Before I begin, I need to clarify something from my first post in this series. As of this year, children should be able to enter public kindergarten from age three (小班), depending on registration numbers for the school. Registration starts the first week of May, so if you are interested in putting your children into public school for the first time, you should be looking around before May.
For those who interested in the "whys" of enrolment limits on schools, the MOE has a ruling that children aged birth to two years cannot be in the same room as children three and over. They need their own dedicated space. For public schools, it is most unlikely they have the space to keep the littlest ones away from "older" children. When you go to look at other options, you might want to keep in mind that other countries also have this rule of having a dedicated Infant Room, also, and if the school you are looking at does not, you may want to consider whether this should affect your school choice or not.
So, now it's on to...
Grade One and Two at My Son's School
My children go to a school with a very low enrolment, in Jilong area. At its peak, there were 500 students at the school. This year, there are just 46 students in the Elementary School. There are six students in my son's class. Three have non-Taiwanese mothers (the two other moms are from South-East Asia). The teachers are very used to working with mixed-culture families and with supporting children's language development in Mandarin Chinese. The campus is fairly large and has its own kitchen, where children's lunches are prepared. There are many such schools around Taiwan, as well as the schools with larger rolls and city-based campuses. I don't want to generalise too much, so I will talk about my son's school days over the past two years, as an example of what your child might do at school.
The first two years of school, the focus has been on building a strong base in the areas of Mandarin Chinese and Math. There is no Science or Geography in the curriculum in first and second grade. In Jilong, English class starts in 3rd Grade (in Taipei City it now starts in 1st Grade).
Each class period is 40 minutes long and there is a 10 minute break between classes. Lunch is provided each day (we pay TWD400 per month for lunch, but this will differ between schools). The school day starts at 7:40am and finishes at either 12:20pm or 1:30pm. This is different from Taipei City, where there is a long day on Tuesdays and children finish at noon the other four days.
Before the first class each day, children are responsible for cleaning the school. First and second graders need to clean their own rooms, whilst older children need to sweep up leaves and clean the bathrooms. Twice a week, teachers have meetings at the beginning of the day, and parents are called in to supervise the children and share some of their experiences with the children. I volunteer as an English teacher, and this is a most rewarding experience. Other parents may read stories, teach paper folding, or do some other craft activity. Children also need to fill in their homework books each morning, so they know what homework they have to do. Parents need to sign this book every day, and it is regularly checked by the office staff.
There are many different activities happening in school in the mornings. A number of outside groups come in and teach children about health, storytelling, and societial issues such as bullying or road safety. During the semester, a couple of school outings are arranged, and parents are asked to come along and help chaperone groups of children.
So, how about the basics? During Chinese class, children learn how the language works, and spend time reciting and reading Chinese material from their texts and other books. Contrary to what I imagined, my son does not have to write out characters "hundreds" of times (although he likes to tell me he does), and his daily Chinese homework will take him between 10 and 40 minutes. In this, his last semester of Grade 2, they are starting to write short essays, which I think has also been pushed along by the forward-thinking Principal and the trainers she has had arranged to come in and talk to teachers. (I've been lucky enough to be able to sit in on these and plan to cover them later. This is also very against my impression that Taiwan schools being kind of closed to parents.)
Children spend the first two years learning the basics of mathematics, such as the 10-times tables, addition, subtraction, money, and how to solve simple story problems. Teachers tell me there is a big jump from Grade 2 to Grade 3, so it's very important for children to understand the basics, as well as Chinese, very well if they are to keep up in Grade 3.
At my son's school, children have Physical Education (PE) twice a week. In addition, two dedicated teachers come in daily at 7am to take the older children for extra exercise, and on Friday mornings they currently have a martial arts class for about 90 minutes. My children's school does not have facilities such as a swimming pool, but they have the advantage of having a lot of outdoor space for a small number of children. They also arrange 5 swimming classes each semester. Different schools will have different strengths in this area. As a NZer, I found it hard at first to accept that a lot of sports are not taught until 3rd Grade, but perhaps this is also good for little children who have time to grow up a little before competing. I'm standing on the fence on this one.
There is a class called "生活" twice a week, which is a kind of Social Studies class. I don't think we have an equivalent class in NZ. It's a kind of mix between health and development and lifestyle class. In addition, there is a Health class, where children learn some things that seem to overlap with the "Social Studies" class to me. Once a week, children take a "Home Language" class, which may be Taiwanese, Hakka, or an Aboriginal dialect. Finally, there are two classes of "Flexible Time" which teachers use to their own discretion. My son's teacher loves teaching Art and Music, and the children have done more of this than may be normal in other classes. For example, children started learning recorder in Grade 1, even though the curriculum doesn't include recorder lessons until Grade 2.
At least my son's school, the homework load is fairly light. My son takes between 20 minutes and an hour each day, depending on the homework. I sometimes think it takes longer to get emotionally ready to complete the homework than it does to actually do it!
After School Care:
Due to school finishing at noon, parents may wonder what to do with their children in the afternoon. If children are having real trouble with homework, there is a dedicated afterschool class for them to go to do the homework and get extra help. The school needs to apply to the MOE for children to attend this class. Some schools offer many extra-curricular classes, others only a few. For example, my son's school has a Percussion group, a Rock Band, and English classes at the moment. In the past they have had Calligraphy, Science Experiments, and DIY Craft. Parents may have to pay a nominal fee for the classes. Some parents choose to put their children into private After School Classes. Those cram schools will arrange transport or someone to take the children attending these classes from the school gate to their building.
As an expat in Taiwan with children in local school, I find the school times the hardest thing to get used to. Semesters are long (4 1/2 months with no break). The day starts in a rush with dragging children out of bed, feeding them, and getting them out of the house. Elementary school hours are different from Kindergarten hours, and hours between lower and higher grades also differ. If you are not putting children into after school care, you really have to prepare yourself for the grind of drop-offs and pick-ups.
Language-wise, the teachers at my children's school are extremely supportive. I am lucky in that I can read and write some Chinese, so I generally keep up with what is going on. If Chinese is a huge challenge for you, you will need to enlist some help so you don't miss out on important information. This is where volunteering at school can help a lot. You get to know parents, and teachers appreciate you.
If any readers are in the Keelung/Jilong area and looking for a school, you can contact me and I can tell you more about the school my children attend. It's definitely worth considering.