One for you bibliophiles, and English teachers, too

JISHOU, HUNAN — My quietest oral English class surprised me last Thursday. They went totally ga-ga over the paperback novels I brought into class. And I fell in love.

I had a shelf full of used paperbacks I and my friend Janice have picked up at thrift stores. Looking at them, I figured it was high time to hand a few out, because they were gathering dust sitting in my office. So I picked four that I thought would be appropriate in terms of reading level, and brought them to my sophomore oral English class.

This is the all-girl class: 40 English education majors who as a group are the quietest English majors I have had so far. (There are signs of this situation changing, however.)

So, I walked into class and plunked the books down on the lectern. Since we are having an in-class English speech contest soon, the students thought the books were the prizes. I said, no, I just brought these in to share with some of you.


Hands flew into the air. Some girls got out of their seats advancing toward the lectern, still with their hands in the air. I had a brief feeling that I was soon going to be mobbed over one young-adult book and three suspense novels.

That feeling quickly changed to surprise (where was all this enthusiasm before?) to elation (they really DO like English!). I was for a few seconds completely speechless. I fell in love with this class at that moment.

I had finished up teaching them last year by telling them to work harder, get active, find some self-confidence. Don’t accept the idea that your English is poor, or that you’re not a good student. (These are three-year students, whose entrance exam scores are typically lower than four-year undergrad students’.) Keep trying, and success will follow.

Two weeks ago I found that almost half the class was going to participate in the class speech contest. That was impressive enough for such a quiet group. And on Thursday I found they are all crazy about reading English books.

Love in bloom.

So, I gave everyone a small scrap of paper to put her name on, and the slips went into a bag. I pulled out four names at random. Then, during the 10-minute break, I pulled the rest of the books off the shelf, about a dozen, and we had another drawing after the break.

My rules for book lending are very liberal. I don’t really care if the books ever come back, but I hope they will. When a student finishes a book, he or she should let a roommate or friend have it. Since I don’t keep close tabs on how many books I have, I can’t honestly say how many have actually been returned. Last year’s graduates were pretty decent about returning the books they had borrowed before they left school, though.

None of the books are literary classics. Most are murder mysteries. There’s a John Grisham in the mix. A John LeCarré. A young adult Newberry winner. They’re intended to be light reading, and (most importantly) they’ve been written within the last 50 years. Most of the novels available in the university library were written before World War II, and new books from the USA or UK are ridiculously expensive in China, especially for students.

Right now, 24 of these students hunger for books to read. I have two other oral English classes besides this one. We need books! Please!

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