Tag: teaching


Sep 2005

The ZUCC Chronicle

Jamie’s recent post outlined his history with China. It was a history which crossed mine. The most significant common experience was had in a college in Hangzhou we call ZUCC. (If you’re American, you say Z-U-C-C, kind of like F-B-I. If you’re Aussie or kiwi, you say “Zook,” rhyming with it “book.” I have always wondered about that little cultural linguistic difference.)

In chronicling my three years at ZUCC, I aim to do three things:

  1. Create an easy reference for myself, since I’m very forgetful.
  2. Provide a reference for friends and family with regards to ZUCC friends.
  3. Provide an idea of what kind of salary you might expect. (Yes, I’m going to disclose how much I was paid for each semester I worked at ZUCC.)



Aug 2005

The Foreign Teacher Role

In China foreign teachers are called 外教 (a shortened form of 外籍教师). Literally it means “foreign teacher.” It’s a simple descriptive term. There’s nothing wrong with it.

And yet I don’t like to be called a waijiao. Why? It’s the connotations that usually come with the word. A waijiao can come in many shapes and sizes, but typically:

– A waijiao is white.

– A waijiao is most often male.

– A waijiao is young, likely fresh out of college. (Alternatively, he could be retired.)

– A waijiao is entertaining.

– A waijiao doesn’t speak much Chinese, if any. (If he does, it’s likely entertaining.)

– A waijiao doesn’t really have any skills other than being a native speaker of English. Sometimes they’re OK teachers.

I know… I am white. I am male. I am young. However, I am not in China for anyone’s entertainment but my own, although that’s certainly not my main reason for being here. And I do speak Chinese. I am not without skills. I don’t like to be pigeon-holed.

I was a waijiao for 3 1/2 years in Hangzhou. I enjoyed that job, and I was good at it. Then I was a waijiao teaching kids for a year here in Shanghai. That was a valuable experience too. But now I would like to move on… I like teaching, but I don’t want to make it my career. (Not TEFL, anyway.)

And yet to most Chinese people, if you’re a foreigner and you’re young, you’re either a student or a waijiao. If you’re not young, you’re either doing business here or you’re a waijiao. There’s really not much else.

Ironically, now that I have finally moved away from the role of waijiao with my current job, I’m returning to the pigeon-hole by becoming a student again. Plus they still call me a waijiao at work anyway even though I’ve corrected them on numerous occasions. Micah is a (skilled) waijiao, and I guess it’s too much to remember that we actually have different roles at the company.

When I get out of grad school I’m going to have to wreak havoc on all this waijiao stereotyping.

I do three main things at my job now:

1. I edit a new line of textbooks for Chinese kindergarteners. I don’t decide the lesson themes, but I play a role in determining the vocabularly to be taught, and I write the lesson text. My lessons must be of the appropriate level, but not contain too much difficult or unfamilair vocabulary or grammar. The lessons must also have rhythm, because they are set to music and sung as songs. When these books come out, my name will be in the books as writer.

2. I play the Chinese voice of a cartoon character as well as the English voices of several characters. I also manage the recording of the international versions of those cartoons, which involves putting together a team of voice talents and overseeing the studio recording. (I’m doing that this week and next week.)

3. I translate the cartoon scripts from Chinese to English, which are then used to record the international version of the cartoon. I also translate other parts of the textbook line for the international edition.


Aug 2005

"Thirsty" is a nice way of putting it…

Perry Bible Fellowship

The frame at left is from a comic strip called The Perry Bible Fellowship by Nicholas Gurewitch. (Apparently he doesn’t want people linking directly to certain comic strips. “Kids Are Thirsty” is currently at the top of the list, but if you’re getting to this blog entry late, you may need to scroll down a bit to find it.) It’s an excellent comic strip… it’s a lot like The Far Side, but a bit darker and with its own distinct brand of humor, of course. It’s far from derivative.

