Container Classrooms: Activity Center for Children of Migrant Workers in Beijing
By Vict Zhang, 28 September 2013
Near the northeast corner of the 5th Ring Road of Beijing, big trucks pass by one after another every day, sounding horns and rolling up dust everywhere. However in Heiqiao Village, a different world stands, separated by a row of white poplars alongside the road.
It calls itself the Magic Cube Activity Center – a collection of 10 containers surrounded by wire fences painted in white. The clock read 16:30, a queue of students, accompanied by a teacher, was crossing the street towards the gate in the wire fence.
These students are from Hongqi Primary School which is several hundred meters away; it is a primary school for children of migrant workers. They come to the Magic Cube Activity Center every weekday after school to participate in an “After School Tutoring Program”.
The center was set up by a non-governmental organization called Compassion for Migrant Children (CMC), which was registered in Hong Kong in 2006, aiming at providing social and educational programs for migrant children worldwide. CMC developed altogether six centers similar to the Magic Cube Activity Center, five in Beijing and one in Shanghai. All of them are located in areas where large numbers of migrant workers inhabit.
Among the six, the Magic Cube Activity Center is special for it is the only one which uses containers as classrooms. Also, it develops a variety of programs and currently lacks full-time staff and volunteers.
Containers as Classrooms
The center was set up in 2010, located in Heiqiao Village in Chaoyang District, Beijing. It consists of 10 containers, used respectively as an office, a warehouse, a library, two toilets and five classrooms for the primary school students from Grade One to Six. Students of Grade One and Two share one classroom, on the top of which is the container for working staff.
All classroom-containers were painted in different colors: green for Grade One and Two, grey for Grade Three, red for Grade Four, yellow for Grade Five and blue for Grade Six. What’s more, there are some graffition the containers making them more colorful and vigorous.
On explaining why containers are used, Chen Shu, project manager of the center said: “We planned to apply local homes as classrooms just like how all other centers founded by CMC did. But now, some centers are facing the danger of demolition and all efforts and constructions will be gone.” Chen has been in this position full-time for one year.
“If someday we have to leave, it is easier to ‘move’ the containers with the migrant workers and serve their children.” Chen said.
However, not everything about the containers are good. Chen mentioned that one of the most obvious drawbacks is that containers have poor heat insulation and air conditioners are needed in every room. “It is too hot in summer and too cold in winter. Kids could not concentrate on studying,” she said.
Due to the special form of classrooms, the center was excessively reported by media. People want to have a look at the center after reading the stories, which disturbed the students as well as the working staff. “There are nothing special really, just some containers,” she said.
Along with spectators, media reports also brought the center donations from all sectors of society, yet most of the center’s funds, equipments and stationary are provided by Vibrant Community Fund (VCF), which was jointly launched by China Social Welfare Foundation and CMC.
New as it is, the Magic Cube Activity Center has a variety of well-established programs catering to the local children of migrant workers.
Programs such as “After-school Tutoring Program”, “Happy Weekends” and “Super Saturday” help to improve the students’ study and provide different kinds of curriculums including calligraphy, art and craft, science and physical education. “Hand in Hand” and “Pairing with Volunteers” focus on enhancing children’s mental health and mental growth.
Students’ parents and their teachers in primary school are also included in some of the programs. “Family Education Program” and “Home Visit Program” are designed for parents to improve their family education while “Teacher Training Program” provides the teachers with lectures on teaching skills and child psychology.
Among all these programs, the most fundamental one is “After-school Tutoring Program” which runs every weekday from 4:30 to 6:10 in the afternoon. It contains two sessions with a 10-minute break in the middle. During the first session, the students do their homework in the classrooms. They can turn to volunteers for help when they cannot work out questions in their homework. The second session is for different kinds of activities, such as drawing, crafting and English learning.
Students who take part in this program are mainly from Hongqi Primary School, with a total number of 150 children from different grades. At the beginning of each semester, their parents will come to the center and enroll their children in the program; and then the children’s attendance will be checked and recorded every weekday.
“The children here are smart, and they will do better with good education,” said Hong Jianfeng, a volunteer from Capital Normal University, who now works as the leader of volunteers on every Thursday for the program.
