Friday, January 16, 2004

China Trip: Back to the classroom

I woke up AGAIN at 2:30 am and laid awake until morning, my mind racing. I thought of a bunch of things to do with my classes in those hours, but I was so scared! Two days in a row of insufficient sleep made me terribly afraid I wouldn’t make it through the day. Tears ran down my cheeks as I read my Bible in the morning. I was frustrated at having to have laid awake for so long, and I didn’t know what the day would be like. My Bible reading for the day was Psalm 33-36, and I found so much comfort in the Word of God. It was just what I needed to hear. “Don’t trust in horses. Don’t trust in man’s strength. The Lord is the only hope for safety and help. Trust in him. Call upon him. He is the one to deliver you when things look hopeless.” My tears dried and I found strength to go on and face the day.

I talked to Joe Martin about what he had taught my junior high class the day before, and he said he had flown through the lesson plan he had prepared, because they all knew a lot more English than he thought. So he had them interview each other and get up and present the interview to the class. I didn’t really get to find out what Audra and Michelle did at the elementary school, but I just thought I could teach them from the workbook.

At my junior high class, I had them work in the workbook and tried to teach them some vocabulary, all of which they already seemed to know. I hadn’t figured out yet that I didn’t need to teach them grammar, and I didn’t need to teach them vocabulary, because they all studied English at school and their teachers could do that perfectly well. What they really needed was somebody who would get them talking, practicing the English they already did know.

Vans came after lunch to take us to the elementary school, and I felt insecure all over again, because this was the third day and I hadn’t even seen this place. I didn’t know where my classroom was, I didn’t know my way around, and I hadn’t met any of my kids. However, somebody showed me where to go and I quickly learned my way around.

When I got to the classroom, at least I had learned a few things from experience. I walked in, smiled at all the bright, intelligent faces, and said “Good morning!” The “Good morning” from this class sounded just like the good morning from the last class! That’s one of the interesting things about Chinese. In their language, it is so important to get the tone exactly right, that it transfers over into English by causing them all to try to say a word or phrase the exact same way, every time they say it.

I then ensured that I would know all their names by writing their English name on a folded-over piece of paper that would prop up on their desk where I could see it. Then I went around the room, asking “Do you have an English name?” Only one girl did already, so I got to give names to the rest. That was so much fun! I named the first boy in the front row James right away. His face was very good looking and had a look of bright, keen interest on it at all times. Most American public school kids have this bored, know-it-all expression on their faces, but James’ face was alive with curiosity. I named his neighbor John, since I was in the theme of using my family’s names. Next in the front row was a girl who captivated me with her beautiful smile and friendly eyes. There was something indescribably attractive about her, and everything about her, right down to the side part in her hair, left me no choice but to name her Rosie. 

My elementary students responded to receiving English names by asking me if I wanted a Chinese name. Of course, I was delighted to have one, so they named me “Ke Lan.”

Of all the students I had, the elementary kids had the most distinct personalities. It seems that the Chinese culture teaches people to be very restrained, and follow the “status-quo” more or less, but the elementary kids, being the youngest, hadn’t “learned it” as well as the older students. Over time they seem to adopt an ingrained inhibition against doing anything weird, or loud, or different, and the elementary students seemed to overcome this aversion the fastest while they were with us Americans.

I had heard about some of the creative things some of the teachers had done with their elementary classes—lively, fun, wonderful sounding games and activities to make the kids interested. My first day with my elementary kids I feared was dreadfully dull. We didn’t have any games or rowdy, interesting things to do, and I was kicking myself for being such a boring teacher. However, this proved to be a bit of a bonus later, because I started hearing reports that some of the other teachers had lost control of their classes and couldn’t teach because students were talking in Chinese and wouldn’t stop. My students were a little older than some of the others. They were age 12 to 14, and they understood the things I taught them very well. And on the last day, we played hangman together, which was fun.

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