Monday, March 15, 2010

A teacher in China

By Anne Leggett

LAST YEAR I went as a volunteer teacher to help improve the spoken English of middle school teachers in rural Southwest China. I heard about The Amity Foundation Summer English Programme (SEP) when I chose to replace a friend who could not go for health reasons. The Amity Foundation – an NGO based in Nanning – was founded in 1985 by Chinese Christians as a response to the nation’s call for reform and openness. It aims to promote education, social and health services and rural development.
There was much to prepare: inoculations, form filling, an informal introductory vetting interview in March; a later get-together in May to decide who would teach which ability level; what resources we would bring and to discuss lesson plans. The team leader and her husband had been on the SEP twice before and had previously lived some years in Macau and Hong Kong.
The main problem with Chinese teaching of English is that lessons have concentrated heavily on reading/writing rather than oral/aural skills. The school textbooks have been revised relatively recently to introduce the latter, and so now the teachers have to provide more than explanations of grammar rules and methods for passing written tests. Furthermore it is difficult to supervise and co-ordinate group activities when teaching in a more creative, spontaneous and interactive style in classrooms of up to 80 pupils!
Another problem is the lack of native English teachers in that vast country to help improve their speaking and listening fluency. Our responsibilities were:– to give conversation and discussion based lessons appropriate for teachers in their 20s to 40s; to give some ideas for word games, dialogue activities, jazz chants, rhymes and so on useful for middle school learners, whilst being aware that our suggestions might not work in the Chinese classroom and also to ask questions and learn about Chinese culture.
We left Heathrow on 3rd July and arrived at Shanghai (Pudong) Airport, 11 hours and nearly 6000 miles later, at about 8am on the 4th July. On arrival, four white-coated and masked health personnel boarded and checked our forehead temperatures with hand-held sensors to the amusement of the Chinese passengers. If anyone had tested positive for swine flu we would all have had to be put in quarantine.
We travelled to Nanjing for our orientation programme and we were kept there a full week to make sure we were not harbouring swine flu! We stayed at the International Conference Hotel in the scenic forested Zhongshan or Purple Mountain area which contains the Sun Yat-Sen Mausoleum, Ming Tomb and a long avenue of stone statues of elephants, dromedaries, dragons, warriors and scholars. The Chinese enjoyed free use of the Ming Tomb Park and did their exercises against the stone animals or even hung upside down from them! By Purple Glow Lake, we saw one man standing on his head whilst singing at the top of his voice and just missed photographing him to everyone’s amusement.
In the Cloud Brocade Museum, I watched the complicated process of connect-warp break-weft weaving using two people – one aloft – on a large jacquard loom. Just four inches of brocade can be woven in a day! We watched a silk dress fashion show, were presented with a book to remind us of the glorious colours, patterns, skill and 4000-year history of silk-making. We visited two Amity-initiated special needs centres: a bead-making workshop, set up in 2002, for learning disabled people aged 16-40, and a centre set up in 2007, to assess and train autistic children under seven years old.
Some interesting facts to emerge from our orientation lectures were:– 10 per cent of the 1.3 billion population are migrants; five of the most polluted cities in the world are in China; HIV/AIDS prevalence is apparently low at .05 per ecnt; about 83 million are disabled; the one child policy, introduced in 1979, has contributed to doubling the percentage of people over 60 to nearly 20 per cent in the last decade, prompting the fear that China will get old before it gets rich; about one to two per cent are Christians; retirement age is 60 for men and 55 for women. Having benefited from 30 years of reform and foreign investment, China appears to be weathering the recession much better than Europe and the USA with economic growth predicted for the next few years. However, it is still a third world economy with much poverty in rural areas – school enrolment, although free there, is just 40 to 70 per cent.
