Tuesday, September 25, 2012 2 comments

Trying a picture again...

My blog looks so sad without pictures.  I'm usually inspired to write by a picture I want to share; it's driving me crazy that the picture-thing is not working right.  I haven't tried it recently, though, so here goes nothing:

Let me know if you can actually see it!  I can see it in the editor...fingers crossed!

The Schedule

I am, and always have been, a terrible procrastinator. Those who knew me well in college can attest, and don't get my mother started on the topic.  I am the type of person who needs a routine and deadlines; I work best under pressure. It's so ingrained by now that I frequently find myself procrastinating things I want to do. 

I know I could be a better teacher, both in class and out of it, if I could be more organized personally.  Every time I've made a major life change over the past five years or so, I've sworn to myself that this time I'm going to make a schedule for myself, and make myself set aside specific times for exercise, Bible study, lesson planning, grading, etc. so that I am more consistent in my self-discipline and less stressed professionally.  I've always gotten by alright, but I know I am capable of so much more if I could only focus.  To tell you the truth, I've been trying for more than just five years--I remember even as a child thinking that 'next year, I'll push myself to read more nonfiction and learn more about subjects I'm interested in than what they teach in school.'  But in the last five years, I've really thought I would actually do it...

When I moved to Milan, I was reading  Gordon McDonald's Ordering Your Private World, and I had grandiose plans about how much I could accomplish once I finally mastered self-discipline.  When I moved to China the first time, it was another chance to start over and do better this time.  When I changed jobs from Lewisburg back to Columbia, I was going to use the extra time in the morning I had spent commuting and do an exercise video each morning.  Of course they all failed. 

And here I am again, starting over in a new place, new job, new responsibilities.  Same need to be more disciplined.  However, I think I've learned some things about myself; when I worked at Campbell Plaza, I was a very organized and productive person.  I had a detailed schedule, and I followed it.  We were busy in the afternoon, but not in the mornings, so I learned to get my work done first thing so I would be available to wait on customers later.  I even exercised more regularly than ever before thanks to a program at the YMCA that the bank offered.  So, I'm trying the same approach here in this life, even though it's a completely unstructured environment, unlike the bank.  I have made a schedule for myself with time slots for exercise, Bible study, grading, lesson planning, and reading (weird I have to schedule in reading--such is the pull of mind-numbing entertainment on the internet that I am way behind in reading all the books that I know would be helpful to me professionally and spiritually). 

Tomorrow is the first day of the schedule.  Already I've had to rearrange some things, as I have to run to the bus station in the morning to buy a ticket, but if I can get up early enough in the morning to get in some exercise first, then it'll be a start.  I want to do more than get by in life; I want to be the productive person I know I could be if only I could get my own willpower to cooperate. 

Monday, September 24, 2012 1 comments

The One

Finally, after a few weeks of randomly stopping in whichever of the little one-room restaurants along the street outside the gate, choosing whichever one looked like it had a free table and a proprietor who would take the time to listen to a foreigner mispronounce their food, I have found The One. 

One of my favorite vegetables here in China is lotus root (ou in Chinese); it was available at any restaurant in Jingzhou.  Here, I kept trying to order it, but kept getting mei you (don't have) as a response.  I knew they probably all had it, but I didn't know the full name of any dishes it was in, and I probably was yet again pronouncing it badly, and it's easier to say 'don't have it' than take the time to figure out what on earth this illiterate foreigner wants.  In Jingzhou, they were always happy to see a foreigner and fusses over us, treating us like the children we were.  We'd squeak out, "Carrots!"  or "Cabbage!"  and they'd just smile at us and fix us whichever dish with that ingredient in it they thought appropriate for us.  And it always was.  I think we only really learned how to say the name of one full dish--tong su li ji, sweet and sour pork.  Here, foreigners are not that special, and they expect you to behave like an adult and tell them the dish you want.  If I just go in and say "Carrot!" they will look at me like I'm a little off my rocker and burst out a spiel of Chinese that I assume translates to something like, "Carrot what?  There are five dishes with carrots in it.  How do you want your carrots?  Learn to read and write already!" 

