Guangwu Junior High School
Once known as a "gangster school," Hsinchu's Guangwu Junior High School has turned to "nature exploration" outings to bury its bad reputation and sell students on education.
Fighting UpstreamBy Rebecca Lin
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 511 )
Chen Chun-chiang, a sophomore in National Taiwan University's Department of Bio-Industrial Mechatronics Engineering, still cannot forget the autumn of his 12th year, hiking up Mount Hehuan, a walking stick in hand, breathing in the rarefied air. The mountain's northern peak, set off by the blue sky and fluffy white clouds, remains etched in his memory.
Also hovering in his mind is the spring when he was 13, enjoying the thrill of a river tracing expedition in Hsinchu's Taigang River. That was followed by a tour of Green Island and its majestic ocean views during the winter. The next summer he built his own bicycle at the age of 14 and biked around Taiwan.
These many amazing adventures still fresh in Chen's mind have led him back more than once to his junior high school – Guangwu Junior High in Hsinchu. They are the collective memories shared by many of the school's graduates.
"When we went river tracing, the water was very cold, and one person alone could have easily been washed away. We had to form a team holding ourselves tightly together. Only by relying on everybody's strength was it possible to buck the river," Chen remembers. Those same youths battling the water and stretching out their arms to help their teammates had once been considered "bad kids" – dropouts who had no taste for school.
"Now that I'm a university student, looking back, I've completely forgotten everything from my Chinese, English and math classes. The only thing that's stayed with me is those exploration classes," says Chen, who is now a member of the National Taiwan University mountaineering club.
Entering Guangwu Junior High on a Friday afternoon when the school week should be winding down, one finds anything but calm.
In the school's huge auditorium, students donning yellow uniforms that read "Faraday Kids" are busy setting up chairs and checking the sound system. It is all for a "pot luck dinner" held to honor the achievements of students on the school's third biennial bicycling tour of Taiwan.
"We called them 'Faraday Kids' in the hope that every person has the Faraday spirit," says the driving force behind the school's innovative exploration curriculum, administrative director Lin Mao-cheng.
The program's namesake, Michael Faraday, the 19th century self-educated scientist known as the father of electromagnetism, was renowned for his popularization of scientific knowledge and his indefatigable thirst for knowledge through experimentation. Even at his height as a famous scientist, he would give free public science lectures and captivated audiences with his well-planned demonstrations.
Zero Dropout Rate
Guangwu Junior High School's transformation may seem hard to believe. Ten years ago, the school was branded a "gangster school" and widely shunned. Today, one of every four of its graduates gets high enough scores on their high school entrance exams to get into their first choice of high schools.
"Six years ago when I first got here, there were always 'black shirts' waiting at the gate," says an elderly security guard in the cold as he pulls his thin jacket closer to his body. (The "black shirts" generally refer to young hooligans who are part of crime gangs.)
The school reversed that tarnished reputation through its exploration classes emphasizing teamwork, and they quickly became a major draw for children of families working at the Hsinchu Science Park.
"This is the third year in which we've been listed as a controlled enrollment school. There just aren't enough classrooms, and we simply cannot accommodate so many students," says principal Huang Hsiao-fang. The school is also one of the very few in Taiwan that has a zero dropout rate.
"The exploration outings displace children from their comfortable environment into one where they have to rely completely on themselves and on their teams to succeed," says Kenneth Chen, the general manager of a management consulting firm who heads the school's parents association. The experience cannot be gained through books or taught in a classroom, Chen says.
On the bicycle tour around Taiwan, for example, more than 150 students registered, and they were divided into three teams. Each big team was divided into another three medium-sized teams, which were then split up into two small teams. All of the teams, big and small, were led by alumni in their high school or college years.
The students set off from Hsinchu under a scorching sun to bike the taxing northern cross-island highway to Yilan County. When tired, they slept on the grounds of schools they passed along the way. Dirty and sweaty, they could do little more than splash water from the faucet on their bodies to wash themselves.
During the 17-day, 900-kilometer journey, the students slept comfortably on a regular bed only once.
"We were not competing. The big teams had to be together at all times. If even one person was missing when it came time to eat, nobody could start their meal," says Liao Wen-pang, a teacher who was one of the main forces behind the activity.
