4-H art exchange program brings shared understanding between Chinese and Michigan youth
The Michigan 4-H Children’s Art Exchange with China demonstrates that, despite language and cultural barriers, K-6-graders can communicate important events, places, people, ideas and feelings with children their own ages half way around the world.
Since 1991, over 100,000 Michigan children have participated in the Michigan 4-H Children’s Art Exchange with China. This has been accomplished by sending “visual letters” (paintings or drawings) of something important in their lives to children their own ages in China. Expressions of pets, friends, home, parental livelihood, Michigan landscapes, holidays and much more routinely come through in the children’s “visual letters.” Also depicted are important topics of peace (with the U.S. and Chinese flags being escorted by Mickey Mouse and the Monkey King) and fear (as in the Twin Towers being destroyed in 9/11). Sometimes there is a merging of a Michigan child’s life and new learning about China, such as “Chinese Panda Hoeing in a Michigan Corn Field.”
As part of the cross-cultural art exchange, Michigan children are asked, “If you heard Chinese words, would you understand what was said?” “Would you be able to read something a Chinese child has written to you in Chinese?” “How can a Chinese child talk to a child in Michigan if he or she doesn’t speak English?” “Are there other ways that children can tell each other about themselves besides using words?” The Michigan children are given time to think about these questions and then discuss ways that people can communicate or “talk” without knowing English or Chinese. The Michigan children are told that the Chinese children’s art is like a letter to them in pictures, rather than a letter in words. The Michigan children are then guided in how to look at the art they have received from Chinese children and how to find the meaning, stories and symbolism within each art piece.
In 2011, approximately 6,000 Michigan children participated in the art exchange with Binzhou in Shandong Province, China. The Michigan participants came from forty-three schools and afterschool groups in eighteen Michigan counties. To measure the impact of the exchange on Michigan children, educators (art teachers, classroom teachers, 4-H club leaders and other adult educators) representing 60 percent of the children, supplied evaluation data. Using a four-point scale ranging from strongly disagree to strongly agree, 100 percent of the responding educators agreed or strongly agreed that because of participation in the Michigan 4-H Children’s Art Exchange, their children (1) have increased knowledge of how to talk about art; (2) have increased awareness that art communicates ideas, feelings and stories; (3) have gained new knowledge about China; and (4) would like to know more about China and Chinese children. A slightly smaller number, 97 percent of the educators, agreed or strongly agreed that because of participating in the art exchange, their children have increased awareness that there are similarities between themselves and Chinese children.