Archive for the ‘In the Classroom’ Category

Shawn Martin (’12 Fellow, University of California-San Diego) is currently a 1st year Fellow in Dali, Yunnan.  She reflects on what impact she hopes to have on her students outside of academics in this upcoming semester.

After traveling throughout Southeast Asia for 4.5 weeks and being away from my village and China for more than a few days span, I feel refreshed and somewhat ready to begin the next semester.

Prior to finals last semester I had a rather pessimistic view of my impact on my students’ lives and my role as a teacher in my village. My students actually ended up performing higher than I expected on their finals which gave me hope that I am actually being an effective English teacher. In addition, it renewed my faith in their abilities and dedication as students.

Thanks to some comments I received on my blog post about my impact, as well as some extended reflecting I have done while traveling, I had altered my perception. My success should not be measured just academically. Just having a presence at my school I am exposing my students to the outside world. I am probably the first person outside of their village or county they have ever met. They are the first village children I have met. This new relationship is mutually beneficial and exposing both parties to ideas, customs, habits, etc. that neither party has ever had close contact with. Looking back on my semester, I realize how I have peaked my students curiosity for learning about the outside world through stories about America and pictures of my time traveling in China. Indeed, my students have gasped in excitement when I show them pictures of the Great Wall and pandas. Conversely  my students have made me more curious about village life and their individual families and customs.

I have also realized that my goals should not be the same for every student. Not every student is destined to go to high school and college. That was the path that fit me, but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily the best suited path for all of my students. Some will find success in their own ways whether it be in agriculture, continuing their parents’ business or opening up a successful restaurant in the village. The goal I should have for all students is the instill in them a sense of hard-work, responsibility and desire to set goals and achieve. No matter if this hard-work and responsibility applies more to their studies or taking care of their siblings, these are essential traits in life.


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Zhang Yibin was a shy student at Helong Middle School in Shantou, Guangdong who rarely participated in class. Read how Jennifer Tan (Fellow ’11, Brown University) was able to change his beliefs about himself and his education.  

Ross (Zhang Yi Bin 张奕槟) is one of the 78 students in my class. On the first day of

Students from Jennifer Tan’s class at Helong Middle School

class, I noticed him right away–he was the smallest student, sitting by himself with his notebook open. I crouched down next to his desk and asked him for his name. He just looked away and pointed at his notebook with three Chinese characters written on top. I asked again and he whispered in my ear without looking at me, “Yi Bin.” I smiled and walked away. After a few days of class, I realized that Ross had a very poor foundation in the English language, but he concentrated hard in my class, copying everything down as quickly as he could. After a week, I announced that I had chosen Ross to serve as the class’s subject representative. This was abnormal, as class representatives are typically chosen based solely on grades, and Ross’s grades were far from the best in the class. I hoped that giving Ross the responsibilities of serving as class representative, which include helping me to collect homework, would help him open up. I had no idea how much my decision would affect him.

By the beginning of October, I began buke 补课( supplementary study sessions) every day after school. Almost every day, Ross and his good friend, Marshall, would come into my office with their notebooks, English workbooks, and English textbooks in hand, asking me to review the day’s materials or to learn more vocabulary. I was energized and inspired by their eagerness to learn. They spent more than an hour with me every after school session working on grammar problems and writing creative sentences with the words we just learned. In September, Ross averaged just 71 out of 150 in my class. In his last exam, he scored 102 out of 150. In class, he constantly raises his hand to answer questions, and even frequently volunteers to perform dialogues in front of the entire class! Ross inspires me to work harder for all 77 of my other students.

Recently, his Chinese Literature teacher (another Teach For China Fellow) showed

A banner hanging in Jennifer’s class

me an entry in his diary. The prompt was: “Your teacher calls you into his/her office. What happens next?” Ross wrote a creative piece about how nervous he had been to be called into the office by his English teacher, and how sweat had trickled down his forehead as he walked to the office. The story continued: “I didn’t know what to do so I just addressed her and stayed silent. She told me that she wanted me to be her class representative! I couldn’t believe it! I was scared at first! But after a few days, it didn’t seem so hard to help her! When I was younger, I did not work very hard in school, but my teacher told me that she believes I could succeed if I work hard, so this year, I am going to work very very hard! She makes us read the giant banner in our classroom every day: I will work hard, I will succeed! I think this is true!”

I was touched by what Ross wrote. I didn’t know that I could have such a big impact on another human being in such a short amount of time. Ross isn’t a high-achieving student; not yet, at least. I know that if he were in a different class, he might not have been encouraged as much. In another class, he certainly wouldn’t have received after-school sessions to reinforce difficult material. Most of all, the teacher might not have told each and every single student that he/she believes in them. I Teach For China because I truly believe in all my students, and if I could help Ross believe in himself, I only have 77 more to go.

