6th Grade History Students Learn Firsthand about the Chinese Cultural Revolution
Mary Hammers, Hillbrook Writer
Reaching out beyond the walls of home is more important than ever for Hillbrook students quarantined because of the Coronavirus. Our students and teachers are finding ways to connect across generations and across the globe to make lessons from home come to life. In the process, they are also learning how this unprecedented time in modern history helps connect them to the challenges and struggles of their ancestors.
What started as a history lesson about the Chinese Cultural Revolution of 1966 has turned into an important touchpoint for 6th graders and their families. Students in Ms. Gingery’s class are reading “The Red Scarf Girl,” Ji-li Jiang’s memoir about the first tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution in China under Chairman Mao. Ji-li was 12 years old, the same age as Hillbrook’s 6th graders, when the Cultural Revolution began and her life was changed forever. Chairman Mao introduced new rules intending to make everyone equal under communism, but in the process, many were persecuted for their wealth or religious beliefs, including Ji-li’s family.
Gingery’s diverse classroom proved a helpful firsthand connector to this chapter of Chinese history. Several students were born in China, others have lived, studied, and traveled there; and about half of them currently study Mandarin at Hillbrook. As they read the memoir, several students were also able to talk with Chinese and Chinese-American parents, grandparents, and other family members who lived through the Cultural Revolution and hear their personal accounts about the way their lives were changed. Through a combination of videotape, audio files, and written interviews, students heard what it was like to live in China in the mid to late 1960’s. Learning about the struggles and challenges of their classmate’s families during this time made an immediate impact on students. Ms. Gingery says “I never knew” and “I can’t imagine” were phrases commonly shared by students. Those real-life stories provided important context for the memoir and helped to personalize the history lesson.
Ms. Gingery also shares that storytelling is one of the most important things humans can do throughout their lives, even students. Stories passed down through time can provide powerful learning tools and are a rich source of understanding. Hearing from their classmate’s grandparents and parents brought the lesson of Chinese communism to life. Says Ms. Gingery, “One of our Hillbrook families included landlords fleeing the country, another had a university economics professor who was fired and shipped to the countryside in a reeducation farmworker camp - repeatedly, another rose up the military ranks in the Red Army and the family still considers Mao a great hero, and yet another was forced to join the Red Guard in order to save her family shame and trouble“.
The lesson of “The Red Scarf” has grown beyond the memoir. While socially isolated from school and friends, 6th grade students are busy writing and sharing their own stories. Ms. Gingery hopes the exercise of telling their stories will help students to put into perspective our shared experience as a community in quarantine. Like Ji-li in “The Red Scarf”, school schedules have been disrupted and the routines of daily life have changed. Our students are being challenged in new ways and asked to persevere despite losses big and small.
Just as their relatives can look back at pivotal times in their lives, whether the Cultural Revolution in China, the Civil Rights Movement, or the Great Depression in the United States, today’s students will look back at the Coronavirus pandemic and the ways in which it shaped their lives. Says Ms. Gingery, “This is an opportunity for students to understand the human condition beyond the inconvenience they are currently facing, which gives them a dose of perspective about individual sacrifice and coping with challenges.”