- James Garrison
- Shenyang, Liaoning Province, China
- Assuming I can maintain access to this blog site (not a straightforward matter in China), I'll use this space to update friends and family about my latest experience teaching in China. I'm at Shenyang Normal University, teaching "Leadership Studies" and oral English. I owe this job to the encouragement of friends here and back in the U.S. and I feel very grateful for this opportunity. I have also kept in touch with students and teachers in Fuxin and hope to be visiting them on occasion while I'm here. [the following is my original "about me" for this blog] This will be a record of my experiences as a student-teacher at Fuxin Experimental Middle School as partial completion of post-degree teacher certification at the University of Missouri--St. Louis. All of that as well as a record of me hanging around, soaking up some culture and such. (It's pronounced "foo-SHIN" or something close to that.)
Wednesday, September 29, 2010
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
The seasons have begun to turn in Liaoning Province. The uncomfortable heat has given way to pleasant, sunny days with highs in the 20s and lows in the lower teens (I'm trying to get used to Centigrade) . This is significant enough for the simple fact that, while my apartment is air conditioned, my classrooms are not. But there is a more important, symbolic significance in that it means I have been here for an entire month (nearly) and the Fall Semester is truly under way.
I am getting to know my students as individuals gradually and with some fits and starts as I mistake one or another I meet on campus and have to ask "which class do I see you in?" But mostly outside class, it's a matter of a wave and "hello, James!" and a "hello" from me that suffices. In a handful of instances I have become acquainted with students who e-mail me or stop after a class session to talk. Often they want to talk about the class and seek advise on how to improve their work (these are usually the best students). Others just want to chat and get to know a foreigner. Most humorous for me have been the three women who, in one context or another and independent of each other, have likened me to a grandfather! In particular--their own grandfather! Now I know I've reached the age when most guys really are grandfathers but these are university students. I'm not that old.
The highpoint of my month probably came on Teachers Day, a national holiday here, which fell on Friday, September 10th this year. Although I'd barely met my students by that time, some were thoughtful enough to bring me a tin of tea, a card signed by the class, and a statuette of an old, bald guy with glasses sitting on a wicker chair. OK, he really does look a little like me. I was especially pleased to receive e-mail cards from several students from the Fuxin Experimental Middle School. Most teachers receive a bouquet of flowers on the holiday. Since I don't teach on Fridays I didn't get flowers but my gifts were more special and creative, I think.
I teach four sections of Oral English to sophomores and two sections of "Leadership and Personal Development" to juniors. The English classes meet once a week and the Leadership classes meet twice a week. Each class session is about 90 minutes (a little over twice the time available for lessons at the high school in Fuxin). I'm really just feeling my way in both subjects. Neither is a specialty of mine and the business school atmosphere of most of what goes on in the College of International Business where I teach isn't part of my background. Still, English is English and I know that language well enough. And I can make use of the teaching techniques I've learned in the teacher-training program at UMSL to good effect. Fortunately, the person living across the hall from me has years of experience in teaching English as a second language. Becca is one of the Fort Hays professors who came over for one year the same time as I. She's been a help already and will, I think, help more along the way. As described in a previous blog entry, my Leadership class is team taught with two Fort Hays professors who are in Kansas for the semester. I receive a class outline but I run the classes for better or worse. Mostly I'm feeling successful in these sessions but I do have the challenge of time management that I'm still working on. Here are three of my better students in one of the Leadership sections. During one of the lectures, I was discussing life-changing events that bring us to the place we are now. I chanced on Debby (on the right) and asked if she had an example of such an event. She said that, well, she hadn't passed the National Exam at the end of high school so she came to this school! Hmmm. Where do I go with that one? I pointed out that she had to pass many other exams just to have the opportunity to take the National Exam (which is true) and that she seemed to have landed on her feet (which is also true). I'll write more about the challenges of differentiated instruction in a later posting but there are some like Debby who are among the so-called Unplanned students who seem perfectly competent and likely to succeed.
