Teaching

I learned something

A peaceful oasis in the midst of the traffic, noise, and rapidly-rising skyscrapers of the center city: a small park that I found by accident, and a much-needed place for some contemplation.

 

Eating and talking at the same time

The great thing about teaching is that you are continually learning new things. For example, as a Chinese learner I’m continually reminded of the difficulties that my own students face in their process of learning English. I was eating lunch today – stir-fried rice with shredded pork and green pepper – after a much-needed massage to relieve some of the pain in my upper back and neck. A lady joined me at my table, as the place was full, and proceeded to chat with me. I realized later that I probably knew about 20 – 30% of the Chinese words she used – enough to catch the general meaning – but that I was used to seeing them in a textbook, or hearing them come out of my teacher’s mouth, and not a stranger’s. I “knew” the words, but hadn’t transferred them into the frontal whatchamacallit of my brain, the place where easily-accessible and ready-to-use words and expressions are stored. Yes, there’s “deep” storage and “right now” storage for language. Plus, my affect was in the way: that’s your resistance or discomfort or just plain panic at being talked to by a stranger. My initial reaction is “I’m not ready for this; it’s too real!” I survived.

Get over yourself! Just do it! I couldn’t take my own advice that I dish out to my students.

Moments of clarity

Like many of the best-laid plans, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Like I said, though, I’m always learning in this job.

I love partner conversation activities, especially information-gap exercises like Partner Dictation. Briefly, each partner gets a sheet of paper with part of a conversation, which is exactly what the other partner needs to fill his “gaps.” Plus, the activity forces the student to use all four skills: reading, speaking, listening, and writing. I’ll try to post a couple of examples here soon. You can use such exercises to practice asking for and giving directions, doing shopping role plays, or practically anything.

Then it was time to plan activities for Telephone English. I thought, what better way to practice phone English than on the phone? Like, duh! I mean, who doesn’t have a cell phone in China? I put together some really bitchin’ info-gap activities for phone role plays, then passed out the papers in class. I pointed out the line where each student was to write his/her own cell phone number, so that their mystery partner could actually call them. On the phone. In class. It had worked in one previous class, then I decided to use it in my class full of university teachers who plan to study abroad. I passed out the papers, with phone numbers, and said, “OK, everyone, now call for information!” I got puzzled looks. “On the phone?” someone said. “What about the cost?” Then it hit me: these students were mostly from other Chinese cities, which meant that any call incurred long-distance charges. Their classroom activity would be expensive. “You didn’t think of that, did you?” the other (smarter) part of my brain asked. All was not lost: The partners simply sat together and had pantomime “phone” conversations. When all else fails, wing it.  Click here to view/download the activities I used.

The path often takes many turns, but they usually lead you someplace interesting:  a metaphor for teaching

Get to the [power] point, already!

I’ve used PowerPoint since I started teaching in China in 2006. Back when I was teaching the same lesson to 7 classes of 50 students a week, it was worth my while to spend an entire Sunday afternoon putting together that week’s PPT, which could conveniently be plugged into the classroom computers. The technology only let me down once, when I installed the new Powerpoint 2007 on my home computer, not realizing that the classroom computers all had antiquated versions of the software. The result: the PPT wouldn’t even open, leaving me to write – from memory – a long and complicated lesson by hand on the chalkboard. Boy, was my hand tired.

Those limitations are history now, and I’m using the new PowerPoint 2010, Chinese version. It’s fairly user-friendly; virtually every command is a picture or a symbol, so I can continue to put off learning to read Chinese.

My new burst of creativity started when I had to put together materials for a couple of young students (10 and 13), and visuals were an obvious choice, since I have to keep them awake on a Friday evening after they’ve finished a whole school week. I found out that I could use PPTs for reading practice, not just for pretty pictures [more on this later].

Since I also “collect” graphics related to theater and opera, I thought: why not put together a presentation using animations, using all those cool graphics of set designs and theater curtains? I scoped out some online tutorials, but in my technologically-challenged state, each solution posed yet more problems. I began at Tom Kuhlman’s site The Rapid E-Learning Blog for help with animations in Powerpoint. From there I cruised over to Presentation Magazine to download some free animated slides.

My “A Night at the Opera” PPT completed, I now had to figure out a way to share it via my blog. From iSpring Free I was able to download a PowerPoint to Flash converter. I could now convert a PPT into a Shockwave Flash video, playable in my WordPress-powered blog. Of course, this wasn’t the end. After much frustration (and swearing), I realized that I couldn’t just stick my newly-created masterpiece into a blog post. Thanks to Walker News, I learned How to Embed SWF in HTML Code or WordPress Post. Whew!

