The last post of 2010 (maybe)* 7

JISHOU, HUNAN — I’ve been busy these last few days getting ready to close up shop for the Winter Holiday. My last exam — for the Western Civ classes — is next Friday, and I’ll have a week to read those exams and hand in grades before I jet to the USA for a three-week stay. My free time, which is not that ample to begin with, has been taken up by giving oral examinations to more than 120 freshmen and sophomores, two at a time for 15 minutes each. This year, I’m using a combination of the Cambridge IELTS and BEC speaking tests: IELTS prompts for two student partners. That way, the students can do the talking while I carefully listen and evaluate pronunciation, intonation, grammar, vocabulary, rhythm and speed. After two years, I’m finally getting a handle on this oral English stuff. I’m calculating those students’ final grades this weekend (I only have a few left to examine), so the remaining Big Tasks are (1) reading the Western Civ students’ last unit test and (2) reading their final exams. I included a short essay on the final, and I gave them the three possible essay questions earlier this ...

Surviving the year’s first English speaking contest 4

[Cross-posted at The Daily Kos.] JISHOU, HUNAN — It’s getting to be speechifying season here again, and my first judging gig this year was a recitation contest for non-English majors. The 29 contestants’ selections were a compendium of uplifting quotations, essays, poems, songs and miscellania that could have come from one of those never-ending paperbacks full of uplifting quotations, essays, poems, songs and miscellania. In fact, that’s where some of them came from. I think it’s an unwritten rule here that English recitation material has to be really sappy and sentimental. Having nothing better to do than marking about 100 tests (no joke), I spent a couple of hours one night checking the provenance of all these uplifting pieces about love, mom, friendship, self-worth, growing old, love, life’s setbacks, and mom. Here’s a rundown of the afternoon’s selections, to give you an idea of what I mean. Taking the prize for the oldest selection is “My luve is like a red, red rose,” from 1794, attributed to Robert Burns. He collected and preserved old songs and poems in Scots, like this one, for posterity. That’s how we still have “Auld Lang Syne.” It’s short, so here’s the poem in its ...

Second infliction of pain and suffering – culture test #2 6

JISHOU, HUNAN — We finished the unit on the ancient Romans with a test Friday. I made four versions, to minimize copying from neighbors (more about that some other time). Here’s one for you to test your knowledge of Western Culture. WESTERN CULTURE AND CIVILIZATION FALL 2010 TEST #2: The Romans (25 points) IDENTIFICATIONS. Use a few words or a sentence to identify the following people, places or things. Be specific to get full credit! (1 point each) 1. Rome 2. Italy 3. Gaul 4. Julius Caesar 5. Octavian (Augustus Caesar) 6. Constantine I 7. Constantinople 8. The Senate 9. plebeians 10. patricians DISCUSSION. Answer the following with at least two or three sentences. Some questions may require more explanation. (3 points each) (Use the other side of the paper if needed.) 11. What were the three main periods of Roman history? Please give approximate dates for each period. 12. What was the basic structure of the government of the Roman Republic? How was governmental power shared by those in control of the Republic? 13. The Romans “copied” some aspects of Greek culture. Name three Greek creations that the Romans basically imitated (and preserved). 14. The Romans were also innovators ...

Cost-of-living example #1 6

JISHOU, HUNAN — Considering my unimpressive salary (at least in US dollars), it’s really easy for me to live comfortably here. No joke. To put things in context, here are few sample prices for common food items. A (half) loaf of bread: ¥5.00 = 75¢ A 600 ml bottle of Pepsi: 37¢ A package of cookies: 55¢ Six packets of instant coffee: $2.25 (imported from Taiwan) An 18.9 liter (5-gallon) bottle of drinking water, including delivery: 88¢ 1.25 liter (42 fl. oz.) bottle of Tropicana fruit juice: 55¢ A dozen eggs: $1.70 200-g (7-ounce) package of bacon: $1.89 A meal at the university dining hall: 44 to 75¢ A nice lunch at a casual restaurant: $1.50 to $3.00 (per person) (Note: KFC costs about $4 – $5/person) I recently bought a nice black double-breasted fall-weather coat at a local men’s store, where the prices are admittedly on the expensive side. It cost me ¥600, or about $88. In the USA, I’d reckon it would cost at least twice that. The sport shoes I bought a year ago were about $44, and are still in great shape. This week, I bought a friend a pair of knee-length leather boots for $38 ...

