Some reflections on Chinese students and EFL (for teachers,probably)

We are nearing the end of the first semester here in Xiamen and our 3rd semester in China so time for a bit of reflection.I have spent the last 2 weeks testing my students orally for their Final Exam,and I have a few observations. It seems that there is a great deal of difference between teaching English majors and Non English majors,but there are some things which seem to jump out at me as “weird” or “different” when I compare the Chinese universities to the Western ones. Firstly,the students here seem to have a lot less choice in their lives than our children do,and than we did as students. Most students here,when asked why they chose this university or why they chose their major reply that “My parents picked it” or “My Gao Kao (high school university entrance exam) score was too low to go to another place. They don’t seem to express any opinion about what to study or where to spend four years. Another thing that sticks out is that they mostly plan to return home to their “hometown” when they graduate to help their parents,or because getting a job there is easier than in another city.They often plan to follow a career choice chosen by their parents,again in many cases not something they are crazy about. I find this rather sad,looking back on my University l ife and how much I loved it.

Students,by and large, try to answer our questions with what they think we want to hear,and not their “real opinion” as far as we can fathom,and it is impossible to get them to be honest and really tell us what they think.And by the way there are some other rather confusing things. Frequently a student will refer to his “hometown” which is his ancestral family home,but not necessarily where his family now live,which can be thousands of miles away. And they will also refer to “my sister” or “my brother” when referring to a cousin,but it can also mean a true sibling. Many of them ,despite what we know about China,do have a sister or a brother,sometimes two!

IMG_20121030_155223  D5814DEC@C1D1D230.972DBC50

Students here seem to be perpetually busy doing pointless tasks for the university,and when they are free they just watch movies online,or sleep,or play computer games.They rarely go into the city which is only 30 minutes away as they seem to think it is too far or too crowded.They are lacking in ambition and independence,and on weekends go home to their families if they live near to Xiamen.There is very little of the typical University life we know in the UK- certainly no pubs,no parties,very little mingling of the sexes at all.In class the boys and girls sit separately as we did when we were very young in elementary school.They are pretty immature,look much younger than British or American students and have very little social life.Classes have a class monitor much as we did in high school,who has to do various things for the teachers. I asked some students about hobbies,or what they do in their free time and the predictable answers were “play computer games”,”sleep” “go to the library” and for some girls “go shopping”.

Of course the students are delightful people on the whole,very polite and respectful,curious about us and where we come from,why we are in China and what we think about it.They find it hard to imagine why we would have left a place which they consider to be alluring,magical,and highly desirable to come to China and they mostly have very little idea of travelling even as far as Shanghai,let alone abroad.IT all seems very unreal to them. I can’t help wondering,however what the future holds for them,and what China will look like when they reach adulthood…

More anon…


Back in the Holyland- and the Laura Linkup

Well we are back in Israel for the summer after a rather weird journey back but first I want to pay my dues by writing up the wonderful linkup we did at the end of June between Danny’s Middle school kids and my friend Laura Shashua’s class of Middle school kids in Holon,Israel.It was Laura’s idea to do a joint lesson between the Chinese and Israeli students using Skype.So having discussed the content of such a class and preparing the kids for the meeting,the day arrived.It was logistically tricky due to the time difference and the original date was postponed because Laura’s class suddenly had their lesson cancelled,it finally took place in Danny’s last lesson ,before our trip to Chengdu.

Henry answers a question from Israel

We checked all the connections on the computer,had a dry run with no students and checked whether we could hear each other on the skype. The screens were not so clear,and the sound not so great but it was passable. WE had two Chinese English teachers with us, and there were twice as many Chinese students as Israelis. Never mind. When the bell rang we had two classes facing each other from across the globe. Laura had worked hard to prepare her kids,and they had a huge Israeli flag at the back of the room ,and the kids all had their names written on cards, in Hebrew and English.We quickly scrambled in Lin’an to find a Chinese flag and only found a small one,and made the kids name signs too.The plan was to have the kids ask each other questions about their lives,for the kids do demonstrate how to eat with chopsticks/knives and forks, and at the end to sing “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean” together.

Danny and the students

The main thing that was clear was how shy the Chinese were compared to the Israelis.The Chinese kids were very reticent but we finally got a kid who was happy to ask and answer questions. We had the Israeli kids greet their friends with “Ni Hao!” and the Chinese respond with “Shalom!” there was plenty of waving and smiling, the food eating demonstration was partially marred by technical problems but the final rendition of “My Bonnie ” was a roaring success,and all in all we think it went pretty well.

Hopefully we can try this again in future.

Lin’an students show how to eat with chopsticks

Thoughts on education: summer course

Okay so here’s the thing. You walk into the classroom.It’s sweltering 35 degrees and the fan is pushing the hot air from one side of the room to the other.You look at the new kids, grades 9 and 10 who have shown up for the summer course, to make it into a better class next year, or because the school demands it of them.

Now you know they won’t learn enough in 10 days to make a difference, and you know that it’s a money- spinner for the school .But you can’t do anything about it….

Some of the kids are really trying hard. I mean they don’t know that New York is a city and not a country but they really are prepared to make an effort. However, once they finish the course and are put in the weak group ,their frustrations will begin to come through. And then,when faced with the Bagrut (matric) paper which is really more of an intelligence test than an English test, they will look to cut corners.I have seen it now so many times,but it still frustrates me. I can’t help them .I can’t change the system.

There are a lot of teachers out there trying to change it , but apparently there are too many “powers-that-be” who stand to make revenue from it and so the chances that we will ever be able to get the Bagrut cancelled are minimal.

On the other hand, it was nice to go back to the classroom after my sabbatical and see that I don’t hate it.I was scared I would not be able to make it through the day, especially as the mercury climbed even higher by 3.45 ,the last period.

Now I am back to earth,having delved into wikis, flat classrooms, cooperative classrooms and suchlike in my virtual life this year, I bumped down to the reality of no air condtioning, no laptops and no freedom to do what I would really like with these kids.

The Internet Maze

The main problem seems to be overload. The more sites you find ,the more you get carried further inward.

I constantly come across wonderful people doing incredibly creative things, saying really insightul things about the use of the Web in the classroom,or the trouble with the Web, or introducing me to fascinating new concepts in language learning. So I bookmark them and surf on. And on.

And it’s endless. There is always another page, another site, another brilliant person waiting to be read.

In fact today I found a splendid blog by a gentleman called Tom Hemingway, an American educator resident in Turkey .Now the thing is one needs time to read his blog and THEN to proceed to read all the wonderful references he gives to other people’s blogs. I mean it’s completely endless.And now I am on Sabbatical so I have time to pursue these things at leisure ,but what will I do when September rolls around?

I also joined the Flat  Classroom Project Ning and Wikispaces with the hope that I will incorporate these things into my teaching next year. But on the other hand, how do I know that I won’t sink back into the miasma of mundane book exercises and worksheets, taking the path of least resistance?

Me and Winnie The Pooh

Just messing around with different tools now to learn how to modify my posts. There seem to be lots of different tools around, including google docs (try it later) , and something called odiogo recommended to me by David from classroom web2.0, which he says enables you to try text to speech in your blog. I will try that later, as soon we are going to eat, and then go to a movie!