Most of my students try very, very hard to follow proper decorum. Unfortunately, what they believe is flattering and proper is often different from what I find flattering and proper. An example: my male graduate students standing up in class to announce that they find their foreign teacher “so beautiful and white” or writing in their homework about their “sexy teacher.” I’ve started cringing at the word “beautiful”—it’s lost its meaning because so many students, hoping to make a good impression, want to tell me how the class all agrees that I am beautiful.
Sometimes I get frustrated with my students. They tell me that they love me and then play on their phones for every class, in its entirety. They regularly show up without paper or pencil but won’t ask to borrow any until I’ve noticed that after 10 minutes, they still aren’t writing. I assign them to keep a diary for a week, and they all hand in the exact same diary, which I later found online (with the exception of one student who handed in the first paragraph of the Harvard Wikipedia page). One class refused to complete an essay assignment—“List two weaknesses and three strengths that you have”—because “it is more harmonious.”
Sometimes I get very frustrated with my students. They disappear for a semester but call me every day for a week to take the final exam. They show up at my house and ask for better grades because they “love me.” Sometimes they bring friends to speak for them. Sometimes I don’t understand why my students think their behavior is acceptable; the lack of homework, the lack of effort, the plagiarism, sleeping in class over and over, etc.
My graduate students are all in their first year. My students did not choose their college or major. They had to spend their high school time inside studying, memorizing enormous amounts of facts. Many are from small farming villages, the first in their family to attend college, strapped for money, under enormous pressure to get married very soon. Their majors are Clinical and Preventive Veterinary Medicine, Botany, Ecology, Biology, Food Science, Agricultural Development and Rural Planning and Grassland Science. They have been studying written English for many years but most have never had a class that required them to speak. Most have never met a native English speaker (or any foreigner), and often their previous English classes were taught almost completely in Chinese.
Passing my Spoken English class is required for their degree, along with a standardized English test. The test is unrelated to my class and students who cannot speak simple sentences pass this test regularly. They are required to memorize and use incorrect grammar and phrases (and textbooks) to pass this test and their other English classes, otherwise they cannot move on to a career studying plants.
Early in the year, the big question popped up. How on earth can I give this class a purpose? Many of my students will not speak more than 5 sentences of English after my class; most of them have trouble speaking 5 sentences out loud now.
The semester exam was a 5-minute conversation with me, either individually or with a partner. To my surprise, almost every grad student wanted an individual conversation. Some of them gave me monologues about the Chinese Spring Festival, but some of them went a little deeper. They talked about stress, and feeling like they had no support. They talked about the pressure of having to be married in the next two years (which require a house, a car and a good job) and supporting their parents. They talked about being too busy in school, missing their homes and family. One student who I thought had next to no English poured out how heartbroken he was over learning another girl in our class had a boyfriend in another school.
I decided, like a total Obie, that I wanted to make my class into a safe space for students. It’s a common frustration among the foreign teachers that often the students are very repetitive. They take special care to make all their responses exactly the same, especially for subjective questions (I’d guess because their English learning heretofore has focused on tests that have distinct right and wrong answers.) Every essay, no matter how specific or weird I make the prompt, deals with one of two topics: 1. How much they love their families, or 2. How they are to work hard and improve themselves. Whatever my topic or question, nearly every essay somehow winds it’s way to these topics.
I’ve been very surprised at the depth of feeling my students are willing to share with me in their exam conversations. Being less than happy in front of other people, particularly getting angry can be a huge loss of face in China. I have definitely lost some face by showing frustration.
The lesson that I feel was most successful was the poetry lesson. I’d had my students read and watch a slam poem for homework.
Homework: Choose one of the following 4 poems:
What Teachers Make, by Taylor Mali
Dive, by Andrea Gibson
If I Should Have a Daughter, by Sarah Kay
Hurling Crowbirds at Mockingbars, by Buddy Wakefield
Read the words and watch a video of your poem (provided by Veronica). What is this poem about? Do you like the poem (why/why not)? How does the author feel about his/her subject? It is okay if you do not understand the entire poem.
When they arrived in class, we talked about what the poems meant, what the students liked/disliked/didn’t understand. I asked them to find the person in the class they knew the least and sit next to that person (by this time I knew which students were friends and who never spoke.) I passed out a set of questions and asked my students to answer 15 of the questions with their partners. The most important aspect was honesty; I was hoping that enough of my students would truly want to answer and share, since so many of them seemed to have serious things that they rarely shared with others.
Given the choice of anyone in the world, whom would you want as a dinner guest?
Would you like to be famous? In what way?
