This week my students and I celebrated the completion their Midterm exams by climbing Guyuan Mountain, the park right next to the University.
Facing West from the top of the stairs, I took a photo of campus! Click here to see a map of campus that I have labeled. The circled building is the English Building. The school bus conveniently drops me off right there, at the South Gate, every day. The arrow is the West Gate, or the main entrance to the school. From here I can wait for the #10 city bus to get me back home or flag down a taxi. The red “L” is the Library and the red line are the student dormitories. The campus has 2 dining halls, Han and Hui to meet the religious eating restrictions of the students. Pretty much all the other buildings are other department classrooms.
The red buildings in the right, upperhand corner is the Hui Middle School. Since it is so close to the University, the school has built a relationship with them to send student teachers over. Last week, I was able to sit in on a few classes taught by Ningxia University seniors. The purpose was to evaluate their student teaching but I learned much more about the students and where they come from. It turns out that most of the students that attend the Hui Middle School come in from the countryside. Education is still very poor in the countryside, with limited schooling available or one-room schoolhouses. Parents send their children into the city to study for the week and then the children go home for the weekend. Unlike students who grow up in the city, these students receive little or no English lessons in primary school.
Schooldays are long for middle school and high school students. They are in class approximately from 8:00am to 12:00 then 14:00 to 18:00. And in preparation for college entrance exams, high school students go to classes on Saturdays as well. With so many students and limited spots for higher education, the college entrance exams are taken with the utmost seriousness. I have heard that only a third of students who take the exam actually pass the exam and continue to further education. With such a high emphasis placed on these college entrance exams, after being admitted to a university many students don’t take college as seriously. They go from a strict and draining education to one where they only have class half a day and in some cases significantly less homework. When I ask my students what they do outside of class, they respond, “sleep.” So because of their past schooling, there is pressure on us as foreign teachers to “be strict” and “give lots of homework” so that the students don’t get too lazy.
I have struggled with giving homework because my class is Oral English. Its entire purpose is fluency and growth in conversation. If I assign oral homework and trust the students on their honor to actually do their assignment, it obviously isn’t practiced by most students so I also resort to written homework. Now, you would think that written English would improve my students spoken English but that is not the case. In early Chinese schooling, and emphasis is placed on reading and writing, not speaking. So while my students can write very well, their words on paper do not know how to make it into their mouths! Similarly, their mistakes on paper reflect high school habits. I have found that for some of my students, the mistakes they make on paper are not mistakes they make when they speak and vis versa.
So I am giving written homework to keep up their academic discipline, yet they don’t like to do it and I don’t like to grade their papers, and in the end it hardly benefits them! Haha, how ironic! Anyway, this is why I gave them an Oral Midterm exam and will continue to find sneaky ways to test them in this way as the semester progresses. You should have seen my students faces when I told them their Midterm would be entirely oral! They were terrified! But despite their nervousness, they did pretty well. Their two-part test included oral questioning and a role play. Visiting me in assigned pairs, they answered two questions each by picking a playing card that corresponded to my list of prewritten questions. This allowed me to easily pick out the students who were actively improving and those that were not. Then the pair ‘performed’ their prepared role play based on a scenario I had assigned (Doctor/Patient, Tourist/Tour Guide, or Salesperson/Shopper). The role plays were great! My students displayed ability to converse well, display a knowledge of vocabulary, and think creatively. But, they had time to prepare and practice. So what I learned from all this is that my students are improving in conversation through an expanded vocabulary and improved pronunciation, but their fluency and ability to answer a question on the spot it slow moving. It takes time. I pray that my students will not let their motivation to slack as the semester continues but speak forward with confidence and endurance.