Thoughts on Two Days of Teaching

Lotus Pond, Chengdu
It’s now Saturday night, and I’m enjoying a cool breeze through the window after a comfortable, mild day.

I survived two days of teaching. It was an experience right out of To Sir, With Love – or Carrie, I’m not sure which. I taught two classes Thursday morning and one Friday morning, and I played to capacity crowds. Since the classroom has 69 seats (I counted when the room was empty), that means that I taught 218 students in 3 classes. Whew. A large class is OK if you’re lecturing, but I’m teaching Composition and Conversation – subjects that work best in small groups.

I knew about the large classes before I came to China, but what I recently found out is that the students have 3 weeks to sit in on various classes and audition their teachers, before they have to enroll online and commit themselves to just one class. It’s a barbaric practice, because you have no continuity, or even the same students, until the 4th week. I’ve already mentioned in previous posts that there is no textbook, no curriculum, and no single set of expectations because the students are all at different levels of ability.

For my first class I did a general presentation on writing and speaking – how they’re both social acts, creative acts, and physical activities. I then had the class write in pairs, and explained “brainstorming” and that “Two heads are better than one.” In the second half of class, we wrote in groups, to practice speaking skills and to generate ideas about what the students actually need from me.

I began each class by asking “How many of you HATE writing?” As I expected, about half the room raised their hands (the other half was scared to). I explained WHY most students hate writing – it’s all done under pressure, from professors and from essay questions on exams. Writing in a foreign language is even MORE stressful. I explained that Writing = Thinking, as it’s a way of organizing your thoughts, and I promised to make them like writing just a little bit more.

I got some very good feedback from some of the Friday students. I was told to speak faster, at a normal speed (I’m still in my beginning-level English mode from L.A.), and how to interest the students more. They also want a LOT of conversation practice. That’s good, because they’ve never had the chance to practice their English conversation, but it has drawbacks. I know from experience that, especially in large classes, structured conversation turns into chit-chat, and lapsing into the native language. Students who don’t want to participate won’t, and just sit there. A lot of conversation practice is simply a waste of time, because instead of improving, the students just keep making the same mistakes and using their same limited vocabulary. Besides, there’s NO oral component on the CET standard English tests they have to pass, so why spend time on something that they won’t be tested on?

One of the writing topics I assigned was “English as a Global Language – Good or Bad?” I’m of two minds on the matter myself – I love languages, and teaching English is my livelihood. But, as one article asks, “Why should 1.3 billion Chinese learn English?” Well, because it’s linguistic imperialism, that’s why:

…China opened its gate to English as the unofficial second language. Legions of approximately 150,000 foreign EFL teachers (Niu Qiang & Martin Wolff 2003) and more than 1,000,000 Chinese English teachers (MacArthur 2004) are currently teaching English to more than 600,000,000 Chinese at any given moment, twice the population of the United States of America.

This army of English teachers unavoidably brings with it a simultaneous invasion of Western culture. “… language and culture converge when we assign value to particular words and their corresponding objects or symbols. In this sense, words are little more than audio-visual tags for cultural value.” The British Council, the United Kingdom’s international organization for educational opportunities and cultural relations, brags that “The English language is the UK’s biggest export success story.” However, Britain’s role remains an essentially imperial one: to act as junior partner to US global power; to help organise the global economy to benefit western corporations; and to maximise Britain’s (that is British elites’) independent political standing in the world and thus remain a ‘great power’.

The Modern Day Trojan Horse?
By: Niu Qiang, Ph.D. and Martin Wolff, J.D

English has been called a “gatekeeper:” students can’t get their university degree without passing a proficiency test; they’re told that it’s essential to employment and to success in the business world; some job promotions are awarded only to those with English proficiency, even if English is never used in their job; people are told that their access to information on the Internet will be limited without knowing English. No wonder some of my students are resentful.

As one sarcastic teacher quipped: “1.3 billion Chinese are being taught English so that they can all say ‘hello.’”

Those are my thoughts for the moment. I’m sure that I’ll have many more as the semester progresses. I spend most of my outside time reading my books on teaching, and scanning the internet for ideas. I’ve also started a Yahoo Group for my students, and I’ll be posting examples on their writing online. This entire first year will be a learning experience, to say the least.


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