So, my semester is over. My students have taken their exams. I've submitted my grades. I am officially done teaching at Dalian University of Technology! So, how do I feel? Tired. I've traveled a lot in the last month, which was great, but also exhausting. However, it's given me some good distance in order to reflect on my role as a teacher here. I'm going to break down my thoughts into a few categories:
1. Disappointment with my department. By luck of the draw, the other PiA teachers were placed in the English Majors department, and I was placed in the College English (non-majors) department. The benefit of my department is that it was a 12-week course, so I got lots of time off to travel. The drawbacks were:
a) I had to use a textbook b) I couldn't create my own exams c) I had limited control over their final grades d) Since my students were non-majors, some were less enthusiastic about English
I was really frustrated by some of these things, and while the textbook wasn't horrible, it was completely inappropriate for their level. The chapters consisted of complicated and sometimes obtuse articles, and while some of my students could comprehend and synthesize the information, some of my other students looked at me like a deer in the headlights when I asked them questions like, "Hi, how are you?" These students weren't about to wax poetic on the American welfare system or the information superhighway.
2. Disappointment with my own teaching I think I did a decent job as a teacher, but I have some really concrete disappointments with my curriculum, and I wish I could go back in time and do it over. Even though I think I'm moderately intelligent, I've realized I have a particularly slow learning curve and by the time I realized that it wasn't necessary to do the textbook in class (a colleague said to me, "Just assign it for homework!") it was already December. I didn't really know how to incorporate the textbook into the course and so every week was like a new experiment in trying to make the reading class interesting. The curriculum for my speaking class was equally incoherent - just a series of fun-but-unconnected activities, games, and projects every week. My lessons themselves were well-planned and well-executed, but they didn't add up to a larger picture in any way, and that made progress difficult to gauge.
The second semester I was a much better teacher. I tried to create some distinct units, which was mostly successful. One was a debate unit, which incorporated lots of related activities, like in-class impromptu debates, planned debates, games involving stating your opinion, and watching clips from the Denzel Washington movie "The Great Debaters." It wasn't a perfect unit - the people in the film talkway fast and I should have done much more pre-teaching on the South, Jim Crow laws, racism, etc. But overall, the unit was successful and some of the students really enjoyed arguing about topics ranging from school curfews to gay marriage.
That being said, I still cringe when I think about mistakes I made and how I laid my first semester curriculum out so haphazardly.
3. A few things I'm proud of. I do possess a few characteristics that make me a good teacher. I like public speaking. I speak very clearly and articulately (but sometimes too slowly), and I generally have a positive, cheerful demeanor that puts students at ease. I try to make everyone speak in class. I try to include things that I find interesting, because passion is very easy translatable. For instance, two successful lessons included a discussion and writing assignment on the Human Flesh Search Engine, which I find fascinating, and a lesson where I told them to be the teachers and teach me something about China.
4. I'll truly miss my students While a few of my students didn't care about English and preferred to sleep in the back or play on their cell phones, the majority of my students were attentive, sweet, respectful, punctual, and enthusiastic. It was a pleasure getting to know some of them and I'm kicking myself now for not doing social things with them earlier in the year. I thought I had to be really professional and keep all these boundaries, but I realized too late that it's much more beneficial (in these circumstances) to be friends with one's students. It's a very different relationship than at a college in the States, and I wish I had taken advantage of it earlier. You live, you learn! The last day of class was really bittersweet for me - I rarely cry, but I teared up a bit in some of my classes. Many of the students bought me gifts, like calligraphy sets or teacups or Mao paperweights. One students even sang me a song: "You Are So Beautiful (To Me)." I was very touched.
Huang Xiaokang, Near, and Jennifer bought me a traditional Chinese wall hanging and a puppet (the character is from a famous Chinese book, "Journey to the West")
My biggest class (40 people)
Joy, Ang Qi, and David took me out to lunch on our last day
I know I've been lacking in blog department - I promise I have lots of thoughts that I plan on divulging when I get back from my week-long trip to Xinjiang. No guarantees, but a quick Google image search turned up this photo:
I'll let you know if it's really that magnificent! I plan on eating a lot of chuar and experiencing Uighur culture. I'll return on June 15th.
As I've mentioned, Jessica and I are lucky enough to have a great neighborhood of street food: fruit stands, lamb skewers, naan, vegetables-on-sticks, fried rice, baozi, etc. There's so much food that it's easy to overlook small treasures. Luckily, our friend Kailey pointed out this tiny Shanghai Dumpling stand. For 1 kuai, you can get three deliciously fried mini-dumplings. Not particularly healthy, but wonderfully tasty.
Again, I don't mean to minimize the individuality of these folks, but ohmigosh it's almost June! Time is flying.
Jordan is another treasured MOMI educator who I met when I first started working at the Museum. I'll admit I was initially intimidated by her style and coolness, but we became friends quickly and she's great to talk to about most anything, from film to education to celebrity gossip. I was also jazzed to find someone who appreciated blog culture the way I did, and who wrote an awesome blog herself. And lastly, she's always been extremely generous - helping me find jobs, inviting us over to her Brooklyn apartment for parties, "and so on" (as my Chinese students are fond of saying).
I didn't meet Meredith until later on in the year, since she was doing PhD work in California, but I had heard so many good things about her from the other MOMI staff that she was sort of the stuff of legend. Also the author of a terrific blog, Meredith is creative, artistic, smart, and really, really funny. Whenever I've hung out with her, she always makes me laugh, and then I try to cut down on my laughing, which never works and just sort of makes my laughter more shrill. Meredith also sent me my first snail-mail letter in China, which earns her a special place in my heart.
