Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Back to the Grind

I still have a lot of updating to do about my travels over the break, but I thought I'd take a little detour to write a few blogs about, you know.. teaching.

I wrote the following blog while I was "punishing" one of my classes by making them sit in silence. I've broken it down into titled sections.

1. Upon Arrival
To any frequent readers of my blog, I'm sure it's become quite clear that Mr. Dong gets a huge amount of joy out of playing with us. One of his favorite things to do is tell us the wrong dates of break. The dates he told us for break the first time were January 18th until February 5th. These eventually changed to January 13th to February 6th. Therefore, my parents booked their flight for January 14th and left on the 30th. Come to find out, about two weeks before, that we were actually going to be done on January 6th. It ended up being alright, because I got to go to Harbin, but it was really frustrating because if I would have known that we were getting out so early, maybe Domenic could have came with my parents or something. He didn't start school until the 21st. Then, to add even more on top of that disappointment, Mr. Dong also purposely lied to us about the end date of the break. Three of us ended up having to take a personal day on the last day of classes so we could get to Harbin - which wasn't actually a problem, because the Junior 2 teachers had been sending us away all week so they could use our period to prepare for the exams. Mr. Dong, however, was really pissed about this, so he told us that we needed to be back almost an entire week before school started. So, I spent an extra week sitting on my ass in the Shiz when I could have been spending more time with my parents, who I hadn't seen in five whole months.

Another thing that struck me as really sad when classes first resumed is what happened to the poor kids. Our internet was out again at the apartments when we got back (even though we'd told Mr Dong about it two weeks before). That meant we'd been spending a lot of our free time at the school to use the internet. The night before classes started, the school was bustling. With classes? Oh, no. With children cleaning the school. Welcome back from break! Here's a dirty mop!! It was so terribly sad that these poor kids had this to look forward to. On top of that, their first week of classes was nine days long. Yep, we started on a Thursday and taught Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, and then the next Monday through Friday. Talk about burning out these poor kids their first week back at school. Back to observations about cleaning. I've found that the class monitors generally don't have to do as much cleaning as the other kids in class. They get to walk around with a little notebook and point out dirty spots for the other kids to clean, or to criticize places that hadn't been cleaned properly.

2. On Teaching
One of the things that continues to baffle me as a huge difference between my Chinese students and what I remember of middle school in America is how they share answers and things in the classroom. Sharing answers for homework and in-class work isn't frowned upon here; the only scores that really matter on the exams, and no-cheating policies are very, VERY strictly enforced then. I first noticed this when I tried spelling tests at the beginning of the year. The concept of keeping your answer to yourself and not telling those around you was so hard for my students to grasp. I would get the class under control and get 2-3 words in, and then on the first difficult word, at least one person just couldn't contain their answer and would shout out to the class how to spell it. There would be whispering as students told the people next to them. There were no elbows covering answers or heads bent over papers so neighbors couldn't see what you were writing. (Eventually, we stopped doing spelling tests. It was partly because of this, and partly because most students would simply refuse to write anything if they didn't already know how to spell a word, because they considered it more embarrassing to try and fail than to not try at all.)

I also had a problem with this "community" type classroom experience this week. The kids were supposed to draw a map and answer a series of questions about it. Then, I randomly selected students to come to the front to describe their map to the class. As always, there are a few kids in each class who just don't do the assignment. If they get chosen, however, there is always a classmate who will just give them their map to bring to the front. It wasn't like, "This is my map and I drew it and you should get your own." It was like, "Well, it's your turn to talk, and I have a map while you don't, so.. here!" It was really frustrating, but I found that telling the student, "Next time, you need to draw your own map instead of using a classmate's" they would turn red. It still got my point across, and they got the chance to speak in front of the class, which was the real purpose of the activity.

Another instance where I realized how important the classroom unit is to Chinese students is when one of my boys and I had a discussion about a vocabulary word. He was trying to tell me that he wanted to know the word for the student who sits next to me. I said, "Classmate". That wasn't it. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the equivalent would be in English. We ended up settling on "Seat mate", though I'm not really sure that it's even a word or correct. He was adamant, however, that the word classmate did not adequately describe the two people who sat next to him. They were part of his group, his homework unit, and they helped each other on activities. As I've mentioned in other blogs, the kids don't change classrooms here. The teachers who teach each subject do. The kids stay with the same group all year, every day, from 7am until 5:30pm. Sometimes later than that.

Of course, I'm also still having problems with discipline. This is an issues that I'm sure will continue the rest of the year, and I've pretty much come to terms with it. I'm perfectly okay with not being able to control or discipline my kids the same way their Chinese teachers do. Simply put, I don't want to be like that. I don't agree with that style of teaching. Between the three of us, we have seen teachers at our school do the following: make students run for between 40-60 minutes as punishment, give a child a bloody nose, beat a child over the head with a handbag, smack a child, make students stand in the cold with no coat and their nose against the wall for 40 minutes...the list goes on. Quite frankly, if the choice is between being like that or having a few rowdy classes, I'll take the rowdy classes every time. And I understand why they act out with us. Of course we're nowhere near as intimidating as their other teachers. We have to come to grips with the fact that part of our job is to provide a little bit of a break to our students as well as to make them more comfortable speaking English.

Most of the teachers here, though, don't make our job any easier. There are two teachers I know here who are nice to me and have helped me out when I had a discipline issue with the kids, or who gave me their phone number if I need anything, etc. Two.

