Filling in the Gaps

In the private English school world parents rule.  So when parents say there will be four classes each day during summer school, there will be four classes each day, and Josh and I will find ourselves quite overwhelmed.

But summer school is over now, we have had a vacation, and the new semester had begun.  Many students have returned from last semester, many from summer school have joined my previous classes, and some new students have been added as well. But just because the new semester has started doesn’t mean the parents aren’t still in control.  When parents say their child has a great command of the English language they are put into classes accordingly, despite the student’s actual abilities.  When parents say their child’s friends are in a certain class that is where the student goes.  When parents want their child to learn A, B, C and D that is what the student is taught.

Wait a moment: since when should parents have total control over what I teach in my classroom?

I understand not only the desire parents have to share their input, but also the value of it.  No one knows these kids like their parents, but few if any of their parents have any kind of background in education, and as much as they may want me to I am not about to run my classroom like a Chinese public school room.   That is why there have been a few changes instituted in my classroom this semester- whether parents like it or not.

Letter sounds: Letter sounds practice (and in some cases introduction) is now the first ten to fifteen minutes of each and every class.  While most of my students are great at memorizing vocabulary, verb patterns and sentence structure, not a single one can spell.  They may be able to tell me a picture is a cat, but if I ask them to write it without a word bank they can’t do it.  In the public school system the students are taught letter names, but not sounds.  In fact, some of my students did not know that each letter made a sound.  Most of my students were unaware that each of the letters in a word work together to create the sound of the word.  In Chinese there is no phonetic system of writing, so it is no surprise that the idea of letter sounds does not come naturally to my students.  What I do not understand is why this skill that is so essential to writing and reading English is not a part of English lessons in public schools.  The only snag in my plan?  The students shouldn’t be learning “things as invaluable as the sounds of letters” to quote one parent.

Spelling practice:  My older students have begun spelling practice as an activity after their other work has been completed.  There are many words that my students must write often and are not completely phonetic.  So, whenever my students have time during class they are working on practicing a list of commonly misspelled words.  The students have multiple activities they use to practice their words like creating them with clay, writing them in rainbow colors, drawing a picture or writing the Chinese and then writing the English word next to it and a few others.  The activities not completed are to be taken home and practiced.  Each week we have a test, but not for any kind of grade.  The student’s tests are returned and they are asked to continue to practice the words they missed.  The problem with this activity?  Parents want their kids to be able to write in English, but only want them to practice oral speaking in class.

Splitting up classes: Even though I am the teacher I have little say about which class a student is placed in.  This means that in one class I have students with two semesters of English from our school, students who have only learned English in our summer school program, and brand new students who have no English at all.  While I would prefer to split up the kids into different classes for each skill level, that option is just not available.  So the solution is to differentiate.  All of my students learn letter sounds; all of my students participate in review of the subjects they know.  Students are split into groups based on their skill level.  By having my assistant review with the students I am able to introduce new material to each group of students after they have finished reviewing.  Since they do not all finish reviewing at the same time I am able to get each group started on an activity while the other groups are still working.  It is tiring, labor intensive, and takes quite a bit of scheduling and planning, but it is also the only way to ensure that each student learns at their own level.  The catch?  Parents want their kids to be learning the same thing the rest of the class is learning, whether or not they have the background to do so.

In a perfect world students would be sorted into classes by skill level, my textbooks would have been developed by someone with a background in education and some common sense, and the parents and the school would trust my professional opinion.  But as it is, I must work with what I’ve got and do my best for the kids in my care.  And in my professional opinion, that means sometimes I have to throw out the desires of parents and ignore the warnings of the school staff to make sure these kids get the things they need.

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Summer School is a Joke

Summer school has so far been an exhaustively wonderful adventure.  One week down, five more to go.  We start our days at with class at eight.  Yes, eight in the morning .  For a three-week term we teach five days in a row.  This means I plan for three different hour and a half long classes each day for five days.  I am currently teaching kindergarten, grade one, and grade three classes.   Although it has been tiring and busy work, it has also been a great joy.