Finally, today is the first day of the Mid-Autumn (Moon) Festival. It's a little like Chinese Thanksgiving as it celebrates the Harvest Moon and is marked by family get-togethers. There are no big feasts but there is a traditional food: Moon Cakes. And, alas, no college football games! Here is a photo I took this morning on a walk around campus.
Friday, August 20, 2010
I'm completing my training at Fort Hays State University in order to function as a "cooperating teacher" in the Leadership Studies Department. I've been here all week along with a collection of new faculty members, graduate teaching assistants, and other CTs--learning the ropes of how to function with the university here while teaching at Shenyang Normal University. Unlike nearly all the other 60-some attendees, I am not an employee of Fort Hays State (I work for Shenyang Normal University). As a consequence much of the discussion is not relevant to my own work. But I watch with some interest as the others fill out their tax forms and establish direct-deposit routes to be paid every other week (I think it was), discuss the goals of the school and the department for the coming school year, etc.
The most interesting part of the conference for me has been the series of departmental meetings to discuss the classes in Leadership Studies that are on the schedule for Shenyang. I will be working as the cooperating teacher for two sections of a junior-level course called Leadership and Personal Development. Two PhDs will be "instructors of record," responsible for the overall content of the course, the course requirements, and so on. I will be the teacher in the classroom, delivering the lessons, answering questions, encouraging useful discussion. I was pleased to find that I would have more responsibilities than most TAs have at a typical university (compared to my past experience, anyway). I had begun to have the impression that I could have been relegated to setting up audio-visual equipment and then standing back as the PhD taught each lesson. This would have been a bit boring on the one hand and not very impressive as a resume item, on the other. But the meetings with LeAnn and Justin have been--collegial--and I feel like I was given an opportunity to help shape the plan for the course. The syllabus, itself, was largely written a couple years ago for domestic classes here in Kansas. I'll have more to say about this as the classes actually proceed. Suffice to say that leadership studies isn't really my field of interest either academically or personally. I can be flexible, though, and I will try hard to help the students succeed.
The leadership course is only half of what I will be doing in the fall semester. I will also be teaching for my actual employer half the time in the oral-English department. I don't know much of anything about what is expected of me in the area. I am imagining a somewhat more constructed version of some of the lessons I taught in Fuxin last spring: teaching oral English while also discussing American history and culture (American Studies). The professor who invited me (as well as the other St. Louis student teachers) to teach there, Lisa Wang, said something like "teach anything" when we asked. I want these classes to be worth while for the students but low-pressure experiences where they can work on improving their speaking and listening proficiency in English. It's a crucial step for these students--many of whom have had a difficult time with the language according to veterans I've met here at Fort Hays. I will begin much as I did at Fuxin with an introduction of myself and my background and a writing assignment that will help me get an idea of their English proficiency in writing. It should be helpful in identifying some common errors they may be making now.
One rather odd aspect of this week in Kansas has been the discovery that most of Fort Hays's attention is on another school in China rather than Shenyang Normal. The school is call "Sias," which may be an acronym for something I didn't catch in the discussion. But it's a private school owned lock, stock, and barrel by an individual Chinese entrepreneur for the purpose of teaching business practices to paying customers/students. Its a little like a charter school only its at the university level and its in China. It's also a bit remote from things. There's a smallish city nearby but not directly adjacent to the campus--if I understand correctly. It isn't very far from Xi'an, which is nice. But it isn't in Xi'an so I'm not sure how often one would actually get over there in the space of a school year. Anyway, it seems pretty exclusively a business school and not very inviting as I think of it.
Most of the people at the conference are headed for Sias. We "SNU" teachers are an exclusive bunch: three English composition teachers and me. That was the case for the first couple days of the week anyway. I've briefly met a couple more teachers headed to Shenyang but only to say hello. Everyone seems nice and there have been a couple social events that have been good opportunities to talk and to listen. The chair of the Leadership department had us (four of us) over for a hamburger supper one evening that was fun. I befriended the chairman's five-year-old daughter who showed me her collection of scented lip balms. She reminded me of a blonde version of Mrs. Zhao's daughter back in Fuxin.
