The classes of spoken English and debate differed from the writing classes I handled before because I could let loose and finally focus on what I believed the Chinese students needed most — increased practice time in English with a foreigner. Although I tried to maximize each student’s speaking time even in writing class, it was easier to do with a mandate to teach yingyu kouyu (spoken English).
We discussed TED Talks and videos I curated especially for them. They watched Shark Tank and delivered their own business pitches. They sang songs and enacted TV shows and movies. Impromptu and prepared debates kept them on their toes. We had crazy fun with improvisation, with me intervening at some points. I was surprised at the courage of a few students who getting the hang of the moment, inserted themselves into the scenes without being prompted.
Still there were people who stayed in their shells and only the regular stars shone. I had to figure out a way for more, if not all to shine. The exam presentation allowed them freedom to choose anything they wanted to present in the way they saw fit. They could work solo, in pairs or in groups. Budding, creative playwrights came out of the woodwork. Some shy souls emerged with striking speeches. Overall, it was a great show but there were still those refused to come out of their non-committal positions, blending into the background.
Finally, an added part of the exam coaxed them out of their tight-lipped comfort zone: a five-minute one-on-one conversation with me about anything they wanted. One of my friends told me that five minutes was too long per student. Three is enough, he said. But I thought five minutes was enough to see the comfort and discomfort levels in using a second language. Some squirmed after three minutes but that was precisely part of the test. Those who were utterly comfortable went beyond five minutes and I let them because it was after all, about the sheer enjoyment of conversation.
I was moved when one student said that after seeing photos of my kids on WeChat she imagined what it would be like if she were my child. I wanted to tell her that I often thought of my students as my daughters and sons, especially the particularly challenging ones in class — students who made me question myself, where I stood in the teaching spectrum, my techniques, my attitude towards those who were more difficult than run of the mill, how to treat those who went out of line but not necessarily in a good way. How would I handle it if that person was my son or daughter?
I only wish I could have had one-on-one five-minute free talk sessions with my past writing students. I finally hit upon an exam method where 80% of the students can shine their brightest, no holds barred and on their own terms. I was aiming for 100% but I’m grateful for the turn-out, tears shed, stories shared, hearts opened and minds launched like rockets.
Pictures of some of the student performances are uploaded here on Slideshare:
To my students:
I’m sorry that Slideshare is not available in China. I’m sure you would be happy to see the pictures. If you have a VPN or know somebody who does, you can click on the link above. If you want your pictures to be included, you can send them to me thru WeChat. Thank you again for sharing your life, dreams, creativity and talents. It has been a great privilege for me to see you stretch beyond your self-perceived and self-imposed limitations. Always remember that there are no limits to what you can do.