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As autumn descends on rural Yunnan, Kristen Faiferlick (Fellow ’10), reflects on her progress with her new class thus far. Among the highlights from the first semester: using music to motivate students to learn, and and getting to know her students’ dreams and aspirations: 

With October already halfway over, winter is on its way. We feel it occasionally, like when we step out of the bright sunshine into a shadow, or at night when the sun sinks and the air suddenly feels unseasonably chilly. But for now, we’re enjoying the last weeks of a sun-drenched autumn and hoping we can cling onto it for just a little bit longer.
A lot has been happening this fall. Laura and I have been working on our unit-

Students from Kristen and Laura's class get a guitar lesson as a reward for learning English vocabulary

planning skills, which means that our English lessons are better than they’ve ever been. Aside from teaching test content, we’ve been working hard on investing our students in their studies and getting them excited about English. Since China doesn’t hold students back if they fail a grade, we’ve got a wide range of levels in our class. While many of our students show a real aptitude for English, others are still struggling with the basics. For some of the latter students, we find time in the afternoons to hold 2-on-1 classes with them to solidify the basics. Laura discovered that even the most unmotivated students can find a reason to study English… especially if it involves a guitar! Below are three of our students who were less-than-excited about learning the words on their flashcards. That is, until Laura told them they could learn a chord on the guitar if they learned every word on the cards! Apparently, our student Art shows some real musical potential!

In addition, we’ve put into action our “Student of the Week” plan. Every week, we choose a student who has been highly motivated to learn, and demonstrates that through asking questions, attending extra classes, helping others, completing all of their work on time, writing neatly, and being a model for others. This week, we announced our first Student of the Week, a quiet but bright and motivated girl named Lola. We told our students that the Student of the Week would get their picture on the wall for a week, but when we asked Lola where she wanted her picture taken, she replied, “With the whole class.” So, after the students finished their quiz, they ran to the back of the room for their first whole-class picture of the year. Here they are… Class 92! (Check out Lola in the front with her certificate!)

Although it’s still early in the year, we’re trying really hard to get to know each of our students on an individual basis. As it turns out, goal setting was a great way to do this. This week, we spent a class period working with students on why and how to set goals. We discussed the importance of goals in school and in life, and how we could use them in English class. Then, we set goals for the next monthly test. Finally, we discussed the importance of making an action plan and outlining the steps students would use to reach their goal.

That night, we read every student’s goals and strategies to reach their goals. Some of the students still wrote vague, run-of-the-mill statements like, “I want to be able to write a beautiful essay,” or “I want to score better on the listening section of the test.” Others blew us away with the goals they had outlined for themselves. Take a look at Emily and Hamlet’s goals (I’ve done a rough translation below):

我的目的是: 1)把英语写得漂亮,为以后上高中,大学做好准备。2)把英语当作自己的母语一样,可以说什么时都以顺利的把英语朕口而来,毫不犹豫。
My goals are: 1) To write English beautifully, in order to well prepare myself for high school and college. 2) Learn English as if it were my own native tongue, and be able to speak whatever I want whenever I want without hesitation.

My goal is to gain a strong understanding of English and be able to have conversations with English teachers in English. I want to test well, and be able to study abroad and learn other languages.

After reading these, consider that only around 30% of Luodang Middle School students from each class will move onto high school. Only a fraction of them will attend college. The fact that Emily is thinking about high school and college shows that she’s committed to her education, only one summer after graduating from elementary school. Hamlet takes it one step further, saying he wants to study abroad and learn even more languages.

Reading their goals reminds me of how much potential our students have, and how much is at stake. I want SO badly to help each of them achieve their goals… I barely know them and I’m already dying to send them all to high school and beyond! I can already tell it’s going to be an intense year, but Laura and I are up for the challenge!

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Caitlin Moss (Fellow ’10, Georgetown University) is working to build her students’ sense of investment in their educations. One of her strategies was to survey her students and ask them about their own goals–for school, for their careers, and for their lives. Some of the answers weren’t quite what she expected…

In the first few weeks of class, I have started to implement my investment plans, which are basically an ongoing reinforcement to my kids (yes, I have started referring to them that way…) that studying is critical to opening up doors in the future. To me, being truly invested means that rather than being disinterested because they feel English is a subject that they’re forced to take (even though that’s partially true), my students will want to study English and be willing to study hard because they understand the importance of doing so for their own good.

Caitlin Moss with Margie, one of her students

I’ve also been trying to get to know my students better; with 52 of them, that’s not always easy. So part of my solution to that problem was to have them fill out a pretty extensive survey, and to make them reflect on their personal goals for the year and for life (and yes, all of this was done in Chinese, to make sure they understood.)

