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Karen Gorringe sees her world differently now. That's what a 10-day trip to China can do for a person.

The Bluffdale Elementary School sixth-grade teacher won the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, given annually to five educators nationwide. Nominated by the Utah Education Association, she received a $10,000 prize and a trip to China from June 22 to July 1, when she and 20 other teachers from across the U.S. spent four days touring schools in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong.

"The main focus of the trip was to go study the educational system in China and see how it compared to ours, and to share something with them," said Gorringe, a teacher of 24 years. "We also got to talk to students, which was probably the most rewarding thing."

Bluffdale Elementary principal Ken Westwood said Gorringe's trip will benefit students because "kids get a taste of a different culture and a different people." This creates tolerance and respect for other cultures, he said.

During the trip, Gorringe (rhymes with "orange") and her fellow teachers were blown away by several stark differences between the Chinese and Utah systems.

In Beijing and Shanghai, students' rote memorization skills are excellent, she said. Elementary-school youngsters can rattle off math formulas and recall other facts. However, "thinking outside the box," brainstorming and asking "why?" are foreign concepts. Gorringe said students have not been taught to question or explore their own beliefs.

That revelation made Gorringe reflect on her own career.

"I'm very grateful to be teaching in the American system where kids are allowed to dream and think outside the box and question," she said. "I love kids who question, because that right there is what has made our country great."

Another major difference Gorringe observed is that Chinese students are forced to leave school as early as elementary grades if they aren't excelling and passing certain tests. She described the Chinese educational system as "survival of the fittest."

"Even in first grade, you are weeded out and sent to another school," she said, noting that the government pays for schooling through the ninth grade.

Students who are expelled from regular school are sent to vocational schools or simply told to "go get a job." A select elite reach high school, and only 3 percent attend college, she said.

Curious about these students, Gorringe and her colleagues requested to tour a school of "weeded-out" middle-schoolers. They met sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders who were being trained to work in the tourism industry.

Gorringe said it was heartbreaking to meet students whose educations had been derailed. She thought of a student in her sixth-grade class at Bluffdale Elementary who is a bright, visual learner with potential who reads on a second-grade level. He wouldn't have a shot in the Chinese system, she said.

After visiting the school, Gorringe wondered, "What are the test scores not showing?" China's math and science students are reportedly superior to those in the U.S. "Of course they're going to surpass us because they're showing the elite of the elite," she said. "We, as Americans, would be shining stars in math, science, engineering and every area if we were allowed to do that, but we are showing the true picture of what we really are."

Gorringe noted several positives about the Chinese system.

She was impressed that sixth-graders she met were fluent in English. Students take education seriously in China and respect their teachers, she said.

She also admired Chinese parents. Most families only have one child, and parents are deeply involved with their child's studies. "If I had those kinds of parents," she said, speaking of Chinese moms and dads, "I can't imagine what I would be able to do."

The U.S. teachers each brought specific questions on the trip. Gorringe, a longtime advocate of the arts, wanted to know how, or if, arts are taught in China. She discovered that in Beijing, the arts don't exist. In Shanghai, "they exist to a point." In Hong Kong, a Westernized region, the arts are taught similarly to the American way.

Gorringe has already brought China-inspired arts back to her classroom. (Bluffdale Elementary is a year-round school.) Her students have begun to write a Chinese opera. So far, it features a "wise, old fellow," an "army of crickets" and an "evil frog," she said. Students will perform it for parents and fellow students later in the school year.

"There's going to be hundreds or thousands of kids that she shares these things with," said Westwood. "They'll hear stories about China, discuss differences. Lots of kids are going to benefit from that, so I think it's a pretty cool thing. … Her influence will ripple through the planet."

In February, Gorringe and her fellow globe-trotting teachers will head to Washington, D.C., where they will present to the National Education Association the lessons they brought back to their classrooms from China. The NEA helped sponsor the trip.

"You have an experience like that, and it definitely changes your perspective," Gorringe said.