You can see my results here. This has opened up new worlds of possibilities for me: PPTs on A Visit to the Zoo, or A Shopping Spree. Don’t be surprised if you see a new SWF video from me in the next couple of weeks on my travels last summer through Tibet, Nepal, and India.

 Coming soon! (Maybe)

I hope to add a new page to my blog [see trial version here] that features teaching materials: PowerPoints, class handouts, and illustrations. I’ve been thinking of developing my own teaching materials for a long time, but my busy schedule at the moment won’t permit it. Stay tuned for more news.



a series of images

Old tree, 水井坊 Shuijingfang area, Chengdu

 

“Life isn’t some vertical or horizontal line.  You have your own interior world, and it’s not neat.  Therefore the importance and the beauty of music, sound, noise.  When you go outside and you’re hearing…hundreds of different sounds…all of these things are potentially beautiful.”

Patti Smith, in A Dream of Life

It’s been  while since I posted anything.  It isn’t just being busy – I am, with my schedule so spread-out that I have classes six days a week – but I’ve felt that I had nothing to say.  Other people seem to have quite a lot to say; I’ve spent some time reading a few excellent teaching blogs, and some well-written and perceptive film blogs.

The past couple of weeks have produced some indelible images.  First, there was the horrifying footage of the tsunami that devastated Japan’s coastal areas and swept away entire communities.  The online videos of buildings, cars, and people’s lives being carried away by surging waters left me dumbstruck.  Then, there were the continuing images of damaged nuclear power plants, unleashing a manmade, not natural, devastation upon the world.

I was tremendously encouraged by the images of the pro-worker uprising in Madison, Wisconsin, USA.  Increasingly marginalized by totalitarian corporate rulers, people are finally responding with a mass, democratic movement.  In spite of our government’s double-speak of “spreading democracy” via warfare and state-sponsored terror, the people taking to the streets are showing what democracy is really about.

In a quieter, more contemplative vein, I’ve watched several films lately that have stayed with me as a series of mental images.

Patti Smith – A Dream of Life [2008]

Patti Smith – A Dream of Life is a 2008 documentary, a collaborative effort by Smith and director Steven Sebring that was supposedly 12 years in the making.  There are a lot of moving images – grainy shots from moving trains, views through car windows – as well as the thoughts of a truly remarkable and very intelligent artist.  I’d seen the film before, but watched it again a couple of nights ago on a whim.  The above image of signposts made me think of signals, progress, turning points in my life.  In terms of language, signposting means giving verbal and physical cues to help your audience follow your train of thought, and to point to where you’re going next.  Sometimes we want to see signals, but they’re simply not there.   Maybe that’s why I look at so many movies: to see something of myself reflected in them, to give my interior life some shape or recognizable form.

Jean-Luc Godard, Film socialisme [2010]

Jean-Luc Godard’s Film socialisme [2010] is a confounding film, filled with exquisite images, symbolism, and (to me) mixed messages.  The image that stays with me is an exquisitely-framed shot of a reporter standing against a textured, sky-blue wall, the constantly-rotating shadow of a windmill animating the scene and creating a kind of dark aura around her.  It’s an amazing sequence.

Other films that made an impression on me were Des hommes et des dieux [Of Gods and Men, 2010] directed by Xavier Beauvois, and Mike Leigh’s Another Year [2010].    One last very Zen-like sentiment occurs in the Patti Smith documentary where she visits the grave of Beat poet Gregory Corso in Rome.  Tapping into the “river of existence” or cyclic imagery that occurs often in Buddhism, Corso’s epitaph for himself reads

Spirit
is Life
It flows thru
the death of me
endlessly
like a river
unafraid
of becoming
the sea

 

Patti Smith – A Dream of Life [2008]

Sarnath

sarnath-ancient-excavations-3

Excavations of early temple structures at Sarnath, 13 km outside Varanasi

 

The First Turning of the Wheel of the Dharma

The Buddha began his first sermon by revealing the Middle Way between self-indulgence and asceticism:

Monks, these two extremes should not be followed by one who has gone forth into homelessness. What two? The pursuit of sensual happiness in sensual pleasures, which is low, vulgar, the way of worldlings, ignoble, unbeneficial; and the pursuit of self-mortification, which is painful, ignoble, unbeneficial. Without veering towards either of these extremes, the Tathagata has awakened to the middle way, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana.

