Saturday, 3 November 2012

A Rough Class: Trying to Deal

The most commonly asked question people would ask me when finding out I was moving to China was, "How can you teach kids English if you can't speak Chinese?"

I never knew how to answer that question and thought I would learn the secret answer when I arrived. Well, there really is no magical technique or answer unless you want to call it patience or the ability and motivation to strategize.

As a first-year teacher, I think I am doing a pretty decent job. I like to think above-average, but maybe not because I am failing disastrously with one of my classes. I could write about how wonderful my other classes are playing out, but who wants to read about that?

Before I write a blog trying to explicate the answer to the #1 question people have asked, I want to gain more experience in the classroom first. I am still testing methods and picking up common responses in Chinese (important to know if you care about how they are reacting to your lesson). One lesson runs perfectly and the other I cannot even tell them to take out their markers. Just know: it is complicated.

Lexy Goes Lava.
                                                For every action there's a reaction.

Let it be known that I am trying like hell not to dread this wild, second-grade class every time I walk in. They are just kids, and I understand that their entire day runs like a military drill; so when they see me, they become all excited and buoyant, considering my class to be their "fun period."

I hear it and I see it. Students are reprimanded and ordered around each day. Before class begins, one student will shout and read a list of rules to the class and will eventually order the class to repeat them. When they walk the halls, they are told to march. Out of habit, or jokingly, they will sometimes march to me when I call on them during class. They easily go from acting like goofballs outside to sprinting to class when a bell rings or a whistle is blown. Class is very much lecture-based, the teachers are authoritative, and the consequences of disobeying the rules are much more severe. Not only are teachers more hands-on and have no problem shouting in their face (humiliating them in front of their peers), their parents will do more than 'ground' them or confiscate their television (as if they have their own television).

(Students frame of mind) So here's Lexy! We do not have to deal with her as often as our other teachers; she does not yell or smack us; she loves to play games and be goofy; she has no idea what we are saying to her; and she knows that it is expected of us not to understand everything that she says. She also has fantastic, vibrant nails. Best class ever!

Twice a week, I walk into a class that is overjoyed to see me, but do everything but take out their English books (this would NEVER fly with a Chinese teacher). I greet them and install my flash drive while I wait for them to finish up with their previous teacher and spend three whole minutes praying on the 50/50 chance that a teacher's assistant (t/a) will walk through the door so I actually have a chance of teaching them something.

Today, I had no t/a. It was 2:00pm. If you're a teacher, you know what that means. And it was Friday.    

I greeted them, "Good afternoon boys and girls!" It took two greetings before the whole class would reply "Good afternoon, Lexy!" Their faces were gleaming. I loved that part. I wish I could just play with them all period.

"How are you?" I asked them. All of their hands rose, looking like hungry seagulls, fighting to be the one called on. Responses included:

"I am very very very very super!"
"I am very very very very bad!"
"I'm terrific!"
"I am fine, thank you. And you?" 

Me: "I am Stuupendous! That means very very very very very very happy!" (Even though it was 2:00 and I was nursing coffee prior to class to stay awake)

I assigned each group a leader, and the leader got to choose the name for their team. I found that the boys like to choose outrageous names just so they can see my pitiful artwork on the board. Today they would be the Butterflies, Dragons, Dinosaurs, and UFO's. I noticed all of the UFO's desks were separated from each other. They were the leading team I struggled with. The seating modifcation meant their behavior was extra-disruptive all day. One of them sat alone in the back of class where he would be in clear eyesight of any teacher who walked by.

It was a small class, only twenty-four of them. It's so funny I find that to be a small class. Today would be an easy lesson. They were finishing a unit on 'People at work' so I would have them learn a poem and we would turn it into a song and gesture it out. I had just utilized this with another second grade class and it ran smoothly.

