The Extended Essay:A Life-Changing Project at “Beyond English” in China
by David Scott Lewis, Qingdao, China
I'm delighted that Will Fitzhugh has given me this opportunity to write a guest post, to talk a bit about “Beyond English,” our after-school enrichment program for high school students in China, and about the extended essays written by my students. Our program focuses primarily (but not exclusively) on philosophy, law and history, more specifically on ethics and moral philosophy, public international law and conflict studies, and classical antiquity and the American republic through the Civil War.
Our students take courses which range in difficultly from “101” courses to a graduate-level course taught at the Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, “Central Challenges of American National Security, Strategy, and the Press,” HKS211x (two of my high school students, Kun Pang in Singapore and Xinhe Zhang in Qingdao, were among the 500 competitively selected for this Harvard course among 50,000 applicants). The courses serve to expose high school students to subjects they've never encountered.
My approach: Hybrid learning combined with the Harkness Method, with a greater emphasis on blended learning as “Beyond English” expands beyond Qingdao, China into Singapore, Seoul, Hong Kong and Bangkok. Enter the extended essay. It's usually after taking a course that my students choose their substantial writing topic (as it's called in law school). But that's just the first step. Imagine the difficultly in writing a 10,000-plus word essay (in your second language) on a topic in which you have absolutely no background, not even cultural background. Not to belabor this point, but how much do you really think Chinese students know about democracy (as one example)?
We help our students with other activities as well. I like to think of us as the best of Phillips Academy and Roxbury Latin “after school” enrichment programs, but with Chinese characteristics.
Two of my top students, Yueyi Li and Meicen Meng, chose their majors based upon the work they did for their extended essay. This shouldn't be understated. Yueyi Li wrote a 14,000 word essay on Rawlsian distributive justice. Some of the comments she received from her National Writing Board [www.tcr.org] evaluation: “Well-researched! A very good and thorough job, indeed! It reminds one of the work of an advanced graduate student.” “You have an exceedingly bright academic future ahead of you.” Meicen Meng wrote a 23,000 word (“23,000” is not a typo) extended essay on the intellectual history of Just War Theory. Some of the comments she received: “Yours is a mature and demanding subject. Your work is both convincing and authoritative, and your research is first class.” “There are flashes of genuine distinction in all you do. Congratulations.” The personal impact on Yueyi Li is that she wants to study pre-law/justice and Meicen Meng wants to study philosophy; both want to go to law school for their graduate studies. And another student, Wenbin Gao, who wrote a paper on Chinese liberalism, received some absolutely phenomenal comments: “Your work is mature, persuasive and truly inspirational. It was a privilege to read and critique your paper. Many, many congratulations. Be sure to thank your parents for their support and for a wonderful gene pool. As you think on that, please extend the most vocal kudos to your sponsoring teacher.”
It's important to consider that my students do not attend an international school or a school offering an IB Diploma; they attend a public high school, Number 2 Middle/High School (in Qingdao, China), a school where only the English class is taught in English!
We've had ten essays submitted to the National Writing Board. Frankly, not all were excellent or even good essays. But every student improved their critical reading skills, honed their writing skills, both in a way simply not possible in SAT preparation courses. So even if their efforts didn't result in a “4” or “5” (equivalent to AP scoring), they still learned a lot in the process of writing their essays. This is an important point, because it's not just about the score, it's about a learning process. And determination. And perseverance.
Essay topics for evaluation in 2014: History of democracy (Zheng Xu), the international human rights movement (Ling Yi), an analysis of the conflict between China and Japan in the East China Sea (using English-, Chinese-, and Japanese-language sources (Bowen Li)…and a biography of Shakespeare (Jiahao Bian). Should be a fascinating year.