A birthday surprise — because it’s not my birthday

A birthday surprise -- because it's not my birthday
JISHOU, HUNAN — On Friday I told my freshmen that I would not be returning to teach them English in the fall. By way of explanation, I said I was now 61, one year over the mandatory “retirement” age for foreign teachers here. Well, I guess some of my students took that to mean I had just had a birthday, so two of them today went to a DIY cake shop and made me a small birthday cake (photo above). My birthday is in January, but no matter! They were showing their affection and care for me, so I just went along with it. Charissa and Jackie (pictured below) arrived after dinner with the cake, candles, paper plates and forks. They sang “Happy Birthday,” I made a wish, and blew out the candles. Though the decoration was a bit over the top, the cake tasted great, and it was a very nice surprise. The freshmen are now in some kind of special classes — I suspect a test run of some computer-based learning system. So, my last classes with them were a week ago. I’m an evaluator of their progress in the special classes, so I still will see them ...

Big news: some bad, some good 1

Big news: some bad, some good
JISHOU, HUNAN — I’ve been quiet here for the last two weeks, because I have been very, very busy, and not just for the usual end-of-the-term onslaught of activities. I learned on June 2 that I had “aged out” of my job here in Hunan, and would need to leave China no later than June 30. That’s the bad news — a forced separation from this place and the people I’ve grown to love. While I can still visit, I can no longer teach in Jishou on a work visa, because in April Hunan province enacted a new rule — 60 is the maximum age for a work visa. I’m now 61. Now for the good news. Within a few days of posting my resume on Dave’s ESL Café I was offered a job at the Henan University of Technology in Zhengzhou. There, the maximum age is 64 (I asked several times to be sure), so conceivably I can work there another three years if I like — or as long as the province or the city doesn’t abruptly change the rules to screw over the foreigners again. In fact, several English language schools in China sent me offers, but ...

A teacher grades Donald Trump’s remarks about Black History Month, gives speech an F

A teacher grades Donald Trump's remarks about Black History Month, gives speech an F
HIROSHIMA, JAPAN — Donald Trump (R-Blowhard) made some remarks Wednesday about Black History Month and (the bust of) Martin Luther King Jr. that have left many puzzled. For one thing, Trump appeared to believe Frederick Douglass (at left) was still alive, though he died 122 years ago. Less puzzling was the extent to which Trump took the opportunity to talk about himself and his campaign. In a speech of less than 800 words, he managed to address the topic of Black History Month and notable African-Americans less than half the time. To demonstrate what I mean, I’ve highlighted in red anything pertinent to the subject of Black History Month and struck out anything relating to Trump and his campaign and election. If this had been a homework assignment for a class of mine, I would have failed it, and required the student to rewrite it. It barely addresses the topic at hand, and the general tone is so casual and flip that it would lead one to believe the speaker not only knows very little about black history but that he doesn’t even care to. In my professional judgment, Trump barely spent five minutes preparing this talk. “Just a few ...

Another term put to bed

JISHOU, HUNAN — Another term is past. I put in three intensive days to plow through marking my Listening Comprehension exams, and turned in my grade on Tuesday. I am a free man! This term was relatively easy. I have four sections each of Oral English and Listening Comprehension, totaling about 160 students. I designed the listening exams to be quick to mark, so plowing through them while I watched TV or listened to music wasn’t so bad. Likewise, the spoken English final assessments were already done by the time I gave the listening exams; all I needed to do was calculate their grades in Excel. So, what now? I have nearly eight weeks of vacation stretching out in front of me. For now, I’m just going to take it easy at home, as I still have some tutorials to meet. Then I’ll go travel somewhere. Haven’t made up my mind where yet. Meanwhile, I’ve been tweaking things here at Wheat-dogg’s World, and republishing the blogs I wrote about coming to China and being in China, as The China Chronicles. They’re indexed in the Pages section your right. Each chapter covers a year. I had hoped to find a WordPress ...

It’s almost the end of the term

It's almost the end of the term
JISHOU, HUNAN — Today I gave my last exams of the fall term. Classes ended last week. Once I hand in my marks next week, I’ll be free for nearly two entire months! My duties this year are teaching Listening Comprehension and Oral English to the freshmen and sophomores in our college. That’s about 160 students, so my load is much lighter than in the past. For the listening classes, we met in a lecture hall yesterday where I could meet all the frosh at once, then all the sophs at once. Judging from the groans of dismay, what I hoped to be a relatively fair exam may have been harder than I thought. More than a few students have told me they think they failed the test. Both listening exams followed the same format. Part 1: A VOA Learning English report. Announcers for these reports speak more slowly and use easier words than regular VOA readers. Parts 2 and 3: Short exercises from their textbooks. Part 4: Dictation of the first paragraph of Matilda. It seems they did OK with the VOA Special English section, but the readers on the other section spoke too quickly for the students. Granted, ...

The many roles of a teacher

This is the quote I was seeking from my Facebook friends several weeks ago. Turns out I had it on my computer all along. In the high school classroom you are a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar, a clerk, a referee, a clown, a counselor, a dress-code enforcer, a conductor, an apologist, a philosopher, a collaborator, a tap dancer, a politician, a therapist, a fool, a traffic cop, a priest, a mother-father-brother-sister-uncle-aunt, a bookkeeper, a critic, a psychologist, the last straw. — Frank McCourt, Teacher Man: A Memoir, Scribner, 2006 Frank McCourt is the author of Angela’s Ashes, among other books. He taught high school English for 30 years in the New York City public schools before becoming a writer. Teacher Man is a memoir of his teaching career. Here’s the squib about him from Amazon.com. Frank McCourt (1930-2009) was born in Brooklyn, New York, to Irish immigrant parents, grew up in Limerick, Ireland, and returned to America in 1949. For thirty years he taught in New York City high schools. His first book, “Angela’s Ashes,” won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award and the L.A. ...