And what, monks, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata, which gives rise to vision… which leads to Nibbana? It is this Noble Eightfold Path; that is, right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. This, monks, is that middle way awakened to by the Tathagata, which gives rise to vision, which gives rise to knowledge, which leads to peace, to direct knowledge, to enlightenment, to Nibbana. (The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, p. 1844)

http://nichirenscoffeehouse.net/Ryuei/4NobleTruths.html

 

 

sarnath-dhamek-stupa-sm

The Dhamek Stupa, c. 500 CE, said to mark the spot of the deer park where the Buddha gave his first sermon.

 

 

 

sarnath-mulagandhakuti-vihara-buddhist-temple

Mulagandhakuti Vihara, Buddhist temple at Sarnath, where a coffer contains relics of the Buddha

 

 

 

sarnath-bodhi-tree

Bodhi Tree at Sarnath, grown from a cutting of the Bodhi Tree at Bodh Gaya.

 

 

 

sarnath-my-driver-and-guide-manoj

My driver and guide to Sarnath, Manoj. He was a student of Ayurvedic Medicine at Banaras Hindu University, Varanasi, and drove a cab in the summer. At the end of the tour he turned around and asked, “Are you happy?” Yes, I was.

 

 

My visit to Sarnath, site of the Deer Park (you can still see deer there) where Buddha delivered his first sermon to five monks, was short but sweet. My stomach had felt queasy that morning, so after a bland breakfast of idli and dal I hopped in an autorickshaw with my guide for the morning, Manoj. The ride was cool, but after entering the park the sunlight was relentless and dizzying, the heat intense. Add the ever-present “guides” that hound you every step of the way, and I wilted under the pressure.

Still, it was a moving experience. I closed my eyes, listened to the whispering breeze, imagined serene deer and green, cool grass, and felt quiet inside for the first time since coming to Varanasi. The visit lasted about 2 hours at most. I didn’t see the site’s most famous artifact, the Lion Capital of Ashoka, because the Archaeological Museum was closed that day, but I did see the massive and imposing stupa built over the supposed spot where Buddha had delivered that first teaching so long ago.

My mildly upset stomach would later become heat exhaustion and major intestinal trauma. What was left of my final day in Varanasi would mostly be spent looking up at the ceiling fan in my hotel room.

on teaching in China

 

 

I recently completed an email “interview” with John Bardos of http://www.jetsetcitizen.com/, about my experience as an English teacher in China.  I thought I’d share a copy of my responses to his questions:

How long have you been teaching English in China?

I’m now in my 4th year in Chengdu, Sichuan.

How did you find your first teaching job?

I found my first teaching job in China on the internet, through AbroadChina.org.  I also spent two years doing research about China and about teaching abroad, reading forums such as those on Dave’s ESL Café, and finding all the information I could about various cities and universities.

How easy is it to find teaching jobs?

One of the reasons I chose China is because of the high demand for English teachers there.  Once you register your resume on a job website, for the first couple of months your inbox will be filled with job offers or advertisements for schools.  Most jobs will tell you that they require a TESOL certificate and teaching experience, but in practice many teachers are hired without these credentials. I didn’t even have a phone interview for my first teaching job here.  As times goes by, however, if you’re a serious teacher looking for a professional environment and high standards, you will become much more discriminating in your search.

Is it necessary to have teaching certificates or training to find employment?

In theory, yes, in practice, not always.  I completed my TESOL after I’d arrived in China and had already started teaching.  The universities I’ve been associated with base their pay scale on your education level (B.A., M.A., Ph.D.) rather than years of experience.

How did you get your first work visa?

The procedure is to have a job offer in hand; your future employer will send you a certified letter of employment, which you take to the Chinese consulate in your home country.  You’ll be given a temporary visa, and once you’re in China your school must apply to the local Public Security Bureau within a couple of weeks for the official residence permit.

Is it possible for teachers to arrive without a work visa and look for a job?

I haven’t tried this.

What is the cost of living in China? (Expected expenses on rent, food, going out, etc.)

It depends on what kind of job you have, where you live, and what your expectations are.  I teach in a university, which provides a furnished apartment and utlities in addition to my salary.  I live simply; my monthly budget is about 2,000 RMB [about $300].

How much money can the average teacher expect to save?

Once again, it depends.  I save about 50% of my monthly salary.  During my first 3 years in China I was still paying off my U.S. credit card debt; that was difficult, and I don’t recommend bringing your debt to China with you.  Now, whatever I don’t spend on monthly expenses (food, clothing, books, etc.) goes into my travel fund.  At the moment, it’s almost impossible for me to contribute to a retirement fund or a savings account.

What is the typical number of teaching hours per week?

At a university, expect about 14-16 classroom periods (45-50 minutes) a week, with overtime paid for extra teaching hours.  At a private, for-profit language school you may be expected to have 30-40 hours per week; the salary may be much higher but I have no desire to work that hard.

