Saturday, March 18, 2006

Lesson 3: Straight to Politics

Had a good week of class this week. To keep it interesting when doing a lesson for the 5th or 6th time, I like to have at least one part of the lesson in which I don't know what the students are going to come up with. This week I branched off from a reading about Benjamin Franklin and a lesson about American History to teach about political cartoons, showing some examples from America and then having them come up with their own in groups. I wasn't sure if it was going to work with first-year students, but they've been really into it and it's fascinating to see what issues they have on their minds. Some of the recurring themes: environmental issues (man fishing and coming up with only bones, child saying "we no longer need ink!" as they dip their brush into black, polluted water, tree with plastic bags for leaves), farmer's concerns (picture of three modern buildings holding hands and smiling as they trample farmland, picture of farmer with cell phone and tractor), campus issues ("we need light!" in reference to the school turning off dorm lights at certain hours), corruption ("big fish eat the little ones, the little ones eat the little shrimp": money from farmers for roads etc. being used for other things), smoking (cigarette which says "life" getting progressively shorter), American foreign policy (man labeled "America" with many arms reaching into the affairs of other countries), and pressures on Chinese students (mother with flames coming out of her head scolding child who has failed exam, and an elaborate drawing of the student as an ant overshadowed by an elephant labeled "parents' demands, pressures of society" etc. who is being forced into a skull labeled "school" while wishing they could play in the sunshine).

Since the students are obviously interested in American culture I plan to give short talks in my classes, so this week I told them about school in America, including cheerleaders, school dances, and the pledge of allegiance (always gets a laugh as I say it in front of the class, not to mention my explanation of what a cheerleader does). Then to get them talking I have them talk about school in China, which has been interesting. In middle school (junior and senior, which is equivalent to high school) they start class around 7am, finish around 6pm, then have study sessions for several hours. I have seen middle school students in Zhangye walking home from school at 10:30pm. They do this for six and a half days a week, and their only free time is half of a day on Sunday. They take exams not only for university but to get into the best middle schools, exams which will largely determine their future. They wear uniforms growing up, and I always see what look like giant track teams in blue and white uniforms coming out of the middle schools here. Class size in middle school is also a bit larger, as in 50-80. And one thing I've been asked about several times is punishment in schools: teachers here will sometimes hit the students not only if they misbehave but if they answer incorrectly or do bad on an exam, and they are interested to hear how much trouble a teacher in American would get into if they hit a student.

I was again asked if I would sing in class this week, and after I refused and tried to explain our lack of enthusiasm for singing in front of 35 people in America, they were having none of it and started clapping and cheering me on. Phillip was observing my class and only encouraged them; I foolishly told them I would sing if Phillip did, and he immediately sang some lines from a Chinese song. I racked my brain as I heard someone say "a Christmas song!", so I managed the first two lines of "White Christmas" before stopping. I think that was the first and hopefully last time I sing in front of a crowd. It's perfectly normal to socialize with students here, so I need to work out a way to do so without telling 240 students that I'm looking to hang out after class. Some students are eager to talk to me after class and want opportunities to practice their English but are shy and difficult to arrange an actual activity with. I think being demolished in ping pong by my students would be good fun, or taking some out to lunch and avoiding the point-to-the-menu-and-see-what-I-get method. Their personalities are so different from American students; one student this week talked to me during the break to ask what I had dreamt about. They tend to say things like "I hope you will have a happy day", which I think is only partly due to their limited English, and mostly because they actually say things like that in China. They don't do cynicism or sarcasm, and I wonder what the legions of innocent Chinese students studying-abroad think of a place like America.

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