self portrait 2018


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On Teaching: Classroom Code

On Teaching: Classroom Code

Teaching is heaviest from October until mid-January. Besides summer classes. This is the longest uninterrupted period of actual classroom instruction. I am far from obsessed with the job but I serious about making sure progress is made...but not simply with the students' English. 

There is a hierarchy of learning. It is ordered like this:



English learning


This is very simple and should be easy to follow but I make sure to emphasize that English is NOT the most important thing in the world. Oftentimes in China, such a great emphasis is placed on grades that students are made to think that they can get away with any type of bad behavior, peer abuse, and thoughtlessness as long as their grades are great. Unfortunately students have a period of adjustment when they come into my class. That is never fun but the learn. The key to my reputation in Yichang is due to my standards, which I stick to.



Safety in the classroom seems like something so obvious that it is not worth mentioning. Rookie mistake. Not only is safety emphasized. But the kids know that all else revolves around safety.

Children push, spill beverages, sneeze on each other, wipe their snot on things, get into fights over hurt feelings, let their excitement get the best of them, knock things over, run like the wind, etc. They have to learn not to do this. Moreno, they have to be caught doing it to know at that moment that they are being watched.  As much I personally want to see children express their carefreeness, carefreeness quickly becomes carelessness. School is about replacing uninhibited-ness with mindfulness. The unadulterated child learns that there are people and things around them. We cannot break things around us because other people need to use them. Spilling water on the floor needs to be cleaned up because someone might slip. Better yet, let's avoid the situation by not drinking in the classroom. Also, let's get in the habit of not running around the classroom. You cannot sneeze openly because we need to be considerate of those around us. This is all basic social behavior.

We need to move around. We need to drink water. We need to change partners. We need to dance. We need to have a physical element to class because sitting down all the time gets tiresome. But in everything we do we do with an element of controlled movement and learn self-control.



There are a couple of concerns that spring up with manners.


Some students, who are high achieving, may have little patience for slower students. This is a serious problem. They are so eager to show their teacher that they know something that they forget that the teacher is thinking of teaching a class and not an individual. They will be quick to shout out the answers as I am trying to coax a response from a student who is just a little slower than they are. By shouting out the answer, the student is sabotaging an important part in the teaching process. Sometimes it is useful to have a student speak out so the class has a chance to digest input from a peer for a change instead of from the teacher. This is useful when I want to class to recall something during a warm-up review. But being patient is more than just a skill, it is a value. The slower student is no longer thinking. He is just reciting what someone wants them to say. 

English learning cannot happen when classmates are not polite enough to patiently listen to one another. The faster students have to develop the teacherly habit of allowing others enough room to think. Sometimes that requires more time. This is a value that goes beyond English learning.  I make the class aware of this and this kind of encouragement takes....patience from the teacher. But once they grasp the value, the students are much more cooperative with one another. The initial effort pays off and the classroom dynamic can be pretty amazing.


I have gotten to the root of the myth that Chinese students are shy. They are not shy for any reason other than the way they are treated. If for every time I spoke out I could expect my classmates to laugh at me, I would feel humiliated and timid. Students can be so cruel to one another and the teacher needs to step in and defend students as explore new ideas and new abilities. The teacher is the classroom leader and is the one to emphasis what kind of behavior is permitted. That is why, I stop class and single out the students who made their classmate feel bad for having an unusual speech pattern or mispronounce a word. It infuriates me when the student teasing another is the one who is incorrect. Importantly, how I single out that student can make or break the class.

I tell the students to use a cheer of encouragement "加油" if they absolutely must say something that doesn't beat down their classmate--and doesn't beat them down as well. 

A classroom should be a place to safely make mistakes. But what I find is that students are hesitant with the concept of trial and error. We are here t think and figure things out. Deductive reasoning requires eliminating wrong answers to determine the remaining right ones. Creativity is a process of seeing what works through experiencing them, not memorizing what you are told. This can happen when the attitude in class is positive. The students are ready to learn.



One English teacher cannot be everything to all students. Taken further, I would go on to say that one English teacher cannot be all things to even one student. By this, I mean that a student needs input from a variety of sources both in living form and in textbook form and in media. They also must have the opportunity to test out their English ability onto the world around them. One teacher cannot do that. One class cannot do that. But we all work within limitations and we must do our best to make use of our resources. A teacher must be consistent so that students can pick up on patters but must also be varied enough so that the lessons are challenging in comprehensible ways. 