But this place...I couldn't find ou on the menu here either, but I pointed out the characters in a little dictionary I had, and the woman just said (translated): "Lotus root.  Okay.  Chao?"  I just nodded, and off she went.  (I later figured out that chao means stir-fried).  It was exactly what I wanted, and easily the best stir-fried lotus root I've ever had.  I pointed to something random on the menu--I could read the characters for shredded pork, but I hadn't figured out the vegetable it was mixed with--and it turned out to be pork and onions, which was also wonderful.  Another day I went back and managed to figure out pork and bell pepper, and again, it was the best version of that dish that I've ever had, by far.  Now, I've also been trying that old favorite, sweet and sour pork, at various places along the strip, and been dissapointed each time.  One place, it was bland with no flavor at all.  Another place it was soggy and also rather bland.  Another place it was the right level of crispiness, but the sauce had a weird aftertaste to it.  This place had so far exceeded all my expectations; would this finally be the one place to get decent tong su li ji?  

I finally ordered it for lunch today.  And....I've found it at last! The right level of crispiness, sauce with the right flavor, and friendly service.  

I've been to the little place about four times now; they now recognize me.  The grandmother smiles at me and shows me to a table, but she doesn't dare try to communicate with me just yet.  The daughter leaves me alone at my table to rifle through my pocket dictionary and try to unscramble the menu until I finally call her over to order.  The grandmother normally picks up the menu as soon as the person has ordered, but she leaves it on my table until I get my food, because she sees that I want to keep studying it and try to figure out more dishes while I'm waiting.  The son, a chubby child of about ten, often tries to start conversations with me, and has given both my pocket dictionary and my kindle (which I often read while eating) a thorough, curious inspection before his mother calls for him to get back to the table by the door and finish the page in his homework he'd wandered off from. 

And so, I've found my new favorite.  Today, I took pictures of the menu, so that I can work on learning to recognize more dishes to speed up the process a bit.  I'm looking forward to trying out the rest of my favorites there!
Thursday, September 13, 2012 0 comments


If you need some entertainment  here in China, there's always Chinglish.  They try so hard...but it does seem that they ought to be able to find somebody who actually speaks Chinese to double-check things.  But no...one of my friends was telling me over the weekend about some friends of theirs, good moral people (who know Him), who own a company that makes decorated caps.  They visited them once, and the grandmother was happily sewing button on that read "F*** You!"  And they had already bought thousands of them...

So, this is my new dish-washing tub.  Happy Beer! 

Writing, Lesson Four

The fourth lesson was one I was looking forward to; for one thing, I've read quite a lot of Chinese students' writing by now, and I knew they needed it.  The title of the lesson, according to the outline Vera Song, our Chinese co-teacher, gave us, was "Diction."  That encompasses quite a lot; mostly about how to choose the right word for the situation.

I covered four main areas: formal vs. informal language, denotation vs. connotation, general vs. specific words, and figures of speech.  The formal vs. informal part was about the differences between slang and simple phrases used when emailing a friend, as compared to the conventions and vocabulary used in writing an academic paper.  I didn't belabor the point too much; I'll just have to rehash it all next semester when we're actually writing academic papers.

The second section was about the difference between the denotation and the connotation of the word.  If you've forgotten these terms sometime since the seventh grade, the denotation is the literal dictionary meaning, while the connotation is the feelings or emotions attached to the word, the nuances of the word.  For example, compare these pairs:

Famous vs. Notorious
Slim vs. Scrawny
Cheap vs. Inexpensive
Old Lady vs. Elderly Woman

While both would have a very similar definition if you looked them up in a dictionary,  we get a different vibe or impression if we hear each one.  Slim is attractive; scrawny is not.  My mother might react differently if I refer to the aroma of her cooking or the odor of her cooking.  Are you bossy or are you assertive?

Next we discussed general vs. specific vocabulary. For this, I introduced them to the thesaurus, which they'd never heard of before.  As you would expect, someone learning a second language has a limited vocabulary and tends to overuse some common verbs and adjectives (and phrases--I'm going to scream the next time I read the phrase "What's more..." in a journal entry.  Why do they have such an attachment to that phrase??). I have fun with this topic--we brainstormed different words to replace 'walk', and I acted them out.  I stomped, skipped, wandered, strolled, paced, trudged, and marched around to make a point about using specific words when writing to give the reader a better mental picture.

