Rupert reports from WAB


Re-introducing Rupert Common, Beijing-based writer and photographer. Rupert observed JUMP! at the Western Academy of Beijing in March, and shares this experience:

Part 1

I wander through what feels like the Beijing Bookworm, a café- library which hosts talks and art shows. It’s not. It’s the Western Academy of Beijing (WAB) Middle School, where JUMP! has arrived to run a two-day course. All I know is the names of the two classrooms where this will take place: room 5105 and “the Loft.” In order to get to the building I must walk under an ancient-looking Chinese archway and over a wooden bridge.

The first activity I observe involves JUMP’s favorite shape, the circle. Two circles, in fact, one within the other. Students are told to pair up. Two boys dressed in shorts and indoor soccer shoes manage to end up together. They share a silent look of excitement.

After some instruction, the game gets started. Those who make up the inner circle move in the opposite direction from the outer one. When given the signal they must stop, re-locate their friend, and act out different “animals in the jungle.” They do this by either linking arms like a monkey, perching on a knee like a bird, or roaring like a lion. The game reminds me of one played at Dulwich a month ago.

A few rounds later, the students are well warmed up and have shared some laughs. This is when questions are posed to the group, who then discuss their answers in pairs. When asked, “What was the best thing you did in the last year?” the boys in the soccer shorts immediately mention South Africa. They attended the World Cup.

While the room is still a-chatter, the facilitators instruct partners to switch and our soccer duo is split up. The next question to discuss is what they are looking forward to. A tall boy who owns the deepest voice in the Loft states that he is going on to high school next year and that it’s “pretty harsh.” His partner, who reaches his chest height, silently agrees.

Other than the wonderful panorama of windows which the Loft has to offer, the first thing that strikes me is the apparent age range of the students. To my eye, not all of them are in the same grade. A quick question confirms my hunch – the program is open to grades 6 through 8. Unlike the Grade 13’s at Dulwich, who were all making the same transition out of high school together, these WAB students are at different stages of their school years. I begin to wonder what this two-day course is all about.

Screams of delight help me to locate room 5105. It is a different mood from upstairs, which was in a state of reflection. Things settle down though, and soon, the children are scattered over Growth Mountain, a jagged peak of cello-tape on a rough, carpeted floor. They stand in relation to three zones: ridge of relaxation, growth peak and panic cliff. The game allows them to think about their comfort levels in different life experiences. When math class is mentioned, panic cliff becomes quite crowded.

The two rooms are not perfectly in stride, so there is an overlapping of activities. I watch the loft kids compose a list of five things they value. They must rank them and explain their choice. I switch to room 5105 and see the same thing over. Although the facilitators follow the same plan, they express points in different ways. While Safia asks her six “jumpers” to imagine a desert island scenario, Jen pretends her group is on a spontaneous holiday. In both cases the students must decide which values to let go of. Some students struggle to get past the literal sense while others select more abstract notions. Soccer shows up in many of the packs, as do family, friends, religions, home countries and even chocolate candy. One boy states that he chose sleep because it’s fun, while another values his social life because that’s “how I think of myself, how others think of me, how I communicate.”

There aren’t many breaks during a JUMP! program, and on this day, even the hour-long lunch gap is filled by a challenge. In groups of three, students are tied together at the wrist. They must eat their lunch and then question peers and faculty about the qualities of a leader. I watch the hand-tied trios launch into the school hallways and out into the light of the day. As their figures become silhouettes I hear one person say, “rock on!” and I notice that they are skipping.

I attend the Loft’s post-lunch debrief. Everyone sits comfortably on the wrap-around sofa seats near the windows. A few too many voices continue on after Ave has called for attention, and one student expresses a desire to watch a movie and “chill.” “We are chilling,” says Ave, who handles the interruption with buoyancy. She asks if anyone would like to share his/her discoveries. One boy volunteers but does not speak, instead he raises a cell phone, which broadcasts a raucous lunchtime interview.  Laughter and high-pitched sounds are heard first, and then some voices can be made out. The interviewee mentions initiative and responsibility. It is at this point that I realize today’s theme is leadership.

The ensuing game of “leadership charades” confirms my guess and alerts me to a turning point in the program. As the students act out famous leaders and compete for points, it is clear that everyone is participating and the nervousness I sensed in the first hour has fluttered away. I leave after five hours of observation, in which I saw less than a third of the program.

Rupert Common, March 25, 2011

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