My students are certainly not dumb. I was really surprised and impressed with some of their self-insight and ability to reflect. I am looking forward to getting to know them more and more in the future, and even though they can be little monsters in class sometimes, I can already feel myself getting quite attached to them. Some of their answers really inspired me to work as hard as I can to support them this year.

Here are some of their interesting responses, synthesized and translated. Who WOULDN’T be inspired by these kids?!

Q: In your opinion, what does the ideal teacher look like? What characteristics does he/she have? What teaching methods does he/she use?

A: My ideal teacher looks just like Miss Moss. Except that I don’t know you well enough yet to know what your characteristics are.

A: My ideal teacher can teach me lots of new things, doesn’t get mad easily, and finds many different ways to communicate with students.

A: My ideal teacher is strict in class but tells us lots of stories.

A: My ideal teacher is just like you, different from all the other teachers.

Q: What are your goals for the future? What do you want to be when you grow up?

A: Go to college.

A: Go to Qinghua (Tsinghua) University.

A: Get a PhD.

Become a…

A: teacher.

A: scientist.

A: public attorney.

A: lawyer.

A: doctor.

A: math teacher.

A: nurse, then a doctor.

A: sports coach.

A: gym teacher.

A: cab driver.

A: migrant worker.

Q: What challenges might you face in trying to achieve these goals? How will you overcome them?

A: There are some things that I don’t do very well at (in school), my family doesn’t have enough money to keep sending me to school, and my parents don’t want me to be a doctor. I will study hard, take out loans, and convince my parents to let me follow my dreams.

A: Well studying might be a challenge. But if I have questions I will definitely go ask the teacher.

A: Some challenges I might face are not having enough money and not being able to find work. I will face them by asking Miss Moss for help.

Q: When you don’t feel like studying, how can Miss Moss motivate you?

A: By simply talking and interacting with Miss Moss, it will make us more mature and willing to study.

A: Tell me to believe in myself, not to give up, to keep working hard, and to always be honest and responsible.

A: Remind me that if I don’t study hard now, I won’t have any more chances to keep studying later.

A: Say: “For the sake of your own dreams, don’t you dare quit!”

A: There’s not really much Miss Moss can do about it.

A: Remind me that I’ll be able to play badminton and other games in my free time after I finish my homework.

A: Remind me that I’m studying for my own sake, and not just to meet my parents’ expectations.

A: Say: “You should believe in yourself. Don’t give up! Believe that if you continue, you can realize your dreams and overcome challenges.”

A: Remind me that if I work hard, I’ll have time to go play badminton.

A: Say: “You’d better go study! You don’t want to disappoint your parents, and especially don’t want to disappoint your dear Miss Moss. ADD OIL! You can do it!”

A: Compare my grades to other students who are doing well and tell me to study harder!

Q: If you could go anywhere in China or in the world, and bring anyone you wanted, where would you go and who would you bring?

A: I want to bring my mom to Xinjiang.

A: I want to go to France with my friends, since when you leave the house, you have to rely on your friends for support.

A: I want to go to Shanghai with friends because it would be a lot of fun.

A: I want to bring my parents to America, so they can live comfortably.

A: I want to go to Beijing, and I’d bring my parents with me. (times 3)

A: I want to go to Kunming because the weather’s nice there, and I would bring my parents.

A: I would like to go to America and bring my parents with me. (times 4)

A: I want to go to Africa and I’d bring my little brother. He’s very curious about how Africans live.

A: I want to go see where you live.

p.s. Another part of my investment strategy is to have lunch with my three most improved students on Friday. I started this last week, and one of my students, Marcia, has such a great attitude. During our lunch conversation, she asked me lots of questions about America, and asked me if there is anything she can do to improve her performance in English class. I’ve gotta be the best teacher I can be to support Marcia’s dream of becoming a doctor, and for all my other kids too!

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Meet Class  (“ban” 班) 138 from Xiaojie Middle School, Yunxian, Yunnan. Their English teacher is Andrew Coflan (Fellow ’10, Georgetown University)

Well there you have it, the 61 students of Ban 138. A few have been cut off, but you get the idea. From the windows to the wall, from front to back. Now when you hear about people complaining about overcrowded classes in the U.S., with a horrifying 30 students, you can point them my way.

Andrew Coflan's students in Xiaojie Middle School, Yunxian, Yunnan

On top of the number of students in a class, there are a few other challenges in their way. The first is their sleeping arrangement, with students sleeping two to a bed. There are usually 12 beds in a room, so that means there are 24 students to a room. They’re not allowed to hang anything on the walls, and they don’t usually have any real possessions. Some will wear the same outfit for the whole week, sleeping in it and wearing it to class until they head home for the few hours they have off.

