Teacher Kathleen Stier of Deerfield returns from instructing biology teachers in China about AP courses

Last modified: Thursday, August 28, 2014
BUCKLAND — At Mohawk Trail Regional School, Kathleen Stier is a highly regarded science teacher.

But in Harbin, China, she was a celebrity.

This month, Stier, of Deerfield, instructed 20 biology teachers at a weeklong summer workshop about teaching Advanced Placement biology courses to their American-bound students.

“I was unprepared for the welcome mat that awaited us upon our arrival,” Stier said. “Harbin is home to some 10 million Chinese and it is located in the northeast part of the country ... Very few Americans ever go there and very few people can speak English.

“As we approached the school, photographers and community people were all present to welcome us and show their appreciation,” she said. “Teachers from America are highly regarded and respected. They are very hopeful that we can help to make their programs successful and ultimately increase the enrollment of Chinese students in American colleges.

“I can honestly say I have never received a welcome like that,” Stier said. “We all felt like we were celebrities and we were certainly treated that way.”

Stier said people would stop the American teachers on the street and ask if they could pose for a picture with them.

“They all had smartphones,” she said. “But YouTube, Google, Facebook and other (social media websites) were blocked.”

While there, Stier also toured the northern China city. She came home with memories that included an ice-carving museum and a Siberian tiger park.

“China is now second to the U.S. in offering AP courses to their students,” Stier said, but added that China has far fewer opportunities for teachers to train in the skills needed to teach them. Stier said Chinese students are good at AP courses involving quantitative math skills, such as calculus, but very limited in courses that require English reading or writing skills.

“There is now momentum to try and diversity and offer more AP offerings,” she said. “Many Chinese schools are very interested in getting on board with this, even though there are several challenges and obstacles that make it difficult for both the teachers and their students.”

Stier and five other teachers trained about 200 teachers in what was the largest AP Summer Institute program ever held.

“It was such a different experience than I expected,” Stier said, a day after her 35-hour travel back from Harbin to her home in Deerfield. Her long journey back included layovers, flight connections and lost luggage in Shanghai.

The American teachers were taken to Harbin Number 3 School, one of the most rigorous and prestigious schools in the area. Stier said the school houses 4,500 students, with the average class size of about 50 students per teacher.

The biology lab where Stier was teaching was set up in rows with 25 tables and two seats to a table. The tables were bolted to the floor, and a storage area was adjacent to the lab. “If this is the top school for this region, it was clear their labs need upgrading and class sizes need downsizing,” she said.

Stier said it is not unusual for students to be in school for 10 hours a day. In Harbin, their fall classes began in mid-August until a mid-winter break, from Jan. 10 to Feb. 28. Stier said the winters there are so cold that travel on the roads becomes hazardous. The students go back to school when it reopens in March and stay in school until July 15. Their summer vacation is from July 15 through Aug. 20.

“Their long break in the winter allows many of the community members to enjoy and partake in the winter ice festivals. I found their emphasis on community to be the most impressive and wonderful thing about this traditional Chinese city,” she said. “They have several miles of waterfront parks with a variety of terrain that lends itself to community exercising. Every morning at 6 a.m., music begins to play and people of all ages, especially older citizens, come out to partake in martial arts, fishing, jogging or walking the river banks. ... Apparently, this is very common throughout China and part of the daily ritual.”

The Chinese teachers were excited and eager to learn how to teach AP biology the way it is taught in the U.S., but the greatest challenge is the lack of English proficiency, Stier said.

“AP exams are only given in English, so anyone taking this test must be able to read and write essays in English,” she said. Stier said Chinese curricula are more focused on math skills and memorization of facts.

“This has been their way for decades, and it also explains why there isn’t time to stray from this standardized curriculum,” she said. “Another problem is the limitations with supplies, resources and even websites.”

According to Stier, Harbin high school students have nine classes a day between 7:20 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. She said some of the local teachers within the AP Summer Institute are planning to set up AP evening classes, because the students have no time in their day schedules for the additional class.

“The teachers I had still struggle” with English, Stier said. “The (students) that are getting into colleges in the United States are more likely to have gone to high school in the U.S.”

This is one reason why the Mohawk Trail Regional School is hoping to attract tuition-paying Chinese students, who will study English in their native schools and come to Mohawk for their final year of high school. There has been a growing interest among Chinese families to send their high school-aged children here, in the hopes they will have a better chance of being admitted to a US college or university.

Mohawk has accepted its first Chinese 12th-grader for the current school year.

Stier’s trip and AP workshop was not directly related to Mohawk’s initiative to reach out to Chinese students. Besides teaching science at Mohawk for 27 years, Stier belongs to The College Board, a nonprofit organization that helps more than seven million students prepare for college through college readiness programs, including SAT exams and Advanced Placement courses.

On her flight home, Stier sat next to a Shanghai student who is starting her freshman year at the University of California. The student told Stier she grew up attending Chinese schools until her parents were able to get her into a private high school in Florida. “She took several AP courses there and did well,” said Stier. “She also mentioned that she felt she had a lot more opportunities to be successful in the U.S. because in China, it is much harder if you are female.

“Her parents wanted her to attend a high school in the U.S., so she could learn English and get into a good college,” Stier continued. “She was 18 years old, traveling to begin her first week in an American college. She’s living the dream of the China initiative.”