Well, first the projector ceased to work. Try managing equipment with everything spelled out in Chinese. It is an undying guessing/memory game. While a Chinese teacher was assessing the a coma-induced projector, I had the students take their English books out and turn to the poem. Before the Chinese teacher left, she barked at them (even though their behavior was fine at the time) to behave for me.  As soon as she walked out the door, Winnie threw an eraser.

[Winnie tends to initiate catastrophes and is considered a bully in school. I was told it was assumed that his father hit and verbally abused him whenever he did anything wrong, so that is just what Winnie does when he becomes angry: he hits anyone in sight of him and cannot control what comes out of his mouth (Dear parents, kids really do model your actions). He is at least twenty pounds overweight so he is intimidating to his peers and spends a lot of time in our office apologizing to teachers. Last week I walked into him kissing the cabinets in our office 100 times because he kissed a boy in class. The idea was to humiliate him the way he humiliated the boy. All of the teachers stared at him and laughed hysterically. Project: Humiliate Winnie was effective.]

I noticed Winnie's team, the Butterflies (ha), were completely distracted by his antics. I managed to grab their attention, but for only a short period of time. The poem was on the board. For the most part, I had their attention, but I could see misbehavior spreading in class that I had to nip in the bud before a plague would hit. With no warning, I snatched two pencil cases, two Chinese workbooks, and an eraser. Suddenly I heard objects being thrown into their desks, afraid I would snatch it away. One of my kid's, Tiger (yes, Tiger), made me smuggle his Chinese workbook from his chest. I shook and waved it around to his classmates saying, "This is English class, not Chinese class. Open your English books right now." Anyone who did not have an English book out would finally comply at this point.

EXCEPT, my two class clowns: Leon and Mike.

[Leon is the prominent culprit when it comes to pretending to not understand what I say. For three weeks, he convinced me that his name was Mike (that way when he got in trouble, Mike's name would be used-which would be no shock to any teacher). Even outside of class, he would laugh when I walked his way (because he knew how many times he got over on me) and I could feel how fake his politeness was when he was around other teachers.]

[Mike is a different type of class clown. He has so much energy; I have a hard time keeping him from getting up, fidgeting, or calling out. He needs constant attention. He would pull on my shirt and shout my name during lessons simply to tell me he hurt his ankle earlier that day. He is one of the very few students who do not care how many stars they earn.]

Allow me to share one situation with you of what I went through today with them to simply take a book out:

Me: "Take your book out."
Leon: "No-no book."
Mike: "HE LIAR LEXY!" and points to the inside of Leon's desk.
Me: "Take it out right now."
Leon: He shakes his head no and gives me puppy eyes as if he is sorry. "No book."
Me: "What is your name?"
Leon: "Mike."
Me: "Stop it. Take your English book out right now, Leon." In disbelief of the nerve of this boy, I am trying to keep my vocabulary basic so he understands me.

Mike gets up and pulls an English book out of Leon’s desk.

Me: "Mike, where's your book?"
Mike: "I don't have it." He fumbles through the other books in his desk.
Leon: "Bag, bag, bag!" He screams.
Me: "Open your book bag."

Mike unzips the small pouch. I point to the large pouch. Leon leaps up and pulls the English book out of Mike’s book bag and screams something in Chinese.

Meanwhile I had lost the attention of half the class.

At this point I did my best to redirect my class to the board. I had to learn nearly 200 names very quickly and my school STILL has not given me a set attendance list of their English names. Needless to say, there were about seven names I still did not know. They’re not the easiest names to digest either. The ones who were talking, I had to say "Yo, yooo," or call out their team name and hope they'd look up. I repeatedly said "Listen, listen, sshhh," Sure, I had the attention of many, but my class clowns were messing around, team Butterflies were throwing a broken ruler at each other, and I could hear conversations floating around. I conjured all of the discipline strategies I've tried previously that failed (communication barrier), and went ahead to play the poem aloud hoping it would grab their attention. Then the audio would not work. What is the Chinese symbol for volume? How freaking lovely.

