Guns in Class

07 Aug 2003

click here for picturesAttention Xixi students! Your pictures are online now. Go look at them. They will not be online forever, so get what pictures you want now.

Attention everyone else! These are some pictures of the students I taught for three weeks at Zhejiang University Xixi Campus. The schedule was ideal for summer work: 1:30pm to 4pm daily, Mon. – Sat. Most students were between 18 and 20, many having just graduated from high school. They were a good bunch, and mostly very eager to study English in my un-air-conditioned class, despite the record-breaking Hangzhou temperatures.

I have become somewhat notorious for one of my teaching techniques at ZUCC. I demand that my students speak only English in my class, but when students don’t take the rule seriously, you’ve got to enforce it somehow. This is important because a lot of my class activities are small group activities, and I can’t listen to everyone speak at once. My first year at ZUCC I came up with an idea. I bring a squirt gun to class. When I hear someone speak Chinese, they get squirted immediately. Where I get them depends on my mood and their attitude; sometimes I get their arms or their backs, but I’ve squirted people in the face too. The students love this. Class suddenly becomes exciting.
There are a few drawbacks to this method. One, although it’s great for summer, it doesn’t work well in the winter. Two, not speaking English in class can turn into sort of a game, where the students daringly speak in Chinese in low voices whenever I’m at a distance, and I try to catch them at it.

I’m pretty good at catching them, though. Even when I can’t make out what people are saying, I can usually tell by the speed of their speech and their body language (i.e. students will be much more animated when speaking Chinese) that people are not speaking English. Every now and then someone doesn’t speak very clear English, and I mistakenly think they’re speaking Chinese. The students feel incredibly wronged when I squirt them by mistake. I shrug it off with a “speak more clearly and it wouldn’t happen.” I reign supreme in my classroom, and make no apologies for things like that.

For this past class, my squirt gun policy had an interesting effect. This class had a vengeful quality to an extent that none of my other clases ever have before. The first day I started squirting them, two students conspiratorially constructed a makeshift squirt weapon out of a water bottle with a hole poked in the top. Other students tried to steal my gun. Both plots failed, and all guilty parties got soaked just for trying.

The next day I got squirted from behind while at the blackboard and couldn’t find the guilty party. It was later revealed that several students had brought squirt guns to class. Things were starting to get out of hand. I set out a rule that if they wanted to take me on, they should do it after class. They agreed to that, but with such evil gleams in their eyes that I wondered if I had done myself in.

That day immediately after class, Jessica came at me determinedly with her water bottle, leaving a large wet spot on my shirt. Hoping to set an example in front of the whole class, I dumped my water bottle all over her, just soaking her. She got me kinda wet, but I got her much worse. I had more water, and made two things clear to her: (1) I could soak her even more right then, but I wouldn’t because I knew when to quit. (2) If she tried something like that again, I would get her back worse.
So the rest of the semester was conducted in sort of an uneasy state of watching my back, especially after class. Meanwhile, the effect of my squirting policy was spreading. Wayne had adopted my method on the third floor. Lots of students started bringing small super soaker-type water guns to class. The class next door was having regular water wars before and after class. One day I walked into the classroom to discover an abandoned battlefield. Every desktop and seat was covered in water. What had I started?

It wasn’t easy, but I was able to get them to cut out the water in the classroom. They never did exact their revenge, even on the last day. Somehow the target of their aggression was transferred from me to themselves. At one point I felt like the whole water thing was undermining my authority in the classroom rather than strengthening it, but in the end it turned into more of a catalyst for class bonding.

Now that summer session is over. I managed to soak a bunch of my students and still largely escape their wrath. I still support the idea of the teacher bringing a gun to class… but that teacher best be careful.

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John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.

Comments

  1. I know this post is really old but I just read it and I really like the idea! I have a “Middle school” English corner once a week or so and it’s like pulling teeth getting them to speak English instead of Chinese. I don’t know how many times I’ve repeated, “Speak English, please!” I think this might work for them – but I think I better talk to my supervisor at the school and make sure she’s cool with it first. Plus the whole “guns in school” thing is a bit touchy at the moment, with the whole VT thing very recently.

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