Lately my life has been the same routine each week. My schedule is so ingrained that I feel everyone else must know what I’m doing day-by-day too. After all, it’s the same thing each week. This kind of thinking has led me away from posting lately because I have a sense that you already know what’s going on. This is ridiculous, of course, but I often overlook things to write about because of this exact concept.
I have never talked about my students or the specifics of the Chinese classroom. I had been introduced (on a surface level) to the Chinese classroom by things I read in the United States. Then, during our training, we talked about them. Current volunteers came and shared their experiences with the new volunteers. After that we taught for 3 weeks in a model school, where we began to understand the students and the “feel” of the Chinese classroom in general. Finally, we came to our sites and taught on our own.
This process has slowly given me a better understanding of the classroom. There was no immediate rush of information. Nothing anyone told us completely changed our view of the Chinese classroom. But we learned and slowly began to understand and see differences. I guess what I’m trying to say is that whatever I write about the Chinese classroom will not give you a completely accurate picture. I can only share my own experiences.
Chinese students are incredibly attentive. If I wanted to speak for 2 hours about mud, I could probably do so and the students would follow the entire presentation. In their classes, when Chinese teachers call upon students, the students stand up and respond. This bothers me so much that I asked them to stop doing so in my classes. The students typically are not allowed to eat food in their classes. Walking down a hallway while classes are in session allows you to hear one of three things: The teachers lecturing, the students responding or chanting in unison, or a single student responding to a direct question from the teacher. The methods are universally focused upon memorization and rote learning. The classes are teacher-centered and there is little or no group work done during classes. The textbook is the law, even if it is filled with errors. Students can memorize an alarming amount of information. This seems to be built into the very idea of memorizing characters as individual pictures. Rather than learning the phonetic rules and patterns, there seems to be more of a need for young children to memorize stroke order and vocabulary.
This is the classroom I walked into my first day of teaching and, despite my knowledge of these particular things, I still run into problems. My teaching style began as a combination of lecture, activities and games. Even this was too much for the students (they are used to mostly lecture). The day I announced meaningful role-plays the students were very confused. One student gave me a letter because she was concerned about my health (no healthy teacher would give such a crazy assignment!). Often my questions are met with passive silence. “Do you have any questions,” is challenged with their own thoughts, “Why would we ask questions if that shows you didn’t explain it well enough – we don’t want to embarrass you!” or else my “Who knows the answer?” is received with the same quiet thoughts: “If I show I know the answer my friends will think I’m bragging.”
But things are changing. The students are already beginning to become used to my teaching style. They are speaking more often and they are more willing to take risks. My American accent is becoming more familiar to them. And they’re learning to speak, understand, read and write in English.
I throw chalk and poorly write Chinese Characters on the board. I dance and pat them on the back and try to wake them up to these new ways of thinking and speaking. I trip over podiums and I use poorly pronounced Chinese to help them understand instructions. It is only the beginning. We have a long way to go.