Situated in Hoping Tribe, Chenggong, Taitung, Hoping Elementary School is a petite school of art with 80% of its students from the Amis tribe of origin. Nicknamed the “Good Will Teacher” (the pronunciation of his Chinese name “Hoa-yi” is similar to “good will” in Chinese) by kids in school, Chen used to be an organizer of art exhibitions in Taipei before becoming a teacher. With his extensive art experience, he soon realized that the traditional way of teaching art failed to help the students to showcase their real talents and the syllabus had no connection to the life experience of neither his or the students. He then started a new approach integrating humanity and art into the students’ life experiences and centered on stimulating the students’ lifelong passion for learning. Since August 2011, he has been with the Hoping Elementary School for 3 years.
“You have to do one thing over and over again to some extreme until you fully appreciate the subtlety!” Chen insists that curriculum has to be connected to what happens in the world. During the 2012 protest against dumping nuclear waste in Lanyu (Orchid Island), Chen asked his students to make origami of flying fish (which is common in Lanyu) in the art class. To help the students to better understand the protest, he also asked them to read books by an aboriginal marine writer. He then led the students to create stage props such as whales, dolphins, fishing boats and waves. Using these stage props and the more than 1000 pictures captured by the students, they jointly created a motion picture called “Friends of Flying Fish.”
On the last day before he left the school for his compulsory military service, Chen invited the entire school to help him shave off his hair. Five kids in his class documented the entire process using a camera’s Stop Motion function and turned it into a performance art. All of a sudden, each strand of his hair seemed to be connecting with everyone at school: one strand after another, stronger and stronger. Chen fully understood that learning without doing can be easily forgotten; therefore, he used his head and the images documented by the kids’ cameras to create a long-lasting memory for his students.
“I think our educational system promotes separating different disciplines. Math has nothing to do with humanity. Humanity makes no connection to science. Art class becomes make-up math or humanity class. This type of education system will not help the students. You do not divide kids’ life as you divide curriculum into different subjects like math, humanity and science. Learning should be cross-disciplined because reality is cross-disciplined. For example, to make a table, you need to know math, crafting, art, and design. The boundary between different subjects should be removed. Kids should learn how to work as a team to do something that everyone cares.”
Chen started using tablets in class, encouraging students to use the internet to research, discuss and work on group projects. When they were doing group projects, kids discussed various solutions and, if no solution were readily available, they would seek help from others. In the group setting, kids learn to understand their own strengths and weaknesses and to take advantage of other people’s strengths to make up for their own weaknesses. “Everyone is different”, said Chen, “Our education system has been focusing on eliminating the differences among students. Difference is not necessarily a bad thing. What difference really means is that each one of us has our own strengths. Why don’t we just reinforce each kid’s strengths and make every one happier?”
“Through this process, kids learn to know what connects cuisine and art, and also to learn to ask questions and to make the best use of their knowledge. The end product - Cumuli Recipe - is at most a digital file. The real art work is the process of creating the recipe from scratch. Process, not the end product, is the most important part of the learning experience.
“I know it so well that team work is an important experience that kids need to gain. Through the cooperative relationship with others, students learn to appreciate different perspectives. This is a powerful experience which may not show its impact immediately, but it will come up somewhere down the road and kids will learn to deal with problems independently.”
He told his kids that there are things he will never be able to teach – something which will grow naturally out of you after you work with others. He doesn’t wait until his students enter into the adult world to tell them the reality is cruel. He wants his students to know what reality is when they are still at school. He allows kids to get out of their comfort zone; to make mistakes; to cross over the border line and to feel what these experiences are like. When Chen was invited to make a speech, he would bring along his students. He lets them speak in front of an adult audience to feel first-hand the impact of reality.
His teaching also emphasizes on “coincidence”! For example, if a child discovers a bird nest by accident, and coincidentally he's having a class on tree houses, Chen would incorporate that into his art class by asking the students to make a birdhouse. “Teachers need to have a high degree of sensitivity of an artist, to be able to quickly grasp what students like, and incorporate these into their classes. This way, classes will become more interesting, and ideas from learning will be more spreadable.”
Chen also helps his students to create their own portfolios through videos, animations, electronic books, posters and comics; hoping that if one day they run into challenges, they would be able to find the work they had done together online, and use these experiences to guide their future paths.
“Teaching is mutual and sensory; it is a creative process that is very close to our own souls. I hope we can drop the boundaries that are found in the current education and stop breaking students’ childhood into bits and pieces; to me, teaching means assisting children to search for their own identities, to express who they truly are, and to motivate them to live their fullest lives possible.”