GLEN RIDGE, NJ — Twenty-eight Chinese students visited Glen Ridge High School last week as part of an exchange program the borough school has with Shanghai Nanhui High School. The program is sponsored by International Partnership Education Research Center of IPERC, located at Ohio State University. It was initiated at GRHS in 2014 by Chinese language teacher Shihong Zhang.
The foreign students came to Glen Ridge with about a half-dozen of their teachers and a vice-principal. Both groups wanted to learn about American schooling. The Chinese educators were interested in learning how the school was run, teaching methods, how students learn and how school clubs are organized.
They said they liked the culture of GRHS and the use of students as peer leaders. Their comments were translated by Zhang and one of the visiting teachers, Yvonne Zhu.
In China, they said classes can have as many as 50 students who work more collaboratively than their Glen Ridge counterparts. Class size has been decreasing as more schools get built. The teachers did not particularly enjoy some of the foods they found in America.
“Just hamburgers and bagels,’ Zhu said. “There is not much local food here.”
The Chinese adults are staying in a Belleville home. They cook their own meals, but tried a Japanese restaurant in Montclair.
The teachers said their students like GRHS because the American students “have their own voice.” Cell phones are not allowed in classrooms in China and students do not generally have access to personal computers because there is no internet connections in the schools for them. According to Zhang, GRHS teachers determine cell-phone rules in their classrooms.
Zhu said discipline was given greater importance in Chinese schools than in American schools.
She said the attitude of teachers in her country was that in the classroom, the student should only listen to them.
“Because there are so many students,” Zhu said, “they have to be kept in control and they lose their own voice. We’ve noticed that problem.”
But 100 percent of Shanghai Nanhui High School students go to college.
“Our students are very hardworking,” she said. “They want to do something great. Chinese people are not lazy. We are very good in mathematics.”
Zhu said she believed American students would benefit from seeing how hard Chinese students work. She also said some topics in mathematics and science are introduced in Chinese grade schools, enabling students to delve more deeply into them when they arrive at high school. She said the Chinese students find the GRHS math and science courses relatively easy.
But she said when they first arrived a few days earlier at GRHS, the Chinese students all broke out laughing when Zhang welcomed them as “future world leaders.” Zhu said Chinese students do not think of themselves as leaders. During the visit, she said a Chinese student was asked a question and the student looked at her. She encouraged them to answer the question for themselves.
“Even in China, the student is shy,” she said. “They will not raise their hand and avoid eye contact with the teacher.”
Zhu said she hoped at GRHS the Chinese exchange students learn the importance of classroom participation so that when they return to their own school, they can be role models.
IPERC-sponsored student exchange programs with China are also active in Old Bridge; Memphis, Tenn.; and California.
A Chinese girl who was an exchange student last year from Shanghai and remained at GRHS is now a senior at the school. GRHS guidance counselor Joe Mazzarella said she is preparing to apply to colleges and wants to become involved with school activities.
“She’s really jumping in with both feet,” he said. “She’s not overwhelmed.”
A number of senior class GRHS students in the peer leadership group were shadowed by a Chinese exchange student. Ethan Hackmeyer, a peer leader, said there are 20 students in the leadership group. They mentor eighth-graders and take on school duties when needed. Ethan does not speak Chinese, but was shadowed by a Chinese girl.
“I found it interesting,” he said. “We share some pop culture. We both like Taylor Swift.”
Another peer leader who was shadowed was Sam Landis.
“The difference between our school and theirs is crazy,” he said. “They have school from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and study afterward and on weekends.”
Peer leader Colleen Toppings said Chinese students take tests in high school to gain admission to a college.
“It’s not like an application process,” she said. “It’s once you pass the tests.”
Colleen brought the Chinese shadowing her to art class. Colleen said she has art class every day, but her shadow had art class only once every two weeks.
Two or three Chinese students stayed with a local family during the exchange this year. There were 12 host families. One family was in Bloomfield, two in West Orange and the rest in Glen Ridge.
GRHS juniors Jordan Wheeler and Jack Byrne hosted Ji Shi Yu and Wang Yi Tang, respectively. Jordan stayed with Ji’s family last year when he was in China as an exchange student.
Jordan said while Ji was staying with him, he was motivated to get more work done and have time for Ji.
Wang was planning on attending Jack’s first football game as a player. Although the season had started several weeks earlier, the GRHS football team needed players and were allowing mid-season sign-ups.
Jordan said Ji and Wang spoke better Chinese than Jack or him. Ji and Wang said they began studying English in first grade. Jordan said he began studying Chinese in the seventh grade.
Ji and Wang said they would like to study architecture in college. Jordan and Jack said they would like to study computer programming.
Following their GRHS visit, the Chinese contingent was scheduled to visit Columbia and Princeton universities, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Zhang said 24 GRHS students would be visiting Shanghai in April.
In an email, GRHS Principal John Lawlor said the exchange program was a valuable learning experience for both GRHS and Shanghai Nanhui High School exchange students.
“They developed new friendships through this process,” he said, “and an appreciation for Chinese and American cultures.”