Weddington, Marvin Ridge, Cuthbertson Educators Take Teaching Trip To China

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Going to summer camp is a treat and 31 Union County teachers and seven Marvin Ridge students got to go on the ultimate summer camp trip last month.

And this was no ordinary summer camp.

The group spent a little over two weeks in Nanjing, China, which has a population of eight million people.

The teachers taught English to Chinese students and the seven students attended classes over the two weeks. All but one of the seven students that made the trip are in the Chinese program at Marvin Ridge and they all stayed with host families.

The group also spent several days touring China where they visited the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and other historical sites in the area. The group also got to ride the bullet train from Beijing to Nanjing.

But the main reason for the trip was education and creating an atmosphere of well-being between the two countries. The theme of the camp was: Cooperation leads to harmony; innovation enlightens the future.

The group taught English to Chinese students in grades fourth through ninth grade at a Sino-American Bilingual Summer Camp at a High School affiliated to Nanjing Normal University, Jangling Campus. The host school picked up all of the group’s expenses except for passport and visa fees and spending money, which each Union County participant paid for themselves.

The program started seven years ago when Marvin Ridge High School teamed up with their sister school in China for the exchange. This was the first summer that UCPS students attended the camp in China.

Ten students from China spent time in Union County in January and they were hosted by different families in the area.

Weddington Middle School assistant principal Brian Gray made his third trip to China this summer and he was the group’s leader this year. Most of the educators that made the trip are from the Marvin Ridge, Weddington and Cuthbertson school districts.

“There is a sister-school relationship that has developed with Marvin Ridge High School,” Gray said. “It started when Union County wanted a global relationship and they worked with a clearinghouse and they were matched with the school in Nanjing, China.”

Gray taught eighth and ninth grade Chinese students and he said that most of his students this summer could read and write English “very well.” The UCPS educators would teach in the morning and then again in the afternoon over a 10-day period.

“They can not speak or hear the spoken word nearly as well,” Gray said. “For an eighth-grade student, we are teaching them English on a third-grade level. My eighth-grade kids this year were great. They asked all kinds of questions and we had great conversations.

“My afternoon group was ninth graders and they were much, much lower,” Gray said. “You have to adjust tremendously. I like reading books to them and you dissect every aspect that they are talking about. Like a trampoline, they know what a trampoline is if you call it by the Chinese word. But to read it in a book they may not understand that word. You show them a picture and then it makes more sense to them.”

Gray said he found the Chinese students were very attentive and eager to learn. The high school there has about 8,000 students and most live on campus.

“They are very competitive and their school day is basically seven in the morning to nine at night,” Gray said. “They are fascinated by the amount of time we don’t spend in school. They have to test and earn the right to continue their education through the 10th, 11th and 12th grades. If not, they go to work. When you do well in 12th grade you get to go to the university. All the rest of them are trimmed away by then.”

One night during their stay in China, each educator went to the home of a student for a visit and dinner.

“Last year, we went to a home where they had steak and pizza catered to us because they wanted us to enjoy American food,” Gray said. “First year that I went, we went to a host family where the parents and grandparents lived in what looked like a four-room apartment, which is pretty typical.”

Gray and the 30 other educators also went to class during their trip.

“They had a cultural class where they taught us,” Gray said. “We did Chinese language, we had a couple of days where we did martial arts, paper cutting, cooking. They give us some classes that are very Chinese in a way. In the evenings the kids sang or read something in a way to showcase talent.”

Almost all the meals the group ate were authentic Chinese food.

“You can’t go to a Chinese restaurant around here and get the meals we ate,” Gray said. “They serve a lot of vegetables, a lot of fish, chicken and duck. We did get to sample donkey. It was minced up and had a bunch of spices. Every meal we had was very Chinese.”

One of the highlights for Gray was when a former Chinese student came to visit her former English teacher. Her name was Lemon, which is the name she picked when she attended the summer camp.

“For me, I thought it was very special,” Gray said. “Every child picks an English name. There is no rhyme or reason. I had a student this year and his name was Drinkwater. I don’t know why. You have lots of LeBron’s (James), lots of Steph’s (Curry) and some of the soccer players.

“I taught her two years ago and last year she came up and gave me a couple of gifts. This year, she heard I was back and she now goes to another school. She came back with a friend to meet me. It’s neat and it is moments like that in teaching that bring us back every year.”

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Paul Nielsen
Nielsen was a sports writer for what is now the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for nearly 32 years before moving to North Carolina in February 2016. At the Democrat-Gazette, Nielsen's primary responsibility was beat coverage for Rogers High School. Rogers is a Class 7A school located in Northwest Arkansas.
Nielsen, a University of Arkansas graduate, covered the Northwest Arkansas Naturals Minor League Baseball team from 2008-2015. The Naturals are the Double-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals.
Nielsen has experience covering University of Arkansas athletics, including NCAA Tournament basketball games and several football bowl games. He also covered amateur and professional golf tournaments in Northwest Arkansas.
Nielsen lives in Matthews with his wife, Susan. He can be reached at