*WARNING* This post is very long and slightly sappy. I have a lot to say about this program. 🙂
This summer, I had the opportunity to participate in an amazing program called AID Summer (Assisting Individuals with Disadvantages). This program, sponsored primarily by the OCAC, allows English-speaking high school and college students over the age of 17 to teach English in Taiwan for two weeks.
First, in order to participate in the program, we had to fill out an extensive application through their online portal. They asked for a personal essay as well as test scores, GPA, etc. They also required that your school mail them a physical, official transcript and that you send them evidence of all the activities and awards you put in your resume. The application was due February of this year.
It was broken down into three different sections: training week, teaching weeks, and an optional tour week. The first week is the training week, where all accepted volunteers check into Chien Tan Overseas Youth Center in Taipei. During the first week,they train us to become competent English teachers. At the end of the first week, they shipped us all off to different schools to teach for two weeks. During the last week, they took us on a tour around Taiwan.
Before It Started
This year, the program expanded from 400 volunteers to 600 volunteers. After we were accepted into the program in late April, we used the online forum to virtually introduce ourselves and exchange social media accounts. For me, talking to some of the other people who were going to do this program with me was exciting. I love meeting new people and talking to these people from all over the world who were just like me just made me super excited for the summer. It was a great motivator for me to finish out the school year strong because at the end of all the finals and the standardized testing, I would be headed to Taiwan to teach English with some amazing people.
This program works by splitting the 600 of us accepted volunteer teachers into groups of around eight. Within each group, the way they paired us together seemed mostly random except for age because made groups based on age. The assigned schools and our team members were released via the online portal early June. I was assigned to DaDong Elementary School in Yunlin. When these came out, I immediately got a direct message on Instagram from a girl in my group, Jodie. Shortly after, we contacted everyone in our eight person group and made a group chat so that we could introduce ourselves and prepare our teaching plans.
Before the program actually starts, they require that you submit thorough teaching plans. We contacted one of the teachers at our school, Nora, and asked her about how we should prepare for teaching at DaDong. We were told that we will be teaching English focusing around the theme of either sports or plants because the place where our school is located is known for sports and plants. We also learned that our school was in a more rural location and that it was surrounded by rice fields. More importantly, we used Google Maps to find that our school was not a walk-able distance from any 7/11s. 7/11s are a staple in Taiwan and because there was not one that was close to our school, we knew it must have really been in the middle of nowhere. Nora also told us that we would be teaching four different classes, meaning that the eight of us had to split up into pairs to teach. Ultimately, we decided to all do our individual teaching plans and then during training week, work together to figure out the partnerships and mash the plans together.
Creating the lesson plans were honestly more difficult than I had anticipated. There was still a lot of information that we had not been given. Most importantly, we had to make our lesson plans very broad and malleable because we were unsure of the English proficiency levels of the children at Dadong. Despite our trouble and the stumbling through starting this process, I was very excited to meet everyone at training week and even more excited to go to Yunlin, a county in Taiwan which I had never been to before, to teach Taiwanese students our language.
The First Day
On June 28th, I woke up super excited but also a little bit nervous. Today was the day I would meet the people who I had been messaging for the last three weeks. What if we didn’t click? What if I get homesick? Luckily, most of my anxiety was quelled by my excitement.
I arrived at Chientan way earlier than my assigned check in time because that was the time most convenient for my grandparents to drop me off, and I figured, I can always walk around the area until my check in time if I need to. When I arrived, the entire first floor of the huge youth center was a madhouse. There were teenage boys and girls everywhere, some with their parents. It was packed. Herds of us walked through the hallways and everyone seemed to be confused. They let me sign in early and gave me a lanyard, two bright yellow shirts (our uniform, which we called our highlighter shirts), and a duffel bag with toiletries provided.
Because I was the first girl in my group who arrived at Chientan, I waited in the long line of confused volunteers for our room key. I felt a lot of relief when I found it and even more when a girl walked up to me and asked if I was Ashley. She was Hope, another girl in my group. We quickly realized that we were staying in different rooms for that night and so we separated so she could get her room key. while I made it up to my room to wait for my roommate. My roommate for that night turned out to be Annabel, the last girl in our group, while Hope roomed with Jodie right next door. Us girls decided to go meet the boys in our group (Jonathan, Terry, Zaz, and Ryan), which was slightly difficult because we had absolutely no idea what two of them looked like. When we found them, we all introduced ourselves and then talked for a while.
That first day was extremely hectic and awkward, because introductions are usually awkward…at least for me they are. However, I was super psyched because everyone in my group and everyone I met that day seemed really nice and I could already tell it was going to be a fun summer.
