Saturday, November 28, 2015

I'm Not Fluff!

I know what this school hired me to do: be fluff. Panache. A bit of extra pizzazz for those studying English, and for every other student on campus who did not select English as their major. I am not expected to teach grammer, vocabulary, composition, listening, literature or anything 'official'. My Chinese counterparts are tasked with those duties. My only job is to make students talk, and occasionally correct mispronunciations. I'm pretty good at it.

Recently, our junior students – indeed English Major students all over China got their TEM-4 results. I don't know about the rest of China, but the students in my school were devastated. On our campus, only 40 students passed this career-defining exam.

Let's back up for a second. TEM-4 is, literally: Test for English Majors. Every student engaged in such studies is required to take this exam during spring semester of their sophomore year. Every October, the results are published. The prospect of testing is so daunting that everyone fairly quivers at the mere mention of that dreaded acronym. And for good reason! In the five years I've been here, I've yet to hear of a majority of students passing on the first try. Some don't pass it on the second try, either. 

Every year, when hearing the miserable outcome of this exam, I rail against the system that so poorly prepares students. Every year, I wonder: couldn't more be done to assure passing grades for the majority?

I'm not just wailing to myself or while commiserating with students so despondent they don't feel they deserve to live. Over the years I've taken this issue up with colleagues and department leadership. Until this year, I've gotten a lot of nods, hand pats, thanks for caring so much... and no changes or results. This year, I was shocked to learn nationwide test statistics: only 38% of English Major students nationwide pass TEM-4 every year!

I suppose I should be happy because our department came in at 1% point above the national average.

Does anyone else find it outrageous that, after better than 6 years of English studies, students are so unprepared for their most important exam (after the GaoKao) that more than half fail?  

I should be doing more than designing clever ways to make students talk. Sure, within the parameters I operate in the classroom, I have all kinds of opportunities to bond with my students, spot and identify at-risk kids and become more than a teacher to those who need it; I have time to tutor those who want extra help and all kinds of energy to get involved in English club activities. I feel that doesn't do much good when, year after year, kids parade through my classes with only rudimentary knowledge of English – certainly not enough to pass an exam, let alone get along in the outside world. Why console them after failure when I could help prevent failure altogether?

I want to be a 'real' teacher.

There are several problems with that, the biggest one being that the kids are not learning proper English to begin with. Intricacies such as verb tenses and punctuation seem to be ignored. They are being taught English in Chinese and never seem to get over the concept of thinking in their native tongue and translating. My choices are: discredit my colleagues' efforts and teach students the finer points of English, or ignore the problem, as I have been.

Nested inside that challenge lies another: lecturing. I do not agree that a pure lecture format is the best way to teach, but engaging students and activating recently acquired knowledge takes a level of skill I'm still working to hone. As I've never been called to actually teach anything, I'm still searching for an effective balance between imparting knowledge and providing the arena and atmosphere necessary to exercise that knowledge.

The second stumbling block is the kids themselves. When they come to our college, to one degree or another they are already lost as far as understanding English is concerned. Some hide behind shyness or seeming incomprehension, often calling on their peers to help them understand what is being said. Most never ask for any explanation or clarification. While most remain motivated as freshmen. By  sophomore year, phones and social lives dominate. Thus, the possibility of properly educating anyone dwindles.      

This year, for the first time since I've been here, Juniors are required to take Oral English. As I've already had them for their first two years, I have to come up with all new material for their third year in my class. That's one of the perks of my particular position: I have no curriculum to follow and have free reign to design any lesson I choose. My creative juices flowed, my PPT hummed, ideas so bright they popped like klieg lights... and then I found out how despondent everyone was over their TEM-4 results.

Their tears and dejection decided me. With due respect to Colleagues' efforts, this semester I've opted for lessons in verb tenses, punctuation, mood and condition sentence construction. As far as I know, Oral English plays no part in TEM-4, so I might as well use the time I have with these kids to teach them how to conjugate rather than to role play in bad English... right?

Has anyone else had this problem? How do you deal with it? How did you overcome it?   

I'm Back!

Hi, Everyone! How I've missed you! How I've missed writing! I've been a bit busy... may I tell you what's been going on?

                     For as long as I've been here, our school has had 2 foreign teachers. This year, there is only one: me!
                     Until now, only freshmen and sophomores received the benefit of Oral English classes with a foreign teacher. This year, Juniors will also take Oral English... much to my joy!
                     Our school has enjoyed a record enrollment this year: nearly 150 freshmen English learners. We have as many freshman classes as we do sophomore and junior classes combined!
                     Last year, I taught 3 classes per week. This year, I'm teaching 3 classes per day, 2 days of the week. The other days, I teach 2 classes each day. My workload has quadrupled! I feel like I've come out of retirement.
                     I have the privilege of designing and teaching my own curriculum rather than following a prescribed syllabus. As I've been at it for 5 years, my files are full of materials I can rotate through my classes, depending on students' needs. There's even seasonal material! However, because Juniors now get a 3rd year of Oral English, I have to come up with all new material for them.  

It is hard to recruit good help! Our school has ben searching for another foreign teacher since last spring. We had a candidate, but he backed out at the last minute. Fortunately, my leg has sufficiently healed and I'm otherwise ready for the challenge of working every day.

Long before I broke my leg, I had pledged time at my friend's daughter's kindergarten to help teach Oral English. Obviously, I couldn't do it while my leg was plastered up but now that I'm getting around reasonably well, it's time to make good on my promise. Even though I'm working every day, there's still time to design and create learning materials for my littlest pupils, and we play/learn every Saturday.

Except last Saturday! Gary got married, and what a hubbub that was! Besides asking me to host his wedding, he asked if I would make his wedding video. Two hundred and sixty-nine pictures, featuring 8 costume changes, to be strung together into a thirty-minute movie, to be played during the wedding banquet. I relished the challenge!

Making a movie is very time consuming: placing the pictures is a reasonable order, finding music to suit the picture series' mood and adjusting the exposure time to match the music, finding the proper transition from one picture to the next...

For 2 weeks, all of my free time had been consumed with artistically placing pictures. The video was about halfway complete. And then, Gary appears, asking me to use hi-def pictures, recently acquired from the photographer. Soon, eighty-nine new shots were downloaded. Oh, and could I still make the video last for 30 minutes with only one third of the pictures?

Wait... NOT new shots! Same shots as before, only resized! My dear, obstinate friend did not believe I too could resize the pictures, thus still using all of the original pictures, instead of scrambling between screens to figure out which pictures were or were not hi-def.

In the end, the movie turned out very nicely and showed well at the banquet.  

All of this activity served to wear my down. Soon, I was sick: unable to breathe for all of the clogging in my lungs. I begged off teaching little ones this weekend mainly because I didn't want to get them sick, but also because I need this break.

And I need to connect with you again. I've missed you; missed being a part of this community.

Hello again! How have you been?