Students and service learning are a perfect fit. Students learn so much through their experiences, not just by seeing something new, but also by touching, hearing, smelling, tasting and sifting those new experiences through the lens of their personal values and their faith. Oakland Christian School takes groups of students to Beijing, China every other year. China is so “out of the box;” everything is different than our life in America. Suddenly, we’re the foreigners! People stare. People stop. People want us to get in their pictures. Chinese language is swirled together with traffic sounds, billboards in writing so foreign we can’t even distinguish individual letters and a pedestrian life we aren’t accustomed to in the Motor City. Our common language is smiles and kindness. Right away, students see that people who are “other” are really not so different than us.
We come to Beijing for three reasons: to help Chinese students learn English through planned activities, to visit sick and orphaned children, and to witness the rapid growth and changes in Beijing as it prepares for the FUTURE. Beijing has a few places called English Corners where Chinese students come to speak English with native speakers. We prepared skits and also made little photo albums with pictures of our families, our homes, our friends and our activities to share with the people we spoke to. Along the way, we hear about our Chinese student’s life and family. Students love the person-to-person contact.
Of course, visiting orphanages is always a highlight. Students spent the afternoon holding babies, playing with toddlers and communicating compassion and care for these little ones who were healing from major surgeries and waiting for adoption. We visited two such orphanages and also a home for school-age children with brittle bone disease, children who can break a hip if they sit down too hard. The games that students prepared brought an afternoon of laughter, fun and English practice.
Beijing is the FUTURE. Everything is changing at break-neck speed! There are modern buildings popping up overnight and this time we noticed other tourists from all over the world as well. We visited the beautiful, modern new opera house, the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium, and 798, the contemporary art district. The new Capital Art Museum houses ancient cultural artifacts inside a breathtakingly modern structure. Rickshaw rides still transport tourists in through the Hutong neighborhoods, but the old is quickly making way for the new. Students EXPERIENCED the changes – in conversations, in food, in shopping and by walking through new neighborhoods.
After the trip, we compiled our students’ best pictures and video clips and made books, displays and DVDs for each student to help them capture what they saw, heard and felt while in China. Months later, there is still a buzz in the hallways.