I have boiled my language in the classroom to form common instructions to go along with most activities. They become almost mantra-like for their frequency during class:

look at the picture; tell me the story

listen and read; listen and talk

how do you say ... in English?

How do you say ... in Chinese?

Don't read it; say it.

Now ask me a question.


The power dynamic of the class determines how much the students actually talk. If the classroom has an air of authoritarianism, where the students strictly follow the teachers instruction or face punishment, then the students will not talk. If the students are free to do what they want at their own pace, then they will have little ability to talk. But if the classroom satisfies the three areas of the classroom code--safety, manners, English learning--then they are ready to have fun. I trust they can move around safety. I know they will be respectful towards each other. I know they can make use of the English that they have learned and so why not take it beyond the book and play with it a little?

Funny Names

Having fun can simply mean the type of relationship the teacher has with the students. I have enjoyed giving students funny names.

Lily = Lily Monster

Tom = Tom mu gua (木瓜)Tom papaya

Emma = Hema (河马)hippopotamus 

Mo = Ma Pa dofu (马趴豆腐) hot and spicy tofu

Tony = Tuo Niao (驼鸟)ostrich

Wendy = Wendy-day

Annie = Ai Ni (爱你)love you

Tina = T Nai Nai (奶奶)grandma

Tank and Frank = Tank you and Frank You (Luckily they are still too young to make that into an expletive).

Lucy =Chang Jing Lu (长颈鹿)giraffe

Cici = CCTV China Central Television

Charlie =  (巧克力)Chocolate

All of these wordplays are strange associations that are made possible by the flexibility in Chinese for puns and homonyms. This is probably why I love the Chinese language so much. All language learners find great humor making eccentric connections between their native language and the target language. The children never tire of it.

Blending games with memory

I have devised an interesting way to review vocabulary. Bouncing a balloon 6 times on your hand before catching it seems easy enough. For students who spend most of their day in a chair during the week and on weekends, this alone is a fun challenge. Add to that, reciting from memory the 6 vocabulary words from the lesson and the challenge becomes much harder. The students are enthusiastic and many skills are practiced at once. 

Student Led Games

The classic game "Simon Says..." because  classroom staple for warming up ever since we had lessons on body parts. We just changed the game to "Teacher Says..." I have grown tired of long before they have as they are increasingly difficult to fool. I have had a student play the role of teacher and have let them play without me. Sometimes I play along as a student and let myself fail. They love to see that they can trick the teacher. 

I am often shocked that students cannot reply to a question like:

How are you?

But i know that students have learned to expect to hear that question at the start of class. They are used o and are only responding to a question at the start of the lesson, and not the words and the meaning of the words. If students fail into familiar habits then when a situation is slightly unfamiliar they become flustered and cannot form a simple reply. In other words, they are not learning to really listen.


Recently we have practiced grammar that includes possessive pronouns (his, her its) as well as third person singular (he likes, she likes) (don't like, doesn't like) (What does he, what do you). These important differences in sentence formation are really challenging for Chinese students. We practice a lot with many examples and lots of book work. When it is time to speak in the short dialogs, I have them stand up in pairs. Once I catch a mistake, I immediately make them sit down. I do not want to give them lots of time to fumble around and take time to figure our how to say it right. I want them to follow the examples during the instruction, formulate the sentence in the book work practice, and say it once, correctly.  I also want them to listen to each other say it wrong so to avoid making a mistake once it is their turn. 

During this kind of activity, I take advantage of them noticing my beard. I blame them for the speckles of white hairs that I have found on my chin. They say that it looks as if I have brushed my teeth and have forgotten to wipe off my face.  When they get the grammar wrong in the sentence I recoil and tell them that they are paining me physically and causing my beard to go white. They giggle. When students finally get the sentence right, I thank them for making my beard go black again. Of course there are a couple students, one ironically named Angel, who likes to give an over to top wrong answer, just to be funny. I howl that she is now making me go bald. 

We can do this because they deserve to have fun once they show me that they are really working hard at English. Play is a reward to children and we should be able to mix learning with play.

They come to attend class in the evenings at 7:00PM. They go home after 8 o'clock to finish their school homework and go to bed. They are only ten years old. Studying is really important to them. They don't watch much TV.

Breakfast on the Go

Night out with Vivi: Camera Makes Three