Before making a telephone call, do you ever rehearse what you are going to say? Why?
What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
If you were able to live to the age of 90 and retain either the mind or body of a 30-year-old for the last 60 years of your life, which would you want?
Do you have a secret hunch about how you will die?
For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
If you could change anything about the way you were raised, what would it be?
Take four minutes and tell your partner your life story in as much detail as possible.
If you could wake up tomorrow having gained any one quality or ability, what would it be?
If a crystal ball could tell you the truth about yourself, your life, the future, or anything else, what would you want to know?
Is there something that you’ve dreamed of doing for a long time? Why haven’t you done it?
What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
What do you value most in a friendship?
What is your most treasured memory?
What is your most terrible memory?
If you knew that in one year you would die suddenly, would you change anything about the way you are now living? Why?
What does friendship mean to you?
What roles do love and affection play in your life?
How close is your family? Do you feel your childhood was happier than most other people’s?
How do you feel about your relationship with your mother?
Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share…”
If you were going to become a close friend with your partner, please share what would be important for him or her to know.
Tell your partner what you like about them; be very honest this time saying things that you might not say to someone you’ve just met.
Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
When did you last cry in front of another person? By yourself?
What, if anything, is too serious to be joked about?
If you were to die this evening with no opportunity to communicate with anyone, what would you most regret not having told someone? Why haven’t you told them yet?
Your house, containing everything you own, catches fire. After saving your loved ones and pets, you have time to safely make a final dash to save any one item. What would it be? Why?
Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?
Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it.
This set of questions, for the record, is from a study on how people form close relationships (Arthur Aron, The Experimental Generation of Interpersonal Closeness, 1997). I can’t tell you about the science, but I thought the idea was interesting: is it possible to make close relationships form in a fast and formulaic way. The questions are divided into different sections based on how personal each question is. My students love talking in pairs, and I love seeing their energy when they’re having fun. They started out with vim and vigor although not completely in English, an unavoidable hazard of a non-lecture class. After they had clearly blazed through Part 1, their conversations changed. Each student was listening more intently, solemnly to his/her partner explain. Their voices got a little softer, their cadence more forceful.
I wrote up four questions on the board, for my students to ponder silently when they finished:
What’s the biggest disappointment you’ve experienced so far?
What’s your honest opinion of yourself? Have you shared this opinion with anyone?
What do you want more than anything else in life?
What are your three best qualities?
The class waited in silence for further directions. This is of course, highly unusual in any classroom, so I hoped the silence meant people were having some feelings. I wrote on the board for the students to write a poem—“Your poem must be honest and about yourself. Do not talk about nature and do not write any moral lessons. Try to be as specific as you can.”
As a class we’d agreed that many people find poetry a good way to deal with messy or difficult situations more elegantly. My students have a tendency to write grandiose statements—“I hope everyone in the world will be happy every day!” “We must all work hard to achieve our dreams!” “I will never give up and will work harder to improve!” Their prose is flowery and uses many comparisons to spring, snow, rain, mountains, birds and ants, but I wanted my students to talk about something important.
That class was the longest amount of time that my students have ever voluntarily stayed silent. I can’t tell you whether I affected them or if my class was to them what I hoped. I did, however, get what I wanted for myself from that lesson—my students wrote incredible poems. I felt like I was hearing my students for the first time. They wrote down their actual thoughts and feelings, instead of what they thought I wanted to hear. I was surprised at what they were willing to share with me. Even if that lesson was no big deal to my students, I got schooled that day.
Here are some examples of what my students wrote.
When you love someone,
You will feel loneliness.
Whatever what I do,
You don’t pay attention to me
Whatever what I said
You don’t respond.
Whatever what I think
You will love me.
When I see you,
I will make a vow, you will be health.
When I think you,
I will dream you can understand me.
When I meet you,
I will smile, you are my angel.
I honestly think I accomplished nothing
I honestly at sea
I do consider I’m getting old
I can’t see tomorrow
I don’t know what I can do
Maybe I am only ordinary
Genuine, self-confident, and contemptible
This is me
Sometimes I believe that I can rule the world
Sometimes I find that I can just wash the dishes
Alice: Silence is Golden
The wind at night is cold and cold
Now I am looking back on the past alone
In the past I was filled with anger
False accusations and blame made me unable to calm down
The reaction to the rumors was quite intense
I have understood thoroughly and no longer self-trapped
No longer so stupid like the past
Wiping tears and smiling to go
The mistake can never be right, and the truth is the truth forever.
