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School Gives Children New Hope
Twilight beyond the Great Wall. Music from the Hollywood movie The River Wild echoes in the air. A group of children, most of whom come from nearby farm families, sit in a simple classroom, watching the movie, which stars Meryl Streep.

Since they entered the Leijia School, newly established in the village, the students get to see two Western movies every week. So far they have seen such films as Burning Washington, Brave Heart and Forest Gump.

"I think watching such films will help my students open their minds," said Li Lei, the initiator and headmaster of the school.

"These children, who live in rather backward surroundings, really need help," Li said, adding that they particularly need to learn about the world beyond their village.

Li believes that he can help these children improve their intelligence and capabilities in his school.

Li graduated from the Chinese Department of Beijing Normal University in 1983. He quit his job as a Chinese teacher in the Middle School attached to Peking University last September, and came to Guyang County to set up his Leijia School.

Guyang County, a two-hour drive north of the city of Baotou in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, and a one-night train ride from Beijing, was once the home of nomadic people in the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).

The county has vast, beautiful grasslands, but there was little in the way of educational facilities for the children.

"Many children here knew fewer than 2,500 Chinese characters when they entered junior high school," Li said.

"It was a job for the local teachers," Li said, but added that most of them were farmers who had to plough their fields as well as trying to find some time to look after their teaching duties.

Two years ago, Li came to Guyang to take part in an education promotion program.

"Life was not that hard there. The children even had pocket money to play games and buy snacks. But their minds were not being challenged," Li recalled.

They had no access to the school library. Neither did they have books to read at home, nor extra-curricular or physical activities. Most of them, especially the girls, left school at the age of 16, Li said. "Usually they have nothing to do after leaving school."

"But they deserve a chance to get an education, and that's why I came here," Li said.

Li borrowed an old teaching building and had it whitewashed. He hired 11 teachers and enrolled 70 students. Leijia School was opened on September 1, 2001, with an investment of 30,000 yuan (US$3,600), from Li's own pocket and donations.

Those who could not afford the tuition fee of 960 yuan (US$115) a year attend the school free of charge.

Maverick Teaching

Li worked out a special teaching method to foster the children's understanding of Chinese culture.

He encouraged Grade Four students to write down their understanding of the poems describing the hardships of farmers, believing this might make them relate the poetry to their own lives.

He also has students write down their comments after reading books and seeing films.

Ethics has been another focus of his educational curriculum. A good student, according to Li, should be pure and noble in spirit.

Li established a small library with a collection of more than 1,000 books, some from his own home and some from his friends.

"Reading more should help the students know more about the outside world," he said. "I don't want them to follow the path of their fathers."

After listening to some of Li's lectures, Liu Yunshan, a sociologist, wrote: "Li Lei is actually trying to tell his students how to be useful human beings."

In his classes, Li likes to focus on topics that have a lot to do with the local situation.

For example, he once told his students about Israel's oasis on desert, telling them that the annual amount of rainfall in Israel is only 40-50 millimeters, but that the Israeli people used drip irrigation to cultivate crops.

Comparing Guyang's natural surroundings with those of Israel, Li said that there were many things the local people could do, including utilizing solar energy and marsh gas, and planting such crops as grapes and tobacco.

Li Lei always keeps careful records of his classes. "I still remember their expressions when they learned about photography. They were fascinated by concepts such as luminosity and focal distance. Expressions of appreciation filled their faces when they looked at the works of French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and those of August Sander, a German, both active in the 19th century. I believe that they learned how to better observe the world, even though it might be impossible for them to afford their own cameras."

Li designed several experimental courses, hoping to help the students broaden their views of their future.

He invited accomplished local people to teach in the school. One of the teachers used to be a worker, and knew a great deal about electricity. Li encouraged him to be a supervisor in the school's science course. Regularly Li invited local professionals from various fields to share their skills with the students.

"My school is an experimental one," Li said. "Each of my students should learn a skill that will help him or her become independent in the future."

Many small factories in Guyang had been closed down because of the shortage of funds. Li took his students there and taught them how to make a living by using their own brains and hands. Making desks and chairs by themselves was one such exercise.

Useful Citizens

Li had three goals for these children: going to university, becoming rich and becoming social activists.

"To those who really want to learn, I give my full support in order to help them pass the college entrance examination," he said.

To those with quick wits for making money Li gives financial expertise, and those who are talkative with high IQs he encourages to become social activists or to serve in the government.

"Generally speaking, I want these children to enjoy a good future and I also want to foster their sense of responsibility and integrity," Li said.

"I have a dream," Li said, "for Leijia School to become a place like paradise for children where all are happy and feel free to express themselves. I hope everyone who passes through this school is versatile, capable and not afraid of difficulties."

"I have learned something that I could not get from other schools," Gao Bo, a six grader in the school stated in one of his essays.

"I learned how to write a composition in my Chinese class; I learned grammar tips in my English course; and I've gained a sense of humor from math. Furthermore, I learned street dance. I've said farewell to the boring past. I'll never forget Leijia School," Gao enthused.

(China Daily September 2, 2002)

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