After teaching kids in Shanghai for about a year, I don’t feel this “Kids Are Thirsty” comic is much of an exaggeration. Is it kids everywhere, or Chinese kids in particular? Not having taught kids anywhere else, I can’t make the comparison.

Whatever happened to the Kool-Aid man, anyway? Is he still doing his thing? If not, maybe he met his demise in China.


May 2005

Calling Hours

A while back I met with a professor of East China Normal University to discuss my upcoming entrance exams for grad school (exams: modern Chinese, composition). He told me the exam would be administered at the end of May or beginning of June.

Well, the end of May is quickly approaching. He left me his phone number to contact him if I had any questions, so I’ve given him quite a few calls lately, but there’s never any answer. The phone number is not a cell phone number, so I figured it was his office number. Why is he never in his office? I concluded that he either isn’t in his office much or isn’t even at the university much these days.

When I mentioned the matter to my tutor the other day, she made everything clear. The professor had most likely given me his home phone number. It’s very common for university professors in China to give their home phone numbers out to their students. Furthermore, there’s sort of an unspoken rule: if students need to call their professors at home, they should call between 8pm and 9pm.

That explained a lot. It explained why I could never get an answer. It explained why I frequently got requests for my home phone number from my students when I taught university classes in Hangzhou (I wouldn’t give out my number, though). It also possibly explains why so few students would show up to office hours. Maybe they’re just used to calling instead of visiting the teacher’s office.

I’m not going to call the professor on the weekend, so I’ll have to wait until Monday to finally talk to him about the date of my entrance exams.


May 2005

What Not to Say in China

Ah, Angry Chinese Blogger… another one of those blogs I would read more often had I the time. He’s come up with a really funny post this time called What Not to Say in China. Anyone who has any idea what an “English Corner” in China is like will like this one. He provides great examples of how not to answer the typical English Corner questions. A quick sample:

Do you know about Chinese history?

– No, but it shouldn’t take me long to pick it up.
– No, but I would like you to tell me EVERYTHING.
– No, can you summarize it for me?
– No, but it doesn’t sound very important.
– I know the bits that your government didn��t tell you.
– I know what happened in 1949 and 1989.

Go read the rest. (If you’ve got comments, they’re best left on ACB’s blog.)

Via Peking Duck.


Apr 2005

Micah on Creativity

Just in case it has escaped some of you, Micah is my friend and co-worker here in Shanghai. (If you have a compulsive need to follow “all things John Pasden” (ha!) you should keep an eye on Micah’s blog because my name pops up there from time to time.)

Micah recently wrote a thought-provoking entry on raising children in China as an expat:

> Having gone to Spanish public school for so many years has cocktail party utility, but I blame it for my near-absolute lack of creativity and critical thinking. I just wonder if Chinese school wouldn’t have the same effect on a kid but magnified a hundred times. And even if you think “American parents will mean that the child will be different from their classmates”, well, no matter how much influence you think you have on your kids, the place that you send them for 6 hours of 180 days each year is going to have a strong influence on their mental development.

> The other side of the coin is that not sending your kids to Chinese schools will isolate them from their surroundings in a much stronger way than it would in Spain because the written Chinese language is nearly impossible to simply pick up naturally. And I highly value the cultural education I got from attending a public school abroad, so it is important to me that my kids be culturally conversive (if not fluent) in the country where we live.

A real-life example from my friend Shelley: at one summer camp in China, the teacher was actually dictating to the young kids what color each item should be in their coloring activity. Dissidents were reprimanded.

Through my job I have come into contact with Chinese educational materials for young children which claim one activity which nurtures creativity is allowing your child to color a picture any way he likes. Of course, this one “free coloring” activity is sandwiched between ten other activities which demand strict adherence to guidelines.

It’s not that Chinese education is deliberately against creativity. In fact, they’re always talking about the importance of creativity in education. It’s just that the educators honestly have no clue as to how to foster its development. Like Micah, I find this scary.