My grade one class consists of four boys and one girl: Frankie, Paul, Charlie, Archie and Sue.  In just our first week we have been able to learn hello, goodbye, how are you (with the responses: I am fine, great, sad or mad), and our numbers to ten.  The greatest part of working with these students is they are so ready and willing to absorb the information.  Because they began with no English I have been able to see just how much they have learned from our short time together.   It is an incredibly rewarding experience to see the growth they have made.  They work very hard, without complaints, and love to do activities, draw and play games.  it is a wonderful class.

My kindergarten class has been a challenge.  Originally, I was going to have five kindergarten students.  On Monday only three appeared, one of whom refused to say a word in English or Chinese.  I was worried about what I would do with only two cooperating students in a class where I had planned games and speaking.  After the first few minutes of our first class I was pleasantly surprised by two shining stars.  Sissy and John may well be the cutest Chinese children I have ever encountered, and that says a lot.  Sissy is an outgoing, bright and talkative young girl with red glasses that magnify her adorable eyes and an innumerable number of clips in her hair.  She always has something funny to say and is constantly making jokes in Chinese and English.  She loves to throw around a ball while yelling “hello (name)” to whomever she is throwing to.  Her favorite jokes are pretending to draw on my face with a colored pencil and calling Josh and I “baba” and “mama” (daddy and mommy).  John is a perfectly sweet, mostly quiet little boy.  He loves stickers and throwing the ball with Sissy.  When my silent student Hailey cried because her mother was leaving, John drew a heart on the whiteboard and told Hailey it was for her.  When he laughs his mouth opens and shows all his teeth, his entire body shakes, and he drools.  He likes to mock me when I ask him questions.  Instead of answering when I ask “what’s this?”  John points to the paper like I did and says “what’s this?”.    Together Sissy and John provide all the entertainment I need in a day and somehow manage to make it all fit into a half hour.

My grade three consists of the same students I had in my Sunday class.  They are all well-behaved and very bright girls.  The textbook associated with my grade three class has almost no new information in it, and none of the new stuff is at all intriguing.  To remedy this I have been planning lessons that don’t address our books.  At the beginning of the week we practiced asking and answering questions about likes and dislikes.  Today we began our scavenger hunts.  The girls ran through the halls, bathrooms, stairwell, reception room and classroom finding and reading the clues I had created.  Then they studiously set about creating their own scavenger hunts.  They came up with incredibly creative clues and all became well versed in prepositions.

Although these next few weeks will be stressful, strenuous and difficult, I am looking forward to them.  Any day that I get to watch children grow, and know that I play a part in it, I am happy.

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Eastern Brains, Western Brains

Hansen is 11 years old, bean pole thin, always smiling and very cuddly.  Hansen is incredibly bright and his verbal English skills are right on par with the five other boys in the class.  His writing skills, however, are far below the other boys.  He cannot write without copying and even then it is labored and slow.  He doesn’t spell well and has a hard time being verbally coached, letter by letter, through the spelling of a word.  He recognizes and names letters but cannot write the letter from the name.

My predecessor, Gill, warned me that she thought Hansen may have a cognitive issue.  She is a retired special education teacher from the UK.  Her first thought was that Hansen had failed to learn letter names, or that he had issues with phonemic awareness.  After some basic testing she concluded that neither of these were the case.  She worked with him and observed him closely for a few weeks and came to this conclusion: Hansen is probably dyslexic.  She and the owner of our school, Jane, spoke with Hansen’s mother to find out if he has any issues in school.   He doesn’t.  He gets high grades in all subjects, including Chinese.  Neither his mother nor his teachers have ever seen any kind of indication he has trouble reading or writing.

Then I come in.  I immediately adore the smiling boy who is eager and willing to do anything I ask.   He and I spend ten minutes of our break time finishing his work because he can’t write as fast as the other boys.  He doesn’t complain and he doesn’t give up.  I watch him struggle and I begin to think.  What would dyslexia look like in China?

