Thursday, December 16, 2010

Guest blogger - Ken Dyer

Ken Dyer, (teaching English to university students in China) has written a couple of blogs over the last couple of months.  This is his latest posting about how he develops his lessons and what resources he uses in the classroom.   

Teaching Materials and Unit Development for Classes in China

If you think it’s easy to create lessons in China you would be quite wrong. I don’t create any of my units in China and I can easily explain why. In China, the internet is still heavily restricted, even for the most inconsequential of things.  You cannot download any videos of any kind and I am not downloading the naughty kind either!  I can usually get access to two pages of images on Google, but by the time you click for the third page the internet police will shut the connection down; you can’t have people collecting pictures from Clipart as they might create disharmony in the land. Its nuts, but that’s the way it is so you have to plan ahead.  Mind you, since Google has switched to working out of Hong Kong you can get better access to images but still no videos.

So what can one do in this constrained environment?  Well, basically you have two choices: use what the school gives you or create your own lessons before you come to China.  I will admit that a lot of teachers (and forgive me, a lot of teachers who are not creative), opt for the former choice.  I think this is fine for very inexperienced teachers but the dull content and its natural numbing effect on the students is very counter-productive.

Most of the materials offered to the teacher are what has been “state approved” which means it is incredibly boring.  I teach students who are in their mid-twenties. Talking about cats and dogs, banks and post offices just puts them to sleep.  In addition, they have been fed this diet of monotonous topics for ten years or more!  What they want is something different, controversial and interesting to talk about.

This begs the question - what topics/units  do you choose to talk about?  I use a dual-approach. First, I think about what I would be interested in and also ask other young adults in Canada what they are interested in. This gives me a “Western” point of view. Also I’m interested in knowing what the students in China are genuinely interested in. At the end of each term, I give my students a report card to fill out on my teaching style, grading and the topics/units.  They are encouraged to tell me which classes they liked, didn’t like and what they would change as well as other topics they would be interested in.

Granted, some students will take the safe route and give you bland responses, even though their name or ID number is not recorded.  Some will ask for practical units such as applying for jobs and interview skills, as many of them will face the huge and competitive Chinese job market in two short years. But on occasion, you will get some students who will really step out of the ‘Chinese Comfort Zone’ of topics. Last year I was asked to create a unit about alternative lifestyles including homosexuality and fetishes.  A few have asked for classes on how to practice safe sex. In China, topics such as these are never mentioned, let alone discussed or taught in class. I try to accommodate the suggestions they’ve suggested in the report cards, within reason, as I’m compelled to stay within the school guidelines. I like teaching in China so I don’t go too crazy.  I have developed a class on alternative lifestyles this year and I am discussing the possibility of giving a lecture on sex education, but I don’t think the school will approve it.

Once I have some topics in mind, it’s time to create the lessons/units.  When I’m home in Canada, over the summer, I start researching, compiling, and creating my lessons.  It’s a good time to prepare the entire unit, from the PPT’s used in class to my class booklets, as well as collecting my resources.  Examples include things such as photographs, maps (I asked Disneyland for maps and they mailed them to me along with some promotional videos), Canadian money, and listening activities, both audio and video. I have found it takes me two to three days to make one lesson so it is a big process to create your own lessons, with PPT’s, for two semesters.

I find the process both arduous and rewarding, especially when I get the units up and running and find out if all the hard work will come to fruition or be a dud!  To be perfectly honest, most of the classes have gone over quite well, but I have had to revisit or even chuck out a few lessons over the years.  One example was a class on propaganda which I thought was great but the majority of my students were uninterested.  However, level of interest is quite varied which gives me room to be creative.

Classes about what is happening in their lives, or about things very far from their lives, are the best received.  Topics about everyday activities are not very interesting for them, so I try to keep this content to a minimum or use it as a starting point leading into something more interesting.  Teaching for me is a very creative process, but unlike a painter I have to rework my creations.

When I’m home for the summer, creating class lessons is only one part of my work. I also review my existing units, deciding what needs to be changed, what can stay, what needs to be thrown out completely or seriously altered. I spend many hours in front of the computer searching for new materials, new ideas, or extending someone else’s ideas in a way that I think best fits the needs of my students. This process is aided by what I do while in school. After the lesson is over I write comments in my teacher’s book tracking the things I disliked or that did not work well. Usually it involves clarifying and developing step-by-step approaches for more complicated activities.  For example, I had developed a lesson about travelling and had acquired some subway and bus maps from the internet. But the instructions that came with them were too vague for my students to follow, so I made them easier to follow as well as providing a preliminary example. This made things much smoother. I did this after the first class as I knew the following six classes would meet with the same difficulties.  I still feel that changes are needed and will be changing it over the summer.

I believe that a good teacher always has to revisit and critically evaluate what and how they teach; I think that if you feel you’re a great teacher and need not do reflecting, then you’re on your way to becoming a mediocre teacher. I try to put myself back in the classroom as a student and figure out what they’re thinking, how they react to what’s being taught and how. Being your own worst critic can help towards becoming a better teacher.

Please keep in mind that my students are not children; they are all in their mid-twenties and have an intermediate to high level of English, so the content and level may not, and in many cases will not, be appropriate for younger ESL classes. You really have to get a feel for what your students want to learn, and their level of English, while also keeping in mind the standards of the teaching institution you are working for.


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