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Chinese head teacher tries alternative education for left-behind children

Chinese schools are inclined to focus on the discipline and obedience of students, less so on individual autonomy, but a village school in eastern China is trying to break the mold.

Zhangjiabu Elementary School in Longyou County, western Zhejiang Province, lies amid a tatty playground of dust and sand, and a small single building with paint peeling off the walls.

More than 120 students attend the school, with most of their parents at work in faraway cities.

Head teacher Yin Suyu, 40, spent her childhood here. In 2011 when she came back as the school principle, she decided to try alternative education methods, giving her students more freedom, focusing on student-centered, progressive education, and allowing children make decisions about their schooling.

"It is like the Summerhill School in London," she said.

The Summerhill School in Leiston, Suffolk, the United Kingdom, was founded in 1921 by educational philosopher Alexander Sutherland Neill. Summerhill School adapts to fit the child, not the other way around.

At Zhangjiabu Elementary School classrooms are called "learning centers." Students take off their shoes before entering the classroom and do not sit on fixed seats. In summer desks are put away, and teachers and students sit on the ground. The students even take care of the library.

"I like this style of teaching. It brings the teacher closer to us. I do not have to stick my back up all day and take notes while the teacher talks," said He Enze, a sixth grader.

"I wish I had that much freedom at school when I was younger." said Yin's son, who attends a middle-high school in the county.


UNLIKELY CHAMPION

There is no reason why Yin's experiment cannot last. There are no anxious parents eager to see improving grades. Most are away earning money and absent from their children's education. As a small village school, it manages to keep off the local education department's radar.

Chinese educators have ushered in reforms in recent years, aiming to respect each students' individuality more, and develop their overall character instead of blindly focusing on grades alone.

At Zhangjiabu, with few restrictions, Yin has become an unlikely champion of such education.

She believes education is about bringing out the best in a child, and that the spirit of freedom in her school will help the children become more independent and make up for the absence of their parents.

"There is a boy. He seems careless and aloof at school, but when he goes home he sends long voice messages to his teacher, sharing whatever is on his mind," said teacher Wang Yiheng..

To help students air grievances when their parents are away, the school introduced a "tree hole" project -- a cardboard box or a baby formula jar is put in each classroom, and children write messages for their teachers to see. It makes the children feel better

"When I came five years ago, the school was like a dead pond. Students failed courses. Nobody cared how they performed. Their grandparents had no choice. Reading was almost zero," Yin said.

In 2014, Yin received funding from a number of non-governmental organizations to renovate their library and classrooms.

"I have been teaching for about 19 years, and if there is one thing I know it is that a child should read and that reading enriches their mind," she said.

Her experiment began in 2015 and has recently started to score successes. Average scores of the students at Zhangjiabu were once bottom of the school district, but now they rank among the top. Several students excel in Chinese literature, as well as sports and music.


CHINA'S SUMMERHILL

Though Yin has not met strong opposition to her alternative style of education, some have voiced concerns.

"Some parents doubt whether such great liberty will improve their grades, but most are happy that their children have become more open, confident and willing to engaging with others," Yin said.

Yin has never visited Summerhill, a boarding school in Britain where teachers are known by their first names, and children have a say in all decision-making, but she shares similar beliefs with those who advocate freedom for students.

But as a public village school with limited funding, it is an experiment that can only go as far as resources allow. There are 11 teachers at the school, about two for each class.

Zhangjiabu is about to renovate its playground, and the children have been asked to help with the design. One said he wants to have a "tree of wishes." Another wants a swing and a garden.

"I hope for a new school powered solely by solar energy," said Yin Shumiao, a sixth-grader.

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