I have one head teacher who doesn't like me at all. She was fine at the beginning of the year, but it all went downhill after Mr. Dong asked me to edit a paper for the school newspaper. He told me that it was from a teacher in the senior building. The paper was terrible. And the person who wrote it began the paper by saying they had been teaching English for 20 years. I was scared, to be honest, of what this person was teaching the kids here. Needless to say, I made quite a few corrections. (For example, there was one page that was one, huge run-on sentence. And entire page in Microsoft Word.) Then I found out that it was this teacher's paper. She didn't let me teach her class from October through the end of the semester. I've only taught it twice since we've been back.

I've also had head teachers who come into the classroom in the middle of my class to "make an announcement". These announcements are generally met with the students laughing and looking at me awkwardly. If I have the students talking and participating, there are teachers who will stand outside and stare through the windows, which terrifies the students into not speaking. The Chinese teachers here tend to equate any noise in a classroom with the class acting up, as the general layout they follow is much more lecture based. This becomes difficult, however, when the class I'm supposed to be teaching is Oral English. I also had one boy attempt to videotape me during a class. When I asked him to put the videocamera away, he told me that his teacher had asked him to do it. I still took it away from him.

Lauren has also had this issue with one of her male teachers. I hope she doesn't mind me talking about it here, but it is a great example of how the teachers try to undermine us. The two of them don't really talk, but say hello and goodbye to each other. She had a feeling that he was mocking her, in the sing-songy way that a lot of people here mock the way we say "hello" and "goodbye" by extending words for an unnecessary amount of time or raising the inflection of their voices too high. She got this confirmation, though, when he came into one of her classes in the middle of her lesson to talk to her students. One of her students informed her that he came into her class to tell them that, "he thinks you are a very silly girl."

Things have gotten worse this semester in the teacher's lounge. We started out the year with five desks to split between the seven of us. When we got back from break, we found that we only had three left - the other two had been taken over by other people. It is noteworthy to mention that every Chinese teacher at our school, whether full or part time, already has an assigned desk. Ours are at the front of the room, so a lot of teachers try to use them as a place to put papers or things when they don't want to walk back to their own desk. As we've had a lot of internet issues this semester, we've been spending more and more time in the teacher's lounge, using our desks. After a battle with a truly crazy member of the staff here, we have now been pushed into sharing only two desks between the seven of us. This woman is off her rocker. She "claimed" the desk by covering the chair in rags and the desk in orange peels. Her papers are strewn everywhere, and there are discarded cups and bags on the side. If one of us happened to be using that desk, she would stand behind us and watch. We eventually ended up just giving her that desk because it wasn't worth dealing with her to use it. That apparently wasn't good enough, as she is currently trying to steal another one of our remaining two desks. If we are sitting in the one next to her, she will stand behind us, or try to lean on our chair, or try to put papers on any empty space at our desk. It's like it is absolutely killing her to watch us use any space at all in this room.

3. Valentine's Day in China
February was a pretty easy month, subject-wise, because there were already built-in holidays to teach about. I started our week back by teaching about Valentine's Day. I knew I had to keep it pretty well-regulated, since relationships in middle school and even high school are strictly taboo here. My kids go into hysterics at the words girlfriend and boyfriend. When I was their age, I already had my first boyfriend. Anyway, word got out to the Chinese teachers that we were teaching about Valentine's Day, and I didn't have a single class that week that didn't have one of them observing (and usually tsking) in the back of my classroom. We started class by making a list of things we associate with Valentine's Day: chocolates, roses, hearts, gifts, teddy bears, cupid. We talked about how kids in America celebrate Valentine's Day, and how we had class parties where everyone decorated a box and everyone brought a Valentine and candy for every student in the class. We talked about candy hearts and the messages they had on them, and after giving a few examples, I let the kids shout out things they thought the hearts might say. Some of their answers were hilarious, such as, "Be my wife." Most of them were pretty tame, like "Girlfriend", "Boyfriend", or "Call Me". We made a list of things that couples might do on Valentine's Day: go to dinner, go to a movie, take a walk together in the park, make dinner together at home. One of my boys, Gavin, asked me if we were allowed to have boyfriends or girlfriends in middle school in America. I told him that it was up to the parents to decide if their child had a boyfriend or girlfriend, and at what age, but that there are quite a few American middle schoolers who do have boyfriends or girlfriends. He told me, simply, "If we are caught with a boyfriend or girlfriend, our education is over."

The last thing we did in class was to write Valentines to each other. I made sure to stress to them that you could give a Valentine to anyone, whether it was a parent or grandparent, a sibling, a classmate, or even a celebrity. Here are a few of the funniest:

Dear Wang XX,
I like you because... (YOU KNOW!) You make me feel happy.

Dear PZX,
I love you, because I love you. You make me feel is tit.

Dear Zhao,
I like you, because you are ugly. You make me feel you are lazy.

Dear Yang Peng,
I like you because you are very scary. You make me feel very scary too but I think you are very interesting.
Lujio Zhao

Dear Tom,
I like you very much because you look like my brother. You make me feel safe and happy. Do you know Justin Beiber?

Dear Yang Ya Qi,
I like you because you're very beautiful. You make me feel very exciting.

Dear honey,
I like you because you are my sunshine. You make me feel warm and sweet.
Mirror Legend's Boss

Dear iPad,
I like you because you are very cute. You make me feel beautiful.

Dear Meng Yifan,
I like you because you is my first wife. You make me feel...
Zhang Zi

Dear Jon,
I like you because you are very just so-so. You make me feel very important.

Dear HYQ,
I like you because you are my fire. You make me feel very excited. Come on!

Dear Mary (yes, me),
I like you. Because I think you are very kind and beautiful. I want you to be my "wife".

Dear xx,
I like you because you is have money. You make me feel have math monkey.

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