Thursday, December 20, 2012

A Fallow Period.

My friends, this has been a fallow period, at least as far as writing you is concerned. Those with whom I email with regularly will testify that I’ve even slowed down in that department. Don’t doubt for a minute, Dear Reader, that you are most certainly on my mind as I strive to find topics of interest.

Truth is, my life has become pretty mundane. I’ve not traveled since Qing Dao. I’ve not done or experienced anything remarkable of late. I have been keeping my nose to the grindstone. In fact I am teaching more this year than in the past 2 years combined.

Not only do I have my usual allotment of University students but I am also teaching a Lil’Uns class twice a week, and an extracurricular class for Speech Competition Preparation two evenings a week at the University. My first session with that group will be tomorrow evening. Stay tuned for more about it in a later entry.  

The challenge in my particular position as ESL teacher has been creating a curriculum from scratch. At first dismayed but now elated about it, this school has given me full latitude to conduct my classes as I see fit. Thus they’ve not given me any books to teach from. I’ve had plenty of practice coming up with material for the University groups. Matter of fact, I am just recycling previous lessons from semester to semester because I have different students each semester, except for one group that I’ve had for 3 semesters so far. I want to tell you something remarkable about them, after I expound a little on my Lil’Uns.

I believe I told you before that I am teaching them ‘complete immersion’ style: no Chinese at all. And, I am not using any type of prepared materials. Each week I am creating from scratch what we will use in the classroom. Talk about a challenge! First because I’ve never taught little ones. Second, because I have to make it age specific, while still addressing the needs of students who are more advanced and engage those students who are not as prepared for learning English. Third challenge is to maintain continuity in subject matter while introducing new vocabulary, concepts and aspects of what would be relevant and interesting to 7year olds.

Some, like Kate and Autumn are doing exceedingly well. Others, like Christina and Amy have to be coaxed into participating. Sandy and Angel are proving to be much more imposing. Christina is the oldest of the group and I fear she knows much more English than she’s letting on. Sandy is a very angry little girl who knows virtually no English whatsoever.

The reason Sandy is so angry is because her life consists of learning. Her mother feels that she should embrace a life of music. Thus, Sandy spends hours at the piano each day. She does not get much time to study anything, including regular school subjects like Math and Chinese, and even less time to just be a little girl. Another byproduct of her continual piano banging is that she is not very well socialized. She picks fights with the other girls and exhibits very aggressive behavior. Because my teaching style incorporates a lot of playing and what would be considered an informal class structure, she tends to disrupt the class more than take part and, come time for her to participate or perform, I have to devote more time coaching her than the other students.

There you have the nuts and bolts of the Lil’Uns class. In future entries I’ll write more about them. For now I want to get to other aspects of my teaching experiences. Let’s move on to that university group that I’ve had for now 3 semesters.

Once I learned how to do it University teaching became a snap. Since those fumbling, awkward, terrifying days when I first declared myself a teacher, it seems I’ve hit on a successful formula: games, activities and engaging topics. My delivery of material is more polished because I feel so much more comfortable leading a class. And, because Victor and I used to change students every semester I only had to come up with 13 weeks of material to teach. Recently, (the unpleasant, two L’ed) Hellen has taken over student group allocation. She has not rotated the students from Victor to me, as had Sam in the past.

I’ve had the group in question for their entire freshman year, and now lead them in their sophomore year. Obviously, recycling curriculum is not going to work with them. We’ve already covered my entire repertoire of lessons, games and activities. I have to come up all new stuff for them. I admit I’m not doing too badly, although it is rather stressful. In a way it is a welcome relief. Recycling material makes for a bored teacher, in my opinion. Some of my colleagues who have been teaching the same material for far longer than I’ve been a teacher report feelings of burnout. So, I’m grateful to have to engage my brain.

Here is the interesting thing about this particular group. They are far more vocal and eager to participate, much more fluent and free in their use of English than the group I inherited from Victor, who barely want to say a peep. I’m not bragging. Other teachers have observed the same thing.

I put it down to how I engage the students, as opposed to Victor, whose main teaching method is lecture, meaning he does the talking and they do the listening. I contend I don’t need to speak English. I already know how. It is my students who need to get comfortable with the language. So, many of the activities we do deal with them doing the talking.  

This entry is supposed to be about a fallow period I’m having, and here I’ve just spewed about 800 words about teaching.

That is what makes this period fallow. I’m not doing much else besides teaching. Actually, teaching is the easy part. Coming up with things to teach is challenging. Preparing for lessons eats up most of my free time.

In my opinion, teachers are public speakers. Like every public speaking gig, teaching is essentially performing. Teachers have to engage their students, keep them interested and impart knowledge. It is much more demanding than being a traditional performer, such as a singer or dancer. Audiences of such performers are there because they enjoy those types of performances. Students might not like school or, in the case of a lot of university students might just be burnt out on learning.

Nevertheless, like every competent performer, I have to be completely familiar with my material and rehearse it till I can deliver it for maximum effectiveness. So, with having many more creative challenges this year than in years past, and having so many more demands on my time calls for me to be almost constantly in the business of teaching: either preparing, mentally readying myself for, or actually teaching.

So, I’m not doing much else these days. But that’s OK. I’m enjoying this plateau of keeping my head down and my nose to the grindstone. It feels good to be immersed in something so rewarding and productive. It has been a long time since I’ve felt so vital and creative. It is so gratifying to light my students up, give them food for thought, and then watch them leave class with a smile on their face and brimming with excitement. The Big’Uns, the Lil’Uns, the ones I’ve had for 2 years. All the same. If I needed testament to my worth as a teacher I only need to watch my kids leave class. What a feeling!  

Besides, my nose is too big. It needs to be ground down.    

For all that I feel I’m reaching when writing these rather mundane entries, I am happy to hear from my conspirators who maintain our blog that you still enjoy these anecdotes. Thank you, thank you and thank you ever and again. Of course, I always welcome your feedback, questions and comments.

Before I leave you, I’d like to address the comment made on the “Cussing Like a Sailor” entry from a couple of weeks back, about the word “A-ya”.

I too thought that A-ya was just a mild expression of exasperation. According to the textbook I’m learning Chinese from, that is exactly what it is. Recently, Sam endorsed my belief. Perhaps the dismayed mother who chastised me made more of it than it really should have been. As in the West, Chinese sensibilities range widely. There is a good chance that this particular mother did not want her child to pick up on expressions of frustration, being as it is more traditional for people who are Chinese to swallow and endure whatever comes their way. Or, she might have felt that teachers should never express frustration in front of her charges. Again, I’m not really sure where she was coming from with regard to my saying it in class. 

Thank you for your comment. Any time you have a question, would like for our blog to address a certain aspect of Chinese culture or a current event, please feel free to let me know. Either by leaving a comment or addressing me directly at: I will be delighted to research and expound. Especially during fallow periods like these.              

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