Thursday, November 18, 2010

Guest blogger - Ken Dyer

This is part two in Ken's series about teaching English in China to university students.  Check out part 1 if you missed it.  Ken's stories about his teaching experiences are fascinating as they provide a counterpoint to the educational systems found in Canada.  If you have any questions or comments for Ken post them in the comments box and I will forward them on to Ken via email.  Ken cannot access this blog due to internet filtering by the Chinese government.  I will post Ken's replies in the comments section.

Teaching in China

If you recall, my first class was a mixture of apprehension, fear, terror and relief!  But what is it really like to teach in China?

Up until I left for China, I had only taught children in Canada ranging from grades 3 to grade 5, and I openly wondered what differences there would be between teaching children in Canada and English to adults in China.  I did what every good teacher does -- prepare like crazy!

I came up with a range of topics, a variety of lesson plans at a number of levels as well as a host of games and activities.  This process was greatly enhanced by brain-storming ideas with the other teachers who went to Dalian. I must say, it was a stimulating and rewarding process as we built on each others ideas. I highly recommend the process.

You may also recall from the previous blog that the students in my class said nothing when I asked general questions.  Part of the reason the students are quiet in class is based on their experiences growing up in a Chinese school environment.  As a Western student and teacher, I have a very different approach to teaching and learning.  I had never thought to ask about the style of teaching in China and I found that teaching in China, was, and still is, teacher-centered.  The two opposing theories, ‘filling the vessel’ vs. ‘lighting the flame’ are quite apparent when teaching in China. If I were to compare Western teaching philosophy to the Chinese approach – I would say that in the West we use more of the ‘lighting the flame’ theory of teaching with some aspects of ‘filling the vessel’. The Chinese predominately use the ‘filling the vessel’ approach where students repeat what the teachers say and rarely ask questions.  But, in defense of this approach, how does one inspire a class of 50 or more students?  I think it becomes about control when it’s a class of that size.  I am not endorsing this teaching method, but I can see why it is used.

When I started teaching my classes, I stepped back to an approach that I developed from my experiences in my early practicums, known as organics.  Essentially you get a feel for what level your class is, what they are interested in, who needs extra support, and who you can rely on to act in some ways like a student-teacher.

In addition to this, I tried to follow the tenets of Gardner and designed classes with multiple intelligences in mind. I’ve found that a fun and interesting class gets students actively involved and engaged which makes things easier for the teacher, as well.  I tried to mix things up so there was some individual work, pair work, and small group work.  These methods worked well in China as well as in Canada, maybe more so.  Classroom management was a lot like teaching the kids at Banff Elementary, but with a twist.  First, you have to get them talking and the twist is trying to get them to stop!  In China, classroom management is almost nonexistent; I can’t tell you how much of a joy it is to focus solely on teaching, rather than dealing with classroom management issues.

Perhaps a couple of examples from classes that I have taught in China may bring this point home.  I often try to make my classes unique and my Halloween and food classes are prime examples. 

Wanting my students to have a real sense of Halloween, I designed a class around the history, traditions and activities of Halloween.  As the class progressed we discussed the history of the Jack-o-lantern and the process for carving a pumpkin.  Similarly, in the food class we talked about a variety of foods, preferences for food such as hamburgers, and the process for making a sandwich.  These activities did take up a great portion of the class but still left us with about forty minutes.

I then asked them if they thought they could really carve a pumpkin or make a sandwich. Most say that they could, but had no sense of what was coming.  I wish you could have seen their faces in the food class when the PPT told them to go and wash their hands.  Most of them sat there, stunned, unsure if they really needed to wash their hands or what was coming next.  But in both classes, when I held up a pumpkin or bread there was a palpable feeling of excitement, usually accompanied by squeals of joy.

Before they get into the process of making a sandwich or carving a pumpkin, I do spend some time instructing them on safety and care with knives and cleanliness. At that point, they then get into following the instructions/recipes that we have discussed previously.

I often think, with the litigious society we have in the West, I could never teach these classes in Canada.  Also, I honestly think western students are not as na├»ve or childlike, at least not at the university level, as my Chinese students.  As the class progressed and students showed off their pumpkins or munched on their sandwiches, I knew that this lesson would stick with them for a very long time. Many have told me that when they return home, they have made sandwiches for their parents.

