Academics

Powell Scholars Craft English-language Curriculum to Cross Cultural Barriers in Rural Chinese Village

A group of University of the Pacific Powell Scholars returned to a small, remote Chinese village to teach English and learn about the region’s culture. The bridge is one of the village landmarks.

May 13, 2013
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A group of Powell Scholars are halfway around the world grasping an opportunity to teach English to villagers of the tiny Chinese community of Dimen using workbooks, flash cards and a board game all crafted by University of the Pacific students over the past year.

The recipients of Pacific's premier academic merit scholarship are spending the next two weeks using the one-of-a-kind English curriculum they developed specific for Dimen that uses the villagers' language and photographs of the people, places and things they see every day. The Pacificans hope to return each year through 2015 to continue teaching the villagers.

"We have designed a curriculum based on items relevant to their lives in Dimen and will be teaching using immersion," said Shelly Zeiser '14, a music therapy student and Powell Scholar.

She and several other Powell Scholars journeyed to the remote area a year ago to assess why the villagers wanted to learn English. They have returned now to implement the next step: teaching villagers the new language.

 "The uniqueness of our approach is that we are focusing on dialogue they can use day to day. We have created an original workbook with photographs of people, landmarks, animals and activities in their own village to teach them English. That is unusual," Cynthia Wagner Weick, Powell Scholar director and project adviser, said of the curriculum.


"If I was not in the Powell Scholars Program, I believe I may have had opportunities to teach abroad - but they would be extremely different," Zeiser said. "I feel I would have a less active and central role in designing the curriculum and I believe I would have been more of a teaching assistant or assistant to faculty as opposed to being the central driving force on this project."


The Powell Scholar-designed English classes will center on fourth- and fifth-graders, and other villagers whenever possible, while Weick and the students are in Dimen from May 9-28.

           Dimen, a remote Dong village of about 2,500

Dimen is a remote Dong village of about 2,500 people. Dong, a culture rich with its own music, language, crafts and history that draws cultural tourists, is an ethnic minority of about 2.5 million people in southwest China, said Weick. She described them as a hardworking, resourceful people who are eager to learn. Dimen is some distance from the country's population centers, making it difficult for villagers to learn English.

"By the end of our visit we hope that they will have learned to say simple English words and phrases that are relevant to their lives and their village and have the confidence to speak with each other and foreigners," said Sam Costigan '15, a mechanical engineering student and Powell Scholar making the return trip.

Teaching-and Learning-Across Cultures

Their educational journey to the remote village began when Marie A. Lee, an assistant professor in Pacific's Visual Arts Department, happened to mention to Weick one day about her own earlier work helping to preserve Dong artwork at Dimen's Ecomuseum and that a school there wanted someone to teach English. Teaching English to the Dong people for a few weeks seemed a feasible project, and Weick asked several Powell Scholars if they were interested. Zeiser and Costigan were among those who came forward.

Weick and the Powell Scholars returned from the initial visit to Dimen and spent the next year - working on their own time and for no academic credit - developing the English language curriculum, which was reviewed by Gladys L. Benerd School of Education professors Robert Oprandy and Elaine Mo.

Powell Scholars and the program's director, Cynthia Weick, visit with the village's music teacher.

Teaching materials, which were shipped to Hong Kong and then onto mainland China by late April, include workbooks, flash cards and a map of the village to be used as a board game. Photos taken during the initial trip were used in the teaching materials so the villagers would see familiar objects while learning the new language. And Powell Scholars even developed a song using Dong musical tempos and other characteristics.

"They deeply value music and, fortunately, we have students from the Conservatory of Music on our team so we have come up with an original song, the 'Song of Dimen'," said Weick. "We also took another traditional song used to teach the students Mandarin, and adapted it such that we will now be able to use it to teach English."

Powell Program Propels Students to be a Driving Force

The opportunities this project presents for the Pacific students is not lost on Zeiser or Costigan.

   Powell Scholar Shelly Zeiser

"I hope to gain a greater cultural understanding of the Dong and working with people who have different lifestyles than I have," said Zeiser. "I believe if I went to another university, I never would have had this opportunity. I had never even thought of traveling to China prior to this trip.

  Powell Scholar Sam Costigan

"If I was not in the Powell Scholars Program, I believe I may have had opportunities to teach abroad - but they would be extremely different," Zeiser said. "I feel I would have a less active and central role in designing the curriculum and I believe I would have been more of a teaching assistant or assistant to faculty as opposed to being the central driving force on this project."

Costigan also praised the Powell Program for its role in this unique experience. "The Powell Program definitely makes a lot of things possible. It provides so many opportunities, resources and support."



The Powell Scholars Program is University of the Pacific's premier academic merit scholarship. It was established in 2007 by the late Robert Powell, a former Pacific Regent, and Jeanette Powell, a lifetime Regent who passed away in December. Powell Scholars develop their potential through broad experiences inside and outside the classroom, and are eligible to participate in Pacific's Honors Program. Powell Scholars participate in unique activities that promote leadership and foster a sense of community, and receive opportunities for a wide variety of study abroad programs, creative endeavors, and research with leaders in their field. Currently, there are 45 Powell Scholars from 25 majors. Powell Scholars receive a $15,000 renewable annual scholarship, up to $5,000 for research and creative activity, and up to $2,500 toward study abroad. Read more about the Powell Scholar Program.