Jan 2005

CS and the Chinese Military

“CS” is the abbreviation Chinese teenagers use for Counter Strike (rather than the Chinese name 反恐精英), the world’s most popular FPS network computer game. When I taught college English at ZUCC in Hangzhou, there were quite a few boys in my classes that were crazy about the game and devoted almost all their free time to playing it in internet cafes. They even got Wilson (who was teaching there then) to play them.

Tian has a funny post (with pictures!) about the Chinese military using CS as training. Check it out.


Jan 2005

A Cheat-proof Exam

I was reading Matt’s “Cheating and Chinese Students” entry on Metanoiac, and it made me reminisce about how I dealt with cheating students during my tenure at ZUCC in Hangzhou. My own experiences might be helpful to some teachers out there, so I thought I’d share.

Throughout my 7 semesters of teaching spoken English at ZUCC, my class format never stopped evolving. I just want to share some of the major evolutions here and the reasoning behind the changes. At the root of the changes were always two questions: (1) Will this improve the students’ spoken English? and (2) How will I assess the students (i.e. grade them)?

My first semester I relied heavily on vocabulary. My reasoning was that it’s easiest to grade (by quizzes/tests), and if the students can incorporate the new words into their spoken English, they’ll become better speakers. I focused on common, useful idiomatic expressions and slang. Nothing tricky.

I quickly discovered this system was flawed because: (1) the focus was on learning vocabulary, not improving spoken English proficiency, (2) the students weren’t really learning to incorporate the new vocabulary into their spoken English, and (3) it was really hard to stop the rampant cheating on tests and quizzes. Another unwanted by-product of this system was lots of time-consuming paper grading.

I moved on to a skit-based class. Vocabulary was still important, but grading was based on the use of vocabulary and overall spoken English in performed skits instead of on paper. My students felt very awkward about performing at first, but soon got really into it and had a lot of fun.

Later I learned that the skit-based class only works well for certain groups of students. One of my subsequent classes was almost totally devoid of imagination, and their skits would inevitably be translations of some story they heard elsewhere, with the target vocabulary forcibly (and often painfully) inserted into the dialogue. Furthermore, I began to realize that although skits can be a great fun tool, they’re too fake to be the mainstay of a spoken English class.

I came to understand that as boring as they can sometimes be, discussions really should be the meat of a spoken English class because they’re the realest way to practice spoken English. Over several semesters I developed a discussion-centered class model which proved surprisingly successful, and worked even on somewhat large class sizes. [I plan to put this complete model online in the near future.] Vocabulary was reduced to the role of a tool — as it should be — and was provided to help students through the discussion rather than to drive the activity. Vocabulary was kept to a minimum to promote talking. Grading in discussions was based on preparation and participation.

Finally, I return to my point for this entire post. Following my discussion-based model, I think my exam format was pretty much cheat-proof. I decided that in spoken English class, all tests and quizzes should be spoken. The final exam consisted of small-group discussions (2-3 students each) in which the students discuss amongst themselves one of the topics that we had discussed as a class that semester. They knew all the topics; there were no secrets to obtain from other students. The topic for each group was determined by random, and each group got 5 minutes to mentally prepare (no notes allowed, and nowhere to hide them), followed by 5 minutes to talk. All I had to do was listen to the testing group and make notes or guiding questions while keeping an eye on the preparing group in the back of the class. A new group would be moving in every 5 minutes, so a 40 student class could finish in about an hour and ten minutes, in theory. In practice it wouldn’t exceed an hour and thirty minutes.

The advantages of the system are as follows:

  • The students have no way to cheat.
  • Students who have regularly attended classes all semester are at a definite advantage.
  • The material on the exam has all been covered in class before, so it’s unquestionably legit material (as opposed to some teachers’ finals, which may have nothing to do with the semester’s content).
  • The teacher can give adequate attention to each student’s spoken English performance.
  • The exam can easily be finished in a normal university exam time allotment.
  • There are no papers to grade. When a class’s exam is over, the teacher should already have all the exam grades for that class.

