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The Best Class

My best English class was one that I didn’t teach. The second semester in Yizhou, I helped the students plan and execute their own lesson plans, and when I gave them the assignment they were terrified. Even though they had almost finished half of their college courses for a major in English Education, they had never actually stood in front of a class to give a lesson.

In groups of four I had them plan a 40 minute lesson based on a chapter from their textbooks. The chapters covered everything from divorce to eating healthy, and they would be required to start class with a warm-up activity, followed by vocabulary and a grammar point leading into an activity involving both. The students were relieved to learn that I would be going over their lesson plans with them before class to try and make sure that they would go smoothly.

The day the first group led class, I think I was more nervous than they were. A few moments before class they told me that not only had they completely changed their lesson plan from what we had discussed, but that they would also be shooting for a full 2-period lesson. With great anxiety, I agreed to the switch; I figured either the class would learn something, or this group of students would learn a valuable lesson about lesson planning.

The activity seemed a bit odd to me, but the class loved it. Each of the four boys in the class was to play the parts of four heroes from the classic, Journey to the West. The remaining students, who were entirely female, were split into groups, and each group was a country looking for a new king. The heroes made their speeches (this was shortly after the Obama campaign, and they tried to imitate his style), the women then discussed who their choice would be, and then posed questions to their prospective kings. Laughter filled the room as did a surprising amount of discussion in English, and the students hardly even noticed that they had missed their 10 minute break between periods.

As the class carried on I pulled the “teachers” out of the room to observe their lesson from a different perspective. Virtually everyone was smiling and was actively engaged in debates over who would be the next king. Then they went down the hall to observe a Chinese teachers lesson. Not to observe the teacher, but to observe the students – roughly 1/3 were sleeping, 1/2 were doing something else (homework, using cell phones, reading a different text book), and the remaining few were actually listening. They had never considered that even though their teachers were covering a lot of material, very little learning was actually going on in the classroom.

After their lesson finished, three of the students who had taught came up to tell me that this day had been a life changing experience. For one girl it was the realization that being a teacher could be meaningful. For another it was simply the feeling of succeeding at something she had thought just a few days earlier would be impossible. The third girl confessed that she had only picked this major because her parents had forced her to, but after finishing her first class, she thought it was something that she was actually good at; which was invaluable for her because she suffered from low self-esteem. Their classmates couldn’t agree more, it was a fantastic lesson.

During my five years in China I had nearly 1,000 students in my classes. while I’d like to think I made a difference in each students life, I know that is overly optimistic. For most, it’s just oral English; a chance to play in the same room as a foreigner (for the majority of my students I was the only foreign teacher they ever had). That day though, I will never forget, because I knew I had actually made a difference. It’s that kind of moment that gives one the drive to keep teaching in China despite the often lackluster planning from deans, the students who refuse to try, the frequent power outages in 100 degree heat (maybe that’s just Guangxi), and everyone and everything you miss at home. It was shortly after that class that I agreed to stay on three more years.

I apologize if there are formatting problems or typos, my VPN is currently refusing to work. I’m very much looking forward to not dealing with such things in the near future.


6 Comments

  1. Casey says:

    I’ve heard you speak of many lessons over the years and this one has always stood out to me because you loved it so much. I’ve been glad to hear the anecdotes have been sure to bring the students’ minds to something other than learning English (and to topics that matter more than grammar class). You’ve helped me to be a better teacher through your stories and you surely helped these students more in comparison. Thanks for sharing with everyone here.

  2. BB says:

    A very inspirational read. I can honestly say that it brought a smile to my face!

  3. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    Reminds me so much of Peter Hessler writing about his teaching experiences in “River Town” – a book which I found so moving and pognant that I have reread it several times.

  4. jlemien says:

    What a wonderful idea. It is great to read about the positive effect you had on their outlooks!

  5. What a great story and experience, Tom. There is nothing better than “experiential learning” and a participatory style really does get student involvement. I bet the students will not forget that good experience either! Great work.

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