Hong added that these students’ parents are lacking in family education skills and are busy making the ends meet for the family. And some of the school teachers here do not have an associate degree, which means they are not qualified to work as teachers, according to Regulations on the Qualifications of Teachers issued by the State Council in 1995. “By working with the parents and school teachers, the programs run by the center may provide better growing environment for the children.” Hong said.
Zhou Jian is a fourth grade student from Hongqi Primary School. He is from Sichuan Province and both his parents now work for a construction site.
“My parents get off work late every day. So when they were not home, I just played around with other children after school and left my homework unfinished. Now with this program, I can finish my homework and also play with other kids.” Zhou Jian said.
“Teachers here are friendly and patient. They help check my homework and teach me how to improve it after I finish. They are better than my school teachers”, said Ding Zi’ang, a fifth grade student who moved to Beijing with his parents from Shandong Province. He started to take part in the program since May, 2011, and was among the earliest to do so.
Ding’s mother Yan Meifang said she began to feel a little relieved after Ding took part in this program, for she would not have to worry that much about Ding’s study and his safety after school.
In the eyes of some teachers from Hongqi Primary school, many students have made great progress in their studies after they took part in After-school Tutoring Program. Zhang Rui, who teaches math for the second grade students in Hongqi Primary School, said that one-to-one interactions with students improve the teaching effectiveness greatly.
Zhang considers volunteer teachers in the center as earnest. “They can understand the students better as they have smaller age gap with the children.” he said.
According to Zhang, the primary school teachers are mainly responsible for taking the students to the center safely, maintaining disciplines and helping answer questions. They do not work as volunteers. A small amount of allowance is paid to them by VCF.
The lack of staff and volunteers
As many programs as the center has, there are only three full-time staff and about 200 volunteers working for it. According to Chen Shu, the project manager, being in a remote area is one of the reasons for the lack of staff and volunteers.
“Universities are the main source of CMC volunteers, but around here there are few universities.” Chen said.
Volunteers here are mainly from China Women’s University, Beijing International Studies University and Beijing Forestry University. The center recruits volunteers through the youth volunteer associations of these universities at the beginning of every semester, and will sign an agreement with the volunteer for a period of a whole semester.
More than 120 volunteers are working for the “After-school Tutoring Program”. Every weekday, a team of about 25 volunteers come to the center. These volunteers are divided into five groups to work in five classes, tutoring an average of 30 students each.
Although the program only runs 100 minutes a day, most of the volunteers need to spend a whole afternoon in the center till at least 7:00 in the evening. They are required to come at 3:30 pm and prepare for the coming students. And after all the students leave for home, they will have a meeting to share with each other the moving stories that happened during the afternoon, and discussing about solutions to the problems they observed.
“Our volunteers all work really hard, yet we are still in need of more”, Zheng Cong, a graduate student from Beijing Normal University said. She is now working as an internship for the program.
The fewer volunteers works in the center, the more responsibilities they need to take. Borrowing stationeries from the center for their class, checking the attendance of the students, answering the questions students bombard with when they are doing their homework, giving the lectures on English or drawing, these are only parts of the responsibilities of the volunteers.
If a few volunteers are absent from the day’s work, the others need to do even more. Being a volunteer here is no easy job, according to Zheng Cong.
However, according to Hong Jianfeng, the volunteer leader, this is all volunteering about. “I think it is okay for me”, said Hong, whose school is located in the north of the 3rd Ring Road.
“I’m always interested in making some contributions to the children of migrant workers. Now I have this real chance to work for them. I don’t mind running all the way across the city”, Hong added.
Like most of other volunteers around, Hong has hours of trip within buses and subways between the center and his school, and it was time for him to return.
Clock strikes 6:00 pm. The students have been told to line in queues again as how they arrived two hours earlier. They waved their hands and shouted loud to the volunteers, “Goodbye, teachers!” Upon the last queue of students’ leaving, the sun had already gone under horizon and night started to cover the land. Lights in the working staff office are still on, and volunteers get into one of the container classrooms for their meeting.
There is still more work awaits.