There are some issues, though:

  • Classes should have less than 50 students.
  • A significant portion of the semester must be spent teaching students how to have a discussion (no joke). This exam format works well as a result of an entire semester of the discussion-based class, and is not expected to work as well independently.
  • This will not work on students with only low level English (but should be doable for intermediate).
  • Some students feel “cheated” by their foreign teacher if a large proportion of the semester is devoted to the students’ discussion and they don’t get to hear the foreign teacher talk as much as they are used to.
  • Some students can’t understand that language proficiency is a skill rather than a form of knowledge, and, as such, must be practiced. That this practice may or may not involve much new material is hard for many to accept.

In conclusion, I’d like to say that the system I developed worked well for me in a certain part of China at a certain school for a certain class at a certain point in time. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I just hope that some of the ideas I present here might help other teachers with their classes.

Related Link: Sinosplice’s Teaching in China: A Guide for the Uninitiated.


Jan 2005

Effects of Favoritism

Today I was teaching a young kindergarten class (again) and there was one boy that learned the words quicker and pronounced them better than any of the other kids. He looked like he might have been a bit older than the rest. Wanting to encourage what also could have been a natural talent for acquiring foreign languages, I pulled him aside at the end of class and told him his English was really excellent and that he should keep it up. His response? “I’ve always been really smart!”

Of course I was amused by this response. My teaching partner’s response was, “he sure hasn’t learned any modesty yet!” It kind of made me wonder, though… was it more his own personality shining through, or was his response a result of conditioning by teachers and parents?

Then, as the next class was coming in, my teaching partner did something that really bothers me. In front of all the other kids, with all eyes on her, she singled out a little boy and told him he was the best-looking and that she liked him the best. This is something she does often, and, as with this little boy, she does the same thing with the same boy every time we teach that class.

My teaching partner doesn’t do this because she’s insensitive, and it’s something that I’ve seen a lot of teachers at a lot of kindergartens in Shanghai doing. Apparently they don’t see anything wrong with giving special attention to the kids they “like the best.” (There are instances in China of parents “bribing” teachers with money or gifts in exchange for giving their kids more attention, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here, and I know it’s not the case with my partner.)

I think to most Americans, this kind of teacher behavior is unacceptable. When you single out one kid as good-looking and tell him you like him because he’s good-looking, you’re sending out a powerful message to the other kids: (1) You’re not good-looking, and, more importantly, (2) I don’t like you as much because you’re not good-looking. I’ve mentioned my views to my teaching partner, but nothing stuck.

They say everything you need to know you learn in kindergarten. Apparently one of the clearest messages for a lot of Chinese kids is “good-looking people get ahead in life easier.” Call me an idealist, but I think that’s a pretty harsh reality to learn at such a young age.


Dec 2004

Untested Cooking Scheme

Back in the days before I had an ayi to cook for me, I taught spoken English classes at ZUCC in Hangzhou. I had a pretty nice apartment there with a full kitchen. I could have easily hired a cook there too, but never did. I rarely cooked myself, besides boiling frozen dumplings in instant soup and then dousing them with sweet and spicy sauce. Most of my meals were spent with my awesome co-workers at ZUCC.

Still, in my last semester at ZUCC I hatched a plan. It was cunning. It was brilliant. It was never put into effect. But maybe there’s still hope for some enterprising teachers in China if I share it in my blog.

OK, let me lay it out for you.

  • When I was there, the teachers at ZUCC liked home-cooked meals, but they were lazy. For some reason they were also unwilling to hire a cook.
  • The students ate in the cafeteria day after day. They longed for home-cooked food, but had no cooking facilities. Some of them were even great cooks, but had no way to share their gift.

Do you see where I’m going with this? You may think you do, but it gets better.

