Campus Life, China, Educational System, University Teaching

Teaching Files: Houston, we have a problem

One of the worst, but also paradoxically best, parts of my job is marking student essays.

Why worst? Because classes range from 70-90 students. This times however many classes you have. This semester I have only one class of this type. Last spring I had six. Tears of agony. It’s also a challenge because the students often make so many mistakes that catching their meaning is like peering through a glass darkly. Maybe a glass with bullet holes.

And then there’s the plagiarizing. Marking my recent batch of essays I was amazed to find students using the SAME Internet essay as last spring. And also amazed that I could recognize it within a sentence.

HOWEVER! Marking essays in the company of other teachers can be a delight and a pleasure. A trouble shared is a trouble halved, yes? Hunched over our piles of essays there will be intermittent snorts and giggles as we encounter little unintentional gems from our students. Turns of phrase bungled. Accidental play on words. Charming misspellings. We read them out as we find them to the amusement and mirth of all.

My two favorite misspellings from the most recent batch of essays both derive from the word “problem.” Yes, my students were having problems with “problem.” Are you ready? Drumroll, please.

The runner up for the most charming accidental mashup ever!
Give it up for—promble!

And in first place!
For the most charming accidental mashup ever!
I give you—troblem!

(Crowd goes wild!)

Sort of makes you want to be a teacher for a minute there, yeah?

Campus Life, China, Educational System, Teaching, University Teaching

End of Semester Madness

Immediately following my birthday was the last week of the semester. Everyone is frantically marking papers, final exams, and tabulating grades while still giving classes.

Fortunately it’s a universally understood thing that there won’t be much in the way of teaching in the final week. Movies or conversation are the norm. That’s if the students show up at all as final exams might be scheduled during class time.

I had thought that I was on top of everything and would finish in good time, but as the week went along I realized I was hopelessly behind and would really have to scramble. This culminated in an almost all-nighter on Thursday night. I went to bed around 4 AM, not having had to stay up that late for work since I was in graduate school. Friday was a mad dash and I just barely finished. It wouldn’t have been possible without that late night.

That night we went out to hot pot to celebrate, and then came back and slept the sleep of the well deserved.

Campus Life, China, Educational System, Teaching, University Teaching

The Other Chinese Student: The Opposite Extreme

Having reflected on some of the less charming behaviors of Chinese students, I would like to honor my promise to balance it out with telling you the best things about them.

The best thing about the other type of Chinese student—the opposite of the first Chinese student—is that they are motivated and ambitious. Our little BNUZ is just the first stepping stone in their journey. These kids are going places. Seriously.

I cannot tell you the number of students who are actively preparing for the GRE, the TOEFL, and IELTS in order to go abroad for graduate school. Those who are not going abroad are attending extra courses on the weekend, leading school-wide volunteer organizations, participating in Toast Masters, double majoring, and doing overseas volunteer trips. One student went to Serbia over the summer for an academic conference. Another went to Australia for a volunteer organization and will go to Kenya for the winter break. Though I despair over the behavior over the majority of the students, there are those other students who make it all worthwhile.

There are students who I would hope to meet in the future in the States, finishing their MA, their PhD, working, settling down, getting married etc. Others I would hope to hear about their progress by email. There’s that sense of potential about many of them. And it’s these students who make it worth it, especially when I have opportunities to develop more personal relationships outside the classroom. They’re great. Really and truly.

This is one thing that is such a contrast with Georgia. In Georgia I had little hope for even the brightest of my students. The furthest most of them might get was the capital, where they would hopefully finish university and be able to find some sort of job. Others you could just tell were bound to stay in the village for the rest of their life. Not that staying in the village is a bad thing, but I feel that more often than not it’s usually due to lack of other opportunities rather than true desire to stay.

So I’m happy for my Chinese students who are taking advantage of opportunities or making their own opportunities. I’m glad that they are working hard in university, preparing for their future. I’m especially glad that I got the opportunity to be their teacher, because otherwise I’m not sure I would’ve returned to China for a second year! A handful of excellent students can go a long way towards making up for an otherwise indifferent bunch.