Why wait for Superman? 4

JISHOU, HUNAN — From my distant perch here, I’ve heard the news about the film, Waiting for Superman*, which ballyhoos the charter-school model as the solution for America’s supposedly failing public schools. Oprah, queen of fads-du-jour, had the filmmakers on her show. Bill and Melinda Gates are involved. It’s the latest “big thing” in education, which has been plagued by about a hundred “big things” in as many years, all promising to solve problem X, where stands for the Dilemma of the Moment. I haven’t seen the flick, but as they say, I’ve read the reviews. While some reviews just gush about the film, a more nuanced review is in The Nation. I encourage you to read it, as a counterpoint to the mostly mindless adulation of the film and its rather one-sided message. Today I read an article in The New York Times about a huge public high school in Boston that got results, not by adopting the education fad-du-jour, but by doing things the old-fashioned way. Instead of throwing up their hands and declaring “The public school is dead!” teachers at Brockton High School rolled up their sleeves and restructured the school’s instructional plan. Brockton was among Massachusett’s ...

And we’re off! 6

[Cross-posted at the Daily Kos, where it was just rescued from diary oblivion.] JISHOU, HUNAN — Classes have been in session for two weeks now. It’s taken me a while to build a head of steam for blogging. Been a little busy, as you will see. As was the case last year, I am teaching 16 classes a week (that’s eight groups of students for 100 minutes at a go), but with some changes in subjects and students. This term, I am teaching oral English to the freshman and sophomore undergraduates majoring in Business English, and Western Culture and Civilization to the juniors in Business English. None of the juniors have oral English classes anymore, which befuddles me, but apparently It’s the Way Things Are Done Here™, according to fellow foreign teachers at other schools. The Business English students have a course in public speaking, but the English education majors — who will presumably be teaching English — have no more English language classes. More about that later. Previously, my writing classes were the biggest consumer of my prep time, what with reading essays and diaries and plotting more ways to get my students to write English. This term, it’s ...

All play and no work makes Jack a dull boy?

JISHOU, HUNAN — I am one happy camper tonight, because I discovered how to circumvent China’s blocking of Picasaweb. The solution was right there in front of me, if I had bothered to look. In their ineffable wisdom, the wonks at Google allow you to upload photos to Picasaweb via email. All you need to do is go to Picasaweb’s settings and set up a secret email addy. Then you can emails to that address with photos as attachments. The subject line is the name of an existing album. Sweet! Because China is blocking Picasaweb and Blogger, both Google services, I have had a hell of time uploading to my Picasaweb albums. For a while, I could upload using Picasa 3, the desktop application, then mysteriously uploads would constantly fail. Either the uploads would stall, or I would get the message, “This account is not enabled for web albums.” First, I suspected a bug in Picasaweb (like THAT would ever happen!), but it appears some service or port is being blocked by the Great Firewall of China. I can use the latest version of Ultrasurf (v.9.98) to climb the Great Firewall, and access Picasaweb to edit photos and such, but ...

July in Jishou 3

July in Jishou
JISHOU, HUNAN — One of my Facebook followers left me a message, complaining that she hadn’t heard much from me lately. So, this one’s for you, Angela! The spring term ended here on July 15, but I gave my exams much earlier than that, on July 1 and 2. While my students prepped for their other exams, I read their research papers and composition exams. For a solid week. After reading several second and third drafts of the papers, I finally handed in my grades on July 14. But I was not entirely free yet. The parents of some of the students I had been tutoring during the fall and spring wanted me to continue their lessons for the rest of July. Fortunately, not everyone wanted the summer classes, so I only had eight students in all, and most of them could come to my apartment for lessons. Some days I taught for three hours, others for four; and Sundays I was free. I’ll tell some anecdotes about these kids now. Marike is 9. Her daily schedule during the summer included an hour of violin lessons, two hours with me, and two hours of writing (calligraphy) lessons. She did not ...

