Teaching Diary – Day 1

Dear Diary:

I survived my first day of teaching, Spring Semester 2007. After 10 weeks of vacation and quiet, I found that I was actually excited to be heading back to a group environment. I worried for awhile about exactly how I would begin the semester. As it turned out, my first two classes were a bit of an anticlimax. Students have the first 3 weeks to register for English class, and now that they are familiar with the teachers, attendance was very light. It was a big difference – after an average of 40 students last semester, my classes today numbered 15 and 9 respectively. That was fine, except after 2 months of quiet I was ready to do a lot of talking, and prepared my classes for “the masses.” Teaching a large group requires a completely different dynamic from a smaller, more intimate group.

I talked and talked; in fact, I lectured for the first 45 minutes. I decided to concentrate on different styles of learning: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic (learning by doing or by working with things). I then told the “story” of my experience as a beginner at learning Chinese. The students found this quite amusing, since they could identify with some of the feelings I had experienced.

I described how I do my best learning: alone, at home, usually with music playing, studying for short periods, and preferring visual lessons and using movements, such as writing or making diagrams. I also shared how I do my best thinking while walking or doing physical activity. For instance, I planned this entire blog entry in my head while walking 6 times around the University track after dinner this evening. Oddly enough, my best teaching ideas come together while doing my Zen Buddhist meditation in the mornings! Now that’s a learning style for you.

The second half of class I gave myself a rest, and the students and I watched Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times together, or at least the first 20 minutes, in which Charlie survives an “automatic feeding machine” and gets “eaten” by the factory machinery.

I found out that virtually all my students were familiar with Chaplin (his movies are easily available here on DVD), and some were familiar with the social issues of the 1930s: the Depression, poverty, struggles for workers’ rights, man vs. industrial society, etc. The movie dates from 1936; Chaplin had universal appeal, but I wondered how many other films of that era would be instantly recognized today as icons of American culture. The only two that immediately come to mind are Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz.

Showing the class one image from Modern Times, I had student groups “predict” what they thought the film would be about. After watching, we talked briefly about words to describe the action in the film. I’m also very interested in using silent films to teach the English language – for instance, students can watch a silent segment, and then create a dialogue for the characters. They can also use their visual learning skills to deduce emotional or social themes from the film, explaining them in English. I have a lot more work to do, however, on these ideas.


After much planning, these are the major themes that I will cover with my classes this semester:

JOB INTERVIEWS: role plays, with student “applicants” applying for positions and interviewing with student “corporations.” Class discussion will focus on definitions of what it means to be a professional. What qualities and behaviors do they have? Do you have these qualities as a graduate student? How do you develop them?

[While I’m typing this I’m listening to Sheena is a Punk Rocker by The Ramones, on one of my own compilation CDs. Is that professional?]

TALK SHOWS: Mid-semester oral evaluations will require student groups to create and present some kind of talk show for the class. They can let their imaginations run wild as to the format; for instance, they might choose to emulate:

Oprah Winfrey
Jerry Springer
Meet the Press
Celebrity interviews
Historical characters having a conversation

POETRY: poetry is language in a concentrated form, relying on sounds, images, and brevity in expressing ideas. Some of my ideas include:

Song lyrics as poetry: Bob Dylan or John Lennon (learning through music)
Lawrence Ferlinghetti and American poetry of the “Beat Generation”
Creating a “Found Poem” – choosing random words from a piece of literature or cut out of magazines and newspapers, then assembling them into pleasing or intuitive patterns to create new meanings.

CLASS MAGAZINE: The Final Project for the semester will be a group effort, done mainly outside of class. Students will conceive, write, design, and create a physical “magazine.” Ideally it will be on paper, but online formats might work too. Each student must contribute a piece of writing in any genre – fiction, biography, scholarly research, interview, movie or book review, personal diary, etc. Photos, graphic design, and editing will all be done by students. Magazines will be shared with other classes, and I may attempt to scan them to share online.


Sometimes I’m a bit slow. I learn things late in life. For instance, I didn’t realize until I was in college and saw The Wizard of Oz in color on a big screen for the first time that the Wicked Witch of the West was green. Sad but true.

Kukla – “high” brow; Ollie – “no” brow

Just today, I learned something new from, of all places, Kukla, Fran & Ollie. For the first time I learned where the concepts of “Highbrow” and “Lowbrow” come from. I knew the terms – they mean refined and elitist as opposed to popular or vulgar – but I didn’t know that the “brow” part comes from the height of a person’s forehead. Imagine that – a person with a higher forehead being more intelligent. [By the way, I just measured mine – forehead, that is – and I’m definitely “highbrow.”]

Dr. Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828), founder of the ‘science’ of phrenology, gave support to the old folk notion that people with big foreheads have more brains. The theory, later discredited, led to the expression ‘highbrow’ for an intellectual, which is first recorded in 1875. New York Sun reporter Will Irvin popularized ‘highbrow,’ and its opposite ‘lowbrow’ in 1902, basing his creation on the wrongful notion that people with high foreheads have bigger brains and are more intelligent and intellectual than those with low foreheads.


OK, so much for today’s lessons.

Into the sunset….


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