Up against the wall

Old stone wall, Chengdu
There are all kinds of walls. This week I felt like I was banging my head against some of them.
In one of my Summer School classes, I asked my students to “brainstorm” with a partner about what makes learning English difficult. We talked about their answers, and what we might do to make English a little less painful. Then I drew a picture on the board to help them “visualize” their difficulties – there was a small stick figure (the student) on one side and a group of people (English speakers) on the other. Between the two, I drew a high wall or barrier. The learning difficulties were the wall, and the students were always trying to jump over it or banging their heads against it, trying to make the people on the other side understand them. Our goal was to make the wall shorter and shorter, or to tear it down brick by brick. The students “got it” – they visualized their difficulties and put a name to them, so it took away some of the fear.
My lesson plans this past week have been trial and error. I had to start somewhere, so tried to get the classes to express why writing and speaking are difficult, stressful, intimidating, and just plain scary. One of the concerns for Chinese students is a fear of making mistakes and “losing face.” I used humor and some of my own language-learning experiences to lighten the atmosphere. I had them talk and write in partners and groups about their language difficulties. I also spent time letting them ask me all kinds of personal questions (“Why did you come to China?” “What do you think of Chinese people?” “Do you like George Bush?”).
There are things I need to work on. One of them is explaining things in more detail. I taught the word “stereotype” and explained that it means having ideas without knowing the real truth. Still, some students couldn’t get past “stereo” as in sound system, and “type” as in classification. It just occurred to me that I could have said, well, it’s them same in Chinese: you take two words or syllables that mean different things, and put them together in a new word. Put together the Chinese characters for “electric” and “brain” and you get the word COMPUTER.
One of the best things I’ve done is to teach the process of freewriting. Freewriting is simply writing nonstop for 5 or 10 minutes without thinking, re-reading, or correcting. It requires you to turn off your mental “Editor” and to gradually relax into the writing process. It’s also difficult and takes practice. Most did very well at it, and I really enjoyed the 5 minutes of total, absolute silence while they wrote, and I didn’t have to speak. It was a real contrast to the the noise when they talked in pairs and groups.
What did I learn this week? For one thing, my students have very analytical, technical thinking processes. They’re also used to being told what they have to know, and to memorizing and learning rules. One exercise that bombed was when I showed the class a cartoon, and told the student groups to come up with a caption for it. Most sat there with completely blank faces. It seemed to me that their creative, imaginative skills have not been encouraged at all. They were so concerned with pleasing the teacher and giving a “right” answer that they were afraid to be humorous. I showed what I thought was a funny picture, with a man sitting in front of a computer, with flames coming out of the computer and a large “HELP” message on the computer screen. I moved on to the next exercise quickly.
Another frustration is the different language abilities of students. Some need help with basic things like vocabulary and writing a simple sentence, while there are advanced students who refuse to even participate in the class exercises, as if they’re beneath their ability. At the other end of the spectrum, I noticed a student today who wasn’t taking part in a class activity. I tried to make conversation with him and ask some innocuous questions, only to find that he didn’t understand a word I was saying. I tried to engage him with other students, so that they could help him, but he disappeared at the break.
By the end of today, though, I was feeling more confident about my abilities. Teaching the same lesson plan 7 times in one week gives me the chance to refine and modify it. My classes are getting a little smaller – on Tuesday afternoon I only had 12 students, and it was very enjoyable because I was able to give them individual attention and talk to them in depth.
All in all, a very stressful week has become a more relaxing one. In my free time this week, I also read Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth, for its historical perspective on China.
For some reason Pink Floyd has been going through my head: “We don’t need no education, we don’t need no thought control….”
More thoughts next time.
There are all kinds of walls….

Apartment building wall seen from my window

Peeling wall and mysterious door

Brick wall and small woman

Undulating wall, Buddhist temple

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One response to “Up against the wall

  1. I’ve read a couple of posts of yours..really interesting..I can understand the difficoulty an foreign student has to face learning new languages..I like the idea of freewriting..I’ll try tomorrow.have a nice day

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