Well! This has been a long post but it has been awhile since my last one and there's much to write down in order to make sense of it all in my own head. More newsy posts will follow once I get settled in Shenyang.
Wednesday, May 12, 2010
In point of fact, I write these lines from my house in St. Louis following a long, long trip back here. But my heart and circadian rhythms remain largely with my "second home."
I'm uncertain about listing the things I have learned from this experience. I suspect it would be woefully incomplete and, therefore, misleading for the reader. But among the first things that come to my mind have to do with the challenges of bridging the language gap in order to teach a meaningful lesson for my students each week. When I realized that most of my students couldn't understand me when I presented my first two lessons, I was very worried! I recalled an article I'd been assigned to read before coming to Fuxin discussing the low regard a study sample of Chinese students held for the lessons they'd taken from foreign English teachers ('a waste of time' for many if not most). I did not want to be one of those teachers but didn't know what to do. Happily, a couple of my colleagues were working at that time on lessons having to do with music and I thought I could do something with that myself. If you look back in this blog you'll see my report on the results.
I found that much of my instruction could be done through slow, simple explanations and non-verbal communication that could hold a class's attention for the 40 minutes available to us. I leaned heavily on my PowerPoint presentations, which I prepared to emphasize images and sound recordings to usher along the verbal material.
Cultural differences exist, to be sure. Deference to the elder is pervasive and a little disconcerting to an American of my age group who never wanted to grow up, let alone grow old. But I learned to accept the door opened for me to pass through first and the empty bus seat offered to me (although, I repeat, it bothered me somewhat). But differences aside, the students fell into recognizable patterns of personality at least within my poor powers to discern them. There were the shy, serious students with whom I identified most. There were the class clowns whom I enjoyed but not too much lest I lose authority. There were the incandescently brilliant whose energy made teaching a thrill. And, of course, there were the few who were bored and uninterested who challenged me to work harder but about whom I do not obsess. I tried to listen to those students who were critical because I knew I could do better and because I knew that if I was hearing a criticism then there were more, stronger criticisms being expressed among the students. This, after all, was how I learned that I was not being understood early on. One student said I should just learn some Chinese and things would be better. Another asked that I teach Chinese history instead of American history. Their faith in my abilities was touching but not so well placed as they or I would have liked. I did what I could.
Lastly, I promised my new friends among the students and teachers at Fuxin Experimental that I would see them soon. I have been offered an appointment to teach "public policy" in the business school of Shenyang Normal University beginning this coming September. Several of the students pointed out that the universities have longer vacations than do the high schools so I could take the train over to Fuxin and teach some lessons during that period. I understand from the teachers that this would be a possibility so I fully intend to see these people again and soon.
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
To be accurate about everything, the picture on the right shows my dorm room as I first saw it at the end of February. It's a bit homier--and not so clean now after a couple months of being my home. But I use it today to illustrate my recent days in Fuxin.
As was true for a couple days in March, some of the students at the school were taking exams this past Monday and Tuesday. As a consequence my lessons were either cancelled or postponed. This meant that I had four days pretty much to myself. Add last Friday, which is usually pretty solitary and I've just completed a good long stretch for concentrated work on my unit plan for the internship seminar I'm taking concurrent with student teaching.
My unit is on the '60s in American history (loosely defined to include the fall of Nixon). As a result, I spent much of my weekend with Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon... its a living, I guess. But I did make good progress for all the fits and starts along the way. I now have 11 lesson plans and supplementary material for the project. The original due date is May 3rd and I was really shooting for completion by today but that wasn't realistic given my rather unsystematic approach to work of this kind. I ought to have it to hand over to the professor a couple days after returning to the U.S. on the 10th. "Relax!" she writes, and I will try to do so.
