Archive for July, 2011

Fellows frequently visit students’ home villages on the weekends. Monica Kim, a 2010-2012 Fellow, took the following pictures from a visit to the village of Xunfang, where several of her students live.  

Xunfang is a village approximately 10 minutes away by rickshaw or minibus. Xunfang is quite rural despite its proximity to Boshang. The local elementary school does not provide English education. I have two students from this area: Eric and Brian. Both are quite smart but rarely apply themselves. Both are also quick-tempered and have said quite a number of dirty things in the classroom. Brian will unfortunately drop out mid-second semester and end up working in the local hair salon in Boshang and then Lincang.

During this home visit we were invited to a birthday party of one of May’s students.

Walking to Xunfang

View of Boshang, a nearby larger town, from Xunfang

A "tragon" (tractor & wagon = tragon): extremely loud and slow vehicle used to transport various goods/people in rural China

Brian, one of my students who lives in Xunfang

We had dinner in one of our students' homes that night. Getting dinner in the kitchen

Eating a home-cooked birthday diner


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How do Teach For China Fellows observe and measure their impact as teachers? Tom Hoffecker, a Fellow teaching at Dazhai Middle School in Yunxian, Yunnan, wrote this update near the end of his first semester in December, 2010, and was excited to see that his students were already making observable gains: 

My kids are starting to learn more and more quickly. As Coach Carpenter, my wrestling coach in high school, always said, “Practice brings success. Success brings confidence. Confidence brings more success.” My smartest students (a handful of girls and one boy) have grasped the four major language skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) quite quickly. Most of my other students have at least a handle on two, while my worst are still struggling to get a hold of even one.

It’s exciting to see things click with a majority of my students. It’s finally clear that English is a way to communicate, not just something they have to learn in school.
At the beginning of the school year, conversations outside of the classroom went something like this: “Hi!” “HALLLOOOOOO!!!” This got old very quickly.
After a week or two, the conversation evolved. “Hi! How are you?” “How ahhhe yoou?” (A few kids still do this, sigh…)
After a month or two, they could actually converse with me! “Hi, how are you?” “I’m fine, sanks, how ahhe you?”
We’ve finally moved past the “How are you?” phase, and my students can tell me what color something is (The book is blue.), if they have a soccer ball (No, I don’t.), and some remember how to say that he doesn’t have a soccer ball (No, he doesn’t).

A few of my best girl students asked for some English reading material to practice on their own. One of them eats ice cream “because she has no money” (she says, “我没有 money.”) and her mom doesn’t let her play on the weekend – only studying! I found some of my favorite reading material and asked them what they thought. “Too hard, not enough pictures!” I remember when I first saw the material I gave them and I thought the same thing.

Vying for education

You can’t tell what they’re voraciously reading from this angle. For whatever reason, they really didn’t want to be photographed. Maybe because their peers would be so jealous of their reading abilities if these pictures ever got out.

Here’s a clearer shot of one of Gareth’s scholars reading the secret material:

The economy? or his 4'2" stature?

That’s right, The Economist! Excellent! Even though it’s impossibly difficult for these students, they get really excited to read real English material. I myself am a bit tired of the repetitive and predictable textbook English. It’s also the only context they know the language, so it’s time help them realize there is a language outside of that way-too-textbook of a textbook.

I’ve been teaching them recently that they shouldn’t fear things they don’t understand right away. I used the Chinese saying, “You can’t become fat with just one bite” to explain that you can’t expect to “eat” a long sentence or paragraph “in one bite” – it takes breaking it down into manageable bits to digest it properly. Once you understand the bits, put them together to get your long sentence and smile since you just accomplished a difficult task.

It’s a lot of fun to look through the text and identify words that they’ve learned. A typical exchange goes like this: “What’s this?” “On.” “What does that mean?” “在…上.” “Yes, very good!”

The Economist is an especially good magazine to play this game with because there’s always at least two articles about China (usually cautioning, fear-mongering, or derisive, whether or not appropriately is another discussion). “What’s this?” “Chinese!” “Yes, that’s you, right?” “Yes, that’s me!”
It must be pretty cool for them to see magazine covers with a prominently featured portrait of Mao or the word “China” in big letters. Just as my kids are making the turn to better understanding, I hope seeing these magazines links their studies to the real world.

