Friday, March 12, 2010

Re-evaluating my teaching style

I have been teaching my senior class of English short stories for two weeks now. My expectations for the class were

1. interesting discussions where I would learn about Chinese culture
2. interesting short essays about human behavior, universal and cultural themes that help develop students' critical thinking skills
3. enjoyment of interesting stories from another culture that provide some insight into some different ideas

Instead my expectations are being dashed left and right. I have lost control and the respect of the class. Students spend 20 minutes talking, not doing the writing assignment. The class is loud with discussion, just not in English and discussing other things like their senior thesis. Instead of reading, the students just talk to each other. Instead of coming to class the majority of students don't. I was happy to learn that my class is not the only senior class that has low attendance. The other courses, intensive reading and Russian also have low attendance.

What am I doing wrong?

I was so hoping that the interest in the material and the discussion questions would motivate students to participate and attend classes. Instead I feel that the students aren't connecting with the ideas that I thought would be thought-provoking nor are they interested in the stories I selected. I have always had the theory that the things we learn best are the things that we are interested in. I am getting zero interest from my seniors.

I have taught three stories so far:

1. heartbeat by Sharon Stone
Focus: a family's experience having a baby
Essay Question: Discuss the similarities and differences of having a baby in Chinese culture compared to Annie's (12 year old American girl) perspective. Use concrete and emotional examples.

2. "Miss Bertha Flowers" from Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Birds Sing
Focus: role-models for women
Essay Question: Discuss the cultural and universal characteristics of role models. Use the following ideas in your answer: In the 1920's consider an African American caged girl and a Chinese caged girl. Do the two girls need the same role model?

3. "Scribe" by Kirstin Hunter
Focus: poverty, illiteracy, and doing something new is healthy.
Essay Question: Consider the following statement as it relates to the story and to your life. Use specific examples. "Although most people are inclined to confine themselves to familiar territory, it is healthy for them to break out."

What am I doing wrong?

1. Maybe I picked the wrong stories, uninteresting ones for the students.

I have lived abroad for 4 years now and know that there are cultural differences between us. There are very visible obvious cultural differences, but there are also very subtle ones that I probably still don't really know about nor understand. Maybe my problem is, the things I thought would be interesting since I am an American raised in an American educational system just aren't interesting to Chinese students. Students are always asking about American culture wanting to know more, so I picked stories that tell about American diversity, growing up in America, attitudes toward having a family, and universal themes like marriage, divorce, love, and jealousy but with a western twist to them. Maybe it is hard to connect to such things when the ideas are from a different culture?

For example, when I ask students what are the problems of an African American girl in the 1920's their idea was very textbook. Their one answer is racial discrimination. It was hard for them to push further past those two words. It was hard for them to put on another person's shoes and understand how does racial discrimination actually influence a little girl's identity.

Maybe the chosen themes dealing with human behavior are too big. I enjoy taking surface issues and pushing myself to think about them deeper. Maybe others don't like doing that and just want to read to get the main idea not interested in using the idea as a springboard to question and dig deeper.

Maybe we just aren't interested in the same things. When I ask students what type of music, movies, and books do they like, we are quite different. I like controversy, heavy issues, non-harmonious things, self-reflection. I am not so much into happy endings, cheesy pop, dramatic love stories, stories with morals about how to live and be a better person, or the idea of happy every day.

2. Maybe my teaching style of first giving a short lecture with some background, then reading the story, discussing the story, and ending by writing a short essay is not working for the students.

Maybe I need to do more games, activities, debates, role plays, posters with colorful markers. Last year I taught senior English and American literature. I did not have them write essays. Instead we filled the time with reading, answering fact type of questions, and doing activities. However from that group of seniors I felt an attitude of we are seniors and are tired of all these foreigner activities. We want a class with some substance, with intellectual discussion. We don't want to just practice our oral English and skills of creativity. This motivated me to create a course this semester that was more like a college course in America. Read, discuss, and write. Think for yourself and express your opinion. Is this working? Maybe not.

3. Maybe I am too lenient and need to become a strict teacher motivating the students who have senioritis to participate and learn.

Because I am a university teacher, I don't feel like babysitting. I want the students to take responsibility for their learning. I don't want to force students to do their work, to stop talking, to stop reading their Chinese books that they bring to class. I don't want to be the type of teacher I was in Africa with a bunch of middle school kids. A lot of students are done though, done with school, ready and worried about their next step in life.

I think I would prefer to just take a deep breath, be lenient, be easy going and not be a babysitter.

So what am I doing wrong? I can't really say.

In conclusion, all I can do is keep trying and keep putting in the hours to lesson plan. There are only 8 weeks left for the seniors. Summer will be here in no time.


M said...

try and ask them directly. In my school seniors don't come to class because they're stressed out and looking for jobs (like, literally, it sometimes feel they're going to every single factory in town or elsewhere to drop their resumés)
Maybe you could try and link with non written material (spoken poetry/short stories, films, music?), to keep them interested? and what i do is I focues on the ones who do look like they care.
Bonne chance though!

Dr. Jen said...

Definitely great advice. I was thinking about doing a survey. In the past I have done a lot of surveys coz I was a new teacher in China and didn't really know what the students know or want. Guess I should bring out a survey again.

Read your livejournal. Your title about pineapples and mangoes reminded me of Africa. I was like who in China is writing about Africa.

Aren't freshmen the sweetest students? I had them last semester and have them again this semester. This semester though it is just more impersonal since I have 60 in one class.

M said...

haha I was in Africa (Madagascar) in Winter time and didn't get so many mangoes. You have to agree that ananas sounds funkier than pineapple no? :)

You can even ask them directly, outside of class (got a lot of feedback last semester when students would come and cook at my place, when they were 3 students at a time, no more, or also when I played ping pong with them), I had a feeling they were more talkative and direct face to face outside of class than in surveys who appear very formal to them.

Wow, 60 freshmen at one time is tough ! but you're right, they're the sweetest, I was afraid I wasn't patient enough to deal with kids who want games and candies, but turns out I can skip the candies and make jokes so it's all good.