If all goes as planned I will be joining Eleanor and Margi on a holiday trip to Xi'an. It will be my first time out of Fuxin since my arrival (see above) and I think it will be a good experience. For one thing--it ought to give me something to write home about. But for now I'm back at my desk in the English office surrounded by the teachers in that department. I feel so at home here. My first class of the day begins in 40 minutes and I think I'm ready.
Saturday, April 17, 2010
I opened the curtains of my dorm room this morning a little after 6 to watch the first of the pick-up games beginning on the basketball courts outside (Often the first sound I hear after the bell at 6 is the sound of a basketball being dribbled on pavement at 6:05. It must be Fuxin). To my surprise, I could barely see what was making that sound. A fog had formed in the night and was now as thick as I've seen.
I took my camera out for a walk, thinking I would finally find that park I'd planned to visit on the school grounds a few weeks ago. The boys on the court seemed to be unfazed by the low visibility--just don't try anything from beyond the arc. The park was quiet and peaceful as this picture suggests. It's still chilly in the mornings here in Fuxin (in fact even the natives are commenting now on the late spring).
It's been trying for me sometimes over the past week. Fits of loneliness come over me, stay for the night, and then leave once I return to school and my students. Work is both a trial and a refuge for me now. There's so much to do. So many assignments to complete before I return to St. Louis. And still it's the work that keeps my mind occupied on productive matters. My happiest time this past week had nothing to do with work, though. It was a Skype session with my family to celebrate Bill's birthday. Everything worked well--once I jumped into a taxi and hurried down to the school (the Internet was down at the dorm early Monday morning). Even a couple of the "real" teachers in the department were on hand to wish him a happy birthday.
The most important bit of news this week is on the jobs front. The professor in Shenyang who observes my lessons on occasion for UMSL, emailed me yesterday to say that the business college at Shenyang Normal University has offered me a teaching job in their political science department for the coming school year (What is a poli sci department like in a business school? What is a business school like in China?). Unless there's a real problem with the details, I will be taking this position and returning to China at the end of this coming summer and staying for about a year (or more?). So there's nothing official now--just a phone call from the college to my professor and an email from my professor to me. I'll have to wait for a couple more days at least to find out more.
Friday, April 9, 2010
Following a trip to the electronics store this afternoon, my guide "Beryl" (Li Wae Yu) and two of her classmates/friends asked me if there was something I would be interested in seeing in Fuxin. I think she was a bit surprised when I said I would like to see the war memorial I had been told about earlier this week by one of the English teachers.
This is not a tourist destination but a place for serious reflection on the sacrifices of Fuxin's Heroes from the years of occupation by the Japanese military (1931--1945). Fuxin was a particular target for the occupation because of its then-rich deposits of coal and the presence of a large, skilled workforce. While I am uncertain of the details, many resisted and many were punished. This site is a mass grave for those whose lives were given in the struggle.
I learned, incidentally, that Li Wae Yu and friends are not only among my best students and the local geek squad--they are also members of the youth organization of the Chinese Communist Party. And just as I noticed the solemnity of visitors in front of Tiananmen Gate in February, I saw a change in mood among my new friends at this place. The park's name commemorates the date in 1948 when the forces of the CCP took power in the city during the Civil War with the forces of Chiang Kai-shek. But 3.18 Park also invites the visitor to look to the future. Most of the park is given over to a playground for children. One of the guys humored me and the rest of the group by demonstrating his skill (or lack thereof) on the swing set.
"Fuxin" means the "New, Rich Place." One of my other students suggested that this was now an expression of hope and confidence that Fuxin would be rich and new in the future. It was a remarkable vote of confidence in a city experiencing hard times and his classmates responded with applause in appreciation for his eloquence (in English, no less).
Monday, April 5, 2010
Prompt: 1. Tell us about the teacher or administrator you most admire or have something to learn from.
2. Pick something you've avoided outside of school (going to a different restaurant or shop, going to a different part of town) and do it!
(I've begun this post with a cut-and-paste of our prompt... thanks Margi!)
