It’s English-speaking season!

JISHOU, HUNAN — Along with rains and peach blossoms, April here brings another spring event, the undergraduate English speaking contests. As I did last year, I have served as a judge for several college contests, including my own college’s, and will of course judge the university finals next month. It’s a task I both enjoy and dread, because quite frankly it’s not that easy to be a judge for these things. Case in point: my college had nearly a dozen sophomores participate in our competition, from which we judges had to choose two to represent the College of International Exchange next month. The criteria include the usual for public speaking — content, argument, stage presence, eye contact, inflection, diction — but also pronunciation, intonation and grammar. After all, these students are speaking a foreign language. We found six who we judged as competitive, but could not narrow them down to two. Some had good public speaking skills, but their spoken English was lacking in some ways. Meanwhile, those who had very good spoken English lacked some public speaking skills. What a headache! The university, and the provincial and national contests, all include a three-minute prepared speech, a question-answer session, then ...

Teaching the little ones 4

[Cross-posted at The Daily Kos] JISHOU, HUNAN — Anyone who teaches English as a Second Language in China sooner or later gets called on to give private lessons or classes, or to put it another way, to get sucked into the maelstrom of English-learning angst here. Some of your students might be university students trying for high scores on their postgraduate exams (the Chinese equivalent of the GRE), which include a pretty tough section on English skills, or the two main qualification exams for foreign study, TOEFL and IELTS. But, by far most of your potential students will be middle school students (and their parents) who want high scores on the college entrance examination, and primary school students whose upwardly mobile parents want them to get into a good middle school. [In China, primary schools are like US elementary schools, and middle schools have two levels, lower and upper, corresponding roughly to US middle and high schools.] Many of these same children will also be taking piano, violin, dance, art, kung fu and/or taiji lessons besides. If all this over-scheduling sounds familiar to you, perhaps you know some parents in the States with similar agendas for their kids. It’s a ...

Half a watchdog is better than none

Cross-posted from The Daily Kos. JISHOU, HUNAN, CHINA — Today while I was watching a girl with the English name Jackie teach some vocabulary this morning, I could tell she would be a successful person in the future. The thought just popped into my head unbidden, so I hope it’s a good sign. I don’t know Jackie all that well. She’s a freshman. Since I see my students only two hours a week, that means I have had only about 24 hours of contact time with Jackie and most of her classmates. Furthermore, since I teach her class composition and not spoken English, we rarely even talk to each other in class. Still, I can get a general idea of Jackie’s character and personality. She works hard, but is not especially gifted at English. She smiles a lot, is friendly, and pays attention in class. I reckon she cares a lot about people. Today, she came to class prepared with three vocabulary words to teach class (a weekly assignment for everyone): dusk, eminent and scenic. And she taught the lesson exactly as I had requested, which not many of her peers have been able to do so far. Further, she ...

ESL students meet Dickens’ Christmas, yearn for travel 2

[Cross-posted at The Daily Kos.] JISHOU, HUNAN — The fall term is coming to a close here. I gave my exams this week, and will spend the next two weeks reading and marking them, so I can return home to see my offspring with a clear conscience. Before exams, I decided to give my students — and me — a break, and show them a movie. Of course, it had to have some educational value. Believe it or not, Christmas, at least among our students, is a big thing here in China. They learn about the holiday as part of their English lessons in middle school, but still have only a hazy idea of what it is all about. Chinese textbook authors condense Christmas traditions from the USA, Europe and the UK into a mishmosh of ideas that serve only to confuse, not inform. Students ask me about how we celebrate Christmas in the USA, and I give them a pretty generic description, based on my own memories of 50-odd previous Christmases. But descriptions, particularly for ESL students, do not really convey the spirit of the holiday. So, I chose A Christmas Carol as the movie I would show all ...

Another day in the life 3

JISHOU, HUNAN — Yesterday was unusually busy for me, so I want this chance to take to chronicle it. Every Sunday, I teach spoken English (and some reading) to five 9-year-olds for two hours. These kids are the children of police officers — friends of my friend Smile, whose husband is an officer, too. One of my student friends helps me in this project, since I need someone to translate English to Chinese. Though the kids are rambunctious, they are also very bright, so the job is not as awful as it sounds (unless the reader happens to be a primary school teacher, who would know what I mean). At 11, Nora and I left the police residential compound (警公安局 jing gong an ju) and headed for lunch at the university dining hall. There we were joined by four of my students (roommates), our friend from the PE college and a senior in the chemistry college who wanted just to talk with me. Afterward, three of us went for a walk and a sit in the sunshine, which has been in short supply these last four weeks, and the rest went off to their own things. Our conversation in the ...

Seven pictures are worth 10,000 words 1

[Cross-posted at The Daily Kos, and rescued from diary oblivion. That’s 3 for 3!] JISHOU, HUNAN, CHINA — Friday, my sophomores in oral English were more animated than I’ve seen them in ages. It was a set of posters that livened them up. To preface this diary, I need to explain that our classrooms here are barebones dull: white painted walls, beige tile floors, fluorescent tube lighting, wooden desks and chairs bolted to the floor, and a single double-wide chalkboard. We at least have ample natural lighting from the windows along the exterior wall. And no heat, but that’s for another diary. [It was at least warmer today than yesterday’s high of 6° C (about 43° F).] In September I decided that staring at the mostly bare walls was getting boring, so I decided to spend a little money and order some posters from the USA off the Internet. (I won’t link to the site here, but the site’s name is no exaggeration. They have ALL kinds of POSTERS.) I ordered four at first, one for each class of sophomores, as the freshmen had not started classes yet. Three were decently sized, but I failed to read the description of ...