The process goes like this:

  1. Announce to each class that you’re holding a cooking competition in your own home. Students who wish to enter should enter in teams of 2 or 3. Have them sign up and include what evenings they’re free. Share with them your judging criteria and tell them what cooking facilities/supplies you have. Tell them they will be cooking enough food for 4-5 people.
  2. Create a schedule for the teams. There are several ways you can do it. If you have a lot of classes, you might want to assign a whole week (Monday through Friday) to each class. Each night of that week one team would come to your place and then cook and eat with you. Alternatively, you could assign a day of the week to each class, and a different team could come every week.
  3. Tell the students they have a 20rmb budget for the dinner (which is plenty). They know what they’re going to make, so they need to buy the ingredients and then show up at your place to prepare it. Unless you’re a jerk, you should reimburse the students the 20rmb. You might have to fight to make them take it, but you really should. If they spent less than 20rmb, they’ll give you the change. I really doubt any students would try to “make money” by making a super cheap meal.
  4. Stay out of the way while your students prepare the meal. Two or three people is plenty to get the job done. When the meal is done, take pictures of it with your digital camera.
  5. Around this time, the “guest judge” of the evening arrives. That’s your friend. (If you want, you can even charge him 10rmb for the meal or make him help with the dishes.)
  6. After the meal chat with the students for a while and then secretly write down your judgments.
  7. Your students will probably try to wash your dishes for you (but not in every case). Handle that how you see fit.
  8. Put the pictures online with a description. You might want to include the judges’ scores. That’s your call.

I think originally I had it all worked out to the point where I could even make money on the scheme, and everyone was happy. Perhaps it’s better that it never went into effect, though. It had all the makings of a scandal.

Sooo… who’s gonna try it?? (Let me know.)


Nov 2004

Accidental Obscenity

I was teaching some kindergarteners today, holding up a picture of a frog:

Me: What’s this?

Kids: ÇàÍÜ!

Me: Say “frog.”

Kids: Flock!

Me: ffffff…rrrrrrr…ahhhhhhh…g!

Kids: ffffff…rrrrrrr…ahhhhhhh…g!

Me: Frog!

Kids: FROG!

[5 minutes pass]

Me: What’s this?

Kids: FUCK!

Hmmm… close?


Oct 2004

Spoiled Brat Formula

I’ve taught some lessons at quite a few kindergartens around Shanghai. Without a doubt, there are kindergartens with “good kids,” and then there are kindergartens where the kids are all spoiled brats who won’t listen to the teacher at all.

If it’s an expensive private kindergarten, there’s a very good chance that the kids are mostly spoiled, and the school’s “discipline” has little effect.

If it’s a “boarding kindergarten,” a kind of kindergarten popular in Shanghai where the kids only go home on weekends, then the kids are much more unruly. The poor little guys are clearly attention-starved. Teaching these kids makes you a believer in ADD.

On Monday evenings Micah and I teach at a rich private boarding kindergarten. It has, easily, the most poorly behaved kids of any kindergarten I’ve seen in China. Recently when our company did a Halloween activity at that school, one of my co-workers, a kindergarten English teacher, commented that she had never seen such wild kids before either.

My favorite class there is the pre-K (Íаà) kids. They’re only between 2 and 3 years old. Normally I hate teaching the pre-K kids because they’re so young that they can hardly learn anything — especially a foreign language — and I feel like teaching them is a complete waste of my time. In this case, though, I like them because they’re too young to have been already completely spoiled rotten by their parents.

Last week when I went to that kindergarten I had barely gotten past the “greeting” part of class when four kids spontaneously jumped out of their seats and started busting out kung fu moves. They were followed by four more. I was suddenly surrounded by eight little Chinese martial arts munchkins, and my protests were completely useless.


May 2004

The Name Nazi Defied

Some time ago I become known as the “Name Nazi” at ZUCC, the school in Hangzhou where I used to teach. Allow me to explain.

If you know anything at all about teaching in China, you know that Chinese students usually have English names. You also know that the names they choose are often ridiculous, bizarre, and/or funny. A few real-life examples: Fantasy (boy), No-No (girl), Snoopy (girl), Icy Cat (boy), Shiny (girl).