How many weeks of holidays per year can teachers expect?

Depending on when the Spring Festival holiday falls, I have 4-6 weeks of paid winter vacation each year.  You also get paid for the standard Chinese holidays – National Day, Spring Festival, etc.  Summer vacation [July-August] is unpaid.

Did your employer provide you with medical Insurance? If not, was it expensive?

My employer requires teachers to buy medical insurance; I paid about 200 RMB for 10,000 RMB [$1,300]worth of coverage.  I hope I don’t get seriously ill.

Do you recommend China for other English teachers?

That depends on a lot of factors.  The culture shock can be extreme; I came here with no knowledge of the language, and many people are immediately put off by the vast differences in cleanliness, sanitation, living conditions, or other factors.  If you read the message boards online, there’s a vast amount of bitching and moaning about teaching environments, salary, and lifestyle that you have to take with a grain of salt.  Do your homework before you come here; be sure to get contact information for at least two or three current or former teachers at your prospective school.  Know what you want:  are you coming to China for a one-year teaching “holiday” or for the long term?  Do you want to spend the rest of your working life being a “Foreign Expert,” or do you plan to return to your home country to work eventually?

What advice would you offer for others thinking of teaching English Abroad?

As I said, do your homework.  When I came to China I made a complete break:  got rid of all my possessions, left my job and apartment, gave away a lifetime accumulation of books, put my cat up for adoption – to basically make a new start in a country I’d never even visited before.  I spent 2 years saving money, getting teaching experience in Los Angeles, paying down my debt, and doing research.  Have practical goals:  save some money first, take language classes, know about the differences in education, etc.  For example, in China you may have large classes, up to 50 students for “oral” English; there’s a huge emphasis on rote learning in the country’s education system; education is controlled by the single political party; there are “forbidden” topics – Tibet, Taiwan, religion, politics – that can’t be discussed in class.  If you are gay or lesbian, don’t expect the kind of openness you would find in urban environments in the U.S.  Know about health issues:  pollution levels in Chinese cities can be deadly; Chengdu is about twice as polluted as Los Angeles.  Choose your country carefully; if you want to save piles of cash, China might not be for you.  If you want a different or challenging experience, maybe it is.

Week 3…

 
gateway

…and I’m falling naturally into the rhythms of a new life. This semester is going much more smoothly than the last, which was simply an endurance contest of long classes and recalcitrant students.

In the first two weeks, I’ve had two moments of clarity. For those not familiar with 12-Step-speak, a moment of clarity translates as a “lucid moment,” and falls somewhere between clear thinking and a startling revelation. The first occurred during one of the best classes I’ve ever taught, last Tuesday, in which I drilled and prompted my six students into greater fluency by practicing short phrases of a sentence, then gradually putting them together into one smooth unit. I also taught how to “count” the syllables in a sentence, saying the numbers rhythmically instead of the words, to train the ear for the sounds of English. It was teaching at its most brilliant, yet I couldn’t repeat the performance to save my life during the rest of the week. Oh well.

The second moment of clarity came in the middle of my classical guitar lesson, when I realized that berating myself and feeling like an untalented failure was a waste of time and energy. I have the rest of my life to become a proficient guitar player, and it will take as long as it takes; my fingers will obey me when they’re good and ready. I think my mini-revelation involved understanding “practice” for the first time. I was able to equate guitar practice with Zen practice, in terms of understanding it as just an extension of my meditation or reading. Words of wisdom:

“Rather than placing discipline into the category of self-flagellation, we should exalt it to its rightful position of self-love and get on shamelessly with it.”
http://www.guitar-instruction-video.com/guitar_practice1.htm

It’s a question of sitting still, paying attention, and making the mind one with what is happening that moment. All my life, since childhood piano lessons, “learning” something or “practicing” it were bound up with guilt, shame, impatience, misery, and harsh self-judgment. Funny how a state of mind becomes a way of life.

This clarity may also have been inspired by The Book That Changed My Life: Bill Porter’s Zen Baggage: a Pilgrimage to China. I’ve now read it twice.

I’m back into my exercise routine at the gym – sometimes. You see, since I last updated this blog I’ve become afflicted with lower back pain. It’s been more severe and lasted longer than in the past. A couple of massage therapy sessions seemed to make it worse, so now I’m experimenting with stretching exercises and light workouts.

In the meantime, I’m maintaining my stair-climbing lifestyle: apartment on the 6th floor, guitar lessons on the 6th , classes on the 5th (and sometimes the 3rd). It’s a living.