My students and I have six weeks before the end of spring semester. We’ve precious little time to finish a literary analysis of The
Joy Luck Club, complete a pop culture-focused research paper, perfect writing portfolios and portfolio cover letters. All this writing has to be good—C+ or better—or the students will have to re-take first year composition at HSU in the fall. And I can’t just pass them at the end of the semester, either, as I’m not the only one reviewing their work. My department and colleagues will also assess the students’ final submissions. So, really, not only are the portfolios an indication of student writing proficiency, but they’re also a measure of how effective I’ve been as a teacher this year. Talk about potential for losing face—if a student’s portfolio is deemed non-passing and he or she has to take first-year comp again, then I look like
a crummy writing teacher. So, I’m burning hot midnight oil right now to make sure the students have correct English grammar, mechanics, and most difficult of all, thesis development permanently scorched into their brains. Oh yes, and proper MLA formatting.
As I sit here typing, I’m freaking out a little knowing that I should be drafting an assignment sheet on correct portfolio formatting instead of working on my blog and personal writing. But in thinking about my students’ writing and my expectations for their work, I can’t help but reflect on how much insight I’ve gained into the Chinese educational system especially with respect to how little scaffolding exists between teaching western ways of
learning to minds molded by strict Confucianism. As I mentioned in the post Learning in China: Primary & Secondary School, National Exams, University the Chinese education system is heavily influenced by Confucianism and is focused on memorizing and reciting information in order to pass a series of standardized tests. Creative thought is not encouraged—expressing an idea in ‘your own words’ is akin to failing. Students under 18 spend their lives studying and memorizing in order to pass the national college exam, as this one test determines their future in China. And it’s not enough to just pass; the higher the score, the better the university the student will be accepted into. This system is great if you’re a fine bubble-filler-standardized-test-taker, but what if, despite all the memorization, cramming, and regurgitation your mind has been forced to endure, you are brilliant in other ways and not particularly good at taking tests? Well, sucks to be you. Really.
At a coffee shop where I often grade papers, there’s a young Chinese man—I’ll call him Ray, though that’s not his real name—who occasionally likes to practice English with me. He’s an avid internet news reader, and his English is pretty good. He did not do well enough on the national exam to get into a Chinese university, and his parents do not have enough money to send him abroad or to any special study programs. He works in an electronic repair shop and does English translation work on the side. He talks with me sometimes and asks about how best to avoid using ‘Chinglish’ (his word) in his translations. (I tell him to read English—read as much native English as possible.) He always seems happy, but there’s this clipped-wing squint in his eyes when he laughs. Without a college education, he tells me matter of fact and without apparent want for sympathy, he will not find a suitable wife and will probably never leave his parents’ home. At least that’s what he says.
Ray’s not all sadness and gloom, though. In fact, he’s really funny. The other day he told me a joke he got from the internet
about how Osama Bin Laden once sent terrorists to China. Yes, he sent them to blow up Chinese buses, but the terrorists couldn’t get on. (Maybe you need to live here to get it, but buses in China are always packed to the gills—scarcely room for commuters let alone a bus bomber.) He thought this was very funny, and well, so did I but probably for different reasons. The point is, Ray’s obviously smart, but because of an education system that places every last importance on one standardized test, and because he did not do well on that test, he now has little opportunity to pursue learning and formal education beyond high school. The inequity of this is nearly unbearable to me. So, I’ve started carrying an extra English novel in my backpack when I go to the coffee shop. Next time I see him, Ray should be ready for Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets.
Some come to China to spread Christianity, Mormonism. Clearly, I’m a disciple of the Mind, spreading the gospel of Thought. Independent thinking, creative thought—more dangerous than God in China.
OK, back to my students.
My students are both similar to and different from Ray. Like Ray, several did not do well on the national exam, and a few even re-took their last year of high school so they would have a better chance of doing well on the exam again—according to my students, one can take re-take the national exam once. But it is not cheap to take that last year of high school again. Likewise, it is not cheap for these students to study in America. Unlike Ray, most of my students are from wealthy families that can afford second chances. Though several of my students did not do well on the national exam, like Ray they are smart, lateral thinkers. And I know this because by far the best writing they have done for me has been in their creative writing journals and in their creative writing assignments; when I read their journals and stories, I very much get a sense that they are starved for creative outlet. Again, the obvious inequity just gnaws at me—really, the only difference between my students and Ray is that my students’ families have the means to compensate for the fact that they did not fit within the rigid Chinese, Confucianism-based education system.
