marjorieinchina: (Ariana)
[personal profile] marjorieinchina
I just returned on Sunday from a week in Beijing and Xi'an, and since I've unpacked and done my laundry, the necessary next step is to post about it. I'll do that soon, but in the meantime, here is an article about teaching that I wrote for the school paper. It is rather longer than it needed to be, it turned out--the teacher who translated it into Chinese also shortened it, but I haven't found out what parts were taken out.

This was also written to be translated, which means the sentences seem kind of choppy. I write enormously long sentences when left to my own devices, though, so this choppiness probably looks like more of a problem to me than to you.

Lessons in Being a Foreign Teacher

I have been teaching at Zhejiang Quzhou No. 2 Middle School since October. In that time I have taught classes in Junior 1-3 and in Senior 1. In most weeks, I teach more than seven hundred students. The only way I have been able to do this is by learning how to do it as I go along.

I was not a teacher when I arrived in China. I had worked for two years as an editor of children’s books, but I quit that job at the end of 2008. In the summer of 2009 I worked at a wildlife center where I taught programs about wolves. It was good experience, but I was more like a tour guide than a teacher.

I was not a teacher when I started meeting the students. In fact, I felt more like a rock star. Students gasped and cheered when they saw me walking through the school. At the school sports meeting I sat near a group of girls and they all asked for my autograph. I didn’t have to answer many questions about America yet, but my position as a foreigner was also a position as a kind of expert. This was startling. A week before, I had been just one out of three hundred million Americans; now I was the only American in town and therefore the highest available expert on the United States. Students eagerly asked me about American film and music and sports stars, and I felt like I was letting them down when I didn’t know the answers. (Apparently I know less about American pop culture than many Chinese teenagers do.) Teachers asked me questions about American life, and I answered as carefully and accurately as I could. It was an interesting position to be in, but it didn’t make me a teacher yet.

I was almost, but not quite, a teacher the first time I stepped onto the teacher’s podium in a classroom. The class and the classroom were not mine; the real teacher was at the back of the room, and I was just a visitor introducing myself. I told the students my name and where I came from, and then I hopped off the podium.

But when I taught my first class, I had no choice but to become a teacher the minute the bell rang. I am doing my best to live up to this role.

The other teachers here have been a valuable resource as I learn how to teach. When I arrived in Quzhou, one of the teachers told me an expression about teaching: “If you want to give your students a cup, you have to have a bucket.” I have remembered this statement while planning my lessons, and I have found it to be very true when teaching students about my native language. There are many words that I naturally understand without having to think about it. But if I want to explain these words to students, I often have to think of the best way to explain, especially because I don’t speak Chinese and so I can’t just translate the word for my students. Often, as I figure out how to explain these words, I learn more about the English language.

For example, I had a conversation with another teacher wherein I used the word “transparent,” and she asked me what it meant. This is a somewhat long word, and it might be hard to remember for someone who does not hear it very often. I thought about how to explain the word better and realized it was made of two parts: “trans,” which means across, as in “transport”; and “parent,” which means visible, as in “apparent.” When I explained this, the teacher was able to understand and remember the word. Breaking the word down and connecting it to other words is not something I ever have to do just to use English in my everyday life, but it is very useful for teaching English to others.

I don’t speak Chinese, so to teach a new word to my classes I have to explain it in English, sometimes using pictures. When I am planning a lesson, I usually put together a PowerPoint presentation and think about what words I will want to teach students in the course of a lesson. These are always words that I already know, but I often need to look them up in a dictionary before I am confident I will be able to explain them to my class. For example, I am currently teaching a lesson about outer space. In the lesson I use the words “universe,” “galaxy,” and “solar system.” The hardest word to explain is “universe,” even though this is a word I have known since I was very small. I read several definitions of the word “universe,” most of which were too technical or contained too many other difficult words for students to understand. Eventually I settled on telling them that the universe was “the biggest thing, everything there is.” I use pictures and a lot of expansive hand gestures to help with this explanation. Probably not all of my students have a perfect understanding of the word “universe.” But they understand it enough that at the end of the lesson when I refer back to the word, saying, “The universe is really, really,” many students finish my sentence: “really big!”

