Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Disciplining Chinese students: a story of failures

How do you create order and discipline in a rowdy classroom full of between 45-60 students, when you don't share the same language? Taking it a step further, how do you discipline a class of students when you know and they know that you hold very little power over them?

How do you discipline a class when the teachers they see every day are seemingly okay with using physical violence as a means of punishment for misbehavior, but you are not?

This is the question I've been grappling with this week, as it seems that all of my 600+ kiddos had an informal meeting to decide that they were going to be little hellions this week.

I have one class that I see twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays. The periods that I have them are terrible - on Monday, I see them right before lunch, and on Friday, I see them 8th period. Especially given the times that I see them, they are usually quite well behaved. And, they are pretty smart, too. I have two little boys in that class that I'm sure are going to grow up to be great debaters.. I want to secretly hand them lists of schools in the US and Canada so they can start thinking about going abroad. Even though they're only in 7th grade, I want to do a presentation on American universities, just to get the idea in their heads.

Last Friday, however, they were terrible. They wouldn't listen to anything I said, they refused to participate, they were doing homework for other classes, etc. Given the size of most of my classes, I have to talk pretty loudly just to be heard, let alone if there is whispering or side chatter in the classes. I have about run my voice ragged, and it's starting to crack when I talk too loudly now. Nothing I said could get through to these kids. Usually, if I stop talking completely and stand at the front of the classroom in silence, the kids realize that they should quiet down (which is a tactic a lot of my teachers used - it makes the kids embarrassed pretty quickly). That didn't work. I tried yelling, "Be quiet!" or, "Listen!" but that was a no-go as well. I finally stopped doing the lesson plan I had planned, and improvised. We were going to do an activity where they were split into groups of nine.

Each group started with one word on the board: "apple". The next member of their team was to go to the front of the board once they sat down and write a word that began with the last letter: exam, eat, every. You get the point. So, there were to be no more than 9 people at the board at one time.

Nope. At least half the class rushed to the front of the room. As I've touched on many, many, many times previously, there is no such thing as a line in China. There is shoving, pushing, hitting, every-man-for-himself chaos. That included my classroom.

I yelled at them to sit down, that there should only be 9 people at the board at one time. No response. Finally, exasperated, I turned all the lights of and yelled, "SIT DOWN!!" as loud as I have ever yelled at a group of kids before. Quite frankly, I was a little bit scared for the safety of the smaller ones.

Most of them did sit down, but there were two girls who had the audacity to come up to the board as I was standing there, telling everyone to sit down, and continue to write. I about lost my shit on those kids at that point. Instead, I looked at them and went, "Really? Do you really think that's appropriate?" Sufficiently shamed, they sat back down.

Still sitting in the dark, I sat down in the wooden chair at the front and gave them a talking to. I told them that I understand I teach differently than their Chinese teachers. I'm not as strict, and I want them to talk and participate - but when I ask them to. I told them that it's not okay to talk over me or not show me respect just because I am teaching in a different way. I told them I was disappointed, and I wasn't going to waste my time teaching them. I said, since they clearly had more important things to do that day, I would sit at the front while they finished their homework. Then, we sat in silence for 15 minutes at the end of class.

Surprisingly, it actually worked, and we had a great class this Monday. It might have also helped that I gave everyone a number, and when I called their number, it was their turn to answer one of my questions about giving/asking for directions.

Today was another troublesome class. Yesterday, my Junior 1 classes were able to do a shorter and less difficult version of my directions lesson plan, so I know that my Junior 2 classes can do it. (Not to mention, it was very, very successful on Monday and Tuesday). This morning, however, this class did not want to do anything. People were drawing in class, throwing things, hitting, not paying attention, talking over me every time I talked. Absolutely nothing was working at all. I got through to the last ten minutes of class, and I was done trying to talk over them. I had given the class as a whole multiple warnings, but as soon as I was done telling them to listen or quiet down, they would go right back to what they were doing.

I made them all write me a note on a piece of paper that said,

Things that are inappropriate to do in English class:
1. Do homework for other classes.
2. Read magazines.
3. Work on drawings.
4. Hit other students.
5. Talk while the teacher is talking.

Knowing that they had English class with their Chinese teacher following mine, I left it on the board so their teacher would know what we had discussed. I also gave them a lower score on their evaluation for their head teacher than I normally do. We'll see if that helps -- but probably not, because my Wednesday Junior 2s are probably at the lowest level of English of that grade.

My second class this morning went really well, which made up for how bad the first class had gone. Some of the kids in that class are absolutely hilarious, but there are three boys that sit on the side of the room who are instigators.