The book (which in general I quite like) went a little overboard in the figures of speech department; I guess it's good the students have the information as a reference, but it's really overkill at this point in their education.  Vera had suggested we skip this part, and I agreed--students need to focus more on learning to write clearly and directly and not get bogged down in a bunch of idioms that they usually don't use correctly anyhow.  Synecdoche, metonymy, oxymorons, and personification aren't a high priority, but if you teach them, the students will try to use them too often.

I did, however, slip in a bit of two commons figures of speech, the simile and the metaphor.  My students had heard these terms before, anyhow, so it was just a quick review.  I threw this bit in as a lead-in to an activity I wanted to do.

Although I teach writing, now and then I like to take a break and throw in something involving a different area of language (speaking, reading, listening).  With similes and metaphors, listening to Garth Brooks' "The River" is perfect.  The entire theme is a metaphor, and it's chock full of similes and metaphors, and a few spiritual references as well.  I gave the students a copy of the lyrics with words missing; they had to listen and fill in the blanks as they came to them.  I'm really not sure this sort of thing is valuable enough as far as language acquisition to be a regular thing, but it's fun for a break now and then.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012 0 comments

Writing, Lesson Three

The second week, lessons three and four, started with a review of capitalization and punctuation.  This was a pretty easy lesson to put together; my students have been studying English for several years now and felt that this lesson was a bit boring and unneccessary--but, I have a schedule to stick to, and besides, even though they "already know this stuff", their writing shows that they could use a reminder every now and then.

In the part about capitalization, I reviewed basic rules quickly, and spent most of the time on capitalizing titles, which they had less experience with.  I used the titles of many classics as examples, which led to some discussion of words they didn't understand in the title: rye, wrath, solitude, bondage, tenant, half-blood.  Bonus points to anyone who can list the titles those words come from in the comment section!

I did break the tedium of the puntuation review a bit (at least for me); I used the classic grammar example of "Let's eat Grandpa!" as compared to "Let's eat, Grandpa!" which thankfully the students did find amusing and understood the point (you never know, cross-culturally, when sometimes a bit of humor just won't translate). I found a few other examples online; one was a magazine cover that said, "Rachael Ray finds inspiration in cooking her family and her dog."  Then, I put the first paragraph of The Lion, the Witch,and the Wardrobe up; I had rewritten it with bad capitalization and punctuation, and they had to rewrite it in their journals correctly.  It's one of my favorite books, with a good message; you never know, someone might get curious and read it.

The journal topic for the week was "What is your favorite book, and why?"  At least with a topic like that, not everyone will write about the same thing.  ***later edit: there was a wide variety, but the most popular by far with Jane Eyre, which apparently they just read recently for another class.***
Saturday, September 8, 2012 0 comments

Week One, Part Two

First week, continued...since we're ending the semester early, we have to double up these first four weeks, so I'm meeting with each class twice a week for now.  The second time I saw the students the first week, the lesson was on the writing process.  To tell you the truth, I wouldn't have places this lesson here; I'm going to have to rehash it all next semester when we actually get to writing essays and papers anyhow.  It just seems a little out of place to talk about brainstorming, cluster mapping, outlining, writing a draft. etc., and then going back to word choice, then sentences, then paragraphs, and not using all of that until months later.  But, I'm trying to go along with the plan my Chinese coworkers came up with--even if there are fine points I would do differently, over all I'm glad to be a part of their planning purpose and I think they're going in the right direction with the overall plan. 

Anyhow, it was an easy lesson to put together; as a former English myself and having taught writing before, all of this second nature.  Of course, in writing my own college papers, I did rather go through the steps a little faster than recommended, and rarely made it to revising--it's hard to spend too much time mapping and planning when it's nearly one in the morning and the paper's due at nine and you only had four hours of sleep the night before, too, and you have another paper in two days.  But I of course try to teach my students better.  While I could breeze through the planning process, I think it will be very helpful for them as they try to construct a coherent message in a language that is so unnatural to them. 