To be clear, my students are very thankful for the opportunity to learn English and study abroad—their diligence never ceases to amaze.
Maybe you’re wondering just how instructive creative writing assignments are with respect to gaining academic English proficiency? Ok, granted creative writing in general is not thesis driven—students are not comparing texts , synthesizing thoughts, and arguing for a point of view or proffering original academic thought. But creative writing must have a point, and it must be expressed in grammatically correct English (unless you’re e.e. cummings or James Joyce). This semester we read The Joy Luck Club which essentially is a collection of different characters’ creative personal essays. Each essay, or character’s story, has a story and a point at which each woman experiences a critical moment of self reflection. These different critical moments become the main points—the creative theses—of the individual chapters. Pointing this out to my students was like turning on the sun for them. This point helped them with their story telling skills and helped them understand that even though we may be doing creative writing, we’re not just rambling—we must have a point, a creative thesis as I came to call it.
So, this semester’s creative writing class became my method of grammar instruction and critical thought organization. We started with Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, then moved on to Anne Lamotte’s Bird by Bird and finished with Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club. They were required to keep journals for all the readings plus complete an array of creative writing assignments. I also sneaked in a couple academic, thesis-driven assignments with the novels. I wanted to do some Dickinson and Thoreau, too, but we ran out of time. Maybe by American university standards this was not much reading, but for most of my students, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was their first English book. From Harry Potter to the Joy Luck Club, we covered a lot of ground, so that in the end, creative writing class became a hybrid literature, composition, creative class— a lot of work, but I think it most helped the students develop their writing.
But knowing what I now know about education in China, in particular knowing that my students come from a very wide range of English level proficiency, I would have structured my syllabus, tailored my methods, and designed my courses much differently. For example, these are the classes I taught/ am teaching this year:
Fall semester: English 1A; Academic Reading; Writing Workshop
Spring Semester: Creative Writing; Academic Writing and Research; Writing Workshop
In retrospect, what I should have done was to have structured a remedial English 40 class for the fall and then taught English 1A in the spring. And for the record, Academic Writing and Research should not—rather cannot—be taught in China, at least I can’t, not with the resources currently available to me. From an instructor’s perspective, for anyone thinking about teaching English writing, just start with remedial English. Unless you are an insomniac and don’t mind staying up really late trying to untangle grammar issues, figuring out patterns of error and then developing lesson plans targeting student errors (copious!), just don’t. Sleep is better, do that instead. Beginning with easier material will make your life much, much easier and you will be less likely to question your ability as a writing teacher and your worth as a human being, if you take it slow from the begining.
As far as Academic Research and Writing goes? Uh, the great firewall, pretty much says it, though there is more to this challenge than just China’s inferno of censorship. But the firewall is enough. Essentially, I have very few academic resources available to me to teach my students proper research methods. Plus, as an HSU instructor, I only have one login pass to the HSU library and academic databases like JSTOR and Ingenta. My students, to engage in real scholarly research would need login passes, too. It is not feasible for me to sit with each student, one by one, as they login and search the HSU databases for appropriate articles.
So, how do you do scholarly research on the other side of the great firewall? Well, you do it the best you can, and use every
obstacle as a teachable moment, confident that once the students get to HSU they will actually have an introduction to the library and learn first-hand how to use the electronic card catalog and databases. At least I hope so because I sure can’t show them over here. So, we use Google and Baidu and take note of how the same search terms used in the different search engines often yield different results. We examine what this means in terms of information availability. And with this I hint at censorship though don’t actually say as much. But then sometimes Google just doesn’t work, and we are forced to use Baidu, the Chinese version of Google that readily complies with China’s ‘internet business laws.’ Double Speak, you know.
I have so much more to share about my teaching experiences, and really, I’d love to write a book about them. But who would want to read it? Unless you’re really into cross-cultural education and international experience, I can’t imagine many would want to read at length about my pattern of error observations (usually issues with prepositions and confusing the verb infinitive stem ‘to’, also interference of passive voice axillary verbs with present tense active constructions. See, it’s boring.) If you want to know about my teaching and what I’ve learned, you can email me. email@example.com I’d be glad to answer questions—the demand for writing teachers in China will only increase as China slowly reforms its education system. Ah, education reform in China—it’s inevitable. And it’s a topic for yet another post!
Maybe I should write a book, make it kinda teacher-ly, pedagogical-like, research-y and such. I’d like that. :)
Thanks for reading. Love, Jos
*No donkeys were harmed (or sung to) in the writing of this post.
Hey, my VPN is out end of May—hope to get one more post up. After that, this blog gets updated State-side in July!