Campus Life, China, Cultural Differences, Educational System, Teaching, University Teaching

The Chinese Student: Final Behaviors of Note

Okay, let’s wrap this up. The final three behaviors of note:

#9 – Not taking notes

It’s very strange as a teacher to be explaining important vocabulary, cultural information, and grammar points for up to 90 minutes and not have a single student taking any of it down. My words just disappear into a void. Most discouraging. Especially if I teach the same class multiple times in week.

I should just record myself and play it back to the class while I put my feet up.

#1O – Cheating Creative Cheating

Chinese students are seemingly inveterate cheaters. I prowl the classroom constantly during any quiz and I am forever spotting those little finger movements that indicate looking something up or the head-on-chest syndrome for furtive under the desk cell phone usage. And there is always a slight background buzz of whispered conversations and consultations no matter how much I demand silence. And when I declare the quiz over and papers to be handed in the real cheating begins as students frantically copy from each other. All their efforts to deceive me and get a better grade makes me wonder why they don’t just pay attention and do a little studying. Gee.

Sleep without detection!

Sleep without detection!

#11 – Sleeping

Probably the first Chinese behavior that struck a nerve was the sleeping in class. This drove me nuts last year, but I’ve become more desensitized to it. Such that I almost forgot to mention it. Yes. Chinese students will sleep in class. Full on head-down-sound-asleep in class. Local Chinese teachers have told me that they don’t care if students sleep in class. I sputtered incredulously when I heard this. What? Impossible! A little nodding off is one thing, but full on sleeping is another. In the words of my students, “I cannot accept it.” Yes, I will wake them up with a knock or two on the desk and a cheerful “good morning.” If I have to be there teaching them, they have to at least pretend to be “learning.”

Campus Life, China, Communication, Educational System, Teaching, University Teaching

The Chinese Student: Behaviors 6-8

Having read my last three posts that discussed some lovable and quirky behaviors of my Chinese students, some of you might be questioning my decision to teach at my current position. I mean, surely if it’s that bad, I should just move on, right?

I would like to clarify that I am discussing the rather far end of the Chinese student spectrum. You’ll be glad to know that once I purge myself of all the negative student behaviors I see and experience, I plan to follow with posts discussing the best things about my student, because there are, of course, many good things about my students. So don’t despair! I do not plan to wallow much longer, just long enough to surprise and hopefully amuse you with my stories of teaching in the trenches of China—a country with an educational system quite different from our own.

So! On to more student wackiness.

Behavior #6

The Chinese student is not well versed in the procedure for passing in papers. When the teacher requests students to pass in their papers, most students hold their paper up in the air and wave them for the teacher to personally collect them. The Chinese student is apparently loath to hand their paper off to anyone else. Which is curious because usually they encourage their classmates to look at their papers, especially at quiz time.

God forbid they pass their papers down the row so that the teacher can collect each rows’ assignments at one time. No, the teacher must walk up and down, leaning across several students to get the outstretched piece of paper being held at full extension by the student on the very end of the row. Teacher begins to feel like a spinning top as he/she whirls around and around responding to the cries of “Teacher! Here!” from all corners of the classroom. Though the teacher might try to train students to pass their papers in in an orderly fashion, the success rate remains low.

Behavior #7

For any given assignment, the Chinese student may choice to write their assignment on a number of paper types and sizes. Though many students will turn in assignments on paper of an acceptable size, other students seem to take pride in using the smallest pieces of paper known to mankind or being strangely thrifty by reusing previous assignments.

In China, based on this teacher’s experience with students, there does not seem to be a standard type of paper used for school assignments. In America, 8 ½ x 11 inch lined paper is the standard; I would not think to turn in my homework on anything else. I would not use cutesy little notebook paper the size of a Post-It with bunnies and Chinglish. I would not use paper that looks like it came from a refrigerator To-Do list. I would not use the back of my last homework assignment. I would not rip one piece of old notepaper into four pieces to share with my friends, none of whom came to class prepared. Though I included “acceptable paper choices” into my first class introduction lesson this semester, it does not seem to have stuck.

Am I off base here? Overreacting? Shouldn’t university students give some thought to the presentation of their work and follow any instructions given by the teacher? Sometimes I feel like I teach primary school, not university.