On a side note, I ended up giving them some more appropriate practice material in the form of some slightly edited Aesop’s fables. “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and “The Turtle and the Rabbit” are two of my (modified) favorites that hopefully they’ll enjoy and learn some good morals from, too!

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This past semester, Teach For China Fellow John Kuo’s students took him out to pick mushrooms in the woods surrounding his placement community of Yongbao:

If you come across these red mushrooms, don't eat them

One of my students found a bird's nest. That dog in the background is his

Sam's student excitedly told me that one of these tombs is his grandmother's


Freshly picked mushrooms for dinner!

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Check out this great story from Sam Waldo, about a typical Friday night with the local teachers in his placement community of Yongbao:

When John and I entered the room, we were given a hero’s welcome.  I was looking forward to hanging out with these local teachers who we see every day but rarely have as much as a simple conversation with, and I was pleased by the sincerely enthusiastic response to our having stopped by.  I was offered a seat and quickly incorporated into the game they were playing while simultaneously juggling three or four conversations with limited success, about everything from the weather in the US to the relative poverty of Yongbao.

The get together was held in the room of my upstairs neighbor, which, like all of the rooms in the courtyard where I live, is a converted elementary school classroom.  A single incandescent light bulb provided ample, warm light for the small space, and a teal hospital-style curtain separated the rear part of the room – a personal area set aside for the bed and for dressing – from the overcrowded front half.  The locus of everyone’s attention was a multi-purpose table which was approximately four feet square and stood not more than two feet off the ground.  The table’s four squat wooden legs were painted burnt orange, and a thick plastic table cloth sporting a checkered pattern and pictures of bell peppers, salt shakers, hamburgers and wine was nailed fast to the table’s surface.  The table wasn’t nearly large enough to accommodate the more than dozen of us seated around it, so everyone was constantly pushing up against one another while seated on the eclectic group of wooden, plastic, and metal stools that had been brought for the party.

The table was littered with paper cups and empty bottles of the local hard-liquor (a reserve of unopened bottles sat underneath the table and was replenished periodically from a case in the corner).  Music was playing at first, but with the sound of lightning the computer was shut down and unplugged to avoid damage from a surge.  There were only two women, Begin who I’ve mentioned before and another female teacher named Jiaomin, and there was a pointed lack of flirtation or sexual tension in the room (versus, say, an American party where creating that tension sometimes seems to be the entire goal).  The entire party – from front to finish – revolved around a single table and a single ceaseless game.  The night was focused on this one game that I still scarcely understand, and unfortunately the atmosphere was not too friendly to newcomers.

But I was hardly bored.  After dismissing the game as a source of entertainment, I basically let it play out as it would and spent my time observing the characters around me.  Most notable was our vice principal, Luo, a thin, cheerful man in his early forties with a constant grin on his high-cheekboned face who is popular with students and faculty alike.  He is very protective of John and me when we have banquets or large events involving alcohol, constantly asking to make sure that the minor amounts they’ve served to us haven’t pushed us beyond our limits.  Luo can be seen around campus in a western-style suit most days, and when we see him in his blue Peak track suit it usually means that he had a little too much fun the night before – we call this athletic wear his ‘hangover outfit’, and when we ask he will tell us with a big grin “I got too drunk last night!  Today my head hurts!”  This Friday night he was true to form – halfway through the night he began insisting on dealing and shuffling for everyone, and when it came to my turn he quite blatantly cheated for me (giving me the highest card in the deck and then telling everyone else to drink).

The night ended on a high note, also at odds with my preconceived notion of what makes a good party, as the host teacher brought in a communal bowl of chicken soup.  Not canned chicken-noodle, but extremely fresh chicken meat in a delicious broth that made me smile as it warmed my insides.  I tried to explain the novelty of this late-night party snack, but I don’t think I could really convey how impossible a notion it was for someone to go kill, prepare, and cook a chicken in the middle of the kind of social gathering that I was used to.  After the soup was gone, Principal Luo moved to leave, and before I knew it the party was over and I was leaving too, led down the stairs by Luo, a friendly arm across my shoulder.

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