For the rest of the week, the 600 of us volunteers had to stay on campus, except when they took us out, but that wasn’t very common considering it is very difficult to take out so many teenagers into public and also because we had a lot of training material to cover. Us volunteers joked about the point system given in the training book, about how we would be “terminated” from the program if we misbehaved or snuck out of Chientan. We attended classes most of the day, everyday. In these classes, we would have presenters teach us tips and tricks on how to teach English in Taiwan, specifically in the remote areas where most of us were headed. Each day was slightly repetitive, but I think overall I was well prepared to teach by the end.
During the first week, because our program expanded this year, it got a lot more recognition. At our opening ceremony, the Vice President of Taiwan came to give us a speech. I thought this was especially cool and I was very grateful for the opportunity.
Although that first week was rough, it was also really fun. Despite the fact that we were in class all day, everyday, we made the best out of it. The best part is, my group all got so close by the end of the week. In the first couple of days, I started to feel homesick, because I knew that for an entire month, I would not see anyone or anything familiar to me. However, by the third day, my group members all felt like family to me, because we all spent so much time together and all of our personalities clicked so well. In the first week alone, we made so many memories that I will remember for the rest of my life. By the end of the first week, we were having so much fun that even doing laundry in the musty basement was fun with my new friends.
TEACHING AT DADONG ELEMENTARY SCHOOL IN YUNLIN, TAIWAN
First impressions of DaDong
When we first arrived at DaDong, we were slightly surprised because it was such a different living situation than what we were used to. Our school was also located in the middle of a lot of rice fields, and not much else was around us. This was strange to us because we were all used to living either in cities or suburbs. I remember on the first day, Annabel described her reaction to it as “culture shock” and we all thought it was hilarious.
For me, it wasn’t so much culture shock as it was just different. I didn’t necessarily feel uncomfortable or extremely out-of-place as much as excited for the new experiment. I thought our living situation was good, for the most part. Our school really did very well in hosting us, they even purchased a new washing machine and air conditioning system just for us. They also allowed us to wear shorts which was such a relief because it was very hot in Yunlin and our uniform during training week was the yellow shirts and long, at least semi formal pants. Basically we stayed in what seemed like the teacher’s lounge/library of the school. All eight of us stayed in that one giant square room, with a bookshelf dividing the boys and girls beds for privacy. Our beds were straw mats laid on top of wooden boxes, complete with fly nets to protect us from the many mosquitoes, lizards, spiders, etc. that were plentiful in the countryside. We also had the English teacher at that school, Mr. Michael (the sweetest man alive) stay with us overnight for safety purposes.
I guess the worst part about our living situation was the bathroom and shower situation (but it wasn’t that bad after a couple of days because we got used to it and we learned how to make the most of it). For the bathrooms, we had to use the school bathrooms that the children use. They were in a different building than where we lived and at night, there were lot’s of bugs. Most importantly, there were no toilets. Instead, we had what we called a squatty potty, which weren’t so bad after we got used to using them all the time, but it was definitely the first time I used those exclusively. In terms of our showers, we had to walk to another building, the gym building, to use the public showers there. While at first we were not used to the bugs and lizards crawling around the walls while we showered, we learned to not overreact so much and we figured out some tips to showering there that helped us a lot with overcoming the “culture shock”. The thing about the bathroom and shower being in different buildings than our living building was that in the middle of the night if we had to use either of the facilities, we would always try to go in pairs because the school was extremely creepy looking at night and we had to carry flashlights just so we could see.
The teachers there gave us a tour of the school, and we quickly learned that it was very large and that there were lots of ways we could kill time. For example, on the first day, we held a race for all the guys and they raced around the track. We also went to the gym to play badminton practically everyday either after class or in the middle of the night, because why not! Honestly, playing badminton in the middle of the night with my group members created the best memories. It was so much fun and I already miss it so much.
Preparation for the First Day
Before the first day, we had to prepare a performance for the Yunlin County AID program opening ceremony. It was supposed to be ten minutes and so the eight of us learned a line dance to the American classic, We Are Family. It was a perfect song for us because by that time, we all considered each other family. For the rest of the ten minutes, we planned for Ryan and Zaz to perform chinese yo-yo.
Before the first day of our two weeks of school, we also had to set up our classrooms. My co-teacher Jodie and I spent a lot of time cleaning the classroom. In Taiwanese public schools, there are typically no janitors because the students are responsible for cleanliness of the school. They clean everything from the windows to the bathrooms to the floors, which for us Americans, was slightly appalling at first. To set up the classroom, we first mopped the floors, washed the windows, and wiped the desks. We then set up the desks in an U-shape, because we figured that configuration would best allow us to connect with every student. To brighten up the mood of the classroom, we made cute little pictures out of construction paper, laminated them, and then stuck them to the windows of the classroom.