One more related behavior that I believe supports my portrayal of this particular breed of Chinese student—the student who comes to class with no textbook, no paper, and no pen. Behavior #8. And when the teacher asks him/her what on earth they plan to do in class without those essential items, the student rarely has an answer. Sitting in a classroom does not a student make. Period. Full stop.

Campus Life, China, Communication, Educational System, Teaching, University Teaching

The Chinese Student: Behaviors 3, 4 and 5

In my last post, we discussed the Chinese student’s curious use of eyeglasses. This was within the context of being asked to answer a question. Upon reflection, I realized that I had passed over some behaviors that may be of interest to those not acquainted with the Chinese student.

It is worth noting that the teacher must call on an individual student in order to get an answer. If the teacher is foolish enough to ask a question to the class at large, he/she should not be surprised at the deafening silence which will be their only answer. Silence and 80 blank stares. Ease or difficulty of the question is not the relevant factor, as you might expect. Easy questions get as little response as difficult ones do. This is behavior #3. Never volunteer for anything.

If your class has a few motivated students, they might—very quietly, under their breath—answer the question, but you often won’t be able to understand what they said. It will be said too quietly in a noisy class or everyone answered at the same time, effectively cancelling each other out. The teacher will ask them to repeat their answer, but the same problems will often reoccur. It becomes like a bad call and response sequence: What’s the answer? xxxx. What? XXX. WHAT? x. It’s not nice repeating stuff. Students get irritated if they have to repeat too many times. Teachers also get irritated and either manages to read someone’s lips or gives up and calls on an individual student to answer.

This issue could be resolved through the simple classroom management tool of having students raise hands to answer questions. However, the concept of raising hands is completely foreign to most Chinese students and they will not take to it. No matter how hard you try to make them. This is behavior #4: Non-existence of hand-raising. I believe it to be closely linked to behavior #3. If you never volunteer an answer, it follows that there would be no need for a system to orderly hear the answers.

Calling on individual students to answer is then the accepted (and expected) way of running class. When you call on a student, there can be a delay as students process the name. Was that my name? Was that my friend’s name? Chinese students take good care of each other and will wake up their slumbering classmate if their name is being called.

In China, a student is expected to rise to answer a question (behavior #5). I find this a very time consuming behavior as it seems to require a lot of shifting of bags, books, and water bottles. Something inevitably falls and is picked up. When the student is finally on his/her feet, they’ve maybe forgotten what they are supposed to be saying, so the teacher will need to repeat the question. And if the student’s answer is just “Sorry, teacher” or “I don’t know” it just seems like a lot of wasted time and effort as they reverse the process to sit back down, metal water bottles clanging and pens pinging off the floor.

Campus Life, China, Cultural Differences, Educational System, Teaching, Uncategorized, University Teaching

The Chinese Student: Behavior #2

We return to the Chinese student in his/her natural environment. The student habitually chooses a seat as far away from the board as humanly possible. (Generally, there is an inverse relationship between row number and class mark.)

Mid-way through the lesson the teacher might get irritated at the student’s obvious lack of attention and call on them to answer a question. Invariably the student will have a quizzical who?-me? expression or might only respond to a kindly meant elbow from their classmate. The teacher will patiently repeat the question.

The student will squint at the board and then nonchalantly reach for their glasses. Teacher goggles and mind implodes with this revelation. Student has been sitting in class the entire time unable to see the board and not caring in the least. But the surprise isn’t over yet!

The student then holds up their glasses to their eyes, but DOES NOT UNFOLD THEM NOR PUT THEM ON. He/she holds them up like a magnifying glass or a monocle, despite the fact that the arms are obstructing their view. Do you understand what I’m describing? Does it not absolutely boggle your mind?

Consider the staggering implications: not only has the student not been able to see the board for the entire lesson, but he/she doesn’t have any intention of following the lesson past finishing this obligatory activity. So it would simply be wasted effort to actually put the glasses on. I mean, why would you want to see the board?

When the student finishes answering the question or giving a perfunctory “I don’t know,” the glasses are lowered and placed back on the desk. The student resumes state of suspended animation.