After grinning and bearing it for two years, I decided not to put up with these names anymore. When students I taught had ridiculous English names, I told them they had to change their name. They would often protest, saying they had used the name for years already. I would tell them, “well, you can keep it, but you can’t use it in my class. Pick a real name.” Then I would hand them a big long list of popular baby names that they could choose from.

I would try to win them over with reason. My reasons are below.

Why Choosing a Silly English Name is not a Good Idea

  1. If you ever go overseas, you will be laughed at. You’ll think it’s funny at first, but you’ll eventually realize your English name is stupid and change it. Why not sooner than later? Save yourself the grief.
  2. How people are named in a language is a part of the culture. By ignoring this process, you are completely disregarding a part of the culture. While this may not be outright offensive to native speakers, it certainly isn’t impressive. Why not take the chance to learn about the culture of the language you’re studying?
  3. Names are chosen in a certain way. We choose names from baby name books, relatives, movie stars. We do not choose names from dictionaries or take the names of cute cartoon characters. Just as Chinese people would never choose a name like 孙悟空 or 烤面包 for their babies, you shouldn’t do it in English either. It’s not impossible to create a good English name, but it’s also not an easy thing to do, and if you’re not a native speaker, you probably cannot judge what sounds good and what doesn’t.
  4. Names are a kind of vocabulary. When you hear “Mary” you know instantly that it’s a woman’s name because you learned it long ago as a woman’s name. You know it’s not a verb, or an adjective, or any noun other than a person. It’s firmly in your “name vocabulary.” The more English names you hear with frequency, the bigger your “name vocabulary” grows. This is an important part of your English development. Your classmates’ English names should all be contributing positively to your “name vocabulary,” not junking it up with ridiculous non-names.

So those are my reasons. That’s why I’m the Name Nazi. People say I take the issue too seriously, but honestly, you really do get tired of the stupid names after a few years, and my class is not playtime. I’m a serious teacher, so I expect my students to take learning English seriously in my class. And that includes names. We have fun in my classes, but not by calling each other stupid English names.

Flash forward to last week. Gwyneth Paltrow recently had a baby girl and named it Apple. Apple!!! What a dumb name! (Other people agree with me on this one.) “Apple” is one of the non-names I used to forbid during my tenure at ZUCC, and for some reason Chinese girls used to looove to choose that name. And now Gwyneth is directly attacking my efforts! Arrgh!

At my new job I continue the mission of the Name Nazi. Many of these Chinese kids get their English name in kindergarten. I’m making sure none of the teachers are assigning ridiculous names (and oh, you better believe they were). The source I use for “good names” is the Social Security Online Baby Name page. It’s great.

Speaking of names, I recently discovered a new Japanese band with a pretty cool name (keep in mind the guys who named the band are not native speakers of English). Asian Kung-Fu Generation. No, you haven’t had enough of emo, because Japan is not through with it yet! They have pretty cool retro style artwork on their CDs too. Check out this song called 君という花 (A Flower called You).


Apr 2004

Jobs in Shanghai

My company is looking to hire a few people for part-time or short-term work, and it has enlisted my aid. I decided to add a new section to my site:

Sinosplice Jobs

If you’re looking for work or for teachers, please take a look. Feel free to link away.


Feb 2004

I've seen you before…

My company makes materials for teaching small children English. Then the company markets and sells those materials all over China. I assist in this process, also providing Chinese teachers with training, and occasionally I teach a class of kids myself. I probably only teach kids one or two hours a week. I really like this because I am able to keep a firm grip on my sanity (I don’t know how other teachers like Wayne do it every day!), but I am still provided with frequent reminders of the final objective of this whole English language resource production and distribution process.

Yesterday I taught a class of 5-year-olds. It was my first time at the school, so I first met the principal, and then she took me to the classroom. I arrived a little early, so the teacher there asked me to just sit down with the kids and wait a few minutes. Then she inexplicably left the room. So there I was, it not yet time to start class, surrounded by all these wide little eyes. And then the little mouths opened.

“Teacher, I’ve seen you before!”

“Yeah, I’ve seen you too!”

“Me too, I’ve seen this foreign teacher before!”