Until last week, they didn’t eat breakfast either, which is rather common in rural areas. That means that they are in class from 7 am until 9 pm, after which they clean the classroom and head to bed. They have class until Friday night. Saturday morning they walk back to their homes, some of which are 6+ miles away, where they are allowed to spend a night with their families before walking back on Sunday.

What amazes me every day, is that despite all of the difficulties facing them, they are on the whole engaged and bright students. They face difficulties ranging from malnutrition to teachers who don’t believe that they can succeed, yet they show up every day with an enthusiastic “Good Morning!”

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Besides teaching core-subject classes, many Teach For China Fellows organize a range of

Hu Xiaodan's students preparing their daily radio broadcast

extracurricular programs and other projects  that engage both students and communities outside of the classroom. In one such project, Hu Xiaodan 胡晓丹 (Fellow ’10, China Academy of Art), organized a student-run radio station at Lincang Number 2 Middle School临沧市第二中学 . Students from her class were split into groups and tasked with preparing a weekly program on a variety of subjects, including music, literature, science, sports and news.  The different teams then broadcast one program a day to the school, in both English and Chinese.

“I gave students the flexibility to choose their own role within the project, from editing, to conducting interviews, to background research, to giving the actual broadcast. That way, each student had chance to highlight their own abilities,” remarked Xiaodan. “I had one 7thgrade girl who was quite studious in class and generally received good grades, but was incredibly introverted and shy. An upsetting experience as a young girl had left her unwilling to speak in front of groups. She would even sometimes develop a stutter when she spoke in front of the class. I brought her into the radio program work behind the scenes and help prepare the material for each broadcast. After just sitting and listening through many broadcasts, she began to read off of the script herself. By the end of the year, she even occasionally raised her hand to answer questions in class. She told me that she is incredibly happy that she now feels more self-confident.”

Hu Xiaodan (Fellow '10, China Academy of Art) with some of her students

The program became wildly popular and Xiaodan received a flood of applicants for next year’s program. Xiaodan has set up a system whereby new applicants must first go through an “internship” period where they work under one of the current radio station members. This way, current student participants have a chance to develop their own leadership skills as they guide their classmates in the workings of the station.

Through projects like the radio station, Xiaodan and other Fellows are demonstrating the value of creative and participatory teaching techniques to encourage student engagement, build confidence, and spur cognitive development across a broad range of skills


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Emily Cole (Fellow ’10, Brown University) came up with a creative way to engage her students at Xingfu Elementary云县幸福小学 and broaden their horizons. Last semester, she reached out to friends and family living in different countries around the world and asked each of them to send a postcard to her students: 

When the first postcard from Switzerland arrived at the Xingfu post office, the manager matter-of-factly informed me that this was the first overseas piece of mail they’d ever received.  When I first showed my students the picture of the snow-covered Swiss Alps, their reaction wasn’t quite so calm.  All 55 of them jumped up out of their seats, exclaiming “A ma!” and “A gua!” in the local dialect because they were too excited to speak proper Mandarin.

Over the course of this semester, friends and family around the world have sent postcards to my

Emily's students with some of the postcards they received from around the world

students.  Several times a month, we have an “Around the World” themed class where we learn to say “hello” in a different language, listen to world music, and color the country’s flag.  Most of my students have not left the small town where we live, and getting a chance to show them the world beyond Xingfu was incredibly exciting for both my students and me.  Their favorite postcards depict a hot air balloon festival in New Mexico, a fierce alligator from Louisiana, and a cowboy riding a horse in Texas.

By the end of the semester, my students had learned enough English to write a simple self-introduction,

"Greetings from Sunny Xingfu:" A postcard drawn by one of Emily's students

which is impressive considering that many seventh  graders struggle with the same task.  On the last day of class, we made postcards from Xingfu to send to our friends around the world.  It was interesting to see what they consider to be the “highlights” of our town.  Their postcards feature illustrations of our elementary school, water buffalo, mountains, and sugarcane fields.  In one creative exception, the postcard is filled with a picture of a gigantic bird surrounded by tiny birds, perhaps illustrating the chickens sold outside the school gates on market day.

I enjoy the Around the World classes as much as my students do.  I love watching their faces light up

Students wrote greetings in English on the backs of their postcards

when I introduce a newpostcard.  I love watching them try to decipher the English scrawled on the back (most of the time, due to messy handwriting and complex English, I have to translate the note).  Above all, I hope this project inspires them to seek opportunities to learn more about the world outside of Xingfu.

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