Yew Chung International School was founded in Hong Kong 1932 by Madam Tsang Chor-hang as a kindergarten (using the using the Froebelian definition of the word rather than using the term to describe the first year of primary school, as we do in the United States) and primary school. In the 1970s, the school was taken over by her daughter, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign alumna Betty Chan Po-king. Dr. Chan expanded the school upward to include a secondary program and from the early 1990s to 2000s, expanded outward, opening schools in Shanghai, Beijing, Chongqing, Qingdao, and Silicon Valley. Twice in the past year, I have had the opportunity to visit the kindergarten at Yew Chung Hong Kong. I had a tour of the full program (infancy to age five) and meetings with administrators in January and worked in a four-year-old classroom for two weeks in May.
The Yew Chung kindergarten is unique. So much so that they are working with us at UIUC to better define themselves and the effectiveness of their program. The core of the Yew Chung International School as a whole (infancy through secondary) is the bilingual-bicultural component. Each school (the kindergarten, the primary school, and the secondary school) has two principals, one native Chinese speaker (Eastern) and one native English speaker (Western). Each classroom also has two teachers, one Eastern and one Western. Similarly, other administrative positions (e.g., program coordinators, curriculum specialists) each have an Eastern and Western individuals. For each of these positions, the two work together as equals, carefully integrating Western culture without losing Eastern foundations. Students in the program may be local Chinese children or ex-patriot children from other nations and all speak both English and Mandarin.
The kindergarten at Yew Chung is even more interesting in how it supports this model. First, the Hong Kong kindergarten includes a third language, Cantonese, to recognize and support the linguistic heritage of local children. Second, while the program was formally play-based with times for direct instruction, in 2009 the teachers and principals chose to move to an emergent curriculum, drawing from the work of Susan Stacey, Elizabeth Jones, Project Zero, and the Municipal Infant/Toddler Centers and Preschools in Reggio Emilia, as well as from Vygotsky, Piaget, Erikson, and Dewey. There are similarities between this new pedagogy and other emergent progressive models, but Yew Chung is unquestionably something distinctive.
In moving to an emergent program, the teachers did away with much of the schedule. There is no circle time (or gathering, as they referred to it) unless one is needed. The rooms are set to allow near constant exploration. Teachers and children work together to answer emerging questions and teachers continue to provide opportunities for children to extend their thinking and to develop new questions.
While our work in defining the Yew Chung approach is still in progress, we have identified an initial four core foundation:
Teachers and co-principals both identified relationships as fundamental to the Yew Chung approach.
Our approach is relationship-driven. So, driven on supporting children's relationships because we believe that children learn through relationships; through their relationships with others and their relationships with their environment. So our first main goal is just to connect with children, whether it is only one teacher at first and building that security.
All teachers talked at length about the importance of building strong relationships with the children. As would be expected, English-speaking children tended to drift toward the Western teacher while Chinese-speaking children drifted toward the Eastern teacher. For this reason, the teachers were very intentional about building relationships with all children in the classroom. If children did tend to work more with one teacher than the other, they wanted it to be for a reason other than language use. In practice, I saw Chinese speaking children cuddled up to a Western teacher while English speaking children worked on a project with an Eastern teacher.
Co-teachers and co-principals also stressed the value of children; their individuality, their ideas, and their emotions. This fundamental was very evident in classroom work. Teachers consistently spoke to children as equals, listened to their ideas, and allowed experimentation (even when messy). All of the teachers we worked with told us that they came to Yew Chung specifically because they believed that the program valued children in the same ways that they themselves did.
I believe these children, when you give them this environment to start learning, they come up with so many ideas where they learn deeper than if we had to sit them down and tell them exactly what needs to be done.
Where this fundamental was especially strong was in the supporting of children’s emotions. All teachers used a technique that they referred to as sports-casting to address negative behavior and emotions. Rather than stepping in to stop behavior or comfort without addressing underlying issues, teachers narrated the behavior, prompting children to think through what they were doing and state the reasons behind the behavior. This would then lead to conversations about what it was like to have strong feelings and how others have dealt with them.
The Yew Chung approach requires a period of teacher observation, reflecting on the observations, and then responding to them. This requires a great deal of ongoing communication between Co-teachers. In classrooms, both Co-teachers were largely engaged with children throughout the day, but would step aside to consult if an observation required an immediate response from both. This cycle was seen on a smaller scale throughout the day, with Co-teachers responding and building upon activities going on in front of them. One of the Eastern teachers explained how this process is used to address specific skills, such as writing in English and Chinese:
[Child's] daddy came to make cupcakes and they were very delicious. They asked me many times, "Can [Child's] daddy come again?" And I asked them, "Then how can we contact [Child's] daddy, because he does not come to school often?" Some of them said, "Oh, just write the letter." And I sat down and they planned what do we need to write to [Child's] daddy! Some of them were interested in English. "Can you do the English letter?" And some were interested in Chinese. So, we planned, we wrote, and some of them initially came. No need for the teacher to ask them to come. Then they said, "Oh, I want to write this word." And then we post the letter to [Child's] daddy.
At the Hong Kong kindergarten children heard English, Cantonese, and Mandarin spoken throughout the day (though the Eastern teacher usually spoke Cantonese rather than Mandarin) and were learning to read and write both the Latin alphabetic system and traditional Chinese characters.
Many of the children have been at Yew Chung since infancy and had learned to move between languages, naturally code-switching depending on which adult they were speaking to or if playing with a child who spoke one language but not the other. We saw very frequently a group of children speaking in one language (e.g., Cantonese) and then switching to another language (e.g., English) when a child joined who they knew would struggle in Cantonese.
What was especially remarkable was that the co-Principals told us that children seemed to be learning languages more readily since they had incorporate emergent curriculum.
Interestingly, five years ago when we had these very separate, now is the English gathering, now is the Chinese gathering. We noticed children would, when we had bilingual discussions, if the Chinese teacher started the conversation, those who could not understand wanted to leave or switch off. They become very passive. Now we do not see any of that. There is no passivity because there is just an understanding of connection. Does not matter what language I have got, whether I understand it or not. They are all having this conversations together.
Our work with Yew Chung International will likely be ongoing for quite some time. We are very excited to see a program using emergent practice to support multiple language so successfully. I will share more as we learn more about this amazing program.