I'm tempted to write about Maggie as Eleanor and Margi have done. I'll just say a little about her. I met her at the Power English School when I went over to teach a class of eight-year-olds one weekend. I was filling in for a foreign teacher not of our group who had left Fuxin on short notice. I thought I'd be meeting kindergarteners and had material for that level (again, thanks to Margi). No one seemed to care though. A review of "what color is this?" seemed to work just fine. The kids were all into it--I'd point to something and ask "what color is this?" and one or another would chime in "red!" or "brown!" Then I pointed to the chalkboard and asked "and what color is this?" Maggie chimed in "green!" There's something special I feel for adults who can just forget themselves for a moment and play. Beside this, everything else Margi and Eleanor observed about Maggie, I see as well. Unfortunately I haven't had the time to work at the school since that one time but perhaps at some point I will again.
The teachers in the English office in Building 3 are pictured above with Eleanor and me at a recent dinner. Each has been so welcoming and helpful to the foreigners in their midst. After a couple days, Eleanor and I were given our own desk to share. I was given a nice tea cup by one of the teachers who overheard me say something about liking tea. When I was plagued by laryngitis during my first week another teacher bought some herbal medicine that she uses for her throat.
But if I were to pick one teacher to write about it would have to be Nancy Wang, the head of the department and my closest desk neighbor in the office. Nancy has an air of authority that comes with ability and responsibility. She's friendly and kind but if I ask her for her opinion of something I've done in class, she's not hesitant about giving a frank reply. She knows that constructive criticism is what I need and want from someone with so much experience teaching in this school, not some flattery.
I have observed a couple times in her classroom. The students of section 1.14, as I have mentioned before, are clearly the advanced section. Nancy controls that room with easy authority, taking the class through their assignments with little hesitation on her part or theirs. I was a little taken aback by some of her teaching styles. For example at the beginning of the lesson, she takes the class through their ten new vocabulary words by having them say the words twice in unison, following her lead. I don't remember seeing anything like that in my own experience since first grade--that's how I was taught the alphabet! She calls on students according to the last two digits in their student numbers (if I understood correctly from Beryl). So during recitation, she'll call on number 29 and Beryl will stand and recite. In the context of an American school this would never work but here and now, this is the way students expect to be taught and this is the way they learn. It might be OK to try some other methods but I think any innovation on my part now would just be a distraction. I don't know the numbers so I don't go that far. They do stand when I call on them, though, and that's fine.
I should also mention that Nancy has been my Chinese tutor. Nothing too much, just a brief lesson here and there to teach or re-teach a few phrases that have been useful. When I learn something new (a rare event) all the other teachers in the office applaud. I can't help it--I love the applause.
I haven't been all that adventurous here in China. My excuse (and I'm sticking to it) is that I was sick for the first week we were here in Fuxin and wanted nothing more than to go through my classes and come home and rest quietly in my dorm room, coughing and wheezing--and sleeping when able. I opted out of some of the early excursions the others went on and that formed a pattern as might be expected.
But I did break out of the mold a little last weekend with a walk up the street next to the chain school where we live. I was planning on just finding the little park I'd seen from the classroom building where I teach on Friday afternoons. It's just the other side of the classroom building from the dorm--a short walk. But I'd left the school grounds so as to take the long way around to the park (adventurous me) and, as it turned out, the park is within the fence surrounding the school--I couldn't get back in without backtracking. So I soldiered on up the road. A 100 meters further and things began to look interesting. A crowd of pedestrians began to form along the wide bike lanes on either side of the street, some carrying parcels of groceries. I had stumbled upon a farmers market of sorts--an elongated, all outdoor, Soulard for you St. Louisans out there. I bought some fruit and nuts and felt like a big boy for doing it all by myself! One of the side streets looked interesting so I walked that way, following the flow of now-heavy foot traffic. I found the dog market. No, they were being sold as pets not something else. It was the chickens and rabbits who were meeting their Maker on this street, on this day... the dogs are for pets.
I took a few pictures and chatted with the farmers. You'd be surprised how much you can say with "hello" "thank you" and "good-bye." Not very much, to tell the truth, but at least I was communicating.
