Thursday, September 8, 2011

Teaching in a classroom with limited resources

At this point in time, these are the resources I have available to me as an English teacher: a chalkboard, chalk, 2 notebooks, a pad of looseleaf paper, pens, one red pen, one set of markers, a pair of scissors, and 2 rolls of tape.

How does one teach a foreign language with those materials?

This is a question I am very, very slowly figuring out. So far, I've only had introductions in all of my classes, and then two classes this afternoon that I met with the second time. Not only do I not have very many resources, but I only see these kids for 40 minutes once a week.

Today, I started a routine that I'm hoping to continue throughout the semester: spelling tests. English is a very difficult language to figure out, because it is often not phonetic. There are also a lot of sounds in the English language that are hard for Chinese students to figure out - the difference between the "s" noise and the "th" noise; the difference between using a "c", "s", or "z", etc. I gave them some words that I thought they already knew - North, South, East, West; and some that I thought they didn't. The ones they didn't know made them almost angry. "Teacher! We don't know that word!" I know. I told them to sound it out. I pronounced it slowly and loudly. I over-emphasized the "th" in some words, the "r" and "x" in others. They're not used to having it be okay to be wrong. One of my rules I told them on the very first day is that mistakes are okay. Many of my students wrote, "I'm sorry, I don't know" on their papers. I wrote back, "That's okay! Today, you learned how to spell a new word."

I played a jeopardy game with them, to get them up and out of their seats, and used to moving around. The kids are used to sitting in the same seat, all day, every day. The more they get up and moving, the more likely they are to talk. Explaining directions in English is one of the most difficult things to do, and I found out on my first day that telling them they need to break into "groups" doesn't work. I numbered them off, "1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6", and then had them go around the classroom and finish it themselves. Once they were done, I had everyone stand up. They all looked around nervously. I started pointing to certain areas of the classroom. Number ones - in the front! Number twos - back corner!

They almost didn't believe me. "Really?!?" I heard that a lot. Yes! Move! The Junior 1 class actually stayed standing in their groups, and they were the most rambunctious. Instead of staying with their group and listening to me read the question, they would all rush up to my desk to be as close as possible. Whatever. It still worked, and they answered questions.

The Junior 2 class actually still sat down in desks once I told them what area of the classroom to sit in. One roadblock I keep running into is that the Chinese teachers hear some of the commotion coming from my classroom, and then they come in and sit in the back because they think I need help with discipline, when I had wanted the noise, and asked for them to speak and move around. That happened in this class. The teacher came and sat in the back, just watching them like a hawk. Any time the teams would whisper because there was a chance they would be stealing the question, she would glare at them. I told her at the beginning of class that I was going to be playing a game with them and they needed to talk.

The game, though, went very well. There were some hard questions and some easy ones. They knew most of them, so that was good to know. But, most of all, they were standing up and talking, and it wasn't always the same person from each group. When they knew the answer, they got excited. Sometimes when the group who had been asked the question was still thinking, other students would wave their hand in the air to get my attention. "No, it is group three's turn to answer the question. We are doing group work now."

It's really hard for me, because I know that next week I'm going to have to start introducing  new vocabulary to them. I want to do a unit on asking directions with the Junior 1 classes and a unit on ordering in a restaurant with the Junior 2 classes. But, how do I introduce new vocabulary when I can't tell them what a word means in Chinese? When we learned foreign languages in school, we had teachers who knew both. They were able to tell us perro - dog. They didn't have to try to explain what "perro" meant with absolutely no application back to our native tongue.

There are only two ways I can think of to get around this. One, to write the new word on the board in English, and then put the pinyin next to it. I would have absolutely no idea how to write it in characters, and would NOT want to try. But, at the same time, how often do these kids even use pinyin anymore? I don't think they use it that often.

My second, and preferred, method would be to take a picture off the internet to put on the board next to the word in English. This would make it SO MUCH easier. Problem: I don't have a printer in my apartment, and, as far as I know, I don't even have access to a printer at the school. I truly don't know what to do.

There are so many kids in my classes. One thing that always helped me in my foreign language class was to actually have to get up in front of the class and speak. Our French classes were tough -- in our 5th year, we actually had to get up and give a 10 minute speech with no notes. We could only take up a few pictures to remind us of the topics we wanted to talk about. But, it really forces you to think on your feet. You can't have a rehearsed script; you can only have a general idea of what you want to talk about.

But, when I have a class of 45-58 and only a 40 minute time slot, how do I even get them up in front to speak? Sure, I could do half the class one period, and half the class the next, but that's an entire week in between class times. I don't know how that would work. The class size is also a problem when it comes to group work. Sure, I can make them partner up and have conversations with each other. But it just isn't humanly possible for me to walk around that classroom and monitor to make sure everyone is speaking in English. I'm at a loss for what to do.

Lauren wants to do oral midterms for her class. I would love to do that, but how? My smallest class is 45 students. That would allot less than a minute for each student to speak with me one-on-one. Plus, time in between for them to go back into the classroom and get the next student to come out to the hallway. Again, there is splitting the class in half, but it doesn't seem fair to give the other half an extra week to prepare.

It's frustrating, because there is so much I want to teach them. Judging from their notes on the first day of class, there's a lot they want to learn, too. Those huge class sizes are just so inefficient.

I would do almost anything for the most basic American classroom right now. A projector screen seems like it would be a gift from God. A printer from 1995 would be like Christmas morning. I'm truly at a loss for what to do next. Every time I try to plan a lesson, I'm hit with a roadblock because of a lack of resources.

(Oh, did I mention that the head teacher gave me a total glare when I told the kids that I was really proud of how well they did at the game? Ugh.)

I'm not trying to say that the Chinese system of teaching is bad, per se. It's just so, so different from the American one. It's focused on behavior and memorization. It's just hard to see how jumpy and different the kids become as soon as one of their head teachers steps in the door.

I'm frustrated because it feels as though we're here as more of a status symbol than as someone who is actually expected to teach students English. See, look how prestigious our school is! We have foreign English teachers! I don't know how they can even expect us to succeed in teaching their children when we aren't given access to the materials we need. We're not even given an assistant or someone who knows Chinese to help us translate things to the kids. It's not impossible, but it sure is going to be difficult.

I'm frustrated because I'm here to teach. I have so many ideas, and no way to implement them.


  1. Meredith could you talk to an old foreign language teacher you've had and get some ideas? Just a thought...I don't know anything about teaching but I know there are some creative teachers out there....Keep your chin seem like you're doing a great job so far!


  2. Can you bring in your laptop with pictures of the things you want to teach? Or go to a book store and look for children's books that would have the pictures you're looking for, and also the words in Chinese so they understand?