Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Infantry Teaching

I had a fantastic day of teaching today, in my two classes for little kids out in the outskirts of town.

Chinese kids are kids just like anyone else, but they're so used to being squeezed into a little box. "Listen to this." "Repeat after me." "Don't move in your chair." "Learn the words — don't worry about the concepts."

Today I started with a very simple little game. Students were divided into two teams. I gave out little paired cards with vocabulary words written on them, so one student on each team might have the word "dangerous" or "broccoli" or "pilot." I gave the students a couple of minutes to think of a sentence that used their words.

Then I called out a word, and the two students who had been given that word had to run to the board and write their sentences. Whoever finished writing first automatically got one point. Whoever had a grammatically correct sentence got one point for that. Whoever had an interesting sentence got one point, even if it wasn't grammatically correct. So a student could theoretically get three points for one sentence, though realistically someone was almost always going to steal the swiftness point by writing "knife is dangerous" or some other ungrammatical sentence. But "I like tiger because it dangerous" would also get a point for being interesting. Predictably, there were a whole lot more quickness points than interestingness points given, but that's okay. That's how kids are: like water, they seek the path of least resistance.

You wouldn't believe how well this little game worked. They got to run. The kids got to shout and laugh and be mad and happy at each other. They got to be competitive (which the Chinese are, like no other people I know). They got tired, so that afterwards the little boys were almost as capable as the little girls of sitting still and doing the required boring pronunciation drills.

And here's the really fun thing: the Chinese teacher who set up this class for me was just as captivated, even though it totally cut against her own grain.

She's the type to berate her students in the harshest of voices, to physically restrain a boy who's rocking in his chair when he needs to move, and even to smack a student for the crime of being a kid. Nevertheless, she howled with laughter at their antics during the game, she loved watching them get so engrossed in it — and she strongly suggested that we play the same game every week. She responded to this little game as if it were a gift from a beautiful alien universe.

I don't want to play the exact same game every week. I want to come up with new ones that will keep them off-guard and guessing, and raise new sparks of excitement each time. But I'm glad that the kids had a great time, and their Chinese teacher had fun too.

And the Mommy phalanx that lines the walls of the classroom were also laughing like kids. Some of them whose presence in my classroom in the past has consisted of nothing but scolding and smacking their kids, were shouting like cheerleaders when their little ones ran to the board. The game made them and their kids into allies, rather than enemies, which is the more typical Chinese parenting model. (I must confess, after the game ended I witnessed one mother scolding her boy for doing badly. I felt really bad for that, because it was the game I introduced to them that enticed that woman to dress down a kid who's just trying to do his best. We Americans think we've seen helicopter parenting, but we ain't seen nothin' compared to China.)

Notwithstanding some bad behavior by parents, the game was a huge success. It got the students involved, everyone loved it, and the students learned new stuff. Yet it would never have happened in a Chinese classroom.

What is it about China? I don't understand. They default to this dogmatic, authoritarian, Teacher-is-God approach; they consider it normal to either beat their children or spoil them with candy while the children sit passively; yet when they see someone doing things in the most un-Chinese way, the parents are enthralled.

This is what leads to such massive cognitive dissonance in China. If I felt that what I was doing were completely alien, foreign, and unwelcome, then I would just shut up and do what I was told, or else go home to America. But the Chinese seem in so many cases almost furtively to wish they were something other than they are. On the other hand, they're quick to flip back into Chinese mode, and will fire you in a heartbeat for doing the same thing they loved a moment before.

Those Chinese people are like a repressed Midwesterner who moves to Los Angeles. They would like to be free and open, but they've had the opposite approach so drilled in them that it's as if it were in their DNA.

This week and last, the weaker of my two little-kid classes has been talking about food. Their stupid textbook contains a bunch of words that cannot possibly have any meaning to them, yet they're expected to use them like parrots. "Potato salad" features heavily in the dialogue they're reciting blindly, despite the fact that it doesn't exist in China. They struggled with the word "tortilla," the inclusion of which in our textbook should be grounds for the textbook editor to be shot. (For one thing, it's not English, it's Spanish. For another, it includes the "ll" = "y" which doesn't occur in English except in borrowed Spanish words. Kids this young shouldn't be burdened with such obscurity.)

Next week, I will bring that class a giant batch of potato salad, as well as a package of proper Mexican wheat tortillas and something (I haven't decided what) to wrap in the tortillas. I may also somehow include "pickles," which the idiot textbook editor decided to incorporate into the text despite its having a very different meaning in China.

(There are pickled vegetables here, but they're almost never the pickled cucumbers we know in America, and they're served in completely different contexts. So to just throw that word in there as if it were something easy to understand or translate — well, you'd have to be an American university professor to do something that culturally ignorant.)

All that to the side, I want to give the students some sensory data to connect to the words they're learning, so that they can go beyond the parrot level and perhaps actually gain some understanding. I would like them to slow down, back it up a bit, and learn some concepts, not just empty words.

The really fun thing about all this is that it's bringing the real teacher out in me. As a "professor," one can potentially disappear up into the ether and let the students follow or not as they choose. But as a teacher like this, I'm right down in their context of knowledge. If they get it, they get it. If they don't, it's all on me. The Chinese parents and teachers may love it, but they can't do it. Only the guy who was raised speaking English can bring those expressions and those cultural experiences to them. Only a guy with some Western ideas about education can break them out of their Chinese mode. And who knows? It could really change these kids' thinking methods for the better.

What I was trained for in grad school in America was like artillery teaching: lob information out there, and hope it hits students somehow or other. That's what a "Professor" does. What I'm doing in these classes for little kids is infantry teaching: close engagement, sometimes hand-to-hand, and it's on me to make sure they get it. It's exhilarating! And interestingly enough, it's also making me a better Professor in my university classes.

No comments:

Post a Comment