Hardly education
All them books I didn't read
They just sat there on my shelf
Looking much smarter than me
-Modest Mouse

Teaching English to a crowd of Chinese university students is a big leap from our engineering jobs in California. birdMAN and I traded our offices for a classroom, and sitting before a computer for standing in front of some 40 students (per class). Instead of marketing our firms to City agencies, we market English to shy 18-year olds who live, breath, and sleep tests and GPA. We endeavor to make English interesting by performing ridiculous skits, telling corny jokes, and sometimes discussing serious topics. Teaching English is something that I do with a lot of confidence, probably because chatter in general comes so naturally to me. Put me in front of a crowd of eager-to-please, easy-to-entertain, and very respectful Chinese college students—I just thrive.

Last August, we came to Beijing with a vague idea of what we would do here. Then we received our schedules. The official title of the classes were “Listening and Speaking for Academic Purposes”—that is, oral English. I was to teach 8 two-hour classes. birdMAN was to teach 9 classes. Each class was once a week with a roster limit of 40 students. Yes, that is a lot of students to keep straight.
The majority of the students are first-year students, so they had just left the comforts of home for a fiercely competitive and busy college life at one of the most elite universities in the world. They came from all over China-- Yunnan, Inner Mongolia, Guangdong, Jiangsu, Hebei, Hunan, etc.  Mixed in amongst the Chinese were students from Japan, Korea, Thailand, and Myanmar. They came to us wide-eyed and timid. They left our class slightly less wide-eyed and timid.

Ok, so back to the beginning of the semester. We understood a few things about the students and the class:
  1. The students already speak English (albeit at varying levels). The majority of them started to learn English from a very young age.
  2. We had two text books with listening CDs.
  3. The grading scale was 0-100 points (no A, B, C grading here). No more than 15 to 20% of each class should score in the 90s.
Otherwise, we had a lot of freedom to develop our own curriculum. I never planned the class activity until Monday morning, a few hours before the first of the week’s 8 classes. Usually, I was in panic mode agonizing whether the students will benefit. The first Monday class was what I called my crash-and-burn class. By Thursday, my lecture and activities were smooth sailing and highly entertaining. I feel bad for my Monday class.

Here are some helpful tips if you ever find yourself teaching oral English in China:
  1. Provide a lot of encouragement with sentences like “Don’t worry!”, “Just say something!”, and “Good job!” Many students are very shy and embarrassed to speak publicly. By the end of the semester, many students told me that they feel much more confident in their speaking and appreciated the encouragement.
  2. Be very specific, otherwise you will not know what you will get. I gave them a multiple choice quiz. I thought it would be pretty obvious to circle the right answer. Instead, I received piles of quizzes with the answers written on the side or the bottom of the page. Not one student circled the answer. Grading 320 quizzes with the answers written anywhere on the page was heinous. Thereafter, I showed examples of how to circle the answer.
  3. Appreciate Chinese culture. The students are immensely proud of China’s 5,000 year history. They love to explain customs, traditional food, and their hometowns. I learned about 切糕 (qiēgāo), a very expensive, dense cake. They told me if you buy this cake for your girlfriend, she will marry you.
  4. Pick topics that interest them. KFC is immensely popular here, so I developed a class activity on fast food. I briefly lectured on fast food chains and their humble origins in America. While immensely popular, fast food is unhealthy. Chinese food is much healthier, and America needs a better option—Americans need Chinese fast food! (I didn’t tell them that Chinese fast food in the US is subpar)  Working in groups, the class had to develop a Chinese fast food concept and present it to the class. They think Americans need to eat noodles, stuffed rice buns, and zong zi (like tamale, only made with rice and wrapped in banana leaves). At the end of the class, I told them a true success story of Chinese fast-food—Panda Express.
  5. Expose the students to your culture. They love comparing Western culture with their own. For example, birdMAN explained a few points about attending an American university. He told the students to act out a short skit depicting what happens in American college life. The skits were scenes straight out of “The Social Network”—independent and highly intelligent drunkards.
Nice cards from our students
We received very positive feedback from our students. Many students told birdMAN, “I have never taken a class like this before.” After performing an exceptional Shakespeare monologue, a student told me that she has never acted out anything before. She found the experience pleasing and it raised her confidence in public speaking. Many of them said they looked forward to English class –a place they felt at ease and joyful. All of them said their English improved.

Now that is satisfying.

But not all students walked away from my class exhilarated. Some of them actually complained I didn’t assign enough homework! What a bunch of over-achievers.

Chinese word of the blog: 大学 dàxué (literally, big learn)
English Translation: university

Fellow Californians Brian and Sioux made a guest appearance in class one day
You never know if you will end up online. A student posted a picture of me on China's equivalent of Facebook.

Is Shakespeare too difficult for students learning English? No way!