Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Montessori Graduate meets Chinese method and awkward classroom moments

I am learning about Chinese classroom management one awkward moment at a time. I always knew that my educational background has been anything but traditional with regard to stringent rules and structure. I went from a Montessori school where we sat on the ground and called our teachers by their first names, to an all-girls school where our discussion was not only encouraged but as I remember difficult to harness. Next, it was on to Wooster where my Philosophy classes were often conducted in circles and I actually took an open book final exam on top of a building just because my professor said we could “go anywhere!” While I know that this is a special collection of experiences even in the US, when I’m teaching students pushed through the infamously strict Chinese education system I am occasionally genuinely flabbergasted.

For example, I was taken back the first time that I asked a student a question and they abruptly stood up and said “Teacher, I do no know,” and quickly sat back down. A little honored and yet a uncomfortable I thought, did you really have to stand to say that? If I ask a student to report on something, or give a speech, it takes on a nature of a diplomatic speech rather than casual explanation. There are usually about five sentences leading up to the meat of the speech somewhere along the lines of, “Today, I stand before you today, to tell of something of great importance in my life. I am honored to tell my opinion in your presence…etc.”

Yet perhaps the most obvious difference in conduct is that of pardoning oneself to the restroom during class. I don’t believe that I asked to use the restroom in high school and I most definitely did not in college. But these students can’t seem to break the habit. Despite my pleas for them to just go when nature calls, they will still appeal to me to grant them permission, often with way too many details supporting their request. For whatever reasons (water, kitchen sanitation, or real physiological differences) it is fair to say that my students frequently suffer from stomach problems. I know this because they tell of their discomfort during class. Perhaps the saddest example was one young looking Sophomore girl who suddenly jumped out of her seat. She ran to the front of the classroom arms extended and presented a note to me using two hands (which is considered respectful). The note read, “Teacher, I have diarrhea. I must go to the washroom now!” For God’s sakes go, I thought! Considering that I had to use spell-check to find the correct spelling of “diarrhea,” I am sure she spent two minutes in agony while she looked up the word in her dictionary and wrote it down. I kept a straight face and of course encouraged her to run!

I suspect that some of these awkward moments are also because they are being cautious because they do not know what a foreign teacher expects. I suspect that things will improve as we get to know one another. None the less, next semester I’ll lay down some rules. No telling the teacher when you are going to the bathroom NOR what you are going to do there.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Teaching Challenges

I teach all English majors except for one class of Engineers. You would think that I would prefer teaching English majors. But, ironically the class of engineers is my favorite class. Perhaps it is because I teach their only English class, whereas the English majors have only English classes. When these students enter their freshman year, they are assigned to a class of about 30 students with whom they will stay throughout their five years of study. They have up to six classes a day with the same students day in and day out, almost all of them dealing with some facet of the English language. By the time they get to my class they are sick of English and sick of each other. I’m contrasting this of course with my experience in an American college where we were encouraged, if not required, to take many courses outside of our majors. By contrast, these students’ schedules are written in stone before they even get to the university and they will follow the English track just as the class before them. I have heard that some universities go as far as to assign students to a desk mate for the entirety of their studies. I guess you cross your fingers that you get along!

Each week is a little adventure in Chinese academic culture. I am still trying to work out the parallels and opposites to the standard of education in my head. Here is an example of a particularly rough day that shed light on both the student’s struggles and mine.

There is one problem class in particular - 7th and 8th period, Sophomores. I had not attempted to discuss any environmental issues yet because I wasn’t sure if the topic would bomb or not. So finally, one of the last weeks in the semester, I floated a greeny topic to see what would happen. The topic was: How do you account for/describe/feel about the way Western media covers China’s environmental “crisis?” Albeit a loaded question, but I prefaced the entire thing by explaining that I cannot read Chinese newspapers and I am sadly limited to Western slants on China’s environmental situation (more precisely an American slant considering the BBC website is blocked in China).

The first two classes ate it up. We went over new vocabulary and how to use it. Then they explained the unfair criticism from developed western countries and even gave me some examples of recent advancements and solutions from the central government. We even had a mock debate. However, my problem class was silent. I mean totally silent. While I am getting more comfortable with silence in the classroom, this went on forever. I have quickly learned that a question directed to the whole class usually goes unanswered. Students are trained to only listen in class, so there is no feeling of responsibility to fill the silences in a class. That is, apparently, the teacher’s job. I got a few students to admit that they simply were not interested in this topic; that was all I could squeeze out of them. Finally with still 45 minutes left to go in a two hour class, I told them to leave. I said those who want to have class can stay, those who want to leave may leave. And they did - except one, Melody. Her pronunciation is careful and precise and she obviously cares about learning English. I quizzed her about her reticent classmates. She explained two important things.

First, the majority of students in her class were assigned to be English majors. In fact, they have no interest in English at all. Apparently when admitted to a Chinese University, you must decide a major before the start of freshman year. However, there are limits to each department and if that major is full or you don't qualify, you are simply assigned to another. Simply obtaining a university degree is far more important than the actual subject matter studied (not to mention one’s interest there-in.)

The second challenge is cultural. She explained that most students are taught to be modest in class and in life. If a student speaks too much the other students will feel that they are showing off. I admit that during my college classes I was careful to avoid becoming the class loud mouth. But this seems to be a more extreme awareness. Melody confided that she is careful to not speak more than three times in any class period….even if this is “Oral English.”

Such is the growing tally of challenges: (in addition to never really having taught full two hour lessons in a university before in my life) I have shy, socially awkward and paranoid students who are stuck with all English classes all week with the same classmates since freshman year, half of whom don’t even like English at all. Add to this a completely useless book from which to teach, absolutely zero suggestions on curriculum or grading standards, and a support staff that speaks no English. Finally, include classrooms just large enough for 10 rows of bolted down desks, a chalk covered podium, and a blackboard. Go!