How China and the Election Changed My Teaching

I’ve referenced the election in my first two posts, and I’ll do it here again. A number of people have asked me to keep a blog and talk about my experiences in China. I wish I was going on daily adventures, but the reality is things are fairly simple. I teach. I have office hours. I do some grading. I catch up on a lot of television thanks to my VPN. I eat dinner and enjoy some beverages with my co-workers every night.

The biggest difference between the spring semester and the fall semester is the approach I’ve taken with my classes. I’ve always been a first year writing or developmental English teacher. Generally, what this means is I work with students who don’t quite have the skills to get into a straight college course and may need extra help. Because I’m the low person on the totem pole and have 12 years experience as a tutor, working with an at-risk population has become my calling card.

After teaching a grammar class in the fall of 2014, I vowed to get away from grammar as much as possible and really focus students on the writing process and essay format. Over the course of two years, I was able to hone my skills by presenting information in a clear manner. I would focus on content as much as possible. Getting students to think about the why and the how was ultimately more important than if they could write a grammatically correct sentence. Grammar is important in many fields, but I’ve never believed students will feel comfortable presenting themselves as writers if they feel they’re going to be judged for every mistake they made. I always tried to have clear guidelines and strict deadlines while also trying to empower students to find their voice and get over the fact they attended a shitty high school.

Here’s the trick to teaching developmental English (only one man’s opinion): You’re not teaching “dumb” students English all over again. You’re breaking bad habits. You’re trying to teach them time management (showing up to class on time) and study skills. You’re teaching them how to read academically (taking notes, communicating with a text, understanding difficult vocabulary words). You’re showing them the difference between academic and informal English. There’s a way to be stern, have standards, and achieve course objectives without resorting to diagramming sentences. If I ever diagram a sentence for a class, I give any potential future students permission to walk out.

It was with about 2.5-3 years of teaching experience plus the 12 years of tutoring experience that I got on a plane to China and met my greatest challenge ever. I was told I was teaching English majors. English may be their major, but I would qualify the students as having intermediate language skills at best. They have to use the translators on their phones to survive and generally speak in Chinese even when they’re in groups. If I restricted them to only using English, I’d A.) feel gross about going to someone else’s country and telling that person they couldn’t use their native language and B.) would likely have to deal with a silent room more often than  not. I brought many of my sensibilities of first year writing teaching to the classrooms in China. Grammar was lightly covered in class, and I would focus time spent with students individually on it and sentence structure. I tend to be very sarcastic in class, but sarcasm isn’t as culturally known, so humor was more difficult to use.

My first class went about as badly as a class has ever gone. I talked to a silent room for two hours and realized a 20 page reading I was going to assign needed to be changed. I literally changed their first homework assignment in the middle of class and could have burned the syllabus right there. It was extremely difficult working with two of the classes (they were sophomores) because they had difficulty with the readings and even some of the assignments. I had them review The Lion King, and their inability to analyze was glaring, so much so I had to audible and change their final assignment from a persuasive op-ed to a persuasive letter that was more personal in nature and didn’t rely on research.

With the other two classes (the juniors), I had them write a five page essay over the course of the whole semester, and things went much smoother with those groups. I was able to scaffold the various parts of the writing process and the format I wanted. They ended up with an argumentative essay that was roughly 6-7 paragraphs in length. I gave them a hand-out for the counterargument paragraph and allowed them to use the model phrases because I knew they were set up for failure otherwise. I also allowed them to turn in sections of the essay for a grade, then allowed them to revise and proofread those sections before turning a final paper at the end of the semester. Both classes improved by leaps and bounds. I was impressed with many of the final papers and would have been proud of their work over some American students I’ve had and have done similar assignments.

As much as I enjoy teaching the writing process and paragraph structure, what happened on November 8 profoundly changed my thinking about teaching and what my responsibilities were.

The ability to construct a well written sentence is important. The ability to construct an organized essay is paramount to any English major regardless of what country they live in. However, I went into my six week break with a nagging sense that just being a writing teacher wasn’t good enough. Even if I couldn’t raise my fist in the air and tell the students to start a revolution, I felt more than ever a duty to connect the classroom with the outside world.

Part of the problem with education in China is students take a lot of tests. Like even during the semester. Crucial tests that would determine if they could on to another university or even potentially study in the United States. Also, while I can’t pass judgment on what the students are learning from their teachers in the first year of the program, I imagine months of reading simple paragraphs and working on grammar weren’t exactly the most stimulating activities. Writing seemed to be a solitary activity. English was something to be tested on, not used as a communication device.

This semester, I was asked to teach five classes. Both the sophomores and juniors would have to take a class called Introduction to Composition Theory. As a grad student, I had trouble understanding the pedagogy behind teaching composition. Can you imagine discussing post structuralist thinking to a group of students who have trouble understanding what the world “collaborative” means? I wasn’t going to fight that battle. Thanks to some help from one of my former teachers, I came up with a gameplan. China has rather liberal copyright laws, so any textbook chapters I needed could be printed and given to the students. I developed a class which would combine what I wanted from them. The students would be divided into groups of 4-5 and collaborate on a community based learning project. They would identify a problem in their community (community could be as narrow as the campus or as broad as the country itself) and write a group paper of 10-12 pages.

I began the semester with the two most theoretical readings and have that serve as the pedagogy behind the class. The first dealt with the benefits and reasoning behind collaborative writing. I explained to the class that I wanted them to see writing and language as a communication tool, not just a pain in the ass series of courses they needed to graduate. The second reading talked about engaging with the community. Students could pick from a range of topics. One group chose to write about air pollution. Another is writing about sexism in education. A third is writing about the concept of abandoned children (some parents who live in the countryside will move to a city like Beijing or Shanghai to get a better job opportunity and send money back to the child and grandparents instead of staying at home). My purpose was for them to try and see a problem before eventually coming up with a solution. I think community disengagement is an immense problem in the states and can see the issues in China as well. When I discussed social capital with my students just this week, I wondered how much of that has been lost in America too.

I mentioned four of my classes essentially being the same. The fifth class was a fill in the blank. It’s called Writing In… What would my students be writing about? I could have gone in a literary direction and even considered going the dystopian literature route and have them read The Hunger Games. I then got an idea at a random point in class last semester when I was explaining The Simpsons to one of my classes. I decided to find a clip and showed them some of the shorts that aired on The Tracy Ullman Show. It was then I decided to teach a class dedicated to the show and some of the important concepts discussed. Thankfully, I found a great book to use that covered the key concepts I was interested in: gender, sexuality, class, and what it means to be an American.

The students are always interested in hearing about American culture, and I figured I could sprinkle in some discussion about satire and explaining some of the humor of the show.

I’ve never been quite comfortable with teaching feminism as a white male, but if this particular group of students won’t get it from me, they’re not likely to hear it from anyone, and I think as someone bringing a western style education, it’s part of my responsibility and duty. Maybe I’ll even bring some of the lesson plans back to the states and use them in future writing classes.

What I’ve tried to bring this semester is a greater sense of English as both a communication device and a means of teaching the students about some of the most important issues we deal with everyday. I know I’m not going to change the world, but I’d trying to make it just a little bit better.






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