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Teachers, students, leaders and Jinggu Education Bureau gave us a warm welcome when we arrived in the small township of Zhengxing on Sunday evening. This banner, hanging from a balcony of the teaching building, read: "Welcome VSO and Simao Teachers' College experts to guide us in our work."

This trip to a Jinggu County school was organised to give our VSO visitors and clearer insight into our work here in Simao. We carried out a two-day follow-up visit that included teaching observations, a model lesson by me (Lesley), an English Corner, various meetings, various meals and even a bit of karaoke at the end. Henry, one of our recent TLTs, led the observation feedback session - the start of our TLT follow-up this term. Hou Wanxia and I led the main part of the school meeting in the afternoon. As well as being a good opportunity for VSO to meet our key partners, it was a chance for us to bring them together round a table - Education Bureau leaders, school leaders, team leaders, VSO, Simao Teachers' College and teachers. It's not often we have the opportunity to talk directly about our goals and challenges.

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One of the more challenging but definitely most rewarding parts of the day was the school meeting. I divided participants into groups, according to their jobs. Each group had to come up with their key targets then write, on pre-prepared arrows, how they were going to achieve these targets. Each group gave feedback and the other groups were invited them to ask questions. I also asked each other group if they thought the targets were realistic, and whether they would support them. Mr Chen, the Vice Headmaster of the school, was unusually direct with the Education Bureau when he turned to them and said: "It's unusual for us to have such Education Bureau office directors here. In fact, we hardly ever see you. What support are you going to give us in the future to help us achieve these aims?" I was thrilled to see the school make the most of this chance to communicate and make some demands. It's rare. At the end I gave a speech, with Hou Wanxia interpreting, which involved me at one point getting down on my hands and knees and begging them to put this theory into practice, not just turn their backs at the first challenge they meet. It was clear that some progress had been made since my last visit in 2007, but not nearly enough.

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The school requested that I paid a visit to every class. Even if this were physically and mentally possible it would take, with an average of 5 minutes per class, about two hours. As an alternative we decided to get all the students out onto the playground for a few English language activities. Each English teacher was given an orange and sent to a class. Each class stood in a circle and passed the orange, saying something in English when they caught it. In my group [above] we progressed from "My name is...." to "I like...." and "I don't like..." They were very shy at first, desperate to avoid having the orange passed to them. This wasn't just because they were facing me, a foreigner. The other groups were reluctant too. They're simply not used to playing such activities - semi-structured with room for free-thinking. Free-thinking carries with it responsibility and the potential for 'making mistakes', every student's worst nightmare in the Chinese classroom. Delighted that we managed to get this enormous English Corner off the ground, and that the kids gradually and happily warmed up and took part, I didn't of course correct any English mistakes. The aim was communication and they achieved that very successfully. The orange was a little battered and bruised but that was the only casualty. I'm just sad I couldn't get round all the groups. To finish off we gathered the school together to teach them Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes, which we all sang and did the actions for. With over 570 people present, that's definitely my record. My throat was hoarse by the end.

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As you know, stolen moments to play pingpong with primary school children are always a highlight for me on these trips. This one was no different, but I was in for a special treat. After playing with the Primary 3 - 4 kids for 20 minutes I suddenly found myself opposite a familiar face. I played pingpong with this little boy in December 2007. I instantly recognised him and was delighted that he'd pulled himself away from his basketball game for a re-match. He didn't give much away but I knew he recognised him, and sought him out later for a photo. It's unlikely that I will have the chance to visit most of these townships again. As this school wasn't even part of the follow-up, it was a real surprise to meet and old friend. Now that I have his name, I'm going to print up our pingpong photos and send them to him.

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Pinpong boy during our China-Scotland match in 2007, as I passed through Zhengxing Primary after my follow-up visit to the nearby middle school.



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