Jhuang-Wei Elementary School
Buddy System Teaches Concern
Under the "hand in hand" buddy system at Jhuang-Wei Elementary School in Taiwan's Yilan County, the younger kids learn to adapt, third- and fourth-graders learn independence, and the older kids learn to take care of others.
Buddy System Teaches ConcernBy Hui-Ting Chen
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 486 )
An October breeze gently blows inland from the sea across Provincial Road No. 7, bending the green rice stalks in the paddy fields of eastern Yilan and wafting up the steps of a grey school building, fluttering the long ponytails of the schoolgirls sitting there.
"Okay, once more," quips a sixth-grade student with sheet music on her lap, humming a tune. Grabbing their harmonicas the younger girls follow her tune. The wind carries away the notes to the foyer, beyond the swing set, the nearby stage and flowerbeds. All over campus, students can be seen, their cheeks puffed out, practicing the harmonica in small groups.
The members of the school's harmonica orchestra practice voluntarily during lunch break every day. They don't need instructions from a teacher. Instead, members of Orchestra A, comprised of students from grades three to six, teach the second- and third-grade students of Orchestras B and C. Only when they are finished practicing their pieces is the music teacher asked to vet the outcome.
"It's really strange, but children have their own language among themselves," notes Chien Chiung-ying, who has led the harmonica orchestra for seven years and is the school's only music teacher. "When I teach them, they don't get it, but if the older schoolmates teach them, they can play a tune in 20 minutes," Chien says with amazement.
Despite limited funding and insufficient personnel, the school's harmonica ensemble has made it to the fifth and sixth Asia Pacific Harmonica Festival, and it won first prize in the school orchestra category at the most recent World Harmonica Festival in 2009. More than 50 orchestra members from second to sixth grade flew to Germany for the competition. They attribute their success to the great chemistry and special bond among the students.
The buddy system, under which older students take younger students in hand and assume responsibility for them, has won Jhuang-Wei Elementary School the "InnoSchool" award for innovative teaching approaches. It has also become the basis for cultivating a spirit of "respect and consideration" throughout the school.
English teacher Chen Ching-yi reveals that the harmonica orchestra set the ball rolling.
"When we saw how well the students in the higher grades got along with the lower grade students, we thought this model could be extended to the entire school," Chen recalls. Six years ago, Chen, then head of student affairs, designed the first school-wide "hand in hand" program, which is in its sixth year now.
Everything starts with a public vow during the opening-day ceremonies for new first-grade students.
Paper Airplanes Build Bridges of Friendship
On their first day in school, the new first-graders are randomly paired with buddies from the fifth grade. The newcomers write their names on blank pieces of paper, which they then fold into airplanes and let fly from the third floor of the school building. Outside, each of the waiting fifth-graders needs to catch a plane and find its owner, the new buddy.
Subsequently, they deliver their buddy vows to one another before all the teachers and newcomer parents. The fifth-graders declare, "Let me look after you," while the new students reply, "Please give me your advice." From that moment on, the fifth-graders have committed themselves to looking after their younger schoolmates until they themselves graduate from elementary school.
"This is a way of handing them some responsibility," says Chen, revealing the meaning behind this public ceremony. "We also want the kids to know that we are serious about this."
So do the newly paired buddies live happily ever after?
"No, they are quite scared," reveals Chen. With barely suppressed laughter she recalls how several frightened fifth-grade boys came to her for help, because their young charges, wide-eyed with expectation, had wanted to hold hands, much to the boys' embarrassment.
The teachers have thought up a mix of facilities and activities to foster the relationships.
First, they made some rules that created opportunities for the fifth-graders to serve the lower grade students.
During lunch break, for example, the fifth-graders serve lunch to the first-graders. In the past this used to be a sixth-grader chore.
First- and fifth-graders also jointly participate in school excursions or prepare school events such as a Christmas fair together.
Positive Driving Force
Nothing works better than motivating students through praise. "Wow, the little ones all come to you for help. You must be a good big sister," is how academic affairs director Huang Chun-chou likes to encourage the older students.
Huang looks back on a 21-year-long teaching career. She knows that students will emulate one another. Many children are the only child or the last born in the family, which is why they lack experience interacting and caring for children that are younger than them. In such cases teachers help them find students they can learn from in that regard.
In the past, lower grade students often complained about being pushed around by the older ones. They snatched away toys or monopolized the basketball courts. Now when the fifth-graders are playing dodge ball on the court, they try to pacify the younger students waiting on the sidelines. Then, in the second half of the game, the first-graders are allowed to join.
Huang once had a student in her class with a difficult family background. Neglected by her parents, she came to school in unwashed clothes. As a result she was shunned by her classmates. Her buddy, however, sought her out after school and happily chatted with her.
Gradually the girl's classmates also began to talk with her. "At the time the older girl was a stabilizing influence on her mental state. She made her more cheerful, which then gave her an opportunity to make friends among her classmates," observes Huang.
Caring can be emulated and learned. The students at Jhuang-Wei Elementary School are learning to build mutually considerate relationships with the world around them.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz