Thursday, September 27, 2007

In the Classroom

It just occurred to me that one thing I have not spent much time speaking about so far is what actually happens inside the classroom. I spend 12 hours each week teaching English as a second language to Chinese students, but what does this involve? Let me start with a bit of background and then try to describe some of what we do...

In the classroom, I am a different person. The Scott Kennedy that many of you know exists in a slightly altered form. In class I am louder than usual (50 students in large rooms warrant this change) and I speak in a different voice - my speaking English to Chinese people voice. I do this, which drives Janet crazy, because I find that otherwise I tend to speak too quickly. After complaining in my own Italian and Chinese classes that "they speak too fast," it is funny for me to think that speakers of other languages think we speak English too quickly. My changed tone speaks much more slowly and clearly and seems to be easier for non-native speakers to understand. Inside the classroom, I also move through the aisles of desks frequently, change the inflection of my voice to add special emphasis and try to bring extra energy into the setting.

Perhaps one of the toughest aspects of teaching or learning a language is having the confidence to speak knowing that you will likely make mistakes. I find that if I can bring in some energy and perhaps not be afraid to sometimes play the role of teacher/jester, I can disarm some of the fears and help the students speak more freely. Of course, if the students are nervous speaking to me when they outnumber me 50 to 1, you can imagine how I feel trying to speak Chinese when I am outnumbered here 1 billion to one!!!

Earlier I mentioned trying to bring energy into the classroom with me. On good days this works. On bad days it may not and the students notice. I remember a number occasions where, sitting in a desk listening to a teacher, I thought to myself of a multitude of places I'd rather be than there. I never before realized that the teacher may be thinking the same exact thought!

Anyways, on to the teaching...

Today I had three classes (6 hours of teaching time) and I'll talk about what we did for each class to give you an idea of what it is I do.

8 AM - Reading Class

I was up bright and early for class this morning. The thing I hate most about morning classes is the obnoxious music that plays over the school loudspeakers as I am getting ready in my apartment. It is some horrendous march that is played every morning and would be appropriate on a Triumph of the Will soundtrack. I half expect to look out the window from brushing my teeth to see students Seig Heiling away as they walk to class.

By the time I've downed a bowl of oatmeal and made it to class, I'm in a better mood. This is the first class I have had since the mid-Autumn Day break, so I begin by asking student's about their holiday. They are college students and have a fairly good understanding of English. We spend about 15 minutes in a free talk session. I ask: "What did you do for the holiday?" - "eat with our families." "What did you eat?" - "Mooncakes." "Why?" - "It is the traditional food for mid-Autumn Day." "What are your favorite kind of mooncakes?" - "We like the ones with fruit inside." - and so on... This is a good warm up before I take attendance.

I like to take attendance about 10-15 minutes into class because some students are habitually late, which would otherwise result in me having to stop and mark them down as they enter. Better to talk first and then just take attendance once.

Today, it was out of the dry business English textbook passages. I had run copies of a short article from Time Magazine on China tapping geothermal power with the help of the nation of Iceland. It was a short article, but most students have the bad habit (some may disagree with me here) of looking up each word they do not know in their dictionary before proceeding. I encouraged them to not do this, but rather to try and understand the main point(s) of each paragraph and gain the other words from the context, if possible. It took a while, but most of the students were able to make it through the article.

After discussing the article, I split the class into groups and had each discuss if they thought pollution was a problem in China, what should be done and what the role of the government should be in the process? This went over fairly well and the groups discussed with each other and then shared with the class. There was some confusion when I asked them about "trash." They didn't understand. I said "waste." Then, finally, one student said "rubbish" and they all instantly understood (sigh - the problems with being taught British English).

Most everyone discussed how pollution was bad and China should seek more renewable energy sources to help. The government should help educate the people about pollution. I have not yet tried to have a debate in class as it seems that most everyone is generally of the same opinion. Perhaps later in the semester I may try and find some semi-safe issues and introduce multiple views to see what happens...

2:50 PM - Speaking Class

My speaking students are the ones whose BBQ I attended on Saturday night. Today the dialogue in our textbook was about budgeting at a business meeting. I selected volunteers to read the parts of the dialogue . The passage was more or less dry and worthless, but I used it to segue into asking the students if they had ever made a budget? I asked what types of things go into their budgets: clothes, food, books, school supplies, etc.

Next, we split up into groups of four and I asked each group to plan and budget for a BBQ they would hold. Having just recently held a BBQ, the needed information was still mostly fresh in their minds; now it was just translating it into English. I put some discussion questions on the board:

  1. What types of food do you want? Meat, Fruit, Vegetables, Drinks, etc..
  2. What types of meat? Which fruits? etc...
  3. When and Where will you BBQ be?
  4. How much will everything cost?
After a bit of discussion, most of it in English, the students were ready to share. Some groups had elaborate plans for the BBQ with lobster and octopus, others featured staples such as ribs and chicken wings. Some budgets were large, others spent less. The point was to get people up and speaking English and it worked.

Afterwards, running short on time, I decided to skip the next dialogue and have some time for free talk. I asked the students, "what would you do if I gave you 1,000 Yuan?" This worked well - they loved spending my hypothetical money. Some decided to buy clothes, others wanted to eat nice dinners, one girl wanted a new camera and still others wanted to save the money in the bank.

The goal of my speaking class is to have the students do as much of the speaking as possible. I just try and facilitate and moderate. Today we took a dry passage about "budgeting" and transformed it and most students spent a good deal of the time speaking in English.

7:30 - Listening Class

Tonight I had Listening as a make-up class since we missed it during the holiday break (more to come on this topic later).

Having a class at night is not fun for anyone. It requires more careful planning to keep the student's attention, particularly when the course materials are some low quality tapes of boring English dialogues.

A previous teacher had put together a list of words that he had found the students had a tough time saying. I used his list and turned it into a game I call "Phonetic Bingo." On the board I wrote pairs of words that sounded similar or could be confusing to say:
  • ill - eel
  • heel - hill
  • crawl - law
  • still - steal
  • charts - hearts - parts - darts - tarts
and others. I had the students repeat the words after me, slowly getting faster and faster as we went along. For the longer strings, I would mix up the order from what was written on the board and crawl-trawl-drawl-awl-fall-law-tall quickly became a tongue twister for the students as they tried to repeat after me as fast as they could.

After I had about 35 words on the board, I passed out sheets of paper and had students make 25 boxes in a 5x5 grid. They then picked words from the board to use to fill in the boxes on their paper, one word per box, any words in any box they like. After explaining the rules of Bingo, I began calling out words. The students really had to pay close attention to know which word I was calling out as many had similar sounds. Sometimes on a particularly stumping word, one student would spell it out for the others who would then check their page to see if the word was there. The game was a hit and I felt it was a great listening activity. The best part for me, was that it worked well and required very little out of class preparation, always a plus!

After a few Bingo winners, it was time to move on to our next listening activity. I had previously had the students give me the names of some of their favorite English songs. I downloaded these songs and the lyrics and prepared a worksheet for them to complete using the song lyrics. They would have to fill in the missing words, put phrases in order, or other similar activities. This worked well since the students really enjoyed listening to the songs, but my plan was thwarted a bit since most of the students had the songs memorized which meant the worksheet required less active listening and so they thought it was too easy. Next time I will try some new songs that hopefully they don't all already know the words to!

It has been a long Thursday (and a long post), but I'm glad to be done and will enjoy my day off tomorrow and hope you enjoyed the glimpse into my classroom on the other side of the world.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Mid Autumn Festival

Yesterday (9/25), China celebrated mid-Autumn Day, called zhong qiu jie (中秋节) in Chinese.

The holiday, also known as the Moon Festival, falls on the 15th day of the eighth lunar month. On this night, the moon is supposed to be at its fullest and brightest and is the time to celebrate the summer's harvest.

While in the west, we may talk about the "man in the moon," Chinese legend places a woman in the moon. Chang'e, the lunar goddess presides over the celebration.

On this day, the Chinese gather together to share a meal with their families. Some also sing songs and light lanterns before everyone goes outside to look at the moon and eat mooncakes, the traditional food of the holiday.

Mooncakes are little desert-like pastries that are usually made with either fruit, nuts, or an egg stuffed inside. I have yet to try a mooncake that I really enjoyed and the consensus from most of the people I ask is that they are only "so-so." Perhaps it is an oriental equivalent to fruitcake. Regardless of the taste, vendors set up on sidewalks everywhere and sell tons of mooncakes in the days leading up to the festival.

Not being able to enjoy the day with our families, Janet and I were happy to receive an invitation to join some of the other English teachers for a celebration dinner at a Western-style restaurant. The restaurant was located in a part of town I had not visited before, but the food was good and I'll be sure to go back sometime soon.

After enjoying dinner, we all left to take a walk in a nearby park that bordered the seaside. We enjoyed the full moon, which was luckily visible by this time; it had rained all day on Monday and most of the morning on Tuesday. The park was filled with Chinese families, some walking around, others sitting in the grass eating mooncakes.

It was a good evening and nice to have other people to celebrate the Moon festival with. Now it is time to go back to classes for just a few days before we turn around and enjoy a second week of vacation for the National Day holiday, beginning October 1.

Saturday, September 22, 2007


Most students at the school have gone home to celebrate mid-Autumn Day with their families. My class, mostly coming from the far reaches of Guangdong, did not have enough time to go home and stayed at school. They decided to celebrate the upcoming holiday together by holding a BBQ and were nice enough to invite Janet and myself along.

So at 7:30 on Saturday night, we walked down from our apartments to meet the students in the courtyard in front of the school canteen. We were greeted by about 25 students and three "grills" they had constructed out of stacking bricks in the shape of a rectangle in the courtyard. A table sat in the middle of the grills, filled with bowls of chicken, beef, pork, hot dogs and little meatballs made out of fish.

Some students spread charcoal out on the make-shift grills and soon, the warm glow of three fires lit up our BBQ area. The students, perhaps removed from the formal classroom setting, seemed much more talkative than normal. This class is in their final semester of college, so many are able to hold English conversations fairly well. Since they will be graduating with the Spring Festival (in early February), a common topic of discussion was the anxiety of finding a job. I tried to reassure them that graduating students in America face the very same fear! In Tianjin, a college student told me that there are about 5 million college graduates in China each year and so the competition for good jobs is very fierce. While I can not vouch for the accuracy of this figure, if so, I certainly understand being a bit anxious.

To help the mood, I brought down some speakers from Janet's apartment so that we could listen to music outside, which was a big hit. By this time, I had a skewer of fish meatballs and beef cooking for me over one of the grills. A few minutes later (and hoping the meat was cooked to the proper temperatures), it was time to try it out.

They were good and I have not yet gotten sick, so I'm guessing they were cooked fine. I was also impressed that the class had planned and organized the BBQ together. I can't think of any class that I took in college where we might do something similar. Of course, the two education systems are very different; here my students have all of their classes together for all three years of their education. Events like the BBQ are a plus of this system, where the class has grown together over time like a family. A downside might be that it is relatively more difficult to meet and make friends with people from other parts of the school.

The evening was a lot of fun and offered the students a chance to practice their English and get to know us better. Outside of the formal classroom setting, many of them were much more talkative. I hope that they will continue to talk even more in class as they get to know me better.

Monday, September 17, 2007

MFC and other places to eat

Janet and I are still trying to settle into a routine of restaurants here.

I think if we can find 6 to 8 different places to eat and go there fairly regularly, we should become familiar with the menus and what things we like and do not like. So far, some early favorites include:

  • the Macau Restaurant

  • the Lantern Restaurant

  • a Muslim noodle shop near Zhanjiang Normal University

  • a Chinese fast food restaurant also near the university

  • a Sichuan restaurant near our school

  • Pizza Hut

The Macau Restaurant (actually there are two in town) is set up in sort of a cafeteria style where you walk around and choose from probably at least 100 or so different dishes and then they cook and bring the food to your table. They also have good Oolong tea, a favorite of both Janet and myself. The Macau is nice because the "point at dish" method is much easier than trying to order from a Chinese menu and the food is good. We have devised the plan of alternating Macau locations so that the staff (who already seem to know us well) do not think that we eat at the same restaurant as often as we actually do!

The Lantern Restaurant is home to good smoothies and American music. Here we are treated to a steady diet of the Eagles, Madonna, Elton John, Phil Collins, and more as we dine on spring rolls, noodles in meat sauce, eggplant (which is very big in China) and one of my favorites -potatoes sliced into thin strips and cooked in a pepper sauce.

The Muslim noodle shop (a good retreat from pork dishes) and the Chinese fast food restaurant are good bets for a cheap meal. Bowls of beef noodle soup costs about $.60 and dishes are not much more expensive.

The Sichuan style restaurant, being very close to our school, is quite convenient and the family who run the store are very nice. Being from Sichuan, they all speak Mandarin and are happy to try and speak to us whenever we eat there. Janet and I have them tone down the spiciness of the dishes, for which Sichuan is famous, a bit.

No list of great restaurants in China would be complete without Pizza Hut, which is a fine dining experience here. The interior is nicely decorated in warm colors and soft lighting and the waitresses overly helpful. The American Special (a Pepperoni Pizza) is the perfect order for curing the occasional craving for some food from home.

Additionally, there is a McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken, which leads me to talk about one of the most interesting (and not bad) of all the places to eat in Zhanjiang, MFC. MFC is just down the street from our school and looks exactly like a copy of KFC, except that the Colonel has been replaced with a semi-creepy looking Chinese child. While Janet and I have some speculation as to what "MFC" may stand for, we have not yet found out, so I will leave it to the imagination. In addition to fried chicken, they also serve some Chinese-style fast food dishes that are not found at KFC.

As we start to get a routine down for eating, things are becoming a bit easier. Though, I still feel a little like I have reverted back to a hunter/gatherer stage of civilization being forced to go out and find my food for most meals...

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Thinking on your toes...

Thursday morning, I walked into my 8:00AM Reading class and after greeting the class, told them to open their books to lesson one. To my surprise, they all responded by telling me they had covered lesson one last semester and the class was now on lesson thirteen. Somehow, this has slipped someone's mind and their information never made it to me before our first class!

My lesson plan, which had been carefully prepared to cover lesson one, was now worthless. Instead, we all opened our books to lesson thirteen and began to read the dialogue on there. It was about Ying Yu, who is making a surprise visit to her boyfriend, Richard, in Scotland. After arriving, Ying Yu realizes that her luggage has not arrived with her flight and was lost somewhere. The airport attendants helping her, but with their thick Scottish accents (Ye guin the wrang way wee lassie, ye should be waakin' thateway), confusion ensues.

After getting through the whole passage with the class, it was time for our 10-minute break. I took the opportunity to regroup and plan out what to do next.

After the ring of the bell, we continued class. I decided to split the students into groups of four and have them make short skits about being at the airport. This resulted in more confusion, but as I went around to each group and asked questions, it started to come together. I would ask:

  • Where are you going?
  • Who is the traveller?
  • Are you going for business or vacation?
  • What happens to you in the airport?
  • Who are the other people and what do they do?

As the groups started to answer these key questions, the rest of their scripts began to fall into place. After visiting each group, I had a good idea for which ones really understood and would do a good job, so I called a few of the groups up to present to the rest of the class.

One group, with a particular eager and funny student named Wyman, did a very funny skit where Wyman, the security guard asks the traveller to go through the metal detector after showing her passport. As she walked through the detector, he made a beeping noise and pulled her aside for closer inspection; the class thought it was hilarious. Most of the skits turned out pretty well and it gave the other students who were having a bit more trouble to see some examples for next time.

Though we had gotten off to a slow start, the class ended up working out. I was relieved. Here I will try and prepare for the lessons as best as I can, but am quickly learning to leave myself open to flexibility. Hopefully with time, I'll get better at dealing with these times in China when a screwball is thrown my way...

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Letters Home

In response to a recent letter to the editor published in the Tallahassee Democrat, which I periodically check online, I sent in a letter of my own. My letter has been published in today's (September 13) paper. Unfortunately the editors, facing space constraints cut out bits and pieces, so I have decided to post my letter in its entirety here, for any interested in reading.

