Stories: Repeat after Me

One of the first things I noticed about the school environment were the sounds of group recitations emanating from the classrooms and echoing down the hallways. The sounds were a bit unnerving to me at first. Their loud volume, rhythmic nature, and incomprehensible (to me) content made them sound a little like religious chanting and added to my initial uncertainty about what I had gotten myself into. Of course, there wasn’t anything religious or mysterious involved – it was just my first glimpse of Chinese primary school education, where much of the learning seems to involve memorization and oral repetition. The kids work very hard and are given a lot to learn: three hours of homework on weeknights and four to six hours on weekends seems to be the norm even for second grade kids. Their school day starts officially at 8AM but most all of them are in their seats at 7AM, reciting or reading materials under the leadership of one of their fellow students.

When I started teaching, I quickly learned the kids were extremely enthusiastic and willing to do whatever you asked of them. If I posed a question and asked for a volunteer to answer it, I usually got 40 hands raised immediately. When called upon, the responder would stand, answer the question, and then sit back down. Often it was hard to hear their answer because many of the other kids would be trying to get me to call on them next by calling out “Me! Me! Teacher John!, Me!” And as soon as a responder sat back down, their hand would often go right back up so they might get another chance. I tried not to call on anyone more than once for a given question but, with so many kids (and without knowing names) it wasn’t always possible.

The combination of enthusiasm and a readiness to repeat things made it pretty easy for a new teacher. The bulk of my lessons consisted of presenting English words or phrases (and/or pictures representing those words) on the large screen at the front of the room and teaching the kids their meaning and how to pronounce them correctly. The images shown came from PowerPoint presentations running on the classroom computer and a large part of my time was spent preparing these presentations. After some initial bumps in communicating what I wanted from the kids, they became adept at participating in my lessons. Sometimes I’d ask the entire class to respond. At other times I’d call on individuals or subsections of the class (e.g. rows 1 and 2 only). Full-class responses were usually very loud but the loudest responses came from class subsections. The kids’ competitive spirit resulted in a deafening response as each sub-section tried to out-yell the others. The kids always loved it when I winced and pulled back in mock fear of being knocked over by their voices.

As I mentioned, there were some initial bumps in communicating with the kids. The first time I asked the second graders … “Can you say cat ?” there was no response at all. This worried me and I quickly repeated loudly “CAT” while using my hands and arms to signal that I wanted them to repeat it after me. This worked great – a loud response of “CAT!” resulted and it felt great to know I had been able to work around the language barrier to establish a teaching method. However, during one of my early classes, I looked up at one point to see a blank screen with the message “Windows is restarting…..” As my entire lesson was based on the computer presentation, a pang of fear hit me as I considered what I was going to do for the next 30 minutes without it. Hoping for help, I looked to the Chinese teacher at the back of the room, raised my eyebrows and said “Ooohhh Boy!” To this, I got a rousing chorus of “Ooooohhh Boy”s from the students. Despite my anxiety at that moment, I just had to laugh.

This kind of problem occurred a few times in the early weeks. I remember sitting in on one of Monica’s lessons. She taught grades 1 and 3 and after she had explained to the class what she wanted them to say, she tried to get them to say it once by stating… “OK, one time!” Of course, what she got was a loud chorus of “OK, One Time!”. On another occasion, when my students repeated something I didn’t want them to, I said “No! No!” while shaking my head and waving both hands in a motion which hopefully conveyed “Stop”. In response, 40 little pairs of hands waved back at me as they shook their heads and repeated loudly “No! No!” At times like these, it became necessary to enlist the help of the Chinese teacher who explained to the kids in Chinese what I was trying to ask of them.

Let me share here one other little story that’s marginally-related to this topic. One of the second grade teachers had asked me to prepare a lesson around the phrase ‘I can’t.” After I had developed my PowerPoint lesson which included slides such as “I can’t touch the sun,” I went to show her what I had. During our discussion she pointed out that my American pronunciation of the word can’t is not the one they teach the kids. Rather, they use the British English pronunciation for the word – which I’ll represent phonetically here as con’t. I was a little surprised to hear this but told her I would try to use the British pronunciation throughout my lesson. Though it felt very odd (and I felt certain that my friends would get a big laugh out of my lousy British accent) I was able to use the British pronunciation throughout the lesson. The only time I made a mistake was when I presented a slide showing a baby biting a cat’s tail. I was supposed to say “I con’t eat a cat!” – what I said was “I con’t eat a cot!” Later, I learned that the teacher was wrong about the notion that only the British pronunciation was taught – other teachers were using the American pronunciation. Still it was kind of fun to pretend I was from a different English-speaking country for a while 🙂

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