Category Archives: Teaching

Look, A Laowai

I’ve never felt like such a Laowai as I did last Friday when I went to an outside public school to teach a couple of English classes for some local kids. The school was about a 15 minute walk from where I teach, and it seemed to be nestled in an apartment complex and shopping compound. The school was typically quite a bit rundown, and the day was hot and sticky due to rain and 90 degree weather. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I was excited and relieved to teach a new batch of students. My regular classes are the same students week in and week out, and most of the time I am more of an entertainer than a teacher, trying to keep the students engaged so the the kids will be happy and the parents will sign them up for a new semester. That’s one life lesson I have learned here. It is always better to provide a service to the person paying. Here, I’m providing a service, teaching, to the kids. The parents are paying, but they are more of a middle man. If at all possible always provide the service directly to the person paying, that way both sides expect production. In my case, the kids could really care less about English. Lesson learned, lesson learned. I’ll have to write a whole post about that. At least at the public school, where I was essentially putting on an infomercial, there was no expectation of learning since I’m only there for 40 minutes a class every 2 months.

So the school is set up in a big square with an empty courtyard where the students play. We got there about 5 minutes before the bell sounded between classes, so we were kinda just standing around waiting. Then the bell rang. About 100 students come pouring out of the classroom and straight to see me. You would have thought an alien had landed. The kids all circled around me, wanted to touch my arms and just me in general, and treated me as though I was some strange creature that landed from a distant planet. It was rather disconcerting, but I was told to expect it.

The classroom was austere and spartan. Oh yeah, it was also brutally hot and I had a couple of 40 minute infomercials to put on.

 

All of the kids were incredibly excited as I entered and started teaching. I had two teaching assistants with me, one of them being my friend Jack, who has very good English. Here is a picture of Jack and I at shane, he has his desk by me:

 

All and all I really enjoyed the lesson because the kids were fun. I really liked the class size; even if a couple of kids weren’t paying attention, so what, there are 40 others. I guess I just am tired of seeing my same kids every week, trying to find new ways to keep them entertained. With the outside locations, I won’t see these kids for 2 months. I’ll be hitting a different school every week, not at all unlike a traveling circus. The TA’s passed out a lot of brochures and hopefully the school will pick up some new students.

The school has really been advertising intensely, handing out fliers at various campuses and giving free demos like mine to several nearby locations. We foreign teachers are left out of the business side of the school, but my impression of the operation and of the neighborhood in general is that everybody is beginning to feel the effects of a slowing economy. Parents are less willing to pay for more than one semester at a time and are bargaining much harder with prices. If there are siblings taking classes together they share or copy a book, whereas I didn’t see this when I first came in. This all points to a larger issues facing the country as whole.

China’s economy is experiencing significant headwinds as it tries to transition into a more sustainable economic model. When I first got here cranes were building non stop. Now construction sites lay abandoned, with the cranes frozen as gigantic monuments to a construction boom that may have run its course. Gee, a massive construction boom backed by government loans leads to a risky and dangerous economic situation. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? The historic 20 year run as the world’s factory is coming to an end, and with that will come enormous economic and social pressures.

The legitimacy of the Communist Party for the past two decades has been tied to economic growth, with the belief that the rising tide lifts all ships. Now, however, China has to take that next step in building a domestic consumer economy. Never before has such a transition happened with so many people and in as a compressed time frame like China faces. Growth is slowing and China needs to transition to a more diversified consumer based economy before it gets caught in the middle-income trap like so many hopeful states before it. There is a reason this is happening. A soft landing is the best that the world can hope for.

On an unrelated note, due to the paucity of anything in Wuxi worth seeing, I’m using my free time constructively by taking several online classes on Coursera. They are rather enjoyable, I have taken everything from Metabolism in Athletes to Creative Problem Solving. Right now I am taking a Rhetorical Writing course from Ohio State University. Papers will be peer reviewed and graded by TA’s, so I’ll actually have stuff to turn in. It sounds fun and will involve a lot of writing over the next 8-10 weeks and I’m pretty enthused about it. All free of course, I just have to get around the sensors to watch the video lectures. So is life in Red China.

Summer is Coming to an End

Well, the summer grind is almost over. This is the last week of the 2nd of back to back intensive short semesters. Three week mini-courses stacked on top of my regular schedule. One thing that I have come to learn is that things would be a whole lot easier if every class wasn’t different. By that I mean, or I assume, that academic teachers typically have at least a few courses that they teach more than once during the week. Something along the lines of writing a lesson plan that can be used for all three of your freshman history classes. This is not the case here because every student only comes once a week, with every class at a different level in order to offer a wider range of English levels to customers/parents. While great for the business model, it means I have 11 different lesson plans to write up every week. Oh well.