I asked for a volunteer to read from their book:
"I am a policewoman
I have a gun
I wear a jacket
And I walk in the sun."

They became so rambunctious I could not hear the volunteer read it. I walked around the class to shush my talkers and then gestured out what Butterfly just read (yes, her name is Butterfly and she was on Team Butterflies). I asked them to stand and to follow my lead. Many of them did, but a quarter of them did not. I told them I would give the best team who could say/gesture the poem a star. One by one, their teams went to the front of the class to act it out, but the rest of the class continued talking. I had a sore throat and remember feeling it was impossible not to strain it. I considered to just stop teaching and refuse to teach them without a t/a.

I knew I could not continue the next three verses that way. Leon tried stealing his pencil case back while I was working with the group miming the poem. My verbal "quiet down" command did not work and at this point, I would feel like a fool gesturing the rest of the poem to the class. I stood there and thought momentarily until my thought process was interrupted by a wild-child who ran at me, squeezed both of my breasts, and ran away laughing. As I watched him skip away, I felt the lava forming in my veins. Some students took his act of bravery as in invitation to get up and play. I had zero control of the class and was humiliated once again. La-va.

What would you do? Lava Lexy turned the lights out (woooooo).

Instantly, silence filled the air and they stared at me. I silently turned off the projector. I finally began to say, "We cannot play..." when suddenly Winnie threw another object at his table. I marched over to him. Note that my throat was killing me, I was completely overwrought by the behavior and ruthlessness of the class, and I did not have anything planned but the "fun" poem. It felt impossible to have them do anything as a whole class. Boiling, I threw teaching out the window and was ready to make them all eat soap (figuratively).

"Winnie, put it away right now." I held an austere look on my face and stared humorlessly into his eyes.

"Schema." (schema means I don't understand)
"Do NOT schema me!" I picked up the eraser he threw, held it up, and YELLED "How would you like it if I threw this as you?"
Winnie glanced at his classmates, giggled and said, "Schema?"

I was livid. I've yelled a few times, but I have never screamed. Winnie and some of his classmates pull this schema business every time I do not have a teacher's assistant in class and I could not take passing it off anymore. He was making a fool of me in front of the class and I knew he would continue to throw things and talk if I left him in his seat. My boobs were grabbed and now the class was egging Winnie on with their laughter. Enraged, I leaned into his face, bit my lip, and warned, "Get up."

Even though I knew he knew the meaning of ‘get up’, I gestured for him to get up and repeated, "Get up."

"Schema!?" He exclaimed wildly and shook his head no.

That was it for me. Suddenly I had a flashback of him throwing my own red erase-marker at me when he lost in a class game.

"GETT UPP!" I screamed. I threw a book on the floor. I heard shocked reactions from the class.

He would not budge. What would you do? A Chinese teacher would drag him out by his neck. That's not a strategy I can use in a job interview.

Without giving him a chance to say anything, close to his face I blasted (because screaming is much better), "You get your butt up right now!" and I actually shook his chair. Then I picked up his book bag and flung it on my desk. I still belted, "GET UP!" I remember how terrified the kids looked. I never raised my voice like that, and the phlegmy sound of my sore throat made me sound monstrous. I remember not having any clue where I was going with my reaction or what I would do with him.

I nearly ran back to him (to scare him) and this time I didn't have to say it, he got up. He did so in extra slow motion revealing he really did not want to. During his eye rolling and slow attempt to stand, I pulled the chair from underneath him and clapped my hands faster and faster, "Let's go! Get up! Kuai diani, hurry up boy!" My eyes never strayed from his. I could feel burning in my chest from screaming. After he finally rose, he wouldn't move again; so I grabbed his hand, tug him, and in his ear gritted my teeth and commanded "Hurry up, let's go."