On Sunday 12th July, our team of four flew for nearly three hours to Nanning, capital of Guangxi Zhuang. Then followed a bumpy two and a half-hour ride 100km north to a very green Shanglin. There was evident poverty – some people were walking barefoot. There were motor bikes and bicycles, but very few cars on the road and little sign of public transport. There was not much industry apart from manganese and aluminium extraction and there was also rice, tea and fruit growing. We saw corn drying in the sun and small rice stacks. When we got to the small town of 45,000 inhabitants, we saw Daming Mountains nearby – green to the top. Walking there was a favourite pastime for many of the teachers. On arrival, the education officials gave us a great welcome and a banquet.
The following day began at 8am with ability placement interviews, followed by an opening ceremony. My first lesson was about introductions and so I divided the teachers into pairs and then groups of four to encourage English dialogue.
During our discussion lessons, I discovered that:– a Japanese might be more useful than English, given China's proximity to and major trade dealings with Japan; anxieties included lack of organised care; there were more advantages than disadvantages to the one child policy; people can travel freely; the teachers earned approximately £120 per month; although the teachers would have liked a higher salary, they were aware that, “With money you can buy books, but not knowledge; a clock, but not time; medicine, but not health; a bed, but not sleep.”
I chose certain witty limericks to lighten the lessons and help the class escape from the burdensome chore of endless grammar and new vocabulary. I explained limerick construction and we gathered suitable rhymes to produce a group effort. We had great fun finding similar and different proverbs. Many were similar, for example: “While the tiger is away, the monkey can play”. The teachers loved word games and were good at homophones, antonyms, synonyms and anagrams.
The afternoon sessions were reserved for more relaxed and informal learning. The teachers watched the film Narnia, but the 2009 Springwatch programme would have been more appealing to wildlife enthusiasts. There was a talk on Shakespeare’s plays made accessible in an amusing way and another talk about Beijing and London. More energetic afternoon sessions included rounders, which they had never played before, football and Scottish country dancing. The word games sessions went very well because the Chinese are extremely competitive. It was a sobering thought that these teachers would have to supervise stimulating activities with a group of 60-80 pupils with no assistant to lend a helping hand!
Best of all was the talent show. Some performed a beautiful combined mime and dance which was a thank-you and farewell to us. Others did some very authentic Indian dancing. There was a demonstration of a martial art using a nunchaku (two thick sticks joined together by a chain).
As well as working hard, we did have time to sightsee. The first Friday evening, we enjoyed watching a graceful tea ceremony. The cups were washed with the first brew and we drank the third brew, trying out three teas. Women, but not men, have to hold their little finger out when drinking! Whilst enjoying the relative coolness of the night air under the mango trees, we came across a group of erhu players who warmly invited us to sit down and drink tea whilst they played three pieces for us – one was a horse race and the last a gentle goodnight. On the way back we were accosted by our lovely cook who offered us roasted peanuts.
Being foreign workers, we were expected to register at the police station. The atmosphere was very relaxed and informal. I think we were the only Europeans there in a place rarely, if ever, visited by tourists. Two members of our team had to see the doctor and were given good prompt orthodox treatment – one for a skin rash on the leg and the other for mild shingles. There are no GP surgeries in China. Patients see doctors in the hospital. I learnt that short sight is a common problem – many of the teachers wore glasses.
One of the most impressive aspects of my visit was the unfailing kindness and helpfulness of our hosts. They ate with us, helped us with teaching resource requirements and provided us with a ready and willing translation service at all times. The tradition is to look after guests in a protective way, perhaps a bit smothering for some people.
We had an unexpected extra invitation to stay one night in Nanning after the Friday closing ceremony in Shanglin. The Nanjing officials wanted us to admire their prosperous capital with fine buildings, impressively lit up at night, spacious avenues and park with many tropical trees. Nanjing is very green and sedate – a complete contrast to Shanghai.
The hardest part of my stay was not being able to communicate. I had a wonderful introduction to China, felt very privileged to be able to go there and would like to go back, but when I can say more than ni hao and zai chien’ – a “hello” and ”goodbye”!