The heavy work load and many hours of actual teaching has been hard, but my self-assurance and proficiency in the classroom is through the roof. I simply have no nerves when I am in front of class or in front of a group of parents, and it has translated to a tremendous boost in confidence, which is further encouraged by actually successfully living and working in a city and country as foreign as Wuxi, China. Outside of my phone, which I never use, or WeChat, which I frequently use, I spend much of my time communicating in very poor Chinese, usually with the Koreans who own the local Mom & Pop stores, and I get along just fine.

Knowing my time here is limited to about a year makes this a great learning experience. I can take it all in comfortably aware of the impermanence of this sojourn, which makes the moments of difficulty or frustration bearable and beneficial. Experience is essential to finding out what is important in life. Experience forces a reorganization of what you need and don’t need as it pulls new things in and out of your intellectual and emotional ambit. Auxiliary wants and needs fade away unremembered, while the indispensable and precious intensify in their importance, adding a new, permanent vitality as I wend my way through life and living. To say that family and home is the most important thing in life is trite and sentimental, but it is also simple and true.

Here are some images I’ve tried to gather since I last posted. It has seemingly been raining everyday in this sodden state so I have only a few:

These are some of my kindergarteners. Amy is the girl, CJ is with his head down and Justin is using his pencil tube as a telescope. Justin is very hyperactive but I like him very much. All three of these are good kids with great personalities, Amy being smart and mischevious and CJ is just along for the ride. That is my TA Lori, she is by far the most amiable of the lot, in part because she is the least experienced. Regardless, I enjoy working with her, and in fact I like all the TA’s, for the most part. You can’t like everybody you work with, that’s just an axiom of life.

This is just a quick video of the corner at the end of my block. My bank, some shopping and dining are all in this area.

The image below is a shot outside one of the other Shane Schools that I went to in order to sub for another teacher. The weather map said no clouds, which gives you an idea of pollution levels that day. A teacher was on vacation so I took one of his classes. That Scotsman walking by is Ian, a fellow teacher that arrived in China the same time as me.

This was my welcoming party for my substitution gig. I am pretty sure it was for me.

This is a nice image of one of the canals in a shopping area for Chinese tourists.

And finally a view along my street on a clear and quiet night.

That’s all for now, I should be posting more often now that my very busy summer is coming to an end.

This is the Week to Get Sick

I finished up my three week intensive teaching and everything went very well. The students really seemed to enjoy the pace of the course almost as much as I did, and now I have a five day “vacation”, which with my normal days off gives me about a week off. I would prefer the hours, but as with any employer, an aversion to overtime pay created by the extra hours for the intensive courses means we are off this week to bring down the monthly hours. I guess this was the perfect time to catch a cold, which I did. Head, nose, cough and stomach were all miserable, but the worst has peaked and the sick feeling is fading fast.

I took a couple of interesting videos, well one interesting video and one video I found amusing because I can see a product being made that I eat back home. The amusing video is of a machine that my neighborhood Korean grocer bought which makes rice crisps. It usually draws a crowd and they seem to be selling well, although I did see bags full of unsold packages upstairs, so maybe it's more to draw in customers to buy other things. They are basically tortilla sized tostadas that are made from rice flour; crispy, light and slightly sweet.

 

This next video I took of a pasta chef who was working at a street shop. I took notice because it reminded me of a segment I saw on television before I left home, which, incidentally was the last time I watched television. It was either The Food Network or Anthony Bourdain, I don't remember, the point is that they made it sound like it was an art that was rare and special to see because noodle making was fast becoming mechanized. This guy, as nice as he may be and I'm sure his family and friends love him, seemed neither rare or particularly special. This was one of the many Halal shops that are Muslim Uighur owned and very friendly. The Uighurs are an ethnic group in China that is under quite a bit of pressure right now, quite similar to Tibet, although you wouldn't know by watching or reading the Chinese press.

 

It's been very hot, humid and often raining here so I haven't taken a lot of new pictures unfortunately. That combined with my 48 hour flu means this week was a bit uneventful.