He started walking and the first thing I could think of was to put him in another teacher's class. I walked right back into the class I had just come out of: my other second grade whose lesson ran beautifully. They've never heard me raise my voice. I made it to the door way, but he would not walk in. Without acknowledging anyone but him, I turned my head slowly and screamed once again "Get in here right now!" I got behind him and gripped his vest as if to say move! In his ear, as loud as I could, I yelled "Go, go, go, go, go, go" nearly blowing his eardrum. He went right in and sat right down. That's when I picked my head up and saw the Chinese teacher, who looked extremely concerned, and the students staring at us. The teacher ran over and knew; I didn't have to say anything. I walked away and would not ask questions what she did to him. The fact that he made me, the "nice" teacher, act like that; he would not go unpunished. For once I did not allow the punishments of his home-life effect my decisions, or hang over my head.

I just knew I'd have my students’ attention when I walked back in the classroom. I most certainly did. Don't ask me how I noticed, but the very first thing I acknowledged was that Leon's pencil case was missing. I thought I would battle him for it, but when I roared "Leon!" he threw it on the floor and looked down at his hands. I left it there. The class was so frightened of me it gave me goose bumps. It wasn't funny at the time, but I could laugh at what came out of my mouth next:

"Schema." I stared them down and walked around each team, especially eying up the students who were noisy and got in the face of the one who grabbed me. In different tones and playing on various facial expressions I repeated,
"Schema? Schema. Schemaaaaa."
Then I knocked over Winnie's book bag and yelled, "No schema!"
With the lights still off, I tapped my head and explained in the most primary terms I could think of, "I am not an idiot! I know you understand me. Schema, schema, ting bu dong, no! Stop it!"
I pointed to the projector and gestured everything else that came out of my mouth.
"I cannot play games with this class. You are too NOISY and LOUD." I mimicked them and some of them laughed.
"Now we will do work!" and I picked up their English books.
Now that one or two of them laughed, I walked over to them and I laughed too.
"Oh, you think I am funny? Haha, yea, I can be funny."

I grabbed my marker and drew a picture of a woman and labeled it mother. The class seemed happy to be able to shout the correct answer. I smiled,
"Good job. Yes boys and girls, mother."

Then I drew a picture of a man and labeled it father. I got the same reaction. Then I drew a letter on the board and they guessed that one right too.
“Good, good,” I praised them.
Then the smile disappeared 100% off of my face and I yelled at them too. After scribbling over all of their stars, I tried to use terms they would understand and said,
“Since you cannot stop talking, I am sending a letter to your mother and father. I am sending a letter home to mommy and daddy. I am telling them how bad you have been in every one of my classes. We will not play games. Do you like your Chinese class? I will make you work like your Chinese teacher.”

They just sat there and didn’t say anything, even Leon and Mike. Mike looked petrified. I drew everyone’s attention to the poem I put back on the board and made them read the next verse.

“I am a fireman
I have a hose
I wear a hat
And I cover my nose.”

About two minutes later the bell rang. One of my students still stayed seated, raised his hand, said “excuse me” and asked for his pencil case. I didn’t even know he could say excuse me.

This all happened TODAY and now I have more work to do. First I have to figure out how I want to write these letters and then I have to put work on my collaborating English teacher to translate them to Chinese. Not only that, I have to explain to the only person who knows both English and Chinese that I am serious about these letters being translated and sent out to each parent; and that if they are not signed and returned by their parents, I will not teach them due to all of the disrespect they have shown me and the school’s apathy in providing me with a t/a in such a class.

Please, tell me what you would have done or what you recommend I do when I see them again next week. Spare me advice on rearranging desks or separating students from each other. I am not a total amateur over here; those strategies are ineffective. Remember: they know motions and gestures, not many words. I’ve tried explaining to them that I will stop playing games or make them do more work, but they don’t understand. That or they do not care. I’ve had other teachers reprimand them on my behalf. I cannot continue kicking kids out and yelling at them every week and calling that my classroom management philosophy. I’ve researched some disciplinary ideas, but they seem too complicated to translate. I will send these letters home just to prove my point that I am not joking around. I am hoping that come Tuesday, they will listen.

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