Chinese has no alphabet.  One character is matched to one syllable and can be an entire word in itself.  There aren’t the same kinds of skills required for encoding and decoding as in English.   Without the need for encoding and decoding and the possibility of scrambling and missing letters is it possible to be dyslexic in Chinese?  After some research I found that dyslexia does indeed exist in China, but it doesn’t necessarily look the same.    And it doesn’t seem to occur as often, in fact, only about one-half to one-third as often.

So, Hansen could be dyslexic, but his teachers haven’t noticed, his mother hasn’t noticed, and it hasn’t affected any of his school work.    My question then became: is it possible to be dyslexic in one language and not another?  The answer, at least as far as research suggests so far, is yes.

Because the Chinese written language varies so much from the English written language different parts of the brain are used to process them.  For Chinese it is the brain’s left middle frontal gyrus, which is thought to recognize visual patterns.  For English it is the left temporoparietal region.  All the causes of dyslexia are not yet known, whether they are genetic or a later developed condition, and in some cases it is caused by trauma.  But what is now being observed is that dyslexia may only affect one part of the brain, and it isn’t always the same part.  This means a person could be dyslexic in English but not in Chinese.*

Is Hansen dyslexic in English?  I am not sure, but I know that the trouble he has with his English work isn’t causing any hardship for him in Chinese.  If Hansen has dyslexia in English would he still have had it had English been his native language?  Possibly.  There are different areas of the brain that process native languages and learned languages, but if his dyslexia affects the part of his brain that processes English words then I would assume it would have done so from the beginning.  Can it be fixed?  There are no sure-fire remedies for dyslexia.  There are a lot of tools and tricks, but they don’t all work for all people, and for some people none do.  I guess my job now is to research ways to help Hansen and see if anything I find works.

If you have any tips, ideas, or information I would love to hear them.  He is the sweetest little boy and I hate to see him struggle.

*Cecil Adams,

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School (Also Known as: Games)

Fly swatter at its best

This week and next mark the last sessions in this semester of classes.  What does that mean?  Well, to start it means review, basic assessment, progress records, gathering work to take home and oh, of course, games!  Most of Josh’s and my last class periods have been spent playing many games reviewing what the students were supposed to be learning this semester.  It is sometimes disappointing when they don’t know things I thought they did, or think they should, but there isn’t much to do about it now.  Besides, that is what summer school is for.

The favorite in all classes (except my class that hates to do anything) has been the fly swatter game.  Two students, each with a fly swatter, stand in front of a poster with vocabulary words or pictures.  A word is called out and the students have to be the first  to slap it.  First graders to middle schoolers love this game.  They can’t get enough.  My Sunday group of third graders love to play restaurant.  One student is the customer, one the server, and one the chef.  But this group quickly decided that anyone who wasn’t the customer or chef would help the server by listening to the customer and running over to help the chef find the next dish.  The kids love to be the chef most.  My first graders love playing memory with numbers and their written word equivalents.

At this point class is all about reinforcement of the skills they do have and encouragement to sign up for summer classes.  So far, all the students from two of my classes have signed up.  As I mentioned before, I will also have a kindergarten class.  Josh has had one class register for the summer.  At least we know we are guaranteed a salary for the next three months.

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Coming to a Close

The reception desk at Macmillan English Language School

 Two of my classes have only a week left, unfortunately they are my favorite two. Our last class periods will be full of review, games and encouragement to sign up for summer sessions. I will still be spending the next two to three weeks with my other two classes which just means I will have more time to try to think of ways to get them interested and participating in their learning.  

I took some pictures of our school to give an idea of what we have to work with.  Walking up to the fifth floor of a government-owned building we are greeted by the reception desk.  No one ever sits there, but it is welcoming nonetheless.  We have a nicely furnished reception area which comes in handy because students often arrive an hour early for classes. This is also a good place for spending our fifteen minute breaks during classes by getting a drink, watching TV or playing Chinese board games. It is a very welcoming area for parents and students. 