For their journal topic, I had them read the following story (I don't know where it came from originally; I got it from some teaching materials that were given to me):

Several years ago, a teacher assigned to visit children in a large city hospital received a routine call requesting that she visit a particular child.   She took the boy’s name and room number and was told by the teacher on the other end of the line, “We’re studying nouns and adverbs in his class now.  I’d be grateful if you could help him with his homework so he doesn’t fall behind the others.”
It wasn’t until the visiting teacher got outside the boy’s room that she realized it was located in the hospital’s burn unit.  No one had prepared her to find a young boy horribly burned and in great pain.  She felt that she couldn’t just turn and walk out, so she awkwardly stammered, “I’m the hospital teacher, and your teacher sent me to help you with nouns and adverbs.”
The next morning, a nurse on the burn unit asked her, “What did you do to that boy?” Before she could finish a profusion of apologies, the nurse interrupted her: “You don’t understand.  We’ve been very worried about him, but ever since you were here yesterday, his whole attitude has changed.  He’s fighting back and responding to treatment.  It’s as though he’s decided to live.”  The boy later explained that he had completely given up hope until he saw that teacher.  It all changed when he came to a simple realization.  With joyful tears, he expressed it this way: “They wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?” 

On the next slide, I wrote: 
The hospital teacher, in fulfilling her responsibilities, gave the dying boy something to hope for—a reason to live.
Why do people need something to hope for?
What happens when people give up hope?
What are some things that give people hope to keep going in the midst of difficulties or challenges?

I'm looking forward to seeing how they answered when I check the journals in a couple of weeks; I
do sometimes enjoy journal topics that are fun like "If you could be any animal, which would yo  be?", but I also like to use the journal sometimes to bring up more serious topics, that hopefully will start someone to thinking about the bigger things in life.

Friday, September 7, 2012 0 comments

One Week Down

I’m really excited that I have my writing students for a full year; it’s nice to have time to go more in depth.  With the material that we were given, this semester will focus on the mechanics of writing, and next semester on writing essays and papers.  Here’s a general overview of the plan for this semester:

Week 1: Introduction to Writing, Course Syllabus, Personal Introductions
Week 2: The Writing Process
Week 3: Review of Punctuation and Capitalization Rules
Week 4: Diction (Word Choice)
Week 5: Combining Sentences (Compound, Complex, and Compound-Complex Sentences)
Week 6: Sentence Variety
Week 7: Effective Paragraphs
Week 8: Development of a Paragraph by Time
Week 9: Development of a Paragraph by Process
Week 10: Development of a Paragraph by Space
Week 11: Development of a Paragraph by Exemplification
Week 12: Development of a Paragraph by Generalization
Week 13: Development of a Paragraph by Comparison and Contrast
Week 14: Development of a Paragraph by Cause and Effect
Week 15: Development of a Paragraph by Classification
Week 16: Development of a Paragraph by Definition
Week 17: Final Exam 

So, this week, I did the first two weeks’ lessons. The first time I saw each class (Monday and Wednesday), I first introduced myself—the students generally personally know very few foreigners, and so they find it interesting to hear about the life of an American.  I made a power point with some pictures of my family, my parents’ house in Tennessee, scenery from Tennessee and Columbia specifically, and of things Tennessee is known for (music, mostly—although actually, whenever I’ve mentioned I’m from Tennessee when traveling in several countries, the first thing people always think of is…Jack Daniels.  However, I decided not to use whiskey as a claim to fame for my students).  I told a bit of my history—where I went to college, that I was an English major like them, my time in Italy, that I had lived in Jingzhou for a year—and also some of my interests: I like photography, genealogy, I’m a Christian, etc. I opened it up for questions afterward—told them it was their chance to be nosy (not that they always need one).  My first class, 1106, asked plenty of good questions, but my other two were shy and didn’t come up with anything.  

Next, I had each student stand up and introduce themselves to me—my students in Jingzhou (I know, I feel like I’m constantly comparing Jingzhou vs. Wuhan, but that’s my only frame of reference right now) barely squawked out their names, hometown, and struggled to come up with an interest: “My name is Echo…I’m from Enshi, in Hubei province…I like…badminton…and reading.”  These students, on the other hand, weren’t shy at all.  I almost had to cut a few short , even—each and every one of them spoke for at least two minutes; not only a list of their hobbies, but why they like and what they don’t like and what their friends think about it.  I do think it would be fun to teach spoken English sometimes—but I am firmly entrenched as a writing teacher.  

