Early this morning we met Laurie Mackenzie, a retired Canadian professor, outside the post office in Yangshou. He picked us up in a vehicle he called a something Walleye to take us to the countryside where we were going to spend a few hours teaching English to elementary schoolchildren. As we sped through rice paddies, orange groves, and mystical karst formations, he explained that he and his wife moved to China four years ago from Winnipeg. They started VET-China (Volunteer English Teachers in China) to provide financial and instructional assistance to rural schools in the region. While in theory the government here is supposed to fund education, there are still expenses to be borne by the parents, and few rural children can afford to attend beyond the 6th grade. The Mackenzies’ primary objective is to give these children sufficient verbal skills in English that they can come to the city and work in the tourist trade. This in an admirable goal, and even more so, since Laurie is in his ’80’s!
Through a miscommunication with the driver, we ended up at the top-performing school under VET-China’s jurisdiction, rather than the lowest, as Laurie had intended. Even so, the facilities were primitive and the materials minimal. It was clear, however, that despite these limitations the children here were loved and well taught. There was an able staff on hand and we spent a nice hour or so with the principal, a warm, well-dressed young man named Tony. Tony’s English skills were limited, and Laurie explained that even the school’s English teacher cannot speak the language. Read and write, yes, but speak, no…a limitation that makes competency for the kids difficult to achieve.
We split up into two groups and agreed to teach two shifts each. Tom, Asher, and McKane spent the first period with the fifth graders, while Dax, Kieran, and I spent it with the third graders. Though they only began studying English this academic year, my students could sing the alphabet, “Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes,” and a few other songs that had to do with sitting, standing, doors, and windows. They knew colors, numbers up to 12, how to introduce themselves, and a smattering of foods and animals. I was impressed. These are kids who rarely have clean clothes, regularly work in the fields, and have limited academic support at home, and they could blow away any American kid their age who might be lucky enough to be learning a second language.
Much of this ability results from traditional Chinese teaching methods, namely drill and memorization. Teachers speak and children repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat, until finally they master a skill. This works well when you have months to teach, but I had only 45 minutes. Each time I said something the children would repeat it, when what I really wanted was to ask them questions and solicit responses. If I started reciting the alphabet, they would burst into their memorized song. If I cupped my hand behind my ear to indicate I wanted to hear them say a word, they would shout “ear,” a body part which is easy for them to name.
The 6th graders greeted us by singing “You Are My Sunshine” in perfect English. They knew everything the third graders did plus numbers up to 100, many exotic animals, including kangaroos and zebras, and polite conversational sentences. “I am fine, how are you?” “I am very happy to meet you.” As seems to be true for most Chinese, they were most concerned with what Asher had to say. She was eager to use the Sesame Street flashcards Laurie had given us and kept drilling the kids on clothing, foods, and animals. When she held up the card showing pants, the students response was different than she anticipated. It was probably something like trousers. She chided in a the flattest Wisconsin accent possible (a mystery since she’s never been to Wisconsin) “paaaaants.” Her students repeated in the same drawn out fashion, “paaaaants.”
All 4 kids did an admirable job of participating in the lessons, even teaching under Tom’s direction. Kieran wasn’t sure why the 4th graders insisted on grabbing him and playing with him like a toy but he was generous enough to keep quiet and endure their affection.
It was wonderful to get this opportunity yet at the same time a little strange. We were relatively wealthy Americans teaching our language to poor Chinese students under faded pictures of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Mao and oddly Sun Yat Sen. We have come to expect contradictions here and have simply added this one to the list. Perhaps we’ll examine this one in greater depth once we’ve moved farther south.