The reception and break area

Our office is connected to the reception area, but can be closed off by doors.  We each have our own desk and computer and sit across from our teaching assistants.  We often do our planning at school because we have access to the student’s books, faster internet, Chinese translators, and a printer.  Last week we went through and organized all of the files created for this semester’s classes.  The teaching assistants and our boss, Jane, were impressed with our skills in organizing and making the outside of our files look beautiful.  We now have color coded files to match our color coded books for each class.  

Our office and my messy desk

My classroom is smaller than Josh’s, even though I have the biggest class (eight students).  Usually my two large table are pushed together and all my students sit facing the board we don’t use very often.  The classroom is decorated with vocabulary words about family, clothing, rooms of the house, the alphabet, and our last unit about toys.  The older kids are still learning words about weather, dates and time and all of these are on the back wall.  It is a cozy room that I like very much.  After this semester ends Jane and I will be taking everything down and setting the room up for our summer school kindergarten class.  The tables are already pretty big for my first and second graders so we are removing them and adding small tables and chairs that are shaped like fruits.  We will have a large rug for sitting on the floor and working together. 

My classroom ready for my first grade group of four

The good (and slightly scary) part of this kindergarten class is that there are no books at a level low enough for these students.  This means I will be developing the summer school curriculum for the kindergarten.  Although I am excited that I won’t have any books to follow and work through, I am a little nervous that I will be deciding what information and in what order the children will be learning.  So as we finish out the last few weeks with our classes we will also be preparing for summer classes.  I will gladly take any ideas or suggestions about the development of my kindergarten curriculum, so please let me know what you think!

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First Impressions

Naughty children are not naughty. At least not in China. The Chinese definition of a naughty child does not at all compare to the kind of child a western teacher might describe.  With that said, in all my classes I have one naughty child to teach and I find him a joy.

Mt first week of teaching is finished and I have waited to comment until it was all through. Although it is not all that different from what I imagined, there were definitely some surprises.  Teaching with a Chinese assistant is often a challenge.  There is no way to be sure that my intent gets across to the students, and it is often difficult for me to answer their questions when the assistant is unsure how to ask it.    The assistants also like to answer student questions without consulting me which does not always lead to correct answers.  There are also conversations that take place between students or between assistants and students that are not translated to me.  These are very often accompanied by giggling and smiling and the assurance that nothing bad is being said.  I believe them, but why am I so interesting to talk about?

The books Josh and I are asked to teach from leave something to be desired.  Each lesson usually consists of one unit from the book assigned to the group’s level and these units are not necessarily what I had hoped they would be.  Units include essential information like greetings, daily routines, counting and dates, but also things like parties, life in Iceland and the first explorers of Antarctica.  None of the units in any of the many books include verb conjugations, and much of the vocabulary (take the word “aseiling” as an example) is downright unnecessary.

The trouble is we have come in near the end.  There are three weeks left in the current semester.  So, do we carry on as our predecessors and follow the units or do we start a new wave revolution of language exploration and hope it has time to take effect?

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What are we into?

After over 20 hours of continuous travel we finally arrived in our new home.  The sights, sounds and smells of China rolled out on top of us as soon as we stepped off the plane and we quickly welcomed the change. 

Two days later Josh and I found ourselves in our new school.  Two classrooms.  Four tables.  Twelve chairs.  And each class with no more than six students.  Read it again: six.  Could a teacher ask for anything more?  In this case, yes.  How about six students and two teachers?  If you need more, six students, two teachers, ten teaching hours and no behavior issues?  What kinds of conditions are these to try and teach in?  I have not been prepared for this.

Two days of working with the current teachers and starting Monday we are on our own.  I’ll let you know how it goes.


Posted in China, English, ESL, Teaching, TEFL | 2 Comments