So talking to the teachers has helped me know how to teach. The other best way for me to learn about teaching is from my students. The strange thing about my position at this school is that there are no kids I can really call “my students.” They are all someone else’s students, and I am just a visiting teacher, giving the students a chance to spend some time with a native English speaker. Because I teach so many students, I don’t have time to get to know many of them individually. Instead, I get to know the personality of each classroom, and this, in addition to talking with teachers, is another way I have learned about the work of the teachers here.

In the first few classes that I taught, I greeted the students by saying “good morning” or “good afternoon.” I mostly did this because I didn’t know how else to start, but I discovered that many classes would respond by shouting “good morning” in response, sometimes standing up to do it. This kind of greeting is not common practice in America, and the students laughed when they saw how startled I was. But I found that this was a way for me to get the attention of the class, and make it clear that I was about to start teaching. Saying “good morning” or “good afternoon” has become part of my routine whenever I teach a class. It is a trick I have learned from the Chinese teachers even without seeing them do it.

From the start of my time here, I’ve used Powerpoint presentations to help in my lessons. The pictures help students understand the lesson if I use vocabulary they can’t quite follow what I’m saying. In my first class, I wanted to tell my students that I come from Minnesota in the United States. I expected that they would not know where Minnesota is, so I showed them a map of the United States with Minnesota highlighted. My hometown is in the prairie, another word I did not expect my students to know, so I showed them a picture of a prairie and some of the animals that live there. At the end of the class we played a game in which different students had to stand up and say where they would like to live.

All of this went well when I first taught it to the Senior 1 classes. The game with the socks got the students up and talking, and whenever I saw students who had been given this lesson, they would wave and shout “Hi, Marjorie!”, which at least proved that they remembered my name. But when I got to the junior school it was a different story.
In my first class with the Junior 2 students, I gave the same lesson I had taught to the Senior 1 classes. I wrote my full name on the board. I used the map that showed them where I am from. I left out the word “prairie,” as I thought it would be too difficult. We played the same game, and the students were able to answer, even if their answers were not as varied or as creative as the answers the Senior 1 students had given.

But when I met individual Junior 2 students after they had had this lesson, I found that many of them did not remember what I had taught them. “What is your name?” a student would often ask me. “Where are you from?” I would raise my eyebrows at them and ask, “Don’t you remember? Where am I from?” They usually had to guess. Most of the time they guessed I was from England, where the other foreign teachers are from. After this happened a couple times, I realized it wasn’t enough to have a class where I mentioned a fact and used a picture to illustrate it. I had to make sure the students understood. In my lessons for junior students now, I include fewer concepts and explain them more thoroughly than before. This means the students are able to focus on and understand the key ideas and vocabulary of the lesson.

At Christmastime I taught a lesson on the story A Christmas Carol and showed clips from a film of the story. At the beginning and end of recounting the story, I asked the students for adjectives to describe Scrooge, the main character in the story. As much as possible, I wanted the answers to these questions to come from the students—from their understanding the question in English and coming up with the correct answer—instead of delivering both question and answer myself while the students passively listened. I was looking for certain key words: “mean,” “selfish,” and “stingy” at the beginning of the story; “kind” and “generous” at the end. But I would accept any additional adjectives the students offered, so long as they were accurate. In some classes, the students were perfectly silent. In other classes, I could barely write as fast as the answers coming from the students. Some of these answers were on point, such as “cruel” or “bad,” and some were not, such as “old,” “bald,” “white,” and “long nose,” but all of them showed the students were observing something and interpreting it in English.

In each class, I felt like I could see the teacher’s style, even when the teacher was not there. Some of these teachers clearly asked their students a lot of questions—the classes where the students almost jumped out of their chairs in their eagerness to answer me. Some teachers must have insisted on having the students raise their hands before speaking, and in these classes the students would wait to be called on before saying anything. And some students, apparently, did not expect their English teacher to ask them many questions at all. I tried my best to take in this information and teach each class in a way they would be able to understand. More than this, I have tried to teach each class in a way that will also be a little new and exciting for them. I am glad for the things that I have learned about the way teachers here work, but as the foreign teacher, I also believe it is my job to be a little bit different. So I encourage students to speak in class even if they are not used to it, and I try to teach lessons on subjects that will be new to them.

I am grateful for what I have learned from all my teachers here in Quzhou, teachers and students alike, and the longer I am here, the better I learn how to take what I have learned and use it in my own way.
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marjorieinchina: (Default)

July 2010


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