I have been taking advantage of Coursera, it's a site that provides courses on the internet from various universities that allows people like me to watch lectures, download notes and correspond with other students if you wish, as well as take quizzes and tests. Although there is no formal credit, the classes are free after all, they are very educational and offer a variety of topics. My last two courses were Exercise Physiology and the other was Nutrition and Physical Activity for Health. My current course is Learning How to Learn, which is on how the neurology of the brain learns and methods on how to improve and maintain neuroplasticity into old age. I just started today and it is very interesting. Next week I start Understanding Research: an Overview for Health Professionals, which I hope will help me be able to pick out what is good and bad research. I'm pretty good at it already, I like to read a lot on health and nutrition, particularly long term weight loss, and I often read the original research on PubMed because the popular press often misrepresents the results of a paper to generate click bait, or else it doesn't put it in the context of what the preponderance of research says. How many times have you read a headline that loudly proclaims “A New Study Says…”, but they fail to tell you it’s a small uncontrolled study that hasn’t been replicated? All to often. (I'm talking to you Dr. Oz)

Well, that's what I've been up to. I recommend just browsing the classes Coursera offers, they are free and once you register you can sign up for as many as you want, and you can interact with other people taking the course or you can just watch the lectures and be done with it. With that, I'm done with this post.

 

First Session Presentations and a Fan

Tomorrow I have a presentation for my two intensive courses that I’ve been teaching for the past 3 weeks. The morning course is for preschoolers and it focuses on simple English words in categories such as animals, family members, shapes, directions and a few actions such as walk, run, etc. They already know the basics, but by and large this is the level where they can’t create sentences on their own and they lose attention real fast. The younger classes initially were my favorite. However, aside from three of the students that I really enjoy, probably because they are rather smart and attentive, I have grown tired of this course and I think they’re feeling that way too. They lose interest quickly at times with all the hours in class this summer and tend to bonk out.

Evidenced:

 

 

Seeing the same students for both this and their normal schedule, I am looking forward to a five day break after this Monday’s regular classes.

They are precious at times.

 

The girl on the right in yellow is Sophie, very smart and I depend on her to keep the class moving. Lorena is the little one in blue that sits down on my left. She is younger and smaller than the rest, has the cutest grin, is unbearably sweet and is unquestionably highly intelligent. Lorena also tells my TA, Season, if the other students act up when Season leaves the room to get materials. I love it because she tattles so I don’t have to. The students know, specifically the girls, that they can get away with a lot from the male foreign teachers because most of us don’t know how to deal with little girls. Yo-Yo is the one closest to me in peach you see mugging for the camera in the beginning, followed by Ella getting her face time and giggling. Both are royal pains. Spoiled and whiny, mediocre regarding most class work. Archer is the boy, he’s OK, he would probably do better with another boy in the class. I often have to get on him because he distracts himself and others. I had a hard time with his discipline at first until I decided to be really strict with him. I’ll make him sit away from the class for five minutes or whatever. When he returns he is great and learns well. Amy is the girl in green and she cries a lot, especially in the beginning of class, so I don’t know what that’s about, something perhaps at home. That’s the thing with these kids, you never know what goes on when they leave. She is smart and we have bonded a little, I spend extra time with her as well as Lorena during crafts or breaks. Emily, who is bright and knows all the material is in between Lorena and Amy. Those three on the left sitting in a row are all fun and smart along with Sophie in yellow on the right. The rest, well, sometimes you earn your money.

Along with my preschoolers in the morning I have another intensive course with an older age group in the afternoon, ages about 11-12 years old. This is my largest class at almost twenty kids and it is also far and away my most enjoyable teaching experience so far. It is very fast paced and most of the students are sharp and motivated. Now, whether or not they are intrinsically motivated I don’t know, but it is apparent they are there to learn. Like the morning class, it is 3 sessions of 40 minutes with a 10 minute break in between sessions. Mostly it consists of a condensed pronunciation and vocabulary lesson with the students getting about 30 words a day, and I really enjoy setting up team games and they have fun as well. We cover phonics, which is basically pronunciation, focusing on material that is a inconsistent at best in English. Try explaining to a kid whose written language consist of symbols for words why the word fun starts with the letter f and photo starts with the letters ph. At least they are old enough that I can be honest with them and tell them they’ll just have to suck it up and start memorizing. Suprisingly, rote memorization is such a part of their regular school they do best with the just memorize it philosophy. This method works fine until they move up a level. I have a small class of 14 year olds who can recite rules and vocabulary all day. Ask them to write four sentences in English, in their own words, about something they think is beautiful or why they enjoy something and they simply grind to a halt. Individual creativity just seems difficult for many students and from what I can tell, by asking them and some of my Chinese friends, this is typical throughout the Chinese education system.