After our personal introductions, I gave an intro to the course, going over the syllabus and talking about written English as opposed to spoken English as a form of communication.  Finally, I had a bit of fun with the students—to help both me learn their English names as well as them learn each others’, we played the name game.  The first person says, “Hi, I am Helen.”  The second says, “I am Jane, and this is Helen.”  The third says, “I am Lily, and this is Jane and Helen.”  And so on, until the last people have to give everyone’s name.  I usually start at the back and work towards the front, because the best students usually claim the front row to vie for attention as teacher’s pet, so I figured they could use the challenge.  Finally, I rattled them all off—they always seem to be impressed that I do this without much effort—but I’ve been paying attention as we go through it over and over, and besides, it’s easier for me as the names are at least familiar name (or words) to me. 
Thursday, September 6, 2012 0 comments

The Normal, the Out-of-Context, and the Bizzare

On the first day of class for the semester, I have to be careful not to laugh when I make a list of the English names of my students.  We foreigners sometimes try to learn and use our Chinese friends and students’ names, but we rarely get the pronunciation just right—so many of them prefer we just use an English nickname rather than butcher their Chinese names.  English majors, especially, choose English names to use in class and with foreigners; I remember we used to do that in language classes too—my Spanish name was Catalina in high school.  

Overall, I think this is a good idea—it sure helps us teacher to learn their names and be able to keep records much more easily, and it helps the students to learn how to pronounce some English names.  The problem with it is that, apparently, students are not well-supervised when they are picking their names.  I keep wishing that I could teach some freshmen, so that I could guide them—or, rather, exercise the power of veto.  But, I teach sophomores, and most of them are already attached to the name they already have.  

Some of them make good choices of names—I have plenty of Alices, as well as Jessica, Charlie, Sarah, Lily, Lance, Natalie, Cassie, Daniel, and Lisa.  Chinese names are chosen for meaning,not sound, and many do the same in English, picking a name with a good meaning (happy, lucky, brave) without regard to the sound.  Some take the opportunity to do the opposite: choose a sound they like without considering the meaning, which they can't do in Chinese.  Other choose a name that sounds similar to their Chinese name: Lily for Li Li, Lucy for Lu, Joker for Jiao Kai.  Other identify themselves with a hobby or interest, taking a name from sports or TV.  Kobe was popular a couple of years back, as many of the boys are huge NBA fans;  Roger admires tennis star Roger Federer; Sheldon is popular this year (I have two) because of the TV show Big Bang Theory. 

 The next tier of names are proper names, but chosen out of context--the Chinese students  have no way of knowing which names were popular in which generation, or are currently in or out of fashion—so, I have Bertha, more than one Helen, Linda, Frances, Sharon, Ruth, Cindy, and Tina, which, while not unusual, are not that common for a nineteen-year-old.  Oddly enough, I also have two girls called Blanca.  One wouldn't be that odd; she just looked for a name that meant 'white' or something, but two? 

And then, just as I begin to think I finally have a class with good sense, we reach the bizarre.  There’s always one or two who just have to be “creative.”  How am I supposed to call on a student (male) named Dreamcatcher? Without laughing?  He’s probably the most interesting I have this term, but there’s also Apple, Echo, Ecco, Seldom, Cloris, Malak (female), Joker, and Armstrong.  So far, however, there are fewer outliers than I had in Jingzhou—but still. I’ve written before about the dilemma here—do I accept such names because, as it’s their name, it’s their free choice, or do I insist that they use proper names because most Americans are going to laugh at them? 
Wednesday, September 5, 2012 0 comments

Referring to Classes

It might make by blog posts a bit clearer if I go ahead and explain now how we
refer to classes here in China.  Unlike American colleges where each student
has their own separate schedule, students here are sorted into classes
according to their major.  There are six classes of Sophomore English majors,
each with between twenty and twenty-five students.  They are labeled 1101,
1102, etc.  The 11 is the year they entered the university, so freshmen this
year will be 1201, 1202, etc.; juniors would be 1001, 1002, 1003.