“Really? You’ve seen me before?”

“Yeah, I’ve seen you before!”

“Me too!”

“So have I!”

“I’ve seen you before too!”

“A lot of foreigners look alike to you, don’t they?”




“I’ve never come here before, so you couldn’t have seen me before.”

“I’ve seen you before!”

“I’ve seen this foreign teacher before!”

“Me too, I’ve seen him before!”

“I have too!”

They really are cute.


Dec 2003

ZUCC: Recruitment Call

Zhejiang University City College, the university where I have taught for 3 1/2 years, is currently looking for new foreign teachers for the new semester beginning February 9th, 2004. Absolute requirements are (1) native speaker of English from the UK, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, or the USA, and (2) a four-year degree (B.A.) or its equivalent.

Preference is given to:
1. Females (we love ’em, but we currently lack ’em!)
2. Brits (we love ’em, but we currently lack ’em!)
3. Experienced teachers (the school loves ’em!)

The Sinosplice ZUCC page can give you more details than I’m going to write here.

If you are qualified and interested, please e-mail me ASAP (not just leave a comment), with your resume. We are trying to fill the position before January, 2004. I’m reluctantly leaving ZUCC (I truly love it here) after this semester, so this is probably the last time I’ll be helping recruit teachers.

If you want more of an idea about what you are getting into, you can dig into my archives (good luck, it’s still a mess!) or peruse the blogs of some of my co-workers. Carl, Russell, Greg, John B (back online soon!), and Alf all have their own blogs.


Dec 2003

Making the Band

Recently my co-worker Greg (of Sinobling) developed a really fun activity for English class. A lot of the other teachers here (including me) have tried out his activity as well, and it has gotten top scores all around. It’s been weeks and he hasn’t blogged about it. I guess maybe describing an TEFL activity doesn’t lend itself well to Greg’s awesome powers of humor.

The concept is that you break the class into groups of 4-6 people each and give them the task of creating an imaginary band. Clearly, there’s plenty of “pre” work to be done. What is a band? What types of music can bands play? What instruments can be played in a band? After you discuss these questions with the class and make sure they understand what’s going on, you tell them to come up with some of the following (be selective depending on how much time you allot to the activity):

  1. Band name
  2. Genre of music
  3. Band member names (these should not be the same as their English names — this is the time to come up with creative English names!)
  4. Musical instrument that each member plays (don’t forget vocals!)
  5. Story of the unusual circumstances under which the band met
  6. Name of the band’s first smash hit
  7. Lyrics to the hit song (if you have a lot of time to kill…)

This activity absolutely works magic on the students. I can’t explain it, but it seems to awaken deeply buried creative juices in the students’ cute passive little skulls. The activity inspired some of my students to write lyrics when I didn’t even ask them to, and to even voluntarily perform their songs in front of the class! Greg says he got almost all his groups to perform by telling them that any group that performed got him as a backup dancer. Cool trick.
Greg’s favorite band name out of all his classes was Milk Cow Goes to Australia. I gotta admit, it really works. Carl‘s favorite hit song out of all his classes was Love me, love my dog.
The following are some of my classes’ results:

Moth is a rock band bringing you
the hit song Transform.

11pm is a light music band.
Playing violin, piano, lute, and bagpipes, their hit song is
Dreaming of Tiger Spring at Hupao Valley.

The industrial band Noisy is:
Shadow on guitar, Blue on bass, Kid on drums,
Dust on vocals, and Ghost on the keyboard.
Their hit song is Waste Gas.

Seasoned Band is a rock band
comprised of Curry on bass, Mustard on drums,
Vinegar on vocals, and Ginger on the keyboard.
Their hit song is The feeling of sweet and sour.

Super Chemical Girls is a hip hop band
comprised of Oxygen on guitar, Hydrogen on bass,
Atom on keyboards, Silver on drums, and Carbon on vocals.

