Song Shan High School
More to Life than Getting to the Top
At Taipei Municipal Song Shan Senior High School, weekly class meetings and school celebrations are different. Instead of empty rituals, students contemplate the meaning of life.
More to Life than Getting to the TopBy Yu-Jung Peng
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 435 )
If you had only six months to live, what would you do with the remaining time? And what would you do to bring your life to a beautiful end?
This is not a dialogue from a hospice room, but an after-school assignment for students in a life education class at Song Shan Senior High School in Taipei City.
Balancing Academic Knowledge with Life Skills
Usually the yardstick for the quality of a Taiwanese high school is how many of its graduates make it into National Taiwan University, which is widely seen as the island's most prestigious university. But Song Shan Senior High School four years ago launched an official life education program for its freshman students. Four life education teachers discuss moral issues and the meaning of life with the teenagers, who tend to be focused on homework and getting good grades for entry into university. Five periods per week are scheduled for the program, which covers a wide array of topics such as the value of life; death and dying; religion and human life; ethical thinking and choices; sex, marriage and ethics; and life science ethics.
Among these the course on how to deal with death and dying has triggered the strongest feedback from students and parents alike.
A survey by CommonWealth Magazine for its special edition on education shows that 65 percent of senior high school students have already experienced the loss of a relative or friend.
"Ninety percent of senior high school students have thought about the meaning of life and the problem of death, but they have not received any guidance,"notes Liu Kui-kuang, one of the first teachers in Taiwan to train in life education, citing the results of surveys that he conducted in his life education classes over the past few years.
Hu Kuang-yue, head of the school's student counseling department explains that Taiwanese high school students often have to face the successive deaths of their grandparents who used to spoil them as kids. But due to their heavy workload at school, these teenagers are not able to resolve "unfinished business"in their relationships with the deceased. As a result they develop feelings of guilt and grief, or in the worst cases even emotional disorders such as depression.
"It is not just knowing about life and death, but that we need to treasure the present,"says Liu who teaches the class on death and dying. Liu uses official teaching materials, but also helps his students gain an initial understanding of death by telling them how he kept his terminally ill brother company until he died from cancer. He expects that by writing a will, the students and their families will become aware that our lives are limited, and that we should treasure being alive.
In her will the freshman Xiao Yun wrote in a delicate hand: "I am lucky. At least I know when I will pass away. Six months isn't short, is it?”
She further writes that she hopes to donate her organs and that she feels that all religious funeral ceremonies are too depressing. She hopes to leave this world in a festive atmosphere, accompanied by best wishes from her family.
Xiao Yun's mother was moved by the will, but it also helped her better understand her teenage daughter. "I am very happy about the content of her will. I hope when I'm gone she will be able to keep up this attitude,"she says with a smile.
In contrast to other schools, which generally run their life education programs through the counseling office, Liu, who in the past concurrently headed the student activities department, worked to incorporate life education into all the school's extracurricular activities.
The first change that he introduced was the weekly class meetings. While the meetings often were a mere formality in the past, the school now designs activities that match the life education themes. Holidays are marked with key topics that fit the occasion. On Tomb Sweeping Day, death and dying are at the fore, while Mother's Day is an opportunity for discussing issues regarding parents, and Teachers' Day is devoted to reflecting on the teacher-student relationship.
In the past the teacher would read out "government propaganda,"while the bored students slept en masse or secretly memorized vocabulary flashcards. But now people with special life experiences are invited to share their life stories with the students.
Mountaineer Makalu Gau, for instance, successfully made it to the top of Mt. Everest with an expedition in 1996. But on the way down the climber was stranded by a heavy snowstorm and suffered severe frostbite.
After his rescue Gau had to have 20 fingers and toes amputated, as well as his nose. He had to undergo 15 courses of reconstructive surgery, but his passion for mountain climbing and love for life remain as strong as ever. By sharing his story Gau hopes to encourage students to face life's challenges with a positive attitude.
Listening to lectures alone, however, does not do the trick, warns Hu. "It is even more important to lead up to the event and to guide the discussion after it."
Previously, the students were told the name of the lecturer only on the day of the event, but now they are informed two weeks in advance. For each lecture Hu writes an introduction that presents the lecturer and the speech topic and also raises a few questions. Preliminary discussions in the weekly class meetings will touch on the upcoming event to prepare students for in-depth debate and a keen reception.
After each lecture the teacher guides the discussion, gathers key points and encourages students' reflection. Following Gau's presentation one student remarked, "Makalu Gau successfully climbed Mt. Everest, but ran into trouble on the way down. This shows that we may face setbacks anytime.”
School anniversary celebrations that students usually attend with enthusiasm are also good opportunities for injecting some life education. A school tradition is to go on hikes on school anniversaries with students customarily lamenting that they are being given a hard time. So this year the student affairs office decided to let the students hike blindfolded or with one leg tied behind them, letting them experience how it is to live with a physical handicap. The students also recorded their observations and feelings throughout the experience.
As a result many students declared during the hike that they felt lucky to have good eyesight and healthy limbs, and no one complained anymore about having to hike.
In the future the school hopes to emulate the model of National Shiukuang Senior High School in Nantou County, which has designed a special kind of singing contest. Students choose a song to sing that tells a story reflecting their own life experiences. The main characters of the stories they have lived are also invited on stage together with the singer.
One student, who grew up without a father, sang a song with the title "My Second Father"dedicated to his grandfather. When the grandfather, who had assumed the role of surrogate father, appeared on stage, the audience was visibly moved.
"Only life can touch a life,"notes Liu in explaining why he spares no effort in promoting life education at his school. Actually, behind Liu's enthusiasm there is also another story that early on helped him understand the importance of humane values.
From Teaching Knowledge to Teaching Virtues
Born into a dirt-poor family on the offshore island of Matsu, Liu had a long walk to school, but the family couldn't afford any snacks or lunch. Embarrassed that he had nothing to eat, Liu would go into hiding at lunchtime. But the homeroom teacher wouldn't have it that way. Wiping his mouth and pretending that he could not finish his lunch, he called Liu over and asked him to "help"eat up the leftovers. The unsuspecting Liu would clean the plate without hesitating, feeling happy that he could do his teacher a favor.
"My teacher not only helped me, but also took care to protect my self-respect,"says Liu in recalling his first major lesson in life education, which he still vividly remembers today. Having in the mean time become a teacher himself, Liu's ambition is to be a teacher who not only imparts knowledge, but also helps students grow into full human beings.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz
Chinese Version : 比考上台大更重要的事