Monthly Archives: January 2009

>Entry 12: The worst was yet to come

>Prior to the tests, they had reminded me several times to create a series of questions based on what I’d taught and email them to Vicki.

The morning of the tests I gave her a slip of paper, four questions crudely scribbled, a pen in one hand, the other shifting between a cigarette and a cup of coffee.

The first tests marked my honeymoon period’s final gasp and my apathy’s first word. Beacon editorial guidelines prevent me from using it, but I trust you can fill in the _____ing blank. Use black ink.

I slunk in the room and joined the other teachers. We graded the students out of 100, based on how much they said and how they said it. The scores weren’t so bad, at least on my paper. Several got above 90. A couple scored 100. Those two weren’t shy.

Dividing the students into groups was a stupid idea because in these groups one or two became the outspoken ones and literally outspoke the others. Quiet students, those a little reserved or afraid to speak, had no chance to say anything. And their grades suffered for it.

Overall, they did fine, but there were problems. Aside from the aforementioned set-up, they had trouble producing new sentences on complex questions. That would normally be nothing to worry about, but remember, these students have been studying English for six years.

So what happened? Observe:

Me: How are you doing?

Student: Sleeping.

This perfectly illustrates how Chinese students learn English. Speaking? Nope. Learning it as a language, a fluid entity to be used? Nope. They do rote memorization. They learn patterns. I believe anyone who first learns a foreign language first does rote memorization and clings to certain patterns, but at some point in our education, we stop and begin actually use the language and learn from there.

They never stop at any point.

The pattern they see above is part of the question and the intonation. “____ are you doing”. They were taught “What are you doing?”, and they have never had a real oral English class. Plus, their Chinese teachers’ English is bad anyways, so having an oral class is a complete joke.

Hence, they cannot understand my question. Even when I explained, they still didn’t get it. I had to write both “How are you?” and “How are you doing?” on the board and underline the common denominator before they got it. But even then, I had my doubts.

Because when I tested the next batch of students, I asked them: “How are you doing?”

“This morning I wake up…”

Yes, the next batch of students. The honeymoon is over. Reality comes knocking and you have no choice but to answer.

They were Computer Science. Or Computer Engineering. Which one? The hell if I know. I asked them on the first day, “What is your major?”, and I got silence. I asked again. And again. I single out one student, crept close, and asked. Still silence. After repeating myself several times and speaking slowly, I finally asked,

“What are you studying?”

And they shouted, “Computers!”

“Okay. But what about computers?”

Silence. It was while before I got the different answers out of them. Not even the Chinese teachers knew what they hell their major was. If we are going to rank the students based on English language skills, then the Computer Students were the worst. No big deal though. They are that: students, and we are allegedly doing this intensive course so they can learn.

If we are going to rank them based on behavior, then they are the worst. Aside from openly yawning in class, sleeping, smarting off and saying pretty much everything short of “entertain us!”, two students left class one day.

That’s nothing new. Students leave. A lot never come back. I don’t blame them. But these kids left during the break, slept in an empty classroom, and returned.

So I asked them where they’d gone. They wouldn’t answer. So I got a Chinese teacher. Conversation in Mandarin ensued, and she informed me that they went to get their “lunch card” which they left at the cafeteria.

No. That’s a lie. I told her this and asked her what I can do.

“You can mark them down during the test.”

Ah…the test. So the worst was yet to come.

>Entry 11: These Six Weeks

>What should I teach the English majors? What’s the curriculum? Let me quote an email verbatim:

“you can teach everything you like, the content is related to oral Enlish and American culture . That’s ok.”

Shortly after I began teaching the sophomore English majors on Friday afternoon, I got an email announcing the schedule and times for…for some classes. I didn’t know because they didn’t explain it. All they gave me was a schedule of 10 classes spread out over six week periods with some vague ideas, such as

“these six week’s topic is the same one: shopping.”

Or

“these six week’s topic will be movie.”

I later made them explain to me what the hell I am doing and who the hell I am actually teaching. Of course, all descriptions I offer, I did not know upfront. All of this came later, in bits and pieces, and only after I asked.

Classes were held at the New Campus, which meant a twenty-minute bus ride there each morning and a twenty minute bus ride back each day at noon.

At the beginning, the intensive course was divided into ten classes. There were five laowai teachers and six Chinese teachers. We rotated to a different class each day. So on the first day, I taught Class 10, then on the second, class 1, etc.

