Friday, March 24, 2017

English Lessons

This week marks 6 months since Red and I arrived here in Beijing and most of the time we still feel like we have no idea what is going on around us, but we have a little bit of an idea more often than we used to.

Red has become a children's show host, sort of. She is the face being used for interactive English lessons. The children will have textbooks, worksheets and many books to be used with these lessons. Red is the star of the DVD portion of the program. She teaches the children and their parents English phrases and reads the books with them. She even has a little puppet sidekick. She's like Captain Kangaroo, minus the funny suit and sexual tension with all the guests

For myself, last month I signed a government contract to work in a school teaching English to third, fourth and fifth graders. As horrible as that may sound to many of you, please try to keep in mind that you are absolutely correct. Children are awful enough, but adding the element of not even being able to talk to them takes it to a whole new level. Plus, my average class size is just under 40 students. I see each class once a week and with 20 classes, I see over 700 students a week. And this is just at my first job. I have two others.

I have been offered a professorship at a very prestigious technology university on the other side of the city, but I am in a contract until December. Until then, I am just thankful that these hundreds of kids don't actually know any martial arts.

Since my students have very limited English abilities, I cannot teach the same way I would teach another subject in the States. Ninety percent of anything I have to say will not be understood, so I have to use other methods. I discovered on my second day that waterboarding is not considered to be an acceptable method in Beijing schools, so I have had to research some alternatives.

Government school students start receiving English instruction in the first grade. Which means by the time I see them in the third grade, they have two years of English behind them. However, they are not ready to effectively communicate yet. They can say, "Hello" and respond to "How are you?" with "I am fine. Thank you. And you?" but that is just about it. They have about a hundred English words floating around in their little brains, but don't yet know how to piece them together to create independent sentences to express thought. This is why I am working on grammar and sentence structure.

Since I do not speak Chinese, I have to show by example. This past week, I was trying to get the kids to use sentences explaining what someone was doing. To keep their attention, I use fun little pictures on the screen.

For the above picture, I want the kids to say "He is reading" or, to really be impressive, say "He is reading a book." After looking at the screen, some of my students dig though the recesses of their brains and pull a few words. BOOK! I hear almost immediately from a few eager students.

"Yes. Book. But what is he doing?"

I get blank stares from the five kids who are actually paying attention and not cutting up erasers or throwing wet paper at each other. I pantomime reading and eventually a kid bites. READ! READ BOOK!

"Yes, but full sentence" and I start to write He on the board under the sentences I already have up there.

They are running.
He is drinking.
She is eating.
He is falling.
They are watching TV.

The eager one decides to try again. TEACHER! TEACHER! HE READ BOOK!

So, I underline the -ing in the previous sentences as I had done for each instance before. I slowly start to say "Heeee...iiiiissss..."

Proudly, one of the kids jumps to his feet. HE IS READ BOOK!

I point to the -ing again.


The rest of the class is being so loud I am fairly confident none of the students can hear me crying. I write He is reading on the board with the other sentences and pray that at least one kid will catch on to the pattern with the next one. I have the class repeat He is reading several times before showing the next picture.

As soon as this picture illuminates the screen, the class erupts with laughter and several kids cover their eyes. The many students who haven't been paying attention are being tapped by their friends to look at the screen. Every kid has a huge reaction and it is not the utterance of the sentence I want to hear. They are sleeping.  I find out later from a Chinese teacher that showing a picture of a man and woman in bed together to a bunch of grade school students is highly inappropriate.

OK. My bad, I guess. I'll never figure out China. Let's move onto the next picture and try to forget this one.

I was a little concerned with this one because I didn't know if they knew the word 'argue', but I knew they knew the word 'fight'. So, they could say "They are arguing" or "They are fighting". I would accept either one, but since no one had even come close to giving me a full sentence yet. It really wouldn't matter.

The picture got a few oohs and aahs while kids shook their fingers at each other and started mock fighting in Chinese, but no one attempted an English sentence. I did my best to quiet the class and asked, "What are they doing?"

A kid in the back of the class shouted in perfect English, "They are playing rock, paper, scissors!"

I'll take it.