Falling Angels is a metal band.
The band members are Ghost, Sorceress,
Demon, and Satan.
[The 4 girls in this band are
some of my sweetest students, too.] Their hit song is Hell Gate. Below are some lyrics:
Wings broken, Falling falling
Soul gone, leaving leaving
hell gate, opening opening
Death hands, waving waving

Rock on, Chinese students. Rock on.


Nov 2003

Wang's Observations

I have a Chinese teacher whose last name is Wang. All her students call her “Wang Laoshi” (laoshi means “teacher”), according to Chinese custom. She teaches my HSK prep class. Since the class only meets once a week for two hours, I see less of her than most of my other teachers, but I feel like I know her much better than the others. For one thing, I’ve known her longer. She tutored me for about half a year during my first year in China. For another, she seems much more straightforward about her feelings than a lot of Chinese people I meet.

Last week she shared with the HSK class a problem she’s been having with another class. She says her current intermediate level Chinese class is simply not willing to talk. At all. When she asks the class if someone can make a sentence using the new word, the whole class just stares down at their books, not daring to make eye contact. She waits patiently and encourages them, to no avail. If she asks a single person, she gets the same response. Trying to get just one sentence out of them is like pulling teeth. Even when she simply asks the class if they understand, she can’t get an answer. The only time the students show definite signs of life is when she writes on the chalkboard. They all magically spring into action, jotting everything down neatly in their notebooks. They seem to prefer it when she simply talks and writes, but that’s really boring for her, and not the most effective teaching method, either.
Wang Laoshi said that in the past she lost her temper and berated the students for their overly passive attitudes, which seemed to help the situation for a while. This semester, however, almost all her students are girls, and she doesn’t want to upset them.

So what’s with this class? Well, for one thing, they’re almost all Korean. Wang Laoshi asked the Korean students in the HSK prep class why they thought her intermediate level students were so incorrigibly passive. The Korean students reponded that it was because of their culture — the traditional Confucian style of education.

Wang Laoshi didn’t buy that. She said that Chinese students weren’t like that. That really made me smile, because I don’t think Wang Laoshi knows how passive Chinese students can be in an English class taught by a foreigner. Still, though, the way she described her students made them more inactive than any Chinese students I’ve ever taught.

Wang Laoshi’s observations on international students of Chinese were thus:

  1. Students from Western countries are much more active in the classroom. Wang Laoshi prefers there to be at least a few students from Europe or the Americas to liven up the atmosphere.
  2. Students from Western countries want to spend classtime mastering a few grammar patterns so that they can feel confident about their usage.
  3. Asian students want to cover as many grammar patterns as possible in class, and review them on their own.

Another thing I think Wang Laoshi doesn’t realize is that a lot of Chinese teachers don’t encourage class participation so much. I think some of the other Chinese teachers wouldn’t be so bothered by the lifelessness of her students. It just disappoints me that an excellent teacher like Wang Laoshi is wasted on such undeserving grammar sponges.


Aug 2003

Guns in Class

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.


Jul 2003

More Mini-Polls

I did a poll activity with my students a while back. They were told to choose interesting yes/no questions or either/or questions, and then they polled each other in small groups. It got some interesting results. I did the same activity again with my summer class. Keep in mind these are Chinese kids 18-20 years old, and only 4 of the 25 students are male. (Due to the nature of the activity, results will not always have the full 25 responses.) Take a look at some of the new results…

Poll results will follow the question, in parentheses and color-coded. “Yes” answers will always be first in blue, followed by “no” answers in red.

> Do you think Mr. Chiang Kai-shek had great devotion to the Chinese people? (24, 1)

> Do you prefer boys with long hair or short hair? (1, 22)

> Can you drink wine [meaning any alcohol]? (11, 13)

> Do you like basketball or football [soccer] more? (16, 8)

> Do you like gentlemen [as opposed to “bad boys,” I suppose]? (16, 9)

> Would you prefer to live with your family or with your friends? (13, 10)

> Do you want to have a child? (22, 2)

> If you had a child, would you want a boy or a girl? (5, 13, 6 said “either”)

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