Teaching teachers, episode 2

JISHOU, HUNAN — Saturday was a busy day for me, as I once again got to teach teachers. The last time I led such a workshop was almost three years ago, when I and another American at the Zhangjiajie campus spent a few days in a nearby small town, Yongshun, teaching middle school English teachers from the nearby counties. It seems that the local Foreign Experts office has once again realized that it could use Xiangxi prefecture’s measly foreign teacher contingent more fully, and organized a one-day workshop for teachers in Jishou city, and Fenghuang and Huayuan counties. This time, two teachers from YaSi Middle school handled the morning session, and I took the afternoon session. Not three weeks before, we were part of another, more business-oriented workshop with local government and business leaders. Whether this is part of a new effort to use us more widely, or to compensate for shutting off our part-time employment possibilities is hard for me to say. Either, we were paid for our efforts, and treated to free meals, so I won’t complain. My readers who are teachers will identify with this remark made by two of the teachers at Saturday’s session. She complained ...

How NOT to teach English to first graders

How NOT to teach English to first graders
JISHOU, HUNAN — There are times when I am left speechless by some people’s ideas on how to teach kids English. Here is one of them. Many of my former students here are now working as teachers, either in regular schools or in one of China’s many English training schools. Some of these training schools are quite good, and others, frankly, are a bit dodgy. The latter kind are often opened by people with little or no teaching experience with the main idea being to make money off parents desperate to improve their children’s chances at getting into top middle schools, high schools, universities, careers. So, take a look at the text in the photo here. You should be able to guess it’s an abridged version of Robinson Crusoe, by Daniel Defoe. There are no pictures. The right hand side of the book has definitions of the bolded words in the text. My student, M., tells me her boss wants her to teach this text to five- and six-year-olds. Not with pictures, or cartoons, or activities, but by having the kiddos read the text out loud. He told M. it’s the best way to learn to new words. Speechless, right? ...

Jishou U students perform ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in Tujia setting, nab runner-up prize

JISHOU, HUNAN — Chinese universities have had a Shakespeare competition for the last nine years. This year, Jishou University was first runner-up. Students from the Zhangjiajie campus adapted scenes from Romeo and Juliet to a Tujia minority setting, complete with a Tujia-style wooden home, costumes and songs. Check it out! [You will see some advertisements first. Sorry about that.] The Tujia are one of China’s ethnic minorities, and have lived in this part of China for thousands of years. Setting Shakespeare’s blank verse to traditional Tujia songs works surprisingly well. If the embedded video doesn’t play, try this direct link.

Guest blog — Carla Wu: Is everything all right?

Guest blog -- Carla Wu: Is everything all right?
YUEYANG, HUNAN — Carla Wu (吴双 Wu Shuang) is a former student of mine, graduating in 2011. In August she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, had surgery to remove a tumor on her femur, and has had two rounds of chemotherapy so far. Today I am publishing a poem she put in her Qzone. We hope you like it. Is everything all right? It’s already been more than two months. As for today, in a word, it’s nice to be alive. I went home, so, that’s ok. I can sleep and be lazy every day, so, that’s ok. I eat a meal, have a drink, or on a nice day, can sit quietly in the sunshine in the courtyard, so, that’s ok. I have a lot of time to think about things every day, so, that’s ok. I can read and write every day, so, that’s ok. If I am bored, I can watch TV, so, that’s ok. On sunny afternoons, I can go out for a walk, so that’s also good. Sometimes, a lot of childhood friends come over to play cards, or to chat with me, so, that’s ok. At night I can see the limitless night sky, so, ...

Five of my great students 1

Five of my great students
JISHOU, HUNAN — Teaching is a people profession, a concept that many of today’s corporate-minded “reformers” of education ignore. Students and teachers are more than just cogs in a machine. Ideally, they should be partners in a joint venture, to learn. For me, my students are among the greatest delights — and strengths — of my job. Allow me to introduce a few more of my Chinese students. During National Holiday, I visited two of former students, who were among the first I taught in China. I met them when they were seniors, and only taught them one term. Chris and Sophia now live in Tianjin, near Beijing, and work at Nankai University. Chris and Sophia were classmates and got married soon after graduation. Now, they have a two-year-old girl, and comfortable jobs. Chris was the first Jishou University student I met here. He, Sophia and their classmate, Ava, all worked as interns in the Foreign Affairs Office. They were my right-hand man and women for the first several weeks of my time here, before I got my feet on the ground and found other students to help me out. Chris’ special area of expertise was as a tech guy. ...

Linguistic revelation, courtesy of my Thailand travels

JISHOU, HUNAN — Over the last five years, I’ve been puzzled by the manner in which one or two students in each class pronounce English. Talking with my Chinese colleagues, it seems some of these students have the same indistinct pronunciation in Mandarin, as well. We concluded it was a syndrome which used to be called “lazy tongue,” but (I have just learned) is now referred to as an apraxia of speech. Now I am not so sure, after hearing the way some Thais speak their own language. My students’ diction problems may result from the speech patterns of their mother languages, which are often not Mandarin. Some disclaimers, first of all. I have no formal training in linguistics or speech therapy, so take whatever I write here with a grain of salt. I am proposing a hypothesis, based on an amateur’s observations. Briefly, here is the situation. Several of my students’ English is blurred or mushy. Their voices seem to come from way back in the oral cavity, instead of more toward the front of the mouth. In addition, their consonants are often indistinct, so I have to pay close attention to what they are saying to be sure ...
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