Saturday, December 29, 2007

Class Impressions

The semester ends January 11... I looked at the calendar the other day and realized that's only about two weeks away! The past few months have gone by very quickly, and looking back it's amazing to realize I've been a teacher since September. Despite the challenge of being thrown into the job with absolutely no prior experience, I have done my best to reach out to the students and increase their confidence in speaking English.

This term I taught just three different classes, meeting with each twice a week: one group of 25 female college freshmen; a class of 50 high school sophomore boys and girls; and 40 high school sophomore girls. I'll be teaching the same students again from March until July 2008. Here are some impressions of my first semester as "Janet, The Foreign Teacher" at the Zhanjiang Finance and Trade School.

College Students
From the beginning of classes in September, my college students have proved themselves a cut above the rest. Their English is the best in the school, and most of them willingly and animatedly participate in all class activities. These girls really love making up skits and dialogues as well as playing Taboo and "telephone." One of my most successful lesson plans was about American wedding vows. I handed out plastic rings and a print-out with a few example vows. After each "couple" read the vows in the front of the "priest" (me) and their "friends and family" (the rest of the class), they slid the rings on each others' fingers and hugged. Afterwards, I had the students write their own wedding vows and take turns reading them aloud.

My worst mistake with this class at the beginning of the semester was allowing the more confident students to dominate discussions. I didn't make enough of an effort to call on the quiet girls or to engage them in conversation. Thus, the class turned into a chat session between me and two or three of the same students. Only recently did I begin actually forcing the others to speak by calling on them and waiting patiently for their responses. Finally, I realized that just a little bit of extra praise can change the student's attitude forever, and turn the quietest young lady into an avid attention-seeker.

Take this example as an illustration of my point. During a Thursday night movie session with the students a few months ago, I decided to sit beside Andy, one of the shy girls in class. During slow parts of the movie, Andy and I chatted and joked around together; I could tell she was really enjoying getting attention from "The Foreign Teacher." Ever since that evening, Andy has been one of the most talkative students... sometimes I actually have to ask her to allow others to speak because her stories can be so long- winded!

A more recent conversion occurred with a very timid girl named Miranda. Last week in class, I asked Miranda to answer a question. When she hesitated, one of the more boisterous students immediately chimed in to respond for her; I stopped the louder girl and said, "Let Miranda answer please, she knows how to say it." A few seconds later, Miranda managed some answer or another, and we moved on. Later that night, I received a text message from Miranda that said, "Good evening, Janet! Today I am very moved by your words, 'she can say.' Thank you!"

This class was the brightest spot in my teaching this semester: a small group of very intelligent students who actually want to learn is every teacher's dream! All they need from me are creative ways in which to practice their English, a few kind words, and encouraging smiles.

High School
My class is the first Oral English course most of the high school students have ever taken; certainly, I am everyone's first foreign teacher. These children are Business English majors, which means they will learn English during the next three years in school and then join the workforce. Most will not go on to college. Overall, the level of English is at the elementary beginner's stage. Our book covers topics such as "Greetings," "Asking the Way," and "Time and Date." Below is a sample dialogue from Unit 3, "Saying Goodbye."

A:Well, I've got to go. See you later.
B: See you. Have a nice day.
A: Thanks, you too.

Because of the communication barrier, my progress with the high school students is more difficult to judge. Many of them are still very nervous to speak to me both inside and outside of class. Their abilities span a wide range: from the student with whom I can converse about Hollywood movies, to the student who does not understand the question, "What is your name?"

An interesting struggle I've encountered with the high school students is dealing with "the boys." Chinese boys- with a few exceptions, of course- are very difficult to teach because of the macho front they put on in order to impress their peers. They are often known for being especially hostile towards learning English, which is supposed to be a "girls' subject." So, showing any interest in English class will often alienate a boy from the rest of the group- God forbid! I only have seven boys out of about 115 students, but they've been the most difficult group to reach in class. Most of the time they refuse to take part in activities or to speak at all in English, preferring to goof off or sleep.

There is a handful of students who are dying to learn English, and show their interest by speaking animatedly with me during class breaks, sending text messages and writing friendly letters. In general, however, most of the younger students are extremely shy. It seems that they're interested in English and really want to speak with me, but are nervous of making mistakes. I've found that the best remedy for getting them to speak is just making a complete idiot of myself with goofy jokes and slapstick humor; I circulate throughout the class whenever possible and try my best to be enthusiastic about the subject matter.

My main objective with the younger students is simply to motivate them to learn English. I see each class twice a week for an hour and half; not nearly enough time to actually increase fluency... that's up to them and depends on how much they choose to study and challenge themselves in English outside of class. What I CAN do is be a good ambassador for the English language; simply by my presence I demonstrate that yes, there actually ARE people who speak English! And if you learn the language, you can communicate with them!

I bring in American candy and books, pictures of my family, English songs, and teach the students about holidays like Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. I hope that my encouragement and friendship will help these kids remember the speaking we've done in class and give them the confidence to continue working on learning a language which may be the key to their success later in life.

It's been a good semester, and I'm looking forward to beginning another at the end of February!

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