I have been too busy to take many pictures. My highlight of the week was trekking to buy a floor fan to help deal with the unbearable heat and “fog” (we call it smog or pollution). It’s working well, hopefully with a cooler apartment I won’t have to defrost my minifridge every two weeks because it gets so damned hot. My little air conditioner is stuck in the corner of the bedroom of my little studio and struggles at best. It keeps the bed cool, which is great, but the rest of the apartment is sweltering. I know, it’s laundry day.

With the combination of poor insulation and bad layout for air flow, the living area and kitchen reach about 30 degrees Celsius with the AC on. That’s about 85F for you Americans. The floor fan works pretty well and hopefully it will cut back on my electricity bills, which were only about 120 Kwai, or $20 to start with anyways.

I expect the bill would have really jumped substantially now that summer is here. I’m told this heat will last through September at least.

Success.

That’s it for now, I”ll have a few days off starting Tuesday so I’ll explore and have a bunch of good pictures to upload.

 

Looking Ahead to Three Busy Weeks

Well, this past week I had a couple presentations for parents so they can see what their kids have been learning, and more importantly for my classes, to see what the new teacher is like. These are really important for the school because this is where all the parents decide if they want to sign the students up for the next semester. I can tell that the TA’s are really stressed out about these presentations, which is understandable, because while foreign teachers won’t lose any money and can get a retention bonus, I think the TA’s may lose money if students and the parents aren’t happy and decide not to re-up for another semester. As for the parents, I’m not sure how much English any of them know(not much), but as long as they like what they see in the foreign teacher they will enroll in another semester. My age is an advantage in all of this because there is a respect factor for teachers and age. I am not an old man by any stretch, but I am closer to the age of the parents than I am to the kids, so the parents automatically assume I am more professional.

The weather here today has been non-stop heavy rain. This morning I had to go down to the bank with Rachel, my welfare officer, in order to set up direct deposit and bill pay so I don’t have take a bus around town to pay utilities in person. Rachel then had to go to the police station for further registration for me. So much time is put in getting the foreign experts(that would be me) registered here in China that it seems to me that it’s cost prohibitive to fire or lose a foreign employee once a business has them settled. All of the TA’s at work take on English pseudonyms. Next to me in the teachers office is a Chinese girl called Sara who does all the paperwork for current and potential teachers, she spends all day getting passports, permits and a variety other beauracratic obstacles taken care of, and that is all she does. It seems like such a waste of time.

This Thursday starts a three week intensive course, which means extra work and extra pay. I’ve done most of my lesson plans for this week, but I’m still going to be busy, which I don’t mind, but I’m sure I’ll feel differently after 3 weeks. At that point we have 5 days off, then another 3 weeks intensive, then another 5 days off before our fall semester starts. I have an inkling the teachers will all be ready for it to be over, not to mention the students. Their summer is rather grueling because this is when the state school is light or off completely, but the parents see it as a chance to hit their English study intensely. Summer vacation in China sounds like fun, huh. To be honest, I’m not sure how useful the level of English they acquire is given that even the TA’s have fairly poor English themselves, but it’s as mandatory as taking math or history. There are supposedly 300 million Chinese studying English. As far as I can tell, at least in Wuxi, they lose whatever they learned within weeks of leaving school and not practicing the language. Anyways, once September rolls around the workload lightens, and while we still have guaranteed hours payed, the schedule will be much easier. This is when some other teachers and I plan on checking out the surrounding areas, such as Lake Tai or a giant Buddha I keep hearing about. I’ll have a load of pictures to post and hopefully some interesting sights to talk about, I promise.

 

Presentation for Parents and What I Miss So Far

Sunday at school I had parents come in to my kindergarten class and watch me teach for about 40 minutes. I was suprisingly sanguine, I guess it was because the kids probably know more English than the parents, which meant as long as I looked good and the kids liked me, then I was fine. The class went smoothly, the only hitch was a particular student that has a tough time concentrating and could probably use some pharmaceutical assistance. He simply cannot sit down and pay attention, which kind of made me a sympathetic figure in that I have to teach class with this maniac. I tend to ignore him on most days so he doesn’t rob the other kids, but today I had to feign concern because his mother was right there. The setup was such that all the kids sat in an arc in front of me in their little chairs, meanwhile the parents and grandparents sat behind them watching intently. If the students weren’t quick to participate, which the weren’t since they didn’t want their parents to see them get a wrong answer, the parents sharply said something in Chinese that loosely translated into any language “Answer the question!” It went well, the manager said there was no problem and I’ll get a full review on Thursday at work.

