July 19, 2006 - Editor's Note: Oro Valley Government and Community Relations Administrator Bob Kovitz is in China teaching the month of July and has agreed to write a weekly column about his experiences. This is the second in a series.
Thomas Edison and Sir Isaac Newton have both disappeared from our classes. Michael Jordan is also MIA, but another student replaced him who also insisted on being called Michael Jordan. And we added two boys who go by the names of Pumpkin and Zebra.
The first week of teaching American English to Chinese university sophomores was both exhausting and exciting. The students are particularly eager to learn American slang, so as a result of our classes they can now refer to one another as "poor suckers" and they also can tell when the cat has got their tongues.
On the pronunciation front, students have particular difficulties with the letters "r" and "l." Since I was able to get hold of a loaned guitar, I have been busy teaching them the University of California fight song that begins "Oh, they had to carry Harry to the ferry." My fellow University of Arizona teachers are not amused.
One of the most interesting exercises was asking the students to write about what they believed the world would be like in 100 years. Since they're all studying technology-related subjects, their essays reflected a lot of emphasis on computers, space travel and instantaneous learning through injection of all of the world's information. Out of 45 students, only one mentioned that there would be a cure for AIDS.
Each of the 35 teachers is assigned a teaching assistant. Our TAs are invaluable to us, making copies, operating the computers and projectors in our classrooms, and translating when certain terms become inexplicable. It is nearly impossible to access the Internet from the classrooms since the university and the government have them blocked, but some of the TAs have figured a way around the censors in case we have to "Google" during class.
I have been using American game show formats to get the students to practice their speaking. This week, we played "What's My Line," and we assigned Nevin, the 6-foot, 3-inch, basketball-playing sophomore, the occupation of ballet dancer. When the panelists couldn't guess his job, he was forced to demonstrate his dancing. His fellow students roared with laughter as he tried to jump around on his toes.
My wife Susan will be working with them on American food, asking them to research, shop and prepare a typical dinner party. In the meantime, I will be having the students send invitations to 10 people from history who might join us at the dinner table. They'll have to arrange the seating and explain why they'll place certain famous people next to each other.
As the first week finished, we surprised all of our students with an ice cream party. It's impossible to find gallon containers of ice cream, so our teaching assistants rode their bikes off campus and brought back 50 individual frozen ice cream sundaes from a nearby store. Because the weather is so unbearably hot, my serving was more like soup, but it was the sweetest soup I had tasted all week.
After distributing the ice cream, Susan and I cranked up the iPod and demonstrated swing and jitterbug dancing. Apparently, we were a big hit, but we also realized that these students' exposure to Western culture has been minimal. They live very sheltered lives - they've been grinding away at school for 15 years and they know very little about the outside world. Only a handful have even been to the Chinese capital of Beijing.
Many of the students have outstanding Engligh writing skills. Our job, then, is to get them to open up in class and to encourage them to begin to think in English rather than translating from Chinese in their heads.
Among the students, Julia Roberts and Forrest Gump are the best at expressing themselves orally, while Cherie, Rita and Drizzit are still struggling. So, it's interesting to read their carefully-written essays for a better representation of what's going on in their heads.
Fortunately, Susan and I have been assigned the more advanced students. So, introducing concepts and new ideas becomes easier for us while the other teachers in our group are still working with parts of speech and how to form sentences using the right verb tense.
Over the weekend, the students received two assignments: To track down jokes from Reader's Digest and to be prepared to tell them on Monday; and to send e-mails to my two stepdaughters who are spending the summer in Maryland.
All of the teachers are housed in an on-campus hotel, and we're bused daily to the classrooms. In the morning, everyone is chatty, discussing their ideas for the day. By the time we return to the classroom after lunch, the bus is remarkably quiet as we review what worked in the morning sessions and what has to be added or thrown out in the afternoon.
Next week, it's charades, "Let's Make A Deal," discussing teen pregnancy, and learning to sing "Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain." Don't be surprised if these students turn up in Oro Valley one day, most likely as engineers and executives of high-tech companies. Plus, they'll be able to lead us in the University of California fight song.