In addition to being a generally fantastic couple, Jordan and Meredith brought Sprout into my life, who (aside from Java, R.I.P.) is probably my favorite dog ever. I know she gets around town and has affection for anyone in her general proximity, but I'll ignore that fact and just hope I get to romp around Prospect Park with her (and her owners) this summer. Thanks for all the thoughtful commenting and online support, J & M. I've really appreciated it while I've been away.
After a few days in Shanghai, I hopped on a train and headed for Hangzhou, a city about an hour and a half away. I had heard lots about Hangzhou from Hannah, who had lived there for a semester, and from other friends. I also wanted to visit my friend Chandler and the other PiA-ers who live/work there.
Hangzhou was just as delightful as Shanghai, but smaller and more relaxed. It's famous for the enormous, beautiful West Lake, so Chandler and I spent a good deal of the afternoon walking around the lake and relaxing and talking on park benches.
We also walked around the old district and checked out the street food, which was refreshingly different from Dalian street food.
This week I took a break from cold, gray Dalian and headed down to Shanghai and Hangzhou for a mini-vacation. While I haven't submitted my grades, I'm pretty much done teaching and I wanted to take advantage of my dwindling time here. My main reason for going to Shanghai was pretty minor - I wanted to see the Propaganda Poster Art Center, which is a small gallery featuring original posters from the 1950's through the 1970's. There's something about Communist-era art and propaganda that I find really fascinating, so I was jazzed about this idea. What I didn't realize is that I would completely fall in love with Shanghai as a city. It's a really amazing mix of new and old, and it's full of narrow, leafy streets and 1920's architecture and alleyways and bizarre skyscrapers on the river.
I also stayed in a great neighborhood, which was the former Jewish ghetto. (Many Jews fled to Shanghai during World War II). The area is called the Hongkou district and it was full of busy streets, old architecture, markets, and friendly people, who complimented me on my awful Chinese.
(China in a nutshell: a woman cleans and slices eels in front of a local cell phone shop)
And of course, the Propaganda Poster Center did not disappoint. I was surprised how anti-American some early posters were, and how beautiful some of the later posters and woodcuts were. A few unique highlights:
On Sunday, a bunch of us went to the Dalian Zoo, which was a lot of fun. Zoos are fun in general, not only because of the animals, but it also gives you a chance to just walk around in the sun with your friends and talk. It was especially interesting in China because, as you can imagine, you can get dangerously close to some of the animals and, sadly, the conditions aren't always that humane.
A few thoughts/experiences from my little world of teaching. And yes, I'm exactly like Robin Williams's character in Dead Poets Society.
1. MAKE THEM DO MORE WORK! One of my big realizations as a teacher is that I do too much work and the students don't do enough. I'm not talking about preparing for class, because that's important, but rather creating environments where they are working and inventing. In ESL-speak, I should be the "scribe on the side" instead of the "sage on the stage." This is difficult for me, because in addition to enjoying hearing myself talk, I tend to get anxious when I'm not talking. It makes me feel like I'm not "teaching" enough, even though I was told that in an ideal speaking class, the students should be talking 80% of the time, and the teacher only 20%.
A beautiful example of this is a recent conversation I had. I wanted to improve my students' pronunciation, so I was planning a lesson centered around a traditional method: tongue twisters. I wanted to make it more interesting, so I asked Jessica for advice. She suggested, "Why don't you have them make up their own tongue twisters?"
Success! Instead of a dry, rote class where I introduce tongue twisters and they repeat after me, like zombie robots, I had a really fun, dynamic, student-centered class where they created the content. Most of them came up with funny and well-thought-out tongue twisters, and even a few weird/provocative ones. ("Nick thought a sick thought when he saw a hottie on the Theodore Shore")
On a related note, I'm forever halfway through Paulo Freire's "The Pedagogy of the Oppressed," but I feel like in a small way, this is an example of the liberationist education he's going for. The "banking method" of teaching involves the teacher having all the knowledge and depositing it in the students' brains like empty bank accounts. The point of "liberationist education" is to encourage students to have a role in creating their own realities. I have a long way to go, but I am always trying to be the type of teacher who can facilitate that process.
2. SCAVENGER HUNT! Because I am actually a glorified camp counselor, and the weather is finally getting nice, I created a scavenger hunt for my students. It involved answering some questions and riddles and finding objects. One of the riddles was the following: Bring me the object that solves this riddle: What Has A Neck But No Head?
About half the students got it right ("A Bottle") and a bunch more said "A Shirt" which is sort of right, and I said it was okay. Some wrote "Teapot" or "Vase" which was less correct. But my favorite group of all presented me with this object:
Yep, that's a duck neck. They went to the store and bought me a duck neck to solve the riddle. While not technically correct, I thought it was such a creative answer that I gave them a million points. Only in China!
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am capable of eating the same thing over and over again, almost forever. Another delicious example of this is a local student cafeteria, 大服楼 (Da Fu Lou). I like it because it's cheap and you can eat your own individual portion, as opposed to the ubiquitous family-style.
Last semester, the Woman Who Fed Me was this awesome, friendly lady who I really bonded with. These semester, she's gone! I asked where she went, and I was told she moved to Taiyuan. I was pretty bummed, but the new woman is just as sweet.
She also knows my "usual," which is rice with vegetables and chicken. I don't know what the name of the actual dish is (Tae, do you know?) but it's very tasty and costs 8 kuai, which is about $1.25.
Delicious flat egg on top
All mixed in
This is the incorrect way to position one's chopsticks, because it's reminiscent of the incense sticks used to commemorate the dead, as seen below. Instead, just rest your chopsticks on the top of your bowl.