiwanese food and speaking Chinese with local people. Mere hours after getting off the plane, fending off the urge to nap, we took the Taipei Metro to Tamsui, the northernmost suburb of the city (and the northern coast of the island) to visit Tamkang Senior High School. Our mission was twofold: make some new friends and keep the students awake until the evening.
Constructed in 1916, Tamkang’s is one of the oldest and most picturesque high school campuses in Taiwan. The campus was built to expand a girls’ school, which Canadian missionary George Leslie Mackay established at the site in 1884 (a radical initiative in nineteenth-century Taiwan, where traditionally only boys were educated). By the time of the expansion, Taiwan was under Japanese rule (the Japanese ruled from 1895 until 1945), and Japanese architects designed the school’s buildings in the Western-influenced style that was popular in Meiji- and Taishō-era Japan. The same distinct architectural style, combining Renaissance, Baroque and Neo-Classical elements can be seen in landmark buildings across Taipei, including the Presidential Palace, the Bank of Taiwan, and the campus of National Taiwan University.
Tamkang receives plenty of tourists, partly on account of its fabulous architecture and coastal location, but mainly on account of its most famous alumnus, the musician and actor (and in the Sinophone world, mega-star) Jay Chou. Several movies have been shot there, including Jay Chou’s 2007 romantic drama Secret and Edward Yang’s 1991 masterpiece, A Brighter Summer Day.
Avenues and Tamkang have a good deal in common, including strong language immersion programs. Tamkang has one of the top English/Chinese bilingual programs in Taiwan. In the high school bilingual program, half the classes are taught in English, with a focus on independent study through discovery and critical thinking, as opposed to rote memorization.
After arriving at the campus in the midday heat, we were ushered into the cool, dim dining hall for a traditional Taiwanese boxed lunch (biandang in Chinese, a transliteration of the Japanese word bento, which literally means “convenient” but refers to the single-portion container in which a meal on-the-go is served). Opening their lunch boxes, the students were happy to see a large portion of fried chicken on a bed of rice, with several vegetable sides.
After lunch, the Avenues students met their Tamkang peers from the bilingual program. In pairs, our students formed small groups with two or three Tamkang students. We instructors stood back and watched as our students met their assigned partners: awkward handshakes and muttered greetings soon gave way to giggles and big smiles. In their groups, the students took seats in the auditorium, where they were given a brief overview of the Tamkang community and its rich history. After that, a group of Tamkang students gave a presentation in English on sustainability and green design, based on a project they were developing for re-using and up-cycling old shoes. Our students asked questions and shared details of similar projects they had completed in New York. There couldn’t have been a better way to kick off our program, which was focused on learning about Taiwan’s approach to climate change and sustainability.
Next, the students left for a campus tour led by their Tamkang counterparts. We instructors followed behind them at a good distance, careful not to intercede too much in the students’ interactions with their Taiwanese peers and quietly hoping that they would find something to talk about. As we approached the basketball courts, we saw two or three groups leave the path and jog over to a court, joining a group of Tamkang students who were already throwing the ball around. By the time we had caught up, and before we could say anything about maybe sticking to the campus tour schedule, the students had already begun a spontaneous game of basketball, Avenues vs. Tamkang. Our students were suddenly transformed: their jetlagged lethargy vanished and they began bounding up and down the court with energy and focus. On the sidelines, I marveled at the power of sports to dissolve barriers of language and culture and allow for a pure, uncomplicated and joyful exchange between two groups of strangers. Looking back, I think that afternoon on the basketball court set the tone for the rest of our program—the situation challenged our students to be open, collaborative, and energetic, and they delivered on all three counts. As an instructor, it also taught me a lot about the value of spontaneity and of allowing students to follow their own instincts and take risks within the bounds of safety. Many of the most memorable moments of our program, it turns out, were totally unplanned.
We eventually shepherded the students off the basketball court in their small groups and encouraged them to use the remaining 30 minutes to tour the historic campus as planned. The Tamkang students, however, had other ideas, and decided to ditch the tour and show their new friends the true beating heart of their school: the on-campus convenience store. In need of a snack and a beverage after their sweaty workout, our students were delighted to follow for their first experience of Taiwan’s renowned convenience store culture. Here, the Tamkang students really came into their own as tour guides, introducing our students to the Asia-localized flavors of familiar-brand snacks like Doritos and Hi-Chew, as well as local products (our students were particularly mystified by oyster omelet-flavor potato chips). They even offered to buy snacks for the Avenues students who’d left their wallets behind. I’ll never forget the buzz in that basement convenience store and the pride I felt for our students, plunging in and embracing a new environment, on their way to becoming global citizens. Once again, the spontaneous spark of human connection won out over our plans—and I’m so glad that it did.
- 10th Grade
- 11th Grade
- 5th Term
- 9th Grade
- Global Journeys
- Mandarin Chinese
- Upper Division
- Upper Grades Program