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Greensburg woman teaches ‘bug camp’ to Chinese children

September 27, 2018
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Paula Purnell recently traveled halfway around the world from her Greensburg home, overcoming language barriers, heat and some strange food to teach Chinese children her “bug camp” curriculum.

Dealing with intense heat, sampling unusual cuisine and teaching children who do not speak her language, and vice versa, are among a few of the challenges Paula Purnell recalls from her recent experience teaching a summer camp in China.

Despite those challenges, her eyes sparkle and she smiles nonstop as she recalls her weeks working in and touring the Asian nation.

Purnell, 63, of Greensburg holds a doctorate in education and is a former Indiana University of Pennsylvania instructor.

Her company, Sense of Place Learning, presents programming for students focusing on history, heritage, ecology and the arts.

A talented musician, she is a member of the NewLanders folk music band.

Among her interests is hiking, and she and friend Judy Parker are exploring the Pennsylvania stretch of the Appalachian Trail, typically one weekend at a time. The duo call themselves The Dirty Girls.

Adventure may be part of her DNA.

Purnell’s trip allowed her to visit her brother, David Purnell, a college dean in China.

“He speaks fluent Chinese. I don’t speak a lick,” she says, laughing.

An acquaintance of her brother’s recently opened a progressive, private school in southeastern China.

“We think we (U.S.) have a problem of ‘teaching to the test.’ (China) has a 2,000-year history of teaching to the test. STEAM, hands-on learning, are unheard of; education through art, music, that is all new territory,” she says.

Her brother was asked to help develop a curriculum for the school.

“His doctorate is in linguistics. My doctorate is in curriculum and instruction. I try to create programming not found in a textbook,” Purnell says.

Bug Camp

After directing school officials to her website and sample curriculum, she was invited to teach a summer session.

Several months of planning later, she was in China teaching a summer camp program for children ages 5 to 12, most of whom speak no English.

Purnell adapted her Sense of Place Bug Camp curriculum she’d written with a former partner, Margaret Zak.

“I pitched it to them and they thought it would work,” she says.

Purnell had a few questions.

“Do they have praying mantises? How do you teach bug camp in China, and how do you get over the language barrier and still provide something that has content to it?” she recalls thinking.

Ideas came to her -- music (she took her guitar with her), art projects, visuals, games.

She packed suitcases full of arts and crafts supplies.

“I didn’t know where I would find Popsicle sticks (to make spider webs),” she says. She did find bilingual books for “Incy Wincy Spider,” “The Very Lazy Lady Bug” and “The Crunching, Munching Caterpillar.”

The children were given English names based on Bug Camp name tags, and they addressed her simply as “Teacher.”

She found the children looked forward to outdoor bug hunts.

“They loved it, just like kids here do. We tried to identify what they (found). We kept nature journals,” she said. The children learned about pollution and water cycles.

Translations of songs helped them sing in English. “They wanted them to have exposure to English,” Purnell says of the school’s administrators. Her fellow teachers and she used translation applications on their cellphones to communicate.

“They were such good sports,” she says.

A country’s beauty

Purnell was able to spend some time with her brother, who is a dean at Wenzhou-Kean University in the Zhejiang Province.

“My school (Shuxiang Tonghua International Kindergarten) was an hour south, closer to Taiwan,” she says.

Photos from her trip show spectacular mountain scenery and temples.

“I think something that surprised me, not having been in China, was the red lanterns everywhere -- streets, houses, shops. It’s just stunning,” she says.

Purnell stayed in a suite two blocks from her school in Cangnan. Every night in the town square, music played and people danced. “I just thought that was so cool,” she says.

Purnell says her taste buds also had an adventure.

“I didn’t always know what I was eating. It was all very good -- a lot of fish. Fish head soup was very good. I just didn’t look in the bowl,” she says, laughing.

Kids are kids

The language barrier did not hinder Purnell’s enjoyment at working with her young charges.

“They were just as goofy and silly and funny and smart and naughty as any kids I’ve ever met,” she says.

After seeing Heinz ketchup in a store, she told her students that she lived where the condiment was invented.

And she discovered many of the students had never made a sandwich of their own. “Our big finale was they got to make American sandwiches. We wanted to have a picnic. We had to special order bread,” Purnell says. The kids folded the bread around ham, cucumber, ketchup and devoured their creations in seconds.

Shot in the dark

Purnell spent more than five weeks in China, two of them teaching Bug Camp.

She accepted with no idea of available resources or classroom design.

“A lot of it was kind of taking a shot in the dark,” she says.

Officials at the new school hope to engage students in new ways of learning. “They have big ideas and things they are very passionate about, and thought this could make a difference,” she says.

“The children learned how to use field guides. I think it’s something the kids and their parents will continue doing. I think it lit a fire,” Purnell says.

She anticipates some of the students she taught and their families will travel to the U.S. for a reunion and to see her country next year.

Purnell hopes to return to China soon. “It was such a positive experience. I think our goals were so similar, engaging kids in science and nature. I could see us continuing to do something,” she says.

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