The First Day
On the first day, we anxiously yet excitedly awaited for the children to arrive. When they got to school, we quickly gathered them by class to help them onto the bus. We rode the bus to another school in Yunlin that was participating in the program for the opening ceremony. To our surprise, we were the first out of six teams to perform. Luckily, our performance of We Are Family and Chinese Yo-Yo went fairly smoothly and it was a pretty good start to the week.
Something that us volunteer teachers were surprised to hear was that after lunch, Taiwanese elementary school students usually take naps. When we first set our plans for the teaching weeks, we were very glad to hear about nap time because we figured that would be a great time to relax and take a little break from the stress of teaching. However, when it was time for nap time, none of my students wanted to sleep. Even after closing all the curtains and turning off all the lights, the students refused to put their heads down, close their eyes, and be quiet. What was supposed to be the most chill part of the day turned out to be the most headache inducing because according to the instructions we received, nap time was absolutely mandatory yet we could not get the children to settle down.
Something we did every morning was morning exercises. All four of our classes would gather in the gym first thing in the morning to partake in morning exercises. We rotated through our group of eight volunteers so that everyday, a different teacher was in charge of leading morning exercises. Morning exercises was always one of my favorite times of the school day because it always prepared me for the long day ahead. No matter how many star jumps and burpees I was forced to do, I always had a smile on my face during morning exercises, because suffering with the rest of my DaDong team and the students was always a good time.
The first thing we made sure to do when we settled into class was introductions. Our first activity was to make name tags to tape in front of each student’s desk, so that we could learn all their names and a little bit about themselves. This is where we hit our first teaching fail, because we had overestimated their abilities to understand our English instruction. Our instructions were to write your name and to draw a couple of things they like on the name tag. We also thought it would be cute if they could say “I am done.” when they finish so that we would know when we could collect them and laminate them. We wrote “I am done.” on the board so that they would remember what to say. However, instead of saying “I am done”, some of the students wrote it on their name tags!
This incident became an inside joke within our DaDong team but also was very important because it taught us that we needed to be more clear with our instructions. Since we were instructed to speak to the children exclusively in English, we needed to take further action to make sure they were understanding what we were trying to tell them in order for class to run smoothly and in order for them to learn English. As a result, after the first couple days of teaching, we could see that we were adjusting well to the students needs and skill levels because we could see them trying more to communicate with us in English and also that they were retaining more of the vocabulary we taught.
During the first week of teaching, we also introduced our main topic of teaching for the two weeks: sports. Jodie and I spent much of our time after school making PowerPoints, worksheets, games, and teaching plans about different types of common sports.
Culture and Education
Something that Jodie and I felt was very important was to integrate an American style of teaching into our lessons. In Taiwan, education culture features a teacher standing in front of a classroom, writing on a blackboard, and lecturing while the students copy down the information on the blackboard. Generally, education in Taiwan is formulaic. In America however, education involves more collaboration and creativity. This became evident whenever our lessons involved coloring. For each coloring sheet, I would make a sample. One time, I colored a minion template blue instead of the yellow color of an actual minion. I did this because I wanted the children to be expressive and creative in their coloring. Rather than be inspired by my efforts, the children laughed at my blue minion and proceeded to color their minions all the same color, and we ended up with fourteen identical looking minion coloring sheets.
We also felt that it was very important to review the content from our PowerPoints and worksheets with games. We introduced games such as duck duck goose, hangman, the fly swatter game, and tag. In each game, we encouraged the students to collaborate in English. We were able to teach them phrases that are used often in American games like “you are it!” for playing tag and encouraging cheers such as “run!” and “good job!”.
After class ends at 3:30 p.m., some students typically hang out at the school until 4/5 p.m. and we would play or just hang out with them until they left. However, we usually also had our daily meetings with the actual DaDong staff and talk about how the day went and plan for the next day. Every day, we had to post reflections and answer questions to submit back to the AID coordinators about our lessons and how they went.
After the daily meeting, my co-teacher and I would typically prepare our lesson plans for the next day; we made lot’s of PowerPoints and worksheets, graded homework and classwork, and talked about adjustments we had to make. While we did have a lot of work to do everyday, it was fun to do it with such an amazing and hardworking co-teacher. In fact, everyone in my eight person group was so helpful to each other. Even though they were all teaching different classes, they were always there for me when I needed help laminating, help grading papers, or just someone to talk to if I was ever overwhelmed.
The nights at DaDong were incredibly fun. The night was when we did most of our bonding and celebrating. As a group, we did face masks and nose strips often. We also enjoyed instant ramen practically everyday while watching movies as we squeezed the eight of us onto two three-people-couches. During this time, we would also take turns going in groups to trek to the public showers to shower, or to the laundry machine to wash our clothes.
Afterwards, we would play badminton well into the night (actually morning). Our badminton matches are something I will never forget. There is not a feeling even comparable to whacking badminton birdies across the net while screaming and laughing with people you trust so much and are so comfortable with that there are no limits.
