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:
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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