Whatever you say, I will be dutiful all the way
Always believe that silence is golden
Will: I Wanna Be a Billionaire (inspired by the Bruno Mars’ song “Billionaire”)
If Baby Jesus gives me a choice
I wanna be a billionaire
which is so wonderful
and changes my life radically.
If I am a billionaire
I will travel to Hawaii with my parents
unlike now they still work hard for the family
without enjoying life.
I will buy the coolest Ferrari
to flaunt in front of the dudes
to cover their flames for revenge.
If I am a billionaire
I will help my friends
so that I will never be powerless
when facing their desires.
You should have refused me
Don’t let me chase you
I’m just an interlude for you
Why don’t you tell me?
Now I am deep in love with you
This feeling becomes a habit.
I know it’s impossible
But I can’t escape from your world.
Amanda M: My Mother
When I grow up
You are old
You used your youth to water my future
But the years of time gray your head
On the way of growth
Others only care about whether or not I fly high
But you care for me whether or not I tried
You used your youth to sow sunshine around me
I’ll use my future to shield you from the rain.
There are many romantic things.
However in my present life
the most romantic is to meet with you.
The most beautiful encounter of me is you
I had imagined many times meeting you in dreams
I had imagined countless enjoying this life with you
Even if beauty lives in a instant and moments
the moment is good enough for me.
Teresa: I’m Not Yours
the grass cuts a striking figure
You stood opposite me
looked at my eyes with shyness
all trees grow vigorously
You sat beside me
held my hand
eyes were full of heat
Autumn wind blowing
all around is golden yellow
I’m on your back
relying on your shoulders
eyes filled with joy but slightly sad
The wind fluttering
you stood in front of me
looked at my eyes
filled with frustration and reluctance
I will remember your good.
Mike: Life is Not Easy
Time flies like an arrow
my mood is very depressed
Life is not easy
In addition go to class
and surf the Internet in library.
I don’t know what to do
I feel those things have no meaning
I have classes only as a task.
I hate it.
I even doubt the meaning of life
Like a plane without engine.
I more hope someone can understand me
Life is not easy.
I crawl like an animal
but I don’t know where to go.
Life is not easy.
I want to sleep quietly
wake up when the world has changed.
I can’t breathe
my best friend
the boy I have loved for three years
he never knew
now he is get married
I do not say “I love you”
I give him a blessing
I wish him happiness in my heart
I continue to search for what I really want
A love that is truly mine
I got three full marks in my childhood
I was so excited to share happiness with my father,
because he promise to buy roller skates for me
but to my surprise
he said there was nothing
he didn’t want to buy them for me.
Yes, he didn’t.
I felt sad.
Yes, and so disappointed.
I don’t want to be this when I become a father,
I can feel the disappointed mood of the child,
Even though my father loves me so much,
he does lots for me, and he is a good father,
but I want to do more.
I want to be a good father who can feel the mood of a child.
Charles: Sincere Heart
We got to know each other,
Just on face to face knowing,
Pass from person to person,
How many times I look back,
to be encouraging.
How many times speaking insincerely,
Make my heart hurt,
Joke in others’ eyes,
In my heart
there is a sweet fragrant,
I live in
my created happiness and yearning,
Make yourself strong.
We flew out in a circle,
Go to another circle,
we are acquainted with each other,
Regardless of your left and right,
Regardless of my front and back.
Heart not changed by things,
Heart not moved by feelings,
to be the rock in each other’s heart,
in the heart
is true love forever.
James (from a later class when we revisited “no nature” and “no moralizing”)
Oh dear teacher,
I am going crazy!
I write three poems but you say they are not okay.
This is my true feeling.
It is okay?
I hope you like.
Nikita: I have to accept
I know I dislike my major
I know I want to go away and look for my dream
But I cannot
Because my parents are proud of my marks
Because my family needs me with a good job in years later
I have to accept
I have to learn knowledge and have classes everyday
which are not my interest.
I have to do it well and have a good performance
In this way I will have a good education.
Others maybe admire it very much
But in my eye
It is a paper, just a paper
In my dream
I always have a bad and buy a train ticket
Go to the place that I want to go
Enjoy the scenery, listen others’ life stories
And make money by myself
Maybe it is hard
But I am really very happy
When the sun rise
It is just like yesterday
After my confusion, my complain, my cry
I know I have to accept.
Winner: Love Letter
One year ago
The distance between us is a time zone
You are at 7 o’clock
I am at 8 o’clock
Five months ago
The distance between us is a seat
You sit on my left
The distance between us is a second
I try to look for topics
You reply me in a second
We are getting closer
the distance has been:
You see I write a love letter
But you don’t know it is for you.