Preparing classes like these requires a great deal of planning and preparation, not to mention the expense.  Each food class required six loaves of bread, 2 jars of mayonnaise, 18 hard-boiled eggs, knives, forks, spoons, pepper, chopped green onions, and bowls for mixing the egg salad sandwich in.  Now, imagine going to a market and buying a pumpkin for every pair of students.  It was no small task and I had to rent a small truck to deliver them to the university!  If I had thought about the difficulties, I may have given up the whole idea altogether. But when I recall my students walking out of class with their pumpkins in hand I see the joy on their faces and a swagger in their stride as other students look on in amazement at their Jack-o-lanterns. It is worth while and yeah, I would do it again.

Those moments make teaching a joy for me.

PS – I had said in the last blog, that I would tell you about the English names Chinese students choose for themselves.  You might think there would be a host of Marys, Johns, Janes and Bobs, but you’d be quite wrong!  The names they choose are quite unusual at times.  You meet a lot of names centered on flavors such as Vanilla and Chocolate, which always makes me think of milk shakes.  There are some poetic names such as Morning Bud, White Hill, and my one of my personal favorites – Blue Breeze!  These names are often based on the translation of their Chinese names.  But the one that will always stand out the most for me is … Fetus !  Yes, Fetus !  When I asked the student if he knew what the name meant he said, “Yes.”  I asked him why he chose it, and he said, “It means a new beginning, the start of something.”  Who can argue with that kind of logic, and you can bet that anyone he meets will never forget his name!


Unknown said...

Having taught ESL in middle school and high school, I loved hearing about your lessons in China and the reaction of the students. We did a Thanksgiving meal, and one Ethiopian student was enthralled with the turkey. He wanted to do that lesson again.

We also did gingerbread men following the story and that was hit, too.

Tammy Flanders said...

Thanks for stopping by, Shirley. I'll pass your comment along to Ken.

Tammy Flanders said...

Ken's response:

Dear Shirley

Thank you for your interest and your comments; I think as an ESL teacher either in a foreign country or your home country you are, for better or for worse, seen as an ambassador of your country and the West in general. At times it is a heavy burdening and occasionally you are confronted with sometimes embarrassing and even unfair questions. Such as why doesn’t Canada send back a Chinese criminal who is facing the death penalty in China, or why did America invade Iraq? You must try to answer these questions as best you can, and know that students may be getting the “Chinese version of the truth.”

However, these situations are rare and I think with a little tack and a calm manner you can deal with them graciously. On the plus side, you can introduce the joys of some of your culture and traditions and leave a lasting and positive memory in your student’s minds and hearts. At times, I feel quite blessed to introduce sandwiches and Halloween to my students. Soon we will delve into Christmas and I am thrilled to share with them my love and spirit of the holiday.

Jackie said...

I enjoyed reading about your experiences in China. I have taught and am now a librarian in a small south Texas town close and I mean close (10 miles) away from the Mexican border. Most of the students are 2nd or 3rd generation Americans and can take things like education for granted. Then there are the first generation Americans or those whose familes have immigrated to the United States in order to provide their children with a better life. These chldren come to school and absorb all that we offer. Even though both counries are so close in proximity, it is clear to see that the teaching styles are very different. Just like you mentioned how your University students were excited to actually make a sandwhich or carve a pumpkin, these students too get excited to do hands on activities that relate to books or relevant holidays.

Tammy Flanders said...

Hi Jackie.
Thanks for writing in. I'll pass your comment onto Ken. Stop by later this week as I'll have another blog from Ken.

Tammy Flanders said...

From Ken:
Dear Jackie

Thank you for your interest and your comments; I am sure that you can imagine or only need to look at the students who are putting in the extra hours in the libraries at night to know who values their education. We are privileged people and often we take education, the schools and our teachers for granted. One of the reasons I like teaching in China is you feel like you make a difference, and the students not only appreciate their teacher’s efforts but also respect their teachers to a level I have never seen in a western classroom.

In China, education is a key to getting a better life. It is every high school student’s dream to enter into university. If you don’t get into university in China, the majority, and I mean about 80 % of those people, will have a menial existence. There will be no nice house, or car; your only extravagance will be a trip to another city or a good dinner out. As a result, education, schools and teachers are highly valued, as there is a clear line between education and prosperity.

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