I must disclose that part of my argument was heavily influenced by an article I recently read (China isn't the problem), but I felt it was important to get the information out to others.

Here is the original letter that inspired me to respond.

American corporations and consumers have been taking advantage of cheap Chinese labor and products, ever since China embraced capitalism. Thousands of jobs that could have spurred our economy are instead shipped overseas so mega-corporations can save money while in turn overcharging us for items such as shoes, clothing, toys and pet food. Criticizing China isn't quite fair, in the same way gun and ammunition manufacturers shouldn't not criticized for gun violence.

As we head for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, it is time for the take responsibility for its own failures in consumer safety and human rights, rather than point its finger at China. While China's human-rights record is questionable, it is our country that is abusing prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and thousands of civilians across Iraq. Our corporations reap profit from cheaply made Chinese products that should have been made here, where workers are entitled to at least the meager minimum wage, among other minimum protections.

Finally, one unsafe Chinese export has become a staple of patriotism in nearly every American city - fireworks. In addition to causing accidents, fires and deaths, fireworks add to our pollution problem, as countless toxic chemicals rain down on neighborhoods and bays after we've witnessed yet another round of pointless, unnecessary explosions.

And who profits? It's not our cities, citizens or schools. We can criticize China, but we must look at ourselves first.


and, my full reply

Mr. Fischer's letter on the recent problems with Mattel Barbies coming from China brings up some good points but also failed to mention others.

If China is able to produce certain products more cheaply than we are, the Law of Comparative Advantage suggests that it would be most efficient for them to do so. Instead of thinking that we are losing jobs to the Chinese because of this, we are simply shifting jobs. When we buy their exports in U.S. Dollars, the Chinese turn around and support the U.S. economy with their investment of these dollars (which are currently financing an escalating government debt due to the run away spending in Washington). Jobs are not being lost as much as they are changing from one sector to another. This is not a new idea, but happens continually in an ever-evolving economy.

Additionally, the recent fear of Chinese-made exports is being distorted by the media. China certainly has no intention of killing its customer base with dangerous products, this would not make any sense from a business perspective. While mistakes may be made, instead of a patriotic blaming of China, it would be more appropriate to blame Mattel. As a company, Mattel has chosen to have China produce some of its good and should oversee the goods being manufactured for their company.

If tainted Barbies were being made for Mattel in Florida, the rest of the country would not blame us Floridians, but would rightly blame Mattel for the defect. The same should be true for a good being produced anywhere. Ultimately it is the company that should be held accountable for the product it delivers to the market.


Class Schedule

This is my class schedule. I'm not sure why the table will not appear at the top, so you'll have to scroll down until I can figure out what the problem with the coding is...

8:00 - 9:40Oral EnglishListeningReading
9:50 - 10:35ReadingOral English
2:50 - 4:30Oral English


This week has been a bit of a paradigm shift for me.

While I had moved past the stage of thinking that teachers lived at school and realized that they were also people long ago, I have never really been in the position of thinking as they might. My role in the classroom has been clearly defined and well honed in my past 17 years of formal education.

Now that world has been turned on its head as I found myself for the first time approaching a classroom not concerned about getting a good grade, but instead wondering how to control a room of 35 students while helping them learn English. Ninety minutes seemed impossibly long as I thought of standing in front of a group of Chinese students and teaching them. What do I really know about teaching? I've seen teachers in their element, but does that parlay into knowing how to teach?

This was further complicated by not yet knowing what classes I would be teaching. It is apparently the Chinese way to give teachers schedules and textbooks at the last minute. I was lucky enough to get three or four days notice since students at our school did not start classes until September 7. We arrived in Zhanjiang on Saturday, September 7. Some teachers had classes on Monday, September 3.

Thankfully Maryknoll had given us all a suggested lesson plan for our first class. It got the students involved in asking the teachers questions about themselves and then for the second half of class, suggests having the students pair up and introduce each other to the class.

This worked fairly well in two of my classes, where the students are English majors and speak and understand English fairly well. My Third class students are Accounting majors and their level of English is much lower, which made things a little bit rocky at first. After slowing down a bit, things went a little better.

This semester, I will be teaching 12 hours of class per week. I have three different classes and will have each of them twice (four hours total) per week. My subjects will cover Reading, Listening and Speaking (Oral English).

Sunday, September 09, 2007


In celebration of tomorrow being the Chinese Teacher's Day, our school invited us to join all of the other school teachers at a banquet.

I was both excited to be invited and a bit apprehensive as the word "banquet" is also synonymous with the foul words "baijiu," (literally - white alcohol) a grain alcohol that is a Chinese speciality. As a male in China, you are expected to drink baijiu at these social dinners. Ladies get off a bit more easily if they decline when a shot glass is passed their way.

Helen, one of the other teachers who also leaves on campus and our de facto assigned chaperon, picked me up and took Janet and myself to the school bus that was taking the teachers to the banquet location. The event was being held at the Maple International Hotel, I never could determine if it has any relation to anything Canadian other than the large, red maple leaf that makes up the hotel logo.

As we arrived and walked into the banquet room, we received numbers for the "lucky draw" (raffle) that would occur later in the evening. Helen led us over to the English Department table where we sat with Madison, David and Nemo (all of whom we had met earlier in the week). In all there was probably anywhere from 150 to 200 teachers crowded around circular tables in the room.

After a bit of entertainment, singing from a few brave teachers, and a few boring speeches (Helen didn't bother to translate for us, sufficing in saying they were boring) the food began coming. The Chinese style is to bring out a large number of dishes, place them on the Lazy Susan in the center of the table and to take a little bit of everything. The communal meal makes for a good time and that way everyone is able to have many different dishes and flavors throughout the course of the meal. Many times, Chinese find American meals to be dull and lacking in flavor since we usually only have a few different dishes and therefore a few different tastes at each meal.

The food was all very good and fairly normal (a common saying about the people of Guangdong is that they eat everything with legs but the kitchen table). The strangest dish of the evening was probably a type of shallow-water worm that was served (for which there may or may not be an English translation) that was surprisingly not too bad, due in large part to a heavy garlic sauce that accompanied it.

With the bringing of the dishes came the pouring of the baijiu. It seems to always be a pleasure to "introduce" foreigners to the Chinese baijiu and Madison, our English department director, explained innocently that it was like white wine. In reality, there is nothing similar between the two other than the fact that they contain alcohol. Earlier I compared Baijiu to grain alcohol, which it is, but it is not quite descriptive enough. Baijiu is fouler than its western grain alcohol counterpart (though not quite as strong, generally at 112 proof) and flavored something like licorice. The smell alone is enough to turn your nose and the taste is generally less pleasant. While there are expensive and possibly nice types, the most common baijiu can be found in supermarkets for about $5USD per gallon, which is a testament to its quality.

Drinking at banquets can be something of a sport and I have heard and read horror stories of the act of toasting one another at a table become somewhat combative. Luckily for me, our table was very nice about it and I managed to make it through the dinner with only about 2 shot glasses worth of the stuff.

Aside from the eating and drinking, the meal offered us both a chance to speak with some of the other English teachers at the school and Janet made friends with Nemo (who likes both Captain Nemo and the clown fish) and I talked mostly with Helen and David. David is very funny. He is the computer guy at our school, but is young and hip as one could tell from his trendy clothes and constant text-messaging. As a computer science major in school, he has no formal English education, but through a combination of teaching himself and hanging out with the English teachers, has managed to acquire a good skill at the language. I had met him earlier in the week when he installed the computer in my apartment and tonight gave me a chance to speak with him more. I'll be playing basketball with he and Zhu (pronounced like "Jew") next week. Since I'm taller than almost everyone here, the automatic assumption is that I am good at basketball, which of course I'm not. It should be fun though.

As the banquet started to draw down towards the end, I was lucky enough to have my number called in the raffle for first prize (many people are called for each prize level), which is 150 Yuan, about $22-23USD.

I made it through my first school-wide banquet and now it is on to teaching. Tomorrow morning I'll have my first two classes, Oral English and also Reading for Business Majors. Hopefully they will go well, I'll add another update tomorrow to let everyone know!

(Picture above: Janet, Me, Helen and David)