The Inner Mongolian China Brog

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Everything I need to know I learned in Tongliao

I have now completed one full week of teaching 126 darling first and second graders...

...many of whom speak nary a word of English...

...and miss their mommies...

...who shoot projectiles at each other (and me) with rubber bands...

...and pat me on the bum to get my's not dirty, just eye level... I guess I have my work cut out for me.

I continue to be charmed by the majority of my students. Some of them have the cutest little faces I've ever seen on a 6/7 year-old Chinese child and want nothing more than to hold my hand and kiss me on the cheek. However, my first week has yielded much of the not-as-charming side of the classroom.

Given the fact that many of these children know little more than "hello," I've had to start at the very beginning. That means ABCs, 123s, and a few PleaseShootMe's from their teacher. It's not that their little minds aren't ripe little sponges ready to absorb anything and everything I have to throw at them, it's that what they're throwing back at me includes (but is not limited to) paper airplanes, sour pusses, and blank stares. I don't mind starting at the beginning; Lord knows I'd rather teach them the alphabet than prepositions and diagramming sentences.

The first order of business was to assign each student an English name of their own. I came to each of my 5 classes armed with a stock of about 200 common English names, and posed my question to each of them: "Do you have an English name?" which I received one of the 3 following answers:
  1. "Yes, my name is _______."
  2. ::Shake of head followed by pointing to the English name they wanted on my list::
  3. "Meiyou." ("Screw you, Whitey.")

Just kidding - number 3 just means, "I don't have one." So I proceeded with the handing out of names for the first several of my classes, choosing what I thought were the nicest names from my list, trying to fit them to their owners' overall auras as best I could for having known them for a matter of minutes, admittedly without giving any thought to which would be the easiest for the kids to say. I managed to name a few Jakes, Mikes and Amys, which I think were good choices, but I shall forever feel guilty in retrospect about the poor souls I named Chloe, Gloria and Laura. My bad.

I think Clay actually has the best story about assigning the English names, so here it is, lifted directly from his own blog: "...a short, liberally proportioned boy stood up and stated that his name was "Buick". Ok, so that wasn't so much a story as a sentence, but a great one nonetheless; it totally made our day. Those of the Chinese tenacious enough to name themselves don't always choose names so much as words they like, resulting in monikers such as "Nike," "Wind" and "Michael Jordan". There are also a couple boys named Katie and Emily, but at least they picked actual names.

Seeing as kids of this age respond well to rhythm and singing, I decided that the first thing I would actually teach would be the Beatles tune, "Hello Goodbye," which now begins every class of mine, complete with corresponding hand motions and gestures for emphasis. The majority of my kids are quite comfortable with it by now; I even occasionally catch some of them singing it to themselves during my lessons...granted the lyrics often come out sounding something like "I done no wyoo seh goodbye I say hello..." but I'll take what I can get.

I soon discovered that most of the children were more than willing to scream the alphabet song at the top of their lungs as well - a slightly different version than what us American kids grew up with, but not without the traditional Twinkle, Twinkle tune. I amended my own singing to match theirs, and feeling confident that their enthusiastic rendition of the ABCs indicated that most of them could likely read and write with some degree of comfort, I then challenged each of them to spell their English name out loud to me, dangling a sparkly sticker in front of their faces as incentive. I was disappointed to find that few of them could do it, and most of them struggled even when repeating after me as I pointed to each letter on their nametags. Turns out that parroting a tune is one thing, but producing the words and letters on their own is quite another. I have therefore spent all of my classes since then working on the alphabet and the pronunciation of the letters, the thought behind that being that even when they pronounce words incorrectly in the future, they can at least then spell the words to make themselves clear, which is precisely what many of the adults here do in order to communicate with us foreigners.

So in between the various alphabet games I've come up with, I've had my hands entirely full trying to keep the kids from crawling all over each other and hopping out of their seats to roll on the floor and hit each other with whatever their grubby little paws grasp first. Kids will be kids, and they're often fired up when I come in because I obviously don't hold them to the same disciplinary standards as their Chinese teachers - not because I don't want to, but because I can't communicate any sort of threat to them at all. By now I've gotten the message that I can and should strike them when they're naughty, but I can't bring myself to hit them - that much of the American in me stands firm, and if it means they misbehave a little more because of it, so be it. In one of my angrier moments, I actually found myself grabbing one of my pupils firmly by the cheeks to get him to look me in the eye, at which point I shuddered inside at the horror of what I'd done, realizing that in the States I'd have been fired over less before class had even ended. I'm not above steering a kid by the arm to a different desk in order to separate him from his dueling partner, but it'll be a desperate day indeed when I strike a defenseless child, tempting though it may be when physicality is the one language I know to be universal.

You can see, then, how I negotiate a very thin line between making English class a fun time to look forward to (which is what I want; otherwise, these kids won't want to learn) and teaching with an iron fist, holding the students to the same (miserable) disciplinary standards as the Chinese. I did bring one of my Chinese colleagues named Apple (I would laugh if it weren't for Gwyneth Paltrow and her fruity offspring) into each of my 5 classes once to translate so that I made my expectations quite clear to the little devils. Those classes were no less than doubly efficient, which was humbling as a new teacher, but I think that by now it's quite obvious that I have as much to learn as my students.

Don't think for a minute that my new post is without rewards, though. Since becoming teacher to my 100+ tiny disciples, I've enjoyed countless visits to my office by various of my students...mostly little girls, but that's no small wonder. I get clobbered with hugs and kisses following most of my classes, and on a good day I'm lucky enough to have my fingers manicured with pink sparkly stickers. And you can see for yourself how cute they are...

The thorns on any rose outnumber the blooms by far, but they don't stop it from being beautiful!


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