Thursday, February 17, 2011

Guest blogger - Ken Dyer

Ken Dyer continues telling us what its like to teach English to Chinese university students.  I recently asked him about                

Do I ever feel limited in what I can teach?

Absolutely, and on many levels.  I am limited in terms of level, pace and content. 

In terms of level when I choose topics and vocabulary in the booklets, I need to choose words that are not at a too high of level or the students won’t be able to follow along. That is one of the reasons why I have a “Vocabulary Search” at the beginning of each chapter to encourage students to become familiar with the vocabulary prior to class so they can to use them in class.  I do this for all of the listening activities as well.  This way they can learn the new terms prior to the listening activities and not get hung up on unfamiliar or complicated terms or phrases.  I also try to get my students to master a basic level of communication before adding new or more complicated language.  I find in our day-to-day conversations that we rarely use sophisticated language, so why force this on the students?

Related to level is pace. I can’t speak too quickly as most of my students range from low-intermediate to intermediate and many are still at the stage of translating some of the words while I talk. I can easily relate to my students as I’m always struggling with my Chinese (nowhere near an intermediate level). If I know the word, and the speaker says it too quickly, I won’t catch it.  In class I try to speak at a moderate pace and focus on saying the words clearly.  If something is misunderstood most of my students are not too shy and will ask me to repeat a statement or clarify it.  Plus, I come back to that helpful word – organic.  I can tell when the students are following along and when things have gone wrong.  You just need to feel the pulse of your students and stay at their level and speed.

And though I’m teaching young adults and not children, I am teaching in China.  And with that comes a certain level of restriction.  For example, you can’t talk about certain aspects of religion, especially the ones that are not seen in the best light by the Chinese government.  You can’t discuss Tibet and its bid for independence and discussing Falun Gong (a banned religious group in China) in class is a quick way to get deported.  As with children, anything that is too sexual is also a bad idea. But deciding what is, and what is not, too sexual is a grey area that can expand and contract at the whim of a school administrator, so it is best to clear things that may cross boundaries.  It is surprising to a lot of people that sex education is almost non-existent and most of the college students learn the ‘birds and bees’ from their classmates and movies!  That is a scary thought and makes me fear for the physical and mental health of my students.

Discussing sensitive political issues in class can also lead to trouble.  I often find I have to be very cautious if asked in class about something political. I have to give a very balanced answer as some students want me to say X is right and Y is wrong to start an argument or to support their own personal/political beliefs.  The students have limited access to Western media outlets so most of their knowledge on political issues comes from a Chinese point of view. 

So content has to be carefully chosen. At times, I do find it restrictive as I would like to start discussions about certain topics but realize, due to a lack of knowledge on the part of my students, a built-in bias from the Chinese media, and my desire to remain employed that I have to stick to safer topics.  That doesn’t mean it has to be boring, just well chosen and presented.  I have a great class on romance that teaches them how to flirt and kiss, which is quite well-received as it’s very humorous.  To be honest, most students don’t want the classes to be too heavy or serious either. They want to improve their English in a positive and enjoyable manner.


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