The teams had to act in concert; no individualism was allowed. "But nobody was allowed to fall behind, either" added Liao, saying that the team heads would lend helping hands as needed.
The "Faraday spirit" was reflected throughout the trip. In Baihe in Tainan and Yuli in Hualian County, the teenagers set up a free "bicycle clinic." Some passed leaflets around nearby villages, telling anybody within earshot that owners of bicycles with flats or wheels coming off could send them to the "clinic" to be repaired for free. They were able to offer the service because they assembled every bike on the tour of Taiwan with their own hands, one part at a time.
At Evergreen Lily Elementary School in Pingdong County and Erlin Junior High School in Jhanghua County, the "Faraday Kids" also took apart the project they had entered in a science competition earlier in the year and made it the centerpiece of a class for the students they met.
Discovering One's Insignificance in Nature
"The scientific experiment we did was on magnetic fields," recalls Chen Chun-chiang, who participated in the first "Faraday Kids" bicycle tour. "But to package it into a class and teach students at another school was really a big challenge for us."
As the school's exploration education approach gained attention, it even attracted scholars wanting to study it in greater depth.
Huang Mao-tsai, an assistant researcher at the National Academy for Educational Research, has observed the phenomenon over the past five or six years by joining every one of Guangwu Junior High's journeys through nature and recording every trip.
"When people are in nature, they discover how insignificant they really are," Huang says. Another benefit is that students who do poorly in the classroom can easily turn into heroes outdoors. "They have the ability to help others, build self-confidence, and gain a sense of achievement."
That's because students with diverse abilities have more opportunity to use them in nature than when sitting in a classroom.
When river tracing or fording a stream, for example, the current can be strong enough to sweep a single person away, even if the water only comes up to the knees. Under such conditions, it takes at least three people to battle the current. The strongest usually pulls up the rear while the lightest goes in front, wading through the water with their upper bodies leaning forward to maintain their balance. The challenge of fighting 500 meters upstream is so arduous, it can take a full day.
Most importantly, the person in front blocks the current and is held in place by the outstretched arms of the people behind so that nobody gets swept away. Losing one's grip on a teammate can be catastrophic.
"Once they realize what needs to be done, they come together and help one another," says the school's Lin, who started with potential dropouts in mind when he set out to design the innovative curriculum 10 years ago.
Amazingly, soon after the exploration courses began, the school underwent a subtle but significant change.
From Gangsters to Lifesavers
The first step was creating harmony between the rival gangs that had infiltrated the school – the Taiwanese "Wind Blows Sand Gang" and the mainlander "United Bamboo Gang." In the raging currents of the river, members of the rival groups quickly understood that their lives' were in one another's hands.
Tested by nature, every person held on for dear life. Lin remembers seeing the students come to the realization that when faced with a common challenge, bitter enemies could work together.
The relationship between teachers and students also reached a turning point.
The teachers still had doubts about students whose grades were poor, and had trouble accepting them.
Then, Lin, who had just taken over as the school's academic director, took small teams of teachers grouped by the subjects they teach into the mountains to battle the river, with dropouts and weaker students acting as coaches. The teachers, who have the upper hand in the classroom, became the "vulnerable" ones once they entered the water. And the students, often at loggerheads with their teachers, were required to play the role of lifesavers.
"When you can see the strengths of each student, you clearly understand that every child is a gifted student," says Lin, who has given every teenager opportunities in multiple environments to show their abilities, creating a diversity of learning advantages.
Back at the Guangwu Junior High School auditorium on banquet night, students on the brightly lit stage put their hearts into performing "Faraday's Story," with 95 percent of parents in attendance. Every family brought one dish for the banquet.
The gentle-looking parents' association head Kenneth Chen thinks back to the strides his son has taken. "In the past he was self-centered. All he thought about was doing his homework and then playing video games."
But after experiencing the teamwork-oriented nature exploration outings, his son slowly became willing to accept the responsibility of being a class leader and interact with his classmates, Chen says, feeling that his son has truly changed for the better.
His conclusion? "The children at Guangwu Junior High are truly fortunate."
Translated from the Chinese by Luke Sabatier