The students stay with this class through the four years in university; all of
their core classes and major courses are together.  Some choose different
electives or second majors/minors, but for the most part they share the same
schedule and spend quite a lot of time together--when a Chinese person refers
to their "classmate", they are talking about a person who is like a brother or
sister to them--many of them are roommates, besides having most classes
together.  So, a Chinese person means something quite different by classmate
than what we Americans would mean refering to someone we had a class with in

Anyhow, I teach writing to classes 1103, 1104, and 1106, and Greek and Roman
Mythology to a class that's half 1101 half 1102 (presumably, there was some
alternative class they could choose).

Monday, September 3, 2012 1 comments

And So It Begins...First Day of Class!

Today may be Labor Day in the U.S., but here in China (as well as most of the rest of the world), Labor Day is in May.  So, today is the day to start classes for the fall semester!

This fall, I am teaching four classes: three are Basic Writing in English, and one is Greek and Roman Mythology.  When I mention my schedule, everyone nods in agreement with the first three, and then does a double take when I throw in that last one.  The reason for that one is that, for many years, English majors have had reading classes, where they were assigned various books, articles, etc. to read and discuss in English.  While that's fine for studying English, their professors have come up with a better idea: why not have this 'reading' class on a particular subject?  That way, the students can get in their reading practice, but it won't just be a random jumble of unrelated things--they can actually learn something besides English from the course.  Thus, Greek and Roman Mythology was born.  I'm really excited about it; as an English major myself, I'm looking forward to the opportunity to teach literature.  I'm co-teaching this course with Zoe Chen, a Chinese professor here at this school.  She's doing the first three weeks--in fact, she's teaching the class right this moment--and then it will be my turn for several weeks, and then she will teach again at the end.

I thought I was quite prepared for writing classes--I taught the exact same thing in Jingzhou in 2010, writing for English majors at the Sophomore level.  However, we had some meetings with our Chinese colleagues on Friday.  At this university, the curriculum for basic writing is much more standardized.  When I was in Jingzhou, we were given a class and told to teach them without any sort
of plan being given to us; we were free to do whatever we wanted.  Here, we have a book, and a topic assigned for each week.  We are free to use whatever activities or teaching methods we would like, but we have set material to cover.  We will have faculty meetings every other week or so to share ideas and plan together.

My first gut feeling was annoyance that I wouldn't be free to teach whatever I felt like teaching, but then almost immediately I realized how much better this is for the students.  Part of why we were given little supervision or guidance before was because our class was a fluff class.  It didn't really count for much.  Here, we are teaching alongside the Chinese professors; we are teaching actual core classes of the major.  Student's experiences in my last school varied depending on the competence and experience of the teacher; here, we are sharing resources so that hopefully all students will get a similar quality of instruction.

One other interesting aspect of my writing courses: our Chinese co-teacher, Vera Song, is expecting a baby in December.  She'd really like to end the semester early--so, we're all ending the semester early.  These first four weeks, we're meeting twice a week with each class instead of the usual once a week, but then we will finish the course in week 13 (out of a normal 17-18 week semester).  In December, I'll only be teaching one class, the mythology course.
I'm also really excited that the writing course is a full-year course.  I will continue with the same students in the spring semester.  It will be nice to get to know them better, and to be able to teach a more in-depth course than if it were to be crammed into one semester.

 One final reason for excitement: this school has embraced technology,and there is power point available in every classroom!  Chalk boards scare me, so I am ecstatic to be able to type things for my students instead of getting covered in dust at the board.  Oh, and I have between 21-24 students in each class, which is great for a college course.  I have ninety students in total. 

Here's my schedule right now:

8:00  Greek and Roman Mythology (weeks 4-16)
2:00  English Writing, class 1106 (weeks 1-13)
4:00 English Writing, class 1104 (weeks 1-4) *After the four weeks are over, we will have our faculty m
eetings at this time slot*

10:00 English Writing, class 1106 (weeks 1-4)
2:30 English Writing, class 1103 (week 1-4)

8:00 English Writing, class 1104 (weeks 1-13)
10:00 English Writing, class 1103 (weeks 1-13)

So, after the first four weeks, I will only have classes on Monday and Thursday. Not bad, huh?