After our 2 a.m. badminton sessions, we would go back into our room quietly (in efforts to not wake Mr. Michael up), and watch movies. We tried to watch horror movies some nights, but nothing was scary when the eight of us were all there, being our weird selves. Watching movies with them so late at night was so fun, and completely worth sacrificing our well deserved sleep and not being able to wake up at 8 a.m. when the children came knocking at our doors.
Over the weekend, between the two weeks of teaching, our host school brought us on some local tours. On Saturday, they brought us to Jian Hu Shan Amusement Park. It was really hot and even though I am very afraid of roller coasters, I had lot’s of fun hanging out with people in my group and exploring the park.
On sunday, they brought us to a place where they make things out of ceramics. We were able to paint our own little decorative ceramics, take lot’s of pictures of cool artwork, and also explore the land around it on four-person bikes. Riding those bikes was extremely fun and even though it was burning hot, we pedaled so hard and tested the limits of the poor contraption.
Even though the bus broke down on the way back and we were stranded in the middle of nowhere, I always felt safe with these people. Being in the middle of nowhere with them was actually quite fun and exciting. We trekked to the nearest household and tried to ask them to use their bathroom, which was also an interesting experience.
On the last day of the teaching weeks, we had our closing ceremony and each class had to perform something in front of the entire school and some parents to show off some of the English they have learned from us. Jodie and I taught our students an ABC dance and also the YMCA dance for the performance. We also taught them how to sing Do Re Mi, from the Sound of Music, so that they could sing it at the closing ceremony. Each class did something a little different, with performances from singing and dancing to a Jeopardy game. Even though I had to man the computer and also make sure the children were being quiet and respectful to the performances, I felt so much happiness from the little bits of the performances that I saw. I was so proud of everything that all the students had been able to accomplish in such little time, and so proud of everything that my team and I were able to teach them.
That day was truly bittersweet. We all had such an amazing time at DaDong Elementary and it was so hard to leave.
The last week of the program was tour week. We were all super excited to tour around Taiwan, and since Taiwan is such as small island, we were able to see quite a lot of it. However, since we did see a lot of it, we were unable to stay at the places we visited for that long because it was slightly rushed. We visited monster village, Fengjia night market, Taipei 101, and so many more tourist locations. We also were able to visit a lot of cultural places and learn a lot about Taiwanese aboriginals and culture. Most importantly, we took so many pictures and ate so much good street food. Even though we spent a lot of time on the tour bus, the longest bus rides were still enjoyable because of all the laughter and memories shared with great company.
Last Day of AID
On our last night, my group and I hung out in our room, after an emotional goodbye with our bus counselors, Amy and Alex, and everyone else in the program. We ate instant ramen as a group for the very last time, and took a Polaroid picture for each person to take home. We packed and talked and pretended like it wasn’t our last night together.
In the morning, we all woke up at 5 a.m., to send our teammates Jonathan and Ryan to the airport because they had early flights. It was really hard and emotional saying goodbye, but it made me feel better knowing we would always keep in touch and we could see each other if whenever we’re in Taiwan at the same time (plus, I knew our group chat would never die).
Something that is very special about this program is how much it forces you to grow up. As a 17-year-old in from a suburb in New Jersey, I have never had to live alone for that long before. But not only did I have to live independently, I also had to teach an entire class (with a partner). While I have taught before because I have been a camp counselor, tutor, and Kumon teacher, I have never had to do this much on my own (with a partner, of course). It was such a different experience for me to be completely in charge of human beings like this, because I could tell they really looked up to us as teachers, life mentors, and friends.
Whenever the children started to frustrate me, whether because they were misbehaving or because of the language barrier, I found hope and happiness in the children’s’ eyes. Even when I could feel the lesson slipping out of control and all of our hard work crumbling before our eyes, I could feel the excitement and progress radiating off our students. I reminded myself that some things were out of my control and that as long as everybody is safe, happy, and learning, I was doing my job. This realization is something I can really apply in my life regularly too; it’s one of the biggest things I’ve learned this year—that some things are out of my control, and that it is okay, as long as I am trying my hardest to make progress.
My heart is so full. Through all the ups and downs and the tears shed, the amazing individuals in my group really made even the grossest, most unpleasant occurrences (including finding a rat in our room) so fun. Through all the misbehaved children, mosquito bites, and 3. a.m. badminton matches, we all became family.
The two weeks that the eight of us were teaching English at DaDong Elementary School in Yunlin were the some of the best weeks of my life. I am so grateful for the opportunity that Summer AID has given me this summer. Not only have I made new friends and amazing memories to last a lifetime, I have grown as a person and hopefully, have made an impact on the children at DaDong Elementary.
Thank you to AID Summer, the staff at DaDong Elementary, my DaDong volunteer squad, and everyone else I’ve met during this program for a summer I will never forget.