Running a Book Discussion Group
By Heidi Steele
A couple of months ago, we launched a book discussion group with participants from the Psychology Club at Peninsula High School in Gig Harbor, WA and approximately 50 students from Mudanjiang No. 1 High School in China’s Heilongjiang Province.
The idea of holding a book discussion group with students from both schools came about because our psychology teacher at Peninsula High School, Ms. Lyssand, told me she was excited about giving her Psychology Club students an opportunity to interact with the Chinese students and gain a different perspective on psychology through their eyes. We chose the book “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” because Ms. Lyssand teaches a class in Child Psychology, and this book raises a number of issues around parenting models. We were all interested to see the kinds of opinions that students would bring up in their discussion.
The following two posts are fairly typical of the thoughts expressed by the American students:
“I feel that the Tiger Mother did accomplish her goal of raising her children to be successful by being so strict on them. However, I think if she were to have let them live a normal life, they would have been just as successful.
My parents have always allowed me to hangout with my friends, have a cell phone, watch TV, as long as I am going to school and doing my best. If I choose to slack off, then my privileges get taken away. I have set goals for myself and have received straight As all through school and have gotten into every college I have applied to along with having received a large amount of scholarship money. I plan to become a dentist. I have had a normal childhood life and have still managed to do just exactly what the Tiger Mother has raised her daughters to do, which is to become “successful.” To me, it is sad that the Tiger Mother felt that she had to deprive her children of a normal life because she felt they would not be successful otherwise.”
“I agree, there are multiple differences in education and ways to carry out that education between China and the US. I believe Chinese parents give their children one path to follow throughout their adolescence into adulthood, and without the free will to venture down side-roads, make mistakes, these children are never fully exposed to both the knowledge and consequences of self-independence and willful self-determination.
Secondly, I believe all parents feel they know what is best for their children, however Western parents tend to let their children develop habits and personalities of their own, on their own.”
In general, the Chinese students posted opinions that were radically different than the American students:
Translation: Let me say that the tiger mother took on a challenge. She wasn’t going to allow the curse “wealth doesn’t exceed three generations” to land on her [Translator's Note: the implied meaning of this maxim is that wealth won't last if it is squandered by future generations who have grown complacent and feel entitled to their wealth]. As a result, when children are young, they need to develop good habits. American-style education with its excessive freedom will not help children strictly manage themselves from a young age; it will not cause children to develop good habits.”
Translation: From ancient times, China has always been full of legends that praise students for their hard work and attention to their studies. [Translator’s Note: The author mentions four of these legends. In all of them, the children grow up to be famous men of learning: 1) A boy ties a rope around his hair and fixes it to the roof beam so that when he nods off while studying late into the night, the rope will yank his head back up and wake him up. 2) A boy pokes his own leg with an awl every time he starts to get weary while studying late into the night. 3) A boy who is too poor to buy lamp oil cuts a small hole in the wall next to his desk to let in the light from his neighbor’s house. 4) A boy who is too poor to buy lamp oil notices how bright the reflection from snow is outside the house in the middle of the light, and from then on whenever it snows he goes outside to read. When he gets too cold, he runs around to warm up.] In this cultural environment, Chinese grow up with the discipline to work extremely hard and strive for excellence. This is also the reason why the Chinese are a strong willed people and are able to accomplish amazing things.”
However, one Chinese student posted a commentary in English that expresses opinions more in line with the American students’ point of view:
“I read the book called Battle Hymn Of The Tiger Mother recent days. This book is about a mother and her daughters and two dogs. But I can’t understand her at all. And I also can’t stand her.
The mother said she didn’t allow her children to watch TV, play computer games or sleep at the classmates’ home. She said her children must get A for grades and her daughters can’t drink or eat when they are playing the piano. She even called her babies rubbish! I can’t stand this!
Why she can treat her daughters with such ways? Only because she is a mother? But everyone has his human rights. And we shouldn’t be full-controlled by anyone, even though he’s a child. Children need adults help their develop a correct outlook of life. But adults should help them in a right way,and not by violence. And I think parents can change a direction: if you were in childhood, their parents treat you as these ways, how do you feel?
I think parents could educate children in a right way. And every child can have a happy childhood and life.”
The logistics of this discussion are simple. We have a web site hosted by the district that is devoted to our school partnership. I created a blog on that site specifically for this discussion. Ms. Lyssand and the Psychology Club students were each given an account on this site. For the Chinese side, we created one shared account for all of the students, and one for the teachers.
The Chinese students are welcome to post their comments in either English or Chinese. If they write in Chinese, I translate the posts for them.
I am still working out ideas for a culminating activity. We might approach the student newspaper at Peninsula High School to see if they are interested in writing an article about the book group. We may also hold a final Skype session to allow the students to meet “face to face.”