Here are some pictures of my immediate neighborhood, with the fruit stand and small grocery that I visit most days. The grocery store is owned by a Korean family, with what I believe is the mother or mother-in-law running a fruit stand next door.

That slightly blurry women is the owner of the store, and as you can see in the back there is a small meat counter. Not shown is a reach-in deep freeze with various frozen seafood items and a produce refrigerator with some essentials such as bell peppers, onion, cucumbers and what have you. The Korean shops are the best because the food is not Chinese sourced, its imported from Korea with Korean lettering, however for canned items the only thing that is immediately recognizable is Spam. This is the afore mentioned fruit stand, the little lady that runs it watches action films dubbed in what I believe is Chinese on a little TV in the corner of her stall.

Since no small shops have signs with prices, I know I was getting Laowai (foreigner) prices when I first began shopping. My prices have slowly gone down, so hopefully they are beginning to assimilate me. The fruit is very good and they have fresh produce and some basic cuts of meats inside. They sell the best kimchee I’ve ever had, and while my experience is limited, the stuff in the states doesn’t come close.

There are of course some items that cannot be purchased easily or affordably here, such as protein powder which I like for convenience, and there is no decent yogurt or cheese or quality beef and seafood worth mentioning. What do you take for granted that would be immediately missed if you lost access? Not big things like family or health care, I mean stuff like particular foods, conveniences or entertainment. A few things come to mind for me. First is the amazing variety and affordability that our supermarkets provide us with in America. I miss stuff like my 10 pound bag of frozen blueberries, in retrospect an amazing variety of cheeses, meats and fish, all available without concern that it is safe to eat. I miss being able to jump in a car and pick up most anything, clean air to breath and water out of the tap that is safe to drink. Cable TV is nice and watching sports, but it seems my teams do best when I can’t watch them. Being able to order food and get what you thought you ordered, which is difficult here because if you can speak English you are not going to be serving in a restaurant. Oh, and I cannot forget a clothes dryer. Not so much the convenience of not having to hang clothes, that is really no big deal. No, the big thing with the dryer is that it gives you softness and fluffiness that hang drying doesn’t, and today I wore my last remaing shirt that had that dryer softness from back home. Nothing left but hang dry stiffness. This isn’t to bemoan my condition here, I certainly am not going without. It is simply a reminder that a lot of little things are taken for granted back home. So the next time you dry off with a soft towel or order a pound of Boar’s Head havarti cheese from the deli or want to tell the waiter medium-rare, remember they are all under apprecited luxuries, however small.

Presenting my Kids

Just a quick little post to let everybody know how things are going. Since I took over for a teacher that was leaving before his semester was over, my classes have pretty much involved the last 3 or so weeks of his 12 week semester, then I reviewed the material and gave a final, both written and oral. Pretty simple stuff really. Now, tomorrow for two of the classes I will have the parents come in and watch half my class and then I give a little presentation in which the kids show off what they have learned. I think they will probably do well, I’ve been drilling them on exactly what they will need to know in class. Then again, they are preschool age, so you never know. At this level they really don’t feel the pressure to get the language right in and of itself, they just want to make the teacher and the parents happy. With that said, if they clam up on me it could be a long lesson.

Towards the end of it all I read out a little presentation I have written on what they have learned, why and what the next steps are. The TA has a copy of what I will say and has translated it. She translated by hand this afternoon what all I prepared, spending a lot of time with their English/Chinese dictionary. I take my iPod with me to school, so I showed her Google Translate on Safari and she was taken aback, having never heard of the site or function. My iPod has a VPN installed so the censors aren’t much of a problem, I can freely use Google and whatever sites that may be blocked at any given moment. I don’t think most of the Chinese ever think much about using search engines or social media that isn’t approved by the state. They have their own Twitter, Sina Weibo, and their own Google, Baidu. So much productivity and creativity is lost due to the censorship, it’s stifling and Orwellian. I get the feeling they don’t realize how much they are being denied.

The weather here has been miserable, hot and humid with a bit of rain. The kids must have brought a little summer flu bug in because a couple teachers have it, but for now I seem to have escaped. I will continue to wash my hands fastidiously and hope for the best. Monday we have a seminar to learn some more teaching methods. We had a similar one last Monday in which several long time teachers got up and gave about 3-4 hours worth of lectures and interactives to give us some continuing education. I was skeptical at first, but everything was effective and was well worth the time.

That’s it for now, just a short post during the busy time of my week. Now I’ll try to post to my website, and if I can sneak past the censors I’ll read it on my blog, which is of course blocked in China.