Luchu Senior High School
Out of Nothing, A Base for Innovation
Several schools around Taiwan tailor courses to local traits, none more so than Luchu Senior High School in Kaohsiung. It has shaped part of its curriculum to reflect the area's natural environment and preserve the school's tenuous existence.
Out of Nothing, A Base for InnovationBy Jenny Cheng
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 586 )
About the only way to get to Lujhu District in Kaohsiung is on a Taiwan Railways Administration commuter line to the town's small train station. Luchu Senior High School, which has only existed for 16 years, has a special curriculum focused on cherishing the area's natural environment and recording local cultural customs. The Ministry of Education presented the school an award in 2014 for a high school pilot project curriculum design.
The special approach also impressed one of the judges, Chen Feng-ru, a professor in National Hsinchu University of Education's Institute of Taiwan Languages and Language Teaching. She felt that aside from the local characteristics and innovation showcased by the curriculum, the school's interdisciplinary team as well as the practical nature of its courses and the ability to put them into practice also stood out.
Walk into a second-year high school class and one hears a fluent and loud English dialogue proceeding. Perhaps the most lasting impression was that the tables and chairs in the classroom were not as close to the podium as in traditional classrooms, instead separated by a 2-meter-wide stage.
Two students were introducing the state of New Mexico in English and demonstrated none of the shyness and awkwardness one traditionally expects of students in remote parts of Taiwan. Even the slides shown on the screen during the presentation were all produced in English.
What was really surprising is that the students' presentation and the feedback given them from below the stage were also delivered in English.
A few classrooms down, there was a real commotion in the class for high-school seniors. Groups of students were divided into different corners of the room, with some holding up paint brushes and others staring intensely at their smartphones.
The class was actually a geography class. Geography teacher Hsueh Chia-yuan wanted students to analyze the ingredients in nutritious lunches and calculate the "food miles" the ingredients travel from the source to the school.
On each group's desk was a blank map of Taiwan, and they had to locate a full array of ingredients, from brown rice to oyster mushrooms. The students glaring at their smartphones were actually checking on the place of origin of each ingredient, with some tracking lines on Google Maps to determine the distance from the source to the school. Those with paint brushes were responsible for drawing the lines on the map and the ingredients' appearance. Through this division of labor, the groups were able to calculate the total food miles covered by the school's lunches.
This, however, is just a small part of Luchu Senior High School's special curriculum.
Exploring the Outdoors, Learning Everything
A big factor has been the interdisciplinary approach to bring the local surroundings into the curriculum, led by Chinese teacher Wang Li-yue, who mobilized teachers in the school's geography, history, civics, Chinese, mathematics, English and biology departments to organize an interdisciplinary teachers group to carry out the idea.
The teachers have created six major themes related to the local community – the beauty of mountains, the softness of water, the openness of the sea, the sweetness of the land, the genuineness of the people and the fresh flavors of the food – that they bring into different courses through such topics as Lujhu's history, topography (Neopu mudstone area), major agricultural products (cauliflower, tomatoes and eggs) and coastline.
In all three years of the high school, there are many activities that reflect these themes.
What Luchu Senior High School students remember the school most for are the field trips. First year high-school students listen to and record oral history on visits of local elders, while second-year students explore the Neopu mudstone area and the Erren River in Tainan's Longqi District.
"A Taiwanese master in the Neopu mudstone area linked together local cultural traits with the area's geography and history. The teacher also had us use trigonometry to calculate slopes," says high school senior Gan Chia-hsin with a laugh.
Gan originally joined the activity looking for a good time but was surprised to find such a fresh approach to learning. But three other seniors chimed in as Gan was speaking to say with a touch of bitterness that they also get stuck having to write several reports when they return home.
Whenever the students go on a field trip, they carry with them handouts 2 to 3 centimeters thick from different teachers that guide the students on what to observe and learn from the Neopu mudstone area and Erren River.
After the field trip, students divide into groups to produce a picture book of their discoveries that features drawings and photographs and provides English descriptions of what they saw, the Neopu mudstone area's geography, ecology and geology, the gradients of slopes they used trigonometry to calculate, and potential environmental problems facing the Erren River.
In the thick picture book, there are mathematical formulas written in pencil that have been erased and then written over; hand-drawn bamboo shoots in different styles covering an entire page, reflecting Lujhu's agricultural produce; and handwritten verse combined with photos from the field that give an added dimension to the Neopu mudstone area.
"He loves photography. Our book used the photos he shot," says one student as others point at Wang Yi-chan, who smiles a bit shyly. "There are also bamboo shoots. We only just realized that he's really good at drawing bamboo shoots," says another student, as Wang's classmates "gang up" on their friend.
This discovery of each other's strengths represents the real significance behind the boisterous students' loud discourse.
In fact, a considerable discrepancy exists in the family backgrounds and academic performances of students at Luchu Senior High School.
"The level of some of our students is good enough for them to study at Tainan First Senior High School, while others would not even be accepted at Kangshan Agricultural & Industrial Vocational Senior High School," says Wang Li-yue.
Wang worries about the widely varying caliber of the school's students and believes that through the curriculum, resources will be shared evenly among students. She also hopes that through the process of having students create picture books in groups, they will learn innovation, tolerance, organization skills and aesthetics, ultimately giving them confidence and eliminating the academic gap.
In other words, everyone at Luchu Senior High, from the principal to the teachers, has a sense of urgency in cultivating the skills students will need in the future.
"We have a consensus from top to bottom to research and explore ideas through the teachers' community," says the school's academic supervisor Lee Li-kuei, her voice getting more excited the more she talks about the development of the special curriculum.
Integrated with local conditions, the courses are closely linked to the six main themes and have been tied into community building, getting students to ponder cultural development in their neighborhood.
Accompanied by bamboo clappers, a community volunteer tells the students stories they have never heard under a pavilion at Neopu Mudstone Area Soil and Water Conservation Park, tying together the oral history from the first year of high school and their learning in their civics and history classes.
The Neopu mudstone area was the only field trip destination when the special curriculum first began, but teachers in other disciplines have begun to think about how to extend other courses in innovative ways consistent with the school's six main themes.
A popular elective among second-semester high school seniors – called "A Super Taste Journey" after a local TV show – stands out as an example of such innovation. Combining biology, history and geography, the course has students introduce the culture, geography, historical background and the distinctive cuisine of different countries. They also break down each country's main food ingredients and their nutritional value with the help of their biology teacher.
At the end of the semester, these food explorers take over the school's cooking classroom and create dishes from different countries based on their nutrition analyses. They also put on cultural performances, with each group giving it their all, leaving a deep impression with their teachers.
Last year alone, the class attracted more than 70 Luchu Senior High School seniors. "The students are full of curiosity, eventually realizing that a class can actually be like this!" says geography teacher Hsieh Hui-chen.
Another course inspired by the six major themes is "Creative Cartography" designed by the school's geography teacher group. Students learn how to produce their own globes and train themselves to be able to sketch a world map in 30 seconds. In groups, they also draw the outline of each continent – essentially "cutting" the world into pieces – and then compete to see which group can rebuild the world the fastest.
"It's a flipped classroom. This helps each child demonstrate their unique abilities," says history teacher Liao Feng-chun.
Her words cut to the heart of the central theme of Luchu Senior High School's special curriculum: making the students themselves the main focus of learning and integrating six elements to ensure that courses in all disciplines can thrive.
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier