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    Read More, Test Less: An Elementary Principal’s Endeavor in Rural China

    Educator Zhao Guobin’s 13-year endeavor to foster a reading culture among elementary students has been met with both doubts and applause.

    In Boluochi, a rural town in Chaoyang County in the northeastern Liaoning province, an abandoned cafeteria that has been converted into a school library stands as the result of Boluochi Elementary School principal Zhao Guobin’s endeavor over the course of 13 years.

    Most students in the county’s rural elementary schools come from economically disadvantaged families, as those with financial means typically send their children to schools in the county seat. Zhao, a local from the county, embarked on an experiment to foster a reading culture based on two principles. Firstly, he believed that reading, often affordable and accessible, could benefit all, even if they had limited resources. Secondly, he simply hoped for children to grow into fulfilled individuals rather than strive for exceptionalism.

    But the town’s residents predominantly adhered to the belief that good grades were the sole path to success. In China’s education system, educators and parents would most likely favor exam-oriented exercises over “unproductive” activities like reading. Zhao understood the uphill battle he faced with his experiment.

    Does reading matter?

    Boluochi, situated 385 kilometers from the provincial capital of Shenyang, remains exceptionally quiet, occasionally interrupted by trucks barreling down the national highway. A mountain looms behind the town, while neatly arranged cornfields stretch before it. Most residents in the town make a living through farming.

    Across the sea of corn, a flag flutters in the distance, marking the location of the town’s elementary school. Enrolments at other nearby schools have steadily declined, with Huajiadian Elementary School having only four students this year. Many children have also left Boluochi to study in the county seat. As a result, Boluochi Elementary School’s sixth grade now comprises three class groups, while lower grades have only two. The school also serves as a preschool, with just 20 new students this year — a tenth of the number from a decade ago.

    Growing up amid these silent departures, middle school student Miao Jingyang feels that he, too, has changed along with the town. In 2019, he was a student at Boluochi Elementary School. Like most kids there, he would spend about two hours in the after-school program each day. For many parents in the town, the newly added English course seemed unnecessary. What really mattered was having someone make sure their children finish their homework while they were at work. Despite China’s “double reduction” policy in 2021 that aims to reduce students’ workloads, parents still opt for after-school programs for their children, as they believe that the vocabulary and math questions in these programs that children revise repeatedly are the only things truly preparing them for exams.

    Many were therefore surprised by the sudden appearance of a new school library in 2019, and even more so by subsequent changes to the school curriculum. Since then, the afternoon self-study periods are no longer just for finishing homework and poring over practice questions. Once students complete these tasks, they are encouraged to read books unrelated to their studies. One homeroom teacher even replaced “self-study period” on the timetable with “reading class.” Class groups coordinate with library staff to organize activities where students share what they have been reading.

    All of these changes were spearheaded by Zhao, the 52-year-old principal from the nearby town of Yangshuwan. While some may view the idea of a reading experiment as idealistic, the process of getting it off the ground since its launch in 2010 has been far from straightforward.

    In September that year, Zhao, as vice principal in his hometown, organized a parent-teacher conference to generate enthusiasm for the project. During the conference, he emphasized the importance of reading in the context of exam reforms. “The four open-book exams for the 2024 Liaoning zhongkao all aim at testing students’ reading comprehension skills. Even if you’re only concerned with improving your child’s scores, rote learning alone won’t suffice,” he told the parents. “Starting from now, we need to make conscious efforts to encourage students to read more.” As he spoke, he regularly took off his glasses to wipe away beads of sweat from the bridge of his nose. Despite his best efforts to speak forcefully, his voice was muffled by the clamor of the stuffy cafeteria that served as the conference venue, with more than 100 parents engaged in chatter, phones ringing, and small children crying in their mothers’ arms.

    Getting parents to attend such events was no easy task, as it required them to set aside their work in the fields or give up roadside stalls for an afternoon. Each announcement of another conference was more of a summons than an invitation, with Zhao insisting that parents “must make time to attend.” Zhao believed that as long as people showed up, these conferences could be deemed a success.

    Three parents approached him after the conference. One asked, “My eldest child also attended this school but is now falling behind in middle school physics. What can I do?” Zhao quickly redirected the conversation back to reading. “Parents shouldn’t be too anxious. Grades are fleeting, but through reading more, children have the potential to become fulfilled adults. You have to take the long view.”

    Since then, Zhao has been promoting reading among students and encouraging teachers to change the way lessons are taught to allow time for more extensive reading instead of focusing on practicing for exams. He finds himself a lone advocate at times.

    A universe of its own

    Zhao’s vision for a reading-friendly environment at school was finally realized shortly after he became the principal of Boluochi Elementary School in 2018. During a tour of the school grounds, he noticed that there was no dedicated space for reading, prompting him to decide to transform the abandoned cafeteria into a library. The library was put into use in the summer of 2019. Spanning 400 square meters, it includes a picture book section and a sharing section. “Children need to stand up and share their thoughts into a microphone. Only by doing that can they truly experience the joy of reading,” Zhao said.

    The library not only offers books but also a tranquil environment that allows children to concentrate. Library staff member Sui Lijun keeps records showing that, each semester, around 2,500 books are borrowed by the school’s 500-plus teachers and students. Sui, a woman in her forties, took on this job at the library five years ago to supplement her income from farming. The busiest time of the day is from two in the afternoon until just before classes end. “Every day, classes come both for private reading and sharing activities. Sometimes, two to three classes visit all at once,” she said.

    One afternoon in September, during the first week of the school term, a third-year class came for their reading period. More than 20 students navigated through the rows of bookcases and gathered around educational comic books, collections of ancient poetry, and children’s stories about talking animals. One little boy wanted to keep reading picture books, but Sui had to redirect him, explaining, “Starting from the third grade, you need to transition to more text-heavy books.” This rule is part of the classification system of the school’s reading program. Each grade has 12 recommended books based on their difficulty level. The boy then looked around and chose another book, “Ten Thousand Whys.”

    The atmosphere in the third-year reading class was far from silent, as capturing children’s interest in reading to engage their focus requires patience.

    Avid readers soon began to emerge. When Miao was a third grader, he visited the library just to enjoy the air conditioning, but slowly he picked up reading. This was one of Zhao’s tactics to “entice” children to read. He would say, “Not even my office has air conditioning, but the library does!” He even purchased a water cooler — a rarity in rural areas — and placed it next to a table with instant coffee. “At first, the kids were curious about these novel items, while the teachers were eager to try the coffee. Once they were there, they began flipping through the books,” Zhao said.

    Since fourth grade, Miao has been reading an average of 15 books per month. Some of these books, such as the Four Great Classics, volumes of ancient songs and poetry, and foreign literary classics, are particularly challenging. His favorite is the Harry Potter series, which he described as “a complete universe of its own.” He devoured the entire series between classes, during lunch, and after coming home from the after-school program, all in just half a year. “It’s not right for the wizards who call themselves ‘pure-bloods’ to try and eliminate others,” he said. “It’s just like racism in the real world. The ones who consider themselves superior are the ones who are defeated in the end.”

    Teachers’ dilemma

    While students are enjoying the use of the library, some teachers are struggling to keep up with the change. In September, Zhao held a faculty meeting dedicated to the reading program. During the 40 minutes, most teachers sat quietly, offering no response to any of Zhao’s questions. Some never actually opened their books or merely flipped through them, while others pretended to read while glancing at their phones.

    This silence concerned Zhao deeply. His plan was to make the teachers recognize the efforts he had put in over more than a decade, making them feel ashamed for not paying attention to him. However, he also understood why they remained silent. For one, many teachers lack a solid foundation in reading themselves, making it hard for them to offer meaningful guidance to students in this area.

    As an advocate early on, Zhao has tried to show his colleagues how to promote reading in class. During his time as vice principal of Yangshuwan Elementary School, Zhao took it upon himself to promote reading by personally teaching the Chinese language and literature class. In each lesson, he would read through entire texts with his students and engage in discussions about the key aspects. While some of these texts would typically be spread across multiple lessons, Zhao would often cover them in one. Rather than dedicating lessons to copying vocabulary, he believed that students would naturally acquire vocabulary through extensive reading.

    Zhao also encouraged other teachers to condense their text coverage from three lessons to just two, reserving the third for reading supplementary materials. However, many teachers struggled with delivering such lessons. They were used to producing “small-town swots” with outstanding test-taking abilities by having them repeatedly answer questions, as, ultimately, a student’s future hinges on exam performance.

    At the time in Zhao’s school, students’ grades accounted for 30% of a teacher’s performance evaluation, often serving as the key differentiator between teachers. While these evaluations did not directly impact salaries, they influenced job titles and promotions. Although Zhao lacked the authority to overhaul the evaluation system, he reached an agreement with the staff to award teachers who promoted reading with a bonus point “as appropriate.”

    Authorities are also striving to make changes in the country’s education system that is heavily exam-oriented. In the past few years, Zhao has observed the benefits of certain policies. In September 2020, eight departments, including the Ministry of Education, stated that “school, principal, and teacher evaluations must not solely rely on zhongkao and gaokao results or admission rates into higher-level schools to counter negative trends.” The implementation of the “double reduction” policy has afforded students more time for reading, seemingly loosening the restraints that had prevented Zhao’s initiative from reaching its full potential. 

    The Moon and Sixpence

    Miao is currently in the third grade of middle school in Kazuo County. His previous participation in Zhao’s reading program has helped him maintain top grades in Chinese language and literature. Because he started reading classical Chinese in elementary school, he often scores 100% on questions that involve filling in blanks or interpreting ancient poetry.

    Academic performance aside, reading offers a refuge to students like Mou Jiannan, who explained that “reading feels as if the inside of your lungs is suddenly lined with mint leaves that cool you with every breath.”

    During this summer break, Mou’s relationship with his mother became increasingly tense, especially when she mentioned his studies to him. “I felt so uncomfortable at home. But at school, I can talk to my classmates and teachers,” he said. There is hardly a day during the break that Mou skips a visit to the library. When he can no longer bear to do another math exercise, he gets up and wanders through the library aisles.

    And to Miao, reading keeps him feeling inspired and he takes every opportunity to find time for his hobby. At the county boarding school, every day of the term is rigorously scheduled. The only time he could read was during a stint in his second year as a dorm monitor. At bedtime, with the exception of the monitor’s office, the power is switched off throughout the dorm. Therefore, he was able to use the time he was supposed to be patrolling the halls to read “The Three-Body Problem” and “Red Star Over China” under a dim desk lamp. During the summer break before starting the third grade, his parents enrolled him in a 15-day intensive study camp. In the evenings there, he read Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and Liu Cixin’s “Ball Lightning.”

    “Books are my own private world where there is no stress, only encouragement. When my grades dip, I imagine I’m the old man in Hemingway’s novel,” Miao said. “Whether or not I can bring the big fish back home isn’t important. Making an effort and maintaining your dignity — that’s also a form of success.”

    The joy of reading is also spreading to the community. For many of the town’s residents, a newfound appreciation for reading now competes with more practical concerns in their daily lives.

    Xue Li, a 39-year-old who makes a living selling pancakes at a market stall, finds solace in reading when the crowds thin out. This summer break, Boluochi Elementary School’s library became open to the public. At 12:30 p.m. each day, Xue washes her dishes, packs up her table, and goes on a 25-minute motorbike ride to the library, where she spends the entire afternoon reading. She enjoys books like “Madame Bovary” and “Anna Karenina.” “The most tragic thing about Anna is that she escaped from one cage only to become trapped in another,” she said.

    Xue, too, feels ensnared in a cage. Every evening, she makes pancakes until midnight, ensuring each lump of dough is of equal weight and each pancake is the same size. Once rolled out, they go into the oven. In total, she cooks around 1,000 pancakes each night. The eight minutes that each batch spends in the oven give her a tiny window of opportunity to read. This way, she escapes into another world for eight minutes at a time.

    Meanwhile, as the zhongkao draws closer, Miao finds himself torn between reading and studying for exams. “Sometimes, I have to compromise. I tell myself that I’ll have more time to read when I make it into a decent university,” he said. His future aspiration is to travel the world and share facts about different cultures on social media to dispel prejudices. His experience of reading Harry Potter in elementary school taught him that entirely different worlds exist beyond his village.

    In the real world, his parents hope that he will get into a good university and complete a degree in finance or computer science. When his dreams clash with reality, he turns to books for reassurance.

    “‘The Moon and Sixpence’ tells us that, even if the street is paved with coins, we can still look up at the moon,” Miao said. “Everyone has things that they have to do but don’t really want to. Books and dreams are my moon.”

    Reported by Zhang Zhihao

    A version of this article originally appeared in Beijing Youth Daily. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

    Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Xue Ni and Elise Mak.

    (Header image: Students read books at the library of Boluochi Elementary School, Liaoning province, 2023. Beijing Youth Daily)