This would occur for four weeks (not six), then we tested them, and then we got another batch of freshman non-English majors, and it would reoccur in regular four-week intervals until the end of the semester.

Our classrooms had computers, and we were supposed to teach from a Powerpoint. While this set-up did make it easy to craft a certain set of material and coast for awhile, it made it difficult to get to know the students names. Or recognize them for that matter.

I am writing this two days before the end of the semester, and I can only remember two students and their names. That’s all. The rest is a young Asian blur.

No curriculum. No way to reach the students. Few of them wanted to learn. The foreign teachers complained. Some of them smoked. I did, regularly for the first time in my life. And each and every day, I said ‘hello’, got little in response, and attempted to do something worthwhile for three, forty-five minute periods.

Three periods. Way too much. If you’re going to give us that much time, at least give us a curriculum to go by. Or something other than a vague topic, like “shopping” or “movies”. Other teachers had “advertising” and “love & marriage”.

How is a Powerpoint on shopping supposed to improve one’s English? It depends on the approach. Mine consisted of giving them store vocabulary, such as how to ask the clerk how to find an item, complete with pictures of store types and the corresponding names (Grocery Store, Superstore, Mom and Pop, etc.). I even crafted an entire dialogue on how to properly get gas in America, and for what?

For blank stares. For nothing, really. I showed them some pictures of stores in America. Wal-Mart, which is here in Wuhan, and I tried to spark a conversation about big business versus small business, but it did not go well. It didn’t even light.

Thank God my cigarette did. Though deadly, it does help.

Early on, one of the teachers quit. She was a tall, Australian girl. Chain-smoker (can you blame her? I can’t), she did not live near campus and took a taxi to the South Lake Campus before taking the bus to the New Campus to be, as one teacher put it, a “glorified babysitter”.

So she walked. I don’t blame her.

Following her departure, they reorganized. Their idea was for teachers to stay with their classes for the whole week. One guy complained; he preferred to rotate. Others embraced it. This eventually evolved into an alternating schedule each week.

One week we teach two classes, a different one each morning, Monday through Friday. The next week, we teach those two classes three days a week, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

They altered mine a bit more. Whenever I taught Friday afternoon, I stayed home Monday morning. And on those weeks, I taught Tuesday morning, substituting Tuesday for Monday.

A week or so after the schedule change, we tested the first batch of students. They split the teachers into two groups, a mixture of laowai and Chinese, and called the students in groups of four to discuss questions on one of the topics we went over.

>Local Dialects and Travel Plans

>Between my apartment and the backstreet, three small boys are beating each other with a branch in the late afternoon. They are shouting, and as we have it, the sounds they use to represent the thoughts and ideas we all share to some degree differ from any sounds I can make or understand.

I ask my girlfriend what those kids are saying.

I don’t know. They are speaking the local dialect.

The local dialect. As simple a tonal difference or as large as syntactical differences, local dialects represent regions the same way accents do in America.

Putonghua is standard Chinese. Mandarin is what we refer to when we say the Chinese language. Some people get pretentious and say “She speaks Mandarin AND Cantonese” or “Gosh, I am going to learn Mandarin, right after I finish fine tuning this rocket”.

Mandarin = Putonghua. The Beijing Dialect, if you like, and most college students speak Putonghua.

And the local dialect. Of wherever they’re from.

A student I had from Guangzhou predictably spoke Cantonese. My girlfriend can speak the local dialect of her hometown, and it is this dialect I am going to hear when I go there on the 20.

The adjusted travel plan is as follows:

16 – buy train tickets.

20 – 25 – Spring Festival in my girlfriend’s hometown.

29 – Hong Kong. Duration to be determined.

Some time in February – begin teaching.

Not sure when. Not sure when I’ll know either. If they’re up to speed, then I’ll get an email a day before.

An hour before if they’re really at the top of their game.

>Language barrier prevents fist fight

>(Dskg and Trfgnm are eating lunch. They finish, and Trfgnm noticed that Dskg has not cleaned his plate)

Trfgnm: You waste food. You are a typical American!

Dskg: That’s not very nice. How would you like it if I called you a “typical Chinese”?

Trfgnm: But I am typical Chinese.

Dskg: That’s not what I…ugh. Never mind.