I can definitely see in my classes a sort of discrimination against the kids who come from rural areas. Quite often, they don't know or speak nearly as much English as their peers, and the teachers even assign them seats in the back of the classroom. A lot of the time, they are even put at a desk by themselves, instead of with a seat mate. I'm really bothered by this, because Chinese students are evaluated not on their homework scores, but on their tests. As a result, there isn't really a concern for "cheating" in the classroom. Cheating is only a concern in the exam room. Therefore, seat mates are a big deal in China; they help each other out if they don't know the answer, they help translate if the other doesn't know what I'm saying in English, etc. I feel like the teachers know that the kids from rural areas are already behind, so they leave them to flounder instead of seating them next to someone who could help propel them forward. I have one boy in my J1 class who actually had a monitor assigned to him to tell me, "Miss Mary, this boy doesn't know English" every time I try to talk to him. Being as hardheaded as I am, of course, I still try. Between my very little knowledge of Chinese and his very little knowledge of English, we haven't gotten much past, "My name is" (ming zi) and teaching him how to say lawyer (lu shi), but we're getting there. I actually had a breakthrough with him last week, where he was able to write, "I want to be a businessman" on the chalkboard along with the rest of the class. I'm pretty sure he was just copying one of the sentences I had written earlier, but he was one of the few who wrote down the jobs with their English descriptions, so at least he's trying. I'm making him a sheet with common English words that I say - paper, write, board, please, name, quiet, listen, etc., and hopefully I'll be able to look up the characters in Chinese and print him a little cheat sheet. I haven't done so yet, just because I don't want every one in class to start asking for one.

But back to what happened today. In my Junior 2 class this morning, there is a boy who is also very clearly from a rural area, and therefore doesn't know as much English as the rest of the class. I'm also pretty sure that he's in charge of "punishment" for the classroom monitor, since he's the biggest in class. Yes, sometimes the classroom monitors are in charge of punishing their fellow students if the head teacher isn't around. They also sometimes bang on desks and yell in Chinese for their classmates to be quiet or listen. But, they can also be helpful. In some of my classes, the classroom monitors have the best English skills, so if students don't understand, they help translate.

So, one of my instigators on the side of the classroom was messing with students as usual. I was calling out numbers in pairs, and one student would ask for directions, and the other had to answer. I had a map drawn on the board. During one of the student sets, he yelled out, "Take a taxi!". Hilarious? Yes, of course. It took all of my self control not to laugh.

Apparently, he didn't get the reaction he wanted, because he took it a step further. He beckoned over the boy to his desk and said something to him in Chinese. I feel like what happened next almost happened in slow motion. I saw him walking up the aisle, rolling up his English book. Before I could get to that side of the room, he was bashing another student on the head with his rolled up book - because the instigator had pointed at that boy and said that he wasn't paying attention.

Naturally, I was appalled. I ran over and took the book from him. "NO! We do not hit students in English class. That is unacceptable. Go sit down!" And I pointed at his desk. He instantly look ashamed.

It took me a minute after that happened to realize that he had almost been duped into doing so. There is no way a student would walk up to another and bash him over the head in direct eyesight of the teacher if it wasn't accepted in other classes. Instigator, however, knew that it wasn't acceptable in English class. A part of me felt bad, because I had yelled at this kid in front of the entire class. Another part, however, didn't feel bad, because he did hit a kid.

After class, I went back to his desk to give him back his book, and tried to talk to him in a much nicer voice. I put it on his desk, and put my hand on his shoulder. "I'm sorry that I had to yell at you in front of the class, but do you understand that hitting other people is not okay in class?" He looked ashamed and nodded, but who knows if he understood. I told him, "Okay. Remember no hitting, and I'll see you next week."

I don't want him to be afraid to participate, because he looked like he was trying to sink into his desk in embarrassment afterward. It made me even more pissed at the instigator, because really, I have absolutely no idea what he said to him in Chinese.

I think the violence in schools is one of the most discouraging parts of my job. The students don't respect me as much as their Chinese teachers because I can't and won't punish them in the same way. But really, when you see a Chinese teacher pull students out of your class and they come back with a bloody nose, what do you do?

Well, that's still a question I'm trying to answer...but I know if I ever see a teacher hitting a student in front of me, I probably won't be able to control myself and will say something. God forbid if that happens in one of my classes. Sometimes it's good to have a smart mouth and a little bit of an attitude. We are not abusing children on my time, ladies and gentlemen.

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