Put another nickel in the nickelodeon 1

JISHOU, HUNAN — So, I’m staying another year here. As it was last year, the decision was an easy one to make. Logically speaking, it doesn’t make too much sense. Jishou is a small city, with few (Western-style) amenities. It takes at least two hours to get to the nearest airport. And Jishou University is an also-ran in the rankings of China’s institutions of higher learning. My friends in bigger cities in China have encouraged me to look elsewhere for teaching jobs in China. One said, “The pay will be better, and the students will be more excellent.” Yes, and no. No question about the pay. If I moved to Beijing, or even Changsha, I could probably double my pay pretty easily. Of course, my expenses would also increase, and I’d have the hassles of dealing with big-city life. (Changsha has 5 million people. Beijing has 22 million, making NYC look like a small town.) Big cities have higher costs of living, so it’s questionable whether moving would increase my net income to make moving worth it. I’ve lived in small cities for the last 32 years, two that were minuscule (60,000 population each), one just a bit bigger than ...

Wait — is this in my job description? 1

JISHOU, HUNAN — I think one of my students just came out to me. Or maybe the student was just sharing about a friend coming out. Hard to say. My students have to keep diaries, which they hand in about every other week. I read them, make lots of red marks in them, and hand them back a week later (usually). Most of the entries are pretty mundane, but occasionally a student will reveal his or her deepest emotions, worries, troubles or thoughts. I usually respond by writing something in their diary, since I assume the student is attempting some kind of dialogue that may be less embarrassing than talking face to face. Since I’m sworn to secrecy on this particular matter, and all the other personal items in the diaries, I am going to be deliberately vague here. I teach about 300 students, none of whom will likely see this post, but gossip transcends space and time. I am leaving out a lot of details. I am not going to say whether the student is male or female. I will refer to the student only as A., a letter which has no connection to A.’s English or Chinese name. ...

Time out to tell some tales 3

JISHOU, HUNAN — I am in the midst of reading the first drafts of about 70 term papers, but I wanted to take time out to write about a couple of cool things that happened today. One of my former students here in China is getting married next week. This was no big surprise, since she told me it was going to happen sometime this year. Today, when we went to lunch, T. threw me a couple of curve balls. First, she’s pregnant — one of those happy little accidents that sometimes proceed marriage. Despite the conservative culture of China, being pregnant just before marriage is no big deal, as long as the husband-to-be is still in the picture. The funny thing was, when I accidentally ran into the two of them downtown yesterday, I thought to myself, “T. looks pregnant.” Now, she’s only three months along, and not showing yet. (T. is very petite, and has not gained weight, so her size was not the reason for my hunch.) But, she was walking a little like a pregnant woman — her shoes were the problem there, she says — and her dress was similar in design to a maternity ...

When sexism can be inspirational 4

When sexism can be inspirational
JISHOU, HUNAN — Yesterday was Children’s Day in China, and in my oral English class I asked students to talk about their influential childhood memories. One girl, Sally L., had an especially moving story. Sally’s parents are farmers and have two daughters. Her uncle, meanwhile, also farms and has at least one son. She related an argument between her father, his brother and Sally’s grandfather that left a deep impression on her 7-year-old mind. Since she was so young, Sally says she can’t remember all the details of the argument, but it involved her uncle wanting some the land her father owned, but was not at the time cultivating. Her father refused to give it to his brother, and in no time at all, the four men — father, uncle, grandfather and even her male cousin — were yelling at each other and threatening to get physical. The outcome was that Sally’s parents retained possession of the land. Her uncle wanted the land because he had a son, while Sally’s dad had daughters. In rural China, boys are held in higher esteem than girls, so the uncle apparently believed keeping the land for two daughters was a complete waste of ...
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