Sunday, March 28, 2010
I was asked a couple weeks ago to discuss the matter of culture shock as I may be experiencing it here in Fuxin. Frankly, I have ignored the suggestion--prodded now only by the encouragement of my friends and colleagues here. Perhaps I'm just old enough to hear of the concept and associate it with what I deem to be the term's origin: shell shock. Shell shock, now called post-traumatic stress disorder, has no "honeymoon stage" that I'm aware of but it does include many of the negative characteristics of culture shock. These include the feelings of disorientation, mood swings with no apparent basis, anxiety, and irritability. Its a question of degree, of course, but many of us are not strangers to such feelings no matter where we go.
So what about this "honeymoon stage" they talk about in the literature? Does anyone experiencing a honeymoon phase in any stage of life actually say to themselves "this too shall pass"? Who analyzes their own honeymoons or feelings of infatuation except in hindsight? I suggest that this phase is as much a part of life's experience as any other and should be taken on its own terms. Yes, the students are extremely hard-working, good-natured, and a joy to be around. Yes, the teachers in the English office are kind and generous with their time and attention. Yes, I like the food here. I'd been having stomach acid problems in St. Louis for months before coming here (coincident with my time at UMSL?). All the acid stomach stuff has disappeared... at least for now. The only negative experience here, aside from the normal negative experiences I call "part of real life," has been a relative disinclination to knuckle down and work! Deadlines loom and yet I procrastinate. My new plan is to think of it all in small bites--one day at a time, or a block of an hour or two. We'll see.
Saturday, March 27, 2010
I borrowed, historicized, and specialized ideas from music-centered lessons developed by Eleanor and Donna the previous week to prepare my lesson on the History of African American music. My goals were to introduce the topic of African American culture in the broader American context, begin a discussion of the legacy of slavery in our country, and introduce some relevant musical concepts with new terms introduced into the students' vocabulary. I have been asked numerous questions about Michael Jackson since my arrival at the school and I imagined that a discussion of his work might turn out to be a useful vehicle for addressing the broader goals.
My objectives were fairly modest for this lesson. I hoped that students would be able to understand and identify examples of polyrhythm, syncopation, call and response, and dissonance when they heard them in my musical examples. I also wanted them to be able to discuss with me in English those types of music they preferred from among those presented. I called on students who seemed most attentive--whose faces showed reaction to the various examples. My thinking was that an enthusiastic student may be a talkative student and if they didn't know how to express themselves clearly in English, that they would make their best effort. This worked well most of the time. One girl said she preferred rock and roll by Chuck Berry because it's "crazy music." Asked to explain why she liked that, she said she is a "crazy girl." Others expressed more complex thoughts including a couple who were quite advanced in their language studies. One student I thought was especially enjoying the music turned out to be less than enthused. She said she thought it was "just noise." I remarked that she might be the only student in the whole school who wasn't a Michael Jackson fan. Unfortunately, this left her looking mortified. One never knows, I guess, but I tried to be less flippant with my remarks to students in front of the class after that.
For the most part, students were attentive. I didn't expect, nor did I try to achieve, quiet listening. If there's music being played in the classroom--especially if James Brown is being played in the classroom--its unrealistic and wrong-headed to shush them. Of course they're going to want to make remarks about what they're hearing. I kept pointing out examples of the concepts I was trying to teach and many of the students followed my drift and I was happy with that. They heard an example of a "work song" from the time of slavery, a couple examples of Jacob's Ladder, some Chuck Berry, Temptations, etc. But the finale was the video of Michael Jackson singing and dancing to Billie Jean. The look of delight on their faces was so rewarding (see insert). OK, they weren't watching or listening to me but I don't pretend to compete with that.
In most classrooms, the technology worked reasonably well. A few of the rooms are too brightly lighted to see the PowerPoint clearly. In a couple instances the protector didn't work at all. But the music was the message for this lesson and that worked fine in each case.