Students Experience the Breadth of China

Through Meticulous Preparation and Multiple Trips

Students from CAIS in China at the Great Wall

By Heather Clydesdale

“We want to make local life part of their active experience,” says Xiaoqing Chen, speaking on behalf of the Chinese American International School (CAIS) in San Francisco, California, about her school’s commitment to providing its students diverse learning experiences in China. While many immersion schools incorporate a tour or exchange in a Chinese-speaking country, CAIS is unique in its ambition. The school organizes trips to Taipei, Beijing, and Qinghai in the fifth, seventh, and eighth grades, respectively.

Even more impressive, CAIS prepares students using technology and innovative approaches that deepen learning outcomes during these immersive linguistic and cultural experiences. Chen, who serves as CAIS’ educational technology coordinator, feels that experiences in China are fundamental to the dual-immersion school’s mission. “We want our students to function comfortably, competently, and confidently in authentic Chinese environments. Most importantly, after the trip, they can see China from a variety of perspectives.”

The school’s curriculum prepares students in advance of their trips. Seventh-grade teacher Jiu Chou Young teaches a travel-abroad unit covering useful terms (e.g., boarding pass, visa), safety protocols, learning how to communicate about an illness or injury, behave as a guest, and find and describe locations on maps.

And, Young uses classroom activities designed to help students hone their bargaining techniques. Students create trading reports with information gleaned from, the Chinese auction website, which they use to determine how to allocate one thousand Chinese yuan to buy inventory. They study marketing strategies and then shop at one another’s “stores” with a personal spending budget of 300 yuan. Afterward, they analyze the trading data and report on popular products and successful pricing.

Such preparation allows students to engage on a deeper level during their trip, applying their knowledge as they explore local culture and daily-life situations. While in Beijing, they spend mornings attending classes at Sanfan Middle School, and in the afternoons they try their hand at traditional crafts such as paper-cutting or martial arts. They visit historical sites like the Yonghe Lamasery, the Great Wall, and also experience contemporary China by strolling through Beijing’s 789 Art Zone. CAIS is careful to build in opportunities for students to practice language skills through authentic interactions with locals as they complete scavenger hunts and ask for directions. They also get a taste of family life by living in homestays.

Eighth-grade teacher Chusheng Tang says that when these students enter her class in the fall, their families are effusive in their praise. Speaking in Chinese, Tang recounts, “The parents say over and over how grateful they are to the school for preparing their students. This really gave them an authentic, local experience.”

Tang’s eighth graders ride the wave of momentum and interest as they contextualize their Beijing experiences through her curriculum. Students create advertisements for travel companies and compare Chinese and American cities as they juxtapose Beijing’s and New York’s geography, famous sites, cultures, customs, education systems, recreation, and cuisines. They also research images and create street scenes from 1906 Beijing and San Francisco as part of an ongoing project.

Throughout the year, students continue to connect with China by conducting Skype exchanges (alternating between Chinese and English) with peers in the Shandong province. One of their favorite activities, notes Tang, is a “Guessing the Dish” game. Tang distributes a chart of Chinese specialties, including name, flavors, cooking method, place of origin, and main ingredient. Students ask questions and guess the “mystery dish” according to their partner’s answers.

Tang plans these and other activities in anticipation of the spring trip to Qinghai, a sprawling province in western China. Students begin their trip in the capital of Xining, whose population is a dynamic mix of Buddhist Tibetans and Mongols; Muslim Hui, Uighurs, and Salar; as well as Han Chinese and smaller ethnic groups such as the Tu. Leaving the city, they observe rare wildlife at Qinghai Lake, pastoral and agricultural economies at Erthi Village, spectacular scenery at Kanbula National Forest Park, and deep local commitment to Tibetan Buddhism, as well as famous Thanka painting workshops at Tongren. Finally, they travel to neighboring Gansu province to see Tibetan Buddhist temples at Xiahe. Students return after spring break and use their remaining two months at CAIS comparing their Qinghai experiences to Beijing.

Three separate international class trips each year is a logistical feat and CAIS has a dedicated international program coordinator, though the seventh-grade Beijing trip is also facilitated by School Year Abroad (SYA) in Beijing. Trip expenses are covered by students’ families, except for the Beijing trip, the costs for which are built into school tuition.

However, the most impressive accomplishment is the ways in which experiences are prepared for, as well as synthesized and contextualized. As students build language skills, engage with diverse peoples, and see varied landscapes and ways of life in urban as well as rural areas, they develop both a respect for the breadth of China, and confidence in their own ability to explore it.


CAIS Study Abroad Programs: (accessed 23 October 2015)

A Road Map for Planning a Successful “DIY” Two-Way School-to-School Partnership Exchange Program: (accessed 23 October 2015)

Study Year Abroad (SYA) in Beijing: (accessed 23 October 2015)

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