I got a flu shot 5

JISHOU, HUNAN — Today, while I was working on the computer in the office, my deans asked me if I would like to get a flu shot. That’s the way they phrased it, anyway. The real meaning, however, was, “We really expect you to get a flu shot. Today. With the rest of the staff.” But such directness is very un-Chinese. As it was phrased, it took a while for the true meaning of the “request” — or “mandatory option,” as my high school chorus teacher put it — to sink into my thick skull. They caught me while I was in the middle of entering students’ names into the Epals.com website, a task which Epals does not make especially easy by limiting you to 25 names at a time. Distracted as I was, and still without a morning cup of Joe, I stalled and said I would think about it. My British cohort, David, was also likewise pecking away at another computer. He basically said, no. If it wasn’t a requirement, he would rather not. “I try to avoid taking medicines,” he added. Soon after, David left to teach his classes, leaving me alone with two deans, the staff ...

In my spare time, I sleep 3

JISHOU, HUNAN — I haven’t written much lately, because I’ve been a little busy. Classes have started, and I only have half my schedule in place still. The freshmen start classes next month. In addition to my university classes, I have also become a private tutor to three students (ages 8 to 25), a teacher of two small groups of primary students, and a guest “lecturer” for a friend’s middle-school weekend enrichment school. Since the uni is sending two students to the provincial English-speaking contest, I will also coach their pronunciation and intonation skills for the next four weeks or so. Here’s my schedule right now: Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday Friday Saturday 8:00-9:40 Oral English 2009-Z1 English Composition 2009-G2 Oral English 2008- Z2 English Composition 2008-G1 Oral English 2008-Z1 10:10-11:50 (11-12) Miki's class Oral English 2009-Z2 English Composition 2009-G1 2:30-3:30 Harry tutor Lizzie and Color tutor 3:00-4:40 Eights English Composition 2008-G2 Lizzie and Color tutor Sixes 5:00-6:00 Clark tutor Clark tutor Clark tutor 8:00-9:00 Niki tutor Niki tutor All the classes labeled 2009 (China uses year of entry, not graduation, to denote classes) will not meet until after the National Holiday ends Oct. 8. This weekend, 4,000 freshmen arrived, ...

Shameless self-promotion 3

I am now a writer for the Teachers’ Lounge at The Daily Kos. My first Teachers’ Lounge diary went up yesterday, and was even rescued overnight! In DKos-atopia, that’s a singular honor. So, go read it.

One year on 12

JISHOU, HUNAN — Today marks the first anniversary of my arriving here, exhausted and bleary-eyed after a long trek from Hong Kong to the Chinese interior. I’ve been reflecting on the past year for several days now. Before I get started on those reflections, I want to say that I don’t regret coming here at all. In many ways, my leap across the ocean is the best thing to have happened to me in several years. I am happier, more relaxed, less hefty, and more sure of myself than I was before. As I have said before, I am one lucky fellow. Many Chinese who meet me for the first time are surprised that a man my age would decide to leave his children behind and live far from his hometown. They fear I am lonely and unhappy. It’s a cultural misapprehension, though, stemming from the difference in our cultures. In China, people can retire at 50. They also tend to stay in one place, usually their hometown, for most of their lives. Children are expected either to live with their parents, or at least be a stone’s throw away from them. So, for Chinese unfamiliar with American customs, I ...

Some thoughts on teaching after 25 years 6

JISHOU, HUNAN — Yesterday, I read a Washington Post column by Sarah Fine, a young, idealistic teacher who was quitting the profession after four years. It’s a well written, poignant piece, and I wanted to write some reaction to it here. I had trouble working up a sufficient head of steam to get started. I had lots of things to say, but nothing was gelling in my mind. So, figuring reading something else would help, I swung over to the Daily Kos to see what was up there. Amid all the political commentary was this excellent response to Fine’s column by teacherken (Ken Bernstein), which at this writing has received more than 350 comments, some sympathetic, some critical. If you read teacherken’s response to Sarah Fine’s confessional, you will pretty much read be reading my reactions, too. He and I share several characteristics: we both got liberal arts educations at renowned northeastern institutions (he, Haverford; me, Princeton), we both worked in other professions before becoming teachers later in life (he much later than I), we’re both Quakers, both liberal Democrats, both socially liberal, both love teaching. But I have a few other things to say, now that it’s a day ...

English Corner marathon afternoon 5

JISHOU, HUNAN — I spent all afternoon yesterday talking. As I have mentioned before, a standard feature of any Chinese university (or high school, too, I reckon) is the English Corner, an extracurricular, student-led activity to practice spoken English. My responsibilities here include participation in the English Corner, for obvious reasons. I live and work at the new campus. Our English Corner is held (weather permitting) every Sunday at 5 pm on a green across from the athletic facilities. I have already chronicled my first visit to English Corner lo! these many months ago. After that initial mob of visitors, attendance settled down in the following weeks to a more manageable number of regulars and the occasional newcomer. Jishou University (JiDa in local parlance) has, at my last count, four distinct campuses: new campus, old campus, the medical campus in Shijiachong, and the affiliated teacher’s college across the river, where Princeton-in-Jishou fellows Juliann and Stephanie teach. A few students from the old campus have come to the new campus corner, but only those dedicated enough to travel the 3 km to do it. Last weekend, my fellow foreign expert, David, and I were invited to an English Corner at the ...
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