Education alumna — and her students — adapt to new language in Beijing

Jim Carlson
June 01, 2016

As Chelsea Peak develops curriculum for an English language school in Beijing, China, she is simultaneously developing a path of life.

Life already has proven rather interesting for the Central Bucks West (Doylestown) and Penn State (2015) College of Education graduate. She started at Penn State Altoona before moving to University Park. She participated in the short-term teaching abroad (STTA) program and landed in Pavia, Italy, to begin her international teaching experience, something that is slowly increasing in popularity as a career possibility for students.

Suddenly, Asia didn’t seem so far away to Peak. She researched the best cities in which to teach, and the technology of Skype allowed her to interview in Beijing while sitting some 6,700 miles away in Italy. She took with her to China an Understanding by Design education strategy of developing and organizing curriculum and lessons plans created by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins.

The authors’ methods flip the organization of the development, Peak said. Teachers can plan in reverse as to what will be taught in order to achieve specific learning outcomes. This identifies what teachers want their students to know and be able to do and helps tailor the lessons to better benefit students, said Peak, who creates and develops curriculum for the entire sixth-grade class (ages 12-14) at her Beijing school. Students who attend the many English language schools in China often plan on attending colleges in the United States, she said.

Next year, Peak said she’ll be teaching at Beijing Haidan International School, a boarding school at which she’ll also be asked to help shape the students into contributing, well-mannered, open-minded members of society. She’ll teach all subjects to a fifth-grade class.

“Chelsea demonstrated early her maturity, ability to relate to students and faculty and her willingness to try new teaching and assessment strategies — all in the best interest of her students’ learning,’’ said Diane Goluboff, who was Peak’s student teaching supervisor for the CI 495E 15-week practicum. “She took risks and quickly learned from them.’’

Peak’s students at the Haidan International School will be asked to learn two sports, two art subjects, piano and swimming by graduation, at which they will receive a Chinese and an American diploma. “My job will cultivate internationalized talents and global citizens with broad perspectives, knowledge and morals to the predominantly Chinese, American, Canadian, Australian, English and German students,’’ Peak said.

Interestingly, Peak does not have an English as a Second Language (ESL) certificate and she took no Chinese courses while at Penn State. “The Chinese language is very challenging,’’ Peak said. “I attend class once a week for two hours and have a minimal conversation grasp on the language. Studying and learning the characters is a whole different animal I have not quite begun to conquer. The beauty of living in China while studying is that I have unlimited access to practice using my Chinese and infinite exposure to seeing and hearing it.’’

It’s experiencing the city and its lifestyle that is an education in itself. “Living in Beijing is wonderful,’’ Peak said. “There are Western restaurants, shops and bars, and entertainment is plentiful as well as a large expat community. The beauty is having all of the comforts of home with Chinese culture and tradition around every corner.’’ She said the food is delicious because of a plethora of different cooking styles, spices and tastes.

Beijing, she said, is the perfect mix of old and new, Western and Eastern. “There is awe-striking new architecture, and chic modern restaurants and shops as well as the traditional hutongs, or traditional narrow streets and alleyways throughout the city that gives the city its character,’’ Peak said. “Students and Chinese friends and coworkers constantly pick my brain about America, and I do the same about the Chinese culture.’’

That includes her daily breakfast sandwich, a juanbing, which is a flour wrap with potato shreds, lettuce and egg mixed with sauces. It’s a trip on the subway, or a Thursday trivia night, or pick-up soccer or basketball games, or dinner with friends, or even karaoke.

And that’s just in the city. “There is so much to see,’’ Peak said. “In my seven short months I have been to two parts of the Great Wall, Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven and many other Beijing attractions. I have traveled to Xi’an twice and Shanghai once in mainland China. Outside of China, I have traveled to Hong Kong and Manila, Puetro Princesa, and El Nido in the Philippines. (Soon) I will be traveling to Taiwan.

“I truly love life out in the Far East,’’ she said. “I am challenged daily with learning the language, experiencing a completely different culture and lifestyle, and have numerous comforts from home.’’

She credits Penn State for readying her for the many challenges. “When I reached the end of my student teaching practicum my senior year I felt very prepared,’’ Peak said. “Penn State does a fantastic job preparing future educators to enter the field under the sole reason of the experience of in-class time,’’ Peak said. “Penn State provides and requires multiple experiences in the classroom throughout an undergraduate program.

“In addition to student teaching the full class schedule, Penn State requires students to become involved in an extracurricular, attend any and all meetings their mentor teacher attends and supplemental assignments to complete for the University,” Peak continued. "Penn State excels in its student teaching practicum on every level because reading and studying education is one part of teaching, but live-action practice is needed. During student teaching you learn what works in your classroom and what doesn’t … your teaching style and how to change lesson plans on the fly,’’ she said.

Career plans can change on the fly, too. “My career goal is to live and work all over the world to gain international teaching experience,’’ Peak said. “I am easily adaptable and love a challenge, which led me to my decision to move across the world to a country where I didn’t speak the language or know anyone.

“I am interested in applying to work for the Department of Defense Education Abroad (DoDEA) after gaining experience to teach abroad through the U.S. government. I plan on getting my master's after my next year of teaching here at a West Coast university in educational policy. I hope to work for the DoDEA in a different country, preferably somewhere in South America to live and see a different part of the world.

“I hope that cultivating experience teaching at international schools and various schools around the world, curriculum developing, and my future masters in educational policy will eventually lead me to working in (Washington) D.C. on educational reform,’’ Peak said.

But it’s the life lessons that — understandably — stand out. “This experience has indeed been life-changing,’’ Peak said. “I have learned so much about myself and feel that I know myself more each and every day. Student teaching in Italy opened my eyes to all of the opportunities this world has for educators, and I knew I wanted to continue to live and grow to be a more cultured individual.

“I set my sights on the world spectrum and found my current job in Beijing, and I know I would have never been in the position I am now — teaching at the prestigious international school next year, or living in China in general — if I never left home. This experience living and working in Beijing has guided me to my career plan and path with goals I never knew were possible or would ever dream of.

“This whole journey began with my education and experiences with Penn State and for that I am forever grateful,’’ Peak said. “My education has qualified me to work in one of the top international schools in Beijing, travel the world often, and learn more about the person I am now and the person I want to be.’’

  • chelsea-1

    Chelsea Peak is striving to have no language walls between her and her students in Beijing.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated June 22, 2016