Twenty-eight years of global education: Michigan youth "visual letters" to China

Since 1991, the 4-H Children’s Art Exchange has asked Michigan youth to create "visual letters" to send to youth in China. This year, close to 2,000 children participated in the 2019 Michigan 4-H Art Exchange with China.

China Art Selection Process Visiting International Professional Program (VIPP) volunteers translating the artwork chosen from English to Chinese
China Art Selection Process Visiting International Professional Program (VIPP) volunteers translating the artwork chosen from English to Chinese. Photo by Jan Brinn | MSU Extension

In 1988, Michigan 4-H partnered with China to bridge the cultural gap and one of the many significant efforts to come out of this partnership is the Michigan 4-H China Art Project. Since 1991, the 4-H Children’s Art Exchange has asked Michigan youth to create “visual letters” to send to youth their own age in China. This year, close to 2,000 kindergarten through sixth grade children from 25 counties participated in the 2019 Michigan 4-H Children’s Art Exchange with China. Partners were elementary schools, after-school programs, libraries, tribes, academies and 4-H clubs.

Every year, the project has a positive impact as documented in the Michigan State University Extension news article, “Michigan 4-H China Art Exchange has positive impact in 2016,” where there was a record number of participants—over 6,000! The article “Michigan 4-H receives special gift of artwork from China” is another great example of how the project is valued. Calhoun County was contacted by a reporter from the Battle Creek Enquirer that wrote a story about the 4-H project, “Battle Creek kids are exchanging art with kids in China.” The Visiting International Professional Program (VIPP) volunteers also had an article written, “VIPP Participants Volunteer for MSU Extension Program,” and shared the experience on their MSU VIPP Facebook page.

As part of the art exchange, Michigan children are asked to paint or draw “visual letters” for Chinese children their own ages. A visual letter is like a written letter in that both tell stories, share important ideas and feelings, and connect youth regardless of where they live. However, the medium is different in that visual letters use images rather than written letters that use words; therefore, youth are communicating and telling their story in a medium that can be understood by those who speak another language.

Collected evaluations of the program remain consistently positive and impactful. Some written comments from 4-H Resource China Art teachers or 4-H club leaders include the following.

“Nearly 200 students and teachers from the school attended an exhibition at the end of the program where they got to see the artwork done by the program participants from the school, as well as the Chinese children's art!”

“The China Art Program is such a meaningful program. I got to see the kids go from having no idea where China was to being able to point it out on the map, too!”

“This is a wonderful program that I look forward to teaching each year. My students also look forward to this project as well. It’s a great way to cover many of our start visual arts standards and gives my students a great opportunity to share personal stories through their artwork. I look forward to seeing the art we receive in the fall and continuing this wonderful project next school year!”

After completing their artwork, 14 counties submitted samples for the selection process that takes place at the MSU Asian Studies Center, International Studies and Programs, International Center, in East Lansing, Michigan. Of the thousands of pieces submitted, 100 pieces were selected to send to China. The 2019 group of selected artwork will be proudly displayed on the Michigan State University Extension 4-H Youth Development China Art Resources page.

2019 Selection Committee 043
The 2019 selection committee. Photo by Jan Brinn | MSU Extension.

The Michigan children’s artwork sent to China will be exhibited in schools in Shandong Province. Song Lize, the Michigan contact who works with the Education Bureau of Binzhou City, Shandong Province, China, stated in an email correspondence, “Really, it is a bridge for children from two countries.”

In addition to the artwork sent to China, only a certain number were allowed to be sent to MSU for the selection process. This year, the participating counties sent 300 pieces of children’s artwork that was selected to represent them as part of the 2019 Michigan 4-H Art Exchange. The Asian volunteer participants translated all the artwork to be sent to China into Chinese. The volunteer selection committee comprised of individuals with a global education background and passion for this challenging selection process.

A diverse audience continues to be involved and children across Michigan have a global awareness and knowledge of China. Teachers continue to add to their annual syllabus the project to art class, social studies, creative writing, teaching technology, global holiday education, basic comparable, and more that provided richness to the school’s global education.

Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program helps to prepare youth as positive and engaged leaders and global citizens by providing educational experiences and resources for youth interested in developing knowledge and skills in these areas.

Other global educational opportunities including the Michigan 4-H China Art Project can be found on the MSU Extension Global and Cultural Education website. For more information about 4-H learning opportunities and other 4-H programs, contact your local MSU Extension county office. If you would like to learn more about Michigan 4-H International Exchange Programs for hosting or travel, be sure and visit the website.

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