Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

What I Learned about Teaching at the Great Wall of China: You Wouldn't Think a Veteran Teacher with More Than Three Decades of Experience Would Need to Reinvent Himself and His Methods. but Half a World Away, Mr. Squire Did Just That

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

What I Learned about Teaching at the Great Wall of China: You Wouldn't Think a Veteran Teacher with More Than Three Decades of Experience Would Need to Reinvent Himself and His Methods. but Half a World Away, Mr. Squire Did Just That

Article excerpt

AS I PAUSED to gaze across the magnificent panorama spread before me, it struck me: I was in another world--China. I had no idea that what I imagined as a leisurely stroll on the Great Wall of China would turn out to be such a strenuous workout, much less a metaphor for my teaching experience in China. The wall, which snakes over the rugged mountain terrain at Badaling (60 kilometers north of Beijing), presented a mostly uphill climb. After two hours of climbing, I felt the familiar endorphin rush and clear-headedness that I experience after a good run. What an extraordinary time and place to reflect on my first week of teaching in China.

THE FIRST DAY

There I was, severely jet-lagged on my first full day in China, standing in front of my class of 28 eager Chinese teachers. My students, all teachers of English in their own elementary schools and selected to participate in this four-week English-immersion program, had two expectations of the course. First, they wanted to improve their English skills, particularly the ability to speak and understand spoken English. Second, they expected to learn new and innovative teaching methods.

Of course, my first challenge that day was staying awake. Day and night seemed completely reversed, and my body fought hard against the absurd times for sleeping, waking, and eating. Nevertheless, I felt confident, armed with my opening activities: a partner exercise, in which everyone would be interviewed and then introduced by a classmate, and what I thought would be a delightful game with idioms. What a shock to realize with increasing clarity as the morning wore on that all of my carefully planned lessons completely missed the mark.

The students were gracious and genuinely friendly, all the while utterly unable to make any sense whatsoever of my rapid-fire chatter and ever-changing arrangements with partners and small groups. As for the idiom activity, they obligingly went through the motions of finding the person with the matching idiom or explanation and then tried with excruciating futility to explain the literal as well as colloquial meanings of the phrases. I practically stood on my head to help my students understand such idioms as "making a mountain out of a molehill" while they frantically checked their electronic English translators for the meanings of molehill and every other word in my well-intended definition ("It means to blow an issue or event out of proportion, such as: 'You have only a small blister on your heel, but you complain as though you broke your leg. Why are you making a mountain out of a molehill?'"). I used exaggerated sign language to clarify every word. Even then, I was faced with mostly blank looks and rapidly fading smiles. I could almost see the smoke rising from their nifty translating machines. Okay, I had to admit to myself, this lesson was a tad too complicated and the vocabulary far too extensive for novice English learners.

In the afternoon, I introduced the children's story called "The Hockey Sweater," by Roch Carrier, which I had so cleverly chosen for its humorous Canadian content. As planned, I read the first few pages aloud, mustering superb expression to illustrate the plot, careful to pause long enough to define what I knew would be unfamiliar words. My students smiled and laughed continually. What a relief! They must have understood and thoroughly enjoyed the story, I thought. I instructed them to discuss with a partner their predictions of what would happen next and then write their ideas in their notebooks. My illusion that the students had at least a rudimentary grasp of the story was shattered that evening as I read their journals. Student after student, with the best spelling and grammar they could manage, thanked me for being their teacher, declared how much they appreciated my easygoing manner, and then, as politely as possible, proceeded to inform me that they understood nothing of the entire first day. …

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