Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Magic of Travel

I travelled up north, inside china, last week… I went by D train which is their second-best in class (the G trains are best). I wished there was a G train available but sadly, D’s were all we could get.

It was a three hour journey, each way. On the way up, a cacophony of screaming infants accompanied a solid performance from the man seated beside me as he industriously fingered every last ball of snot from his nose and artistically flicked them asunder.

On the way back, I had a feverish woman beside me for most of the journey which was a blessing for the short game (the long game was a gamble of course, but you take any win you can get). When she got off a couple of men boldly stole the vacant seats until they were kicked out by the righteous ticket owners — two pregnant women each carrying infant boys, each seated atop their mothers' laps to avoid seat costs. Joy. The boy beside me decided that it was Boner Time and that he’d have a fiddle with it, which ultimately led him to the announcement, "Mummy, I’m gonna pee!". It took her considerable effort to convince him not to let loose where he sat. It took even more effort for me to fight the instinct of abandoning my seat for safer (and drier) grounds. To punish me for my obvious disgust, the kid later exploded with a sudden sneeze, streaming thick strands of white snot at me. As I had assumed a defensive posture early in the piece, he merely coated the back of one of my legs. The mother giggled and gallantly withheld the service of her pack of tissues. Class, all the way.

Of course, it’s miserable of me to be whining about my pathetic first world troubles, I know. There are farmers who’d give their left nut to have snot flicked at them as they lounged atop padded seats in air-conditioned comfort listening to the choir of Angels that screaming children are romantically equated to here, I know. I could have been seated beside something a lot more malicious than a mere feverish crone, I know. And the boy could well have let loose with a torrent of pee that would have had me stinking like an abandoned tom-cat throughout my remaining 2 hour subway ride across town after the train trip, I know. So, lord, or fate or the stars or the Spaghetti Monster… thanks for only letting it suck as much as it did. That was awesome. I almost want to do it again. After I forget some more.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Oral English classes in Chinese Universities

This post is my response to a question from Linked-In:

Many of my colleagues entertain students by showing movies, telling jokes, having fun role-plays, playing games etc. In these activities, should we merely be encouraging students to speak more using a variety of prompts or should we also be teaching grammar?

Note I tried posting this as my response on Linked-In, but ever since a troglodyte group owner banned me from his kingdom several years ago, I seem to have lost all rights to respond to all groups in Linked-In. Meh.

I have taught in Chinese Universities for over five years; English as a Foreign Language (EFL) for more than ten.

I never teach grammar; their Chinese English teachers do that. I do occasionally show examples of broken grammar and ask the students:

  1. Is there a problem?
  2. What/where is it?
  3. Fix it.
I accept any reasonable, grammatically correct fix to the sentence and point out changes in meaning when necessary. I don’t spend long on these moments and I don’t turn them into grammar lectures.

I do teach pronunciation, like linking and elision. I show the rules and we practice with example sentences. I teach the necessary background for this as well (like the syllable rules because linking depends on an understanding of syllable patterns).

I never show movies (unless it’s something like a TED with a definite purpose for watching it). I almost never use role-plays. They can be entertaining, but I see a lot of wasted time and the productions are often superficial. I should probably re-visit this tool to see if I can improve my use of it.

Of course I aim to have fun in class — it relaxes students and lets learning happen. I sometimes (but rarely) play EFL based games. One of my favourites is called "Wow!" where a word is written on the board behind a student standing at the front of the class and the other class members have to describe the word without using it or cognates. They’re not allowed to speak Chinese or use body-language (face/hands) or make sounds (like barking) either. I started playing "Wow!" as described but quickly converted it into a computer based solution so that students could quickly work through as many words as possible within their short time in front of the board. I now call this Marathon Wow!


I had a very inventive group of junior high school students who created their own English-based code for cracking the "Wow!" rules.

This was a decade ago and it was the very first time I tried "Wow!". What an adventure! These cunning kids immediately found ways to shortcut and "win". It was a war of escalation: They used hand gestures, so I introduced the "no hands" rule. They spelt words; a new rule. They mouthed words/spellings; rule. In the end, with their help, I came up with 7 water-tight rules for a happy and harmonious game of "Wow!".

Water-tight, I thought, until I noticed one group was winning so many more points than all of the others. I watched for cheating, assuming they were using gestures or mouthing answers but I couldn’t catch them. Then I realised that the English prompts their team-mates were giving couldn’t possibly cause the student at the board to think of the answer he so deftly produced. The look on my face told them the game was up. They laughed and confessed that they had devised a code for spelling the word by using English words.


So far this semester, I have not shown any movies or played any games. I chose this semester to teach my students about Critical Thinking and Creative Thinking. I have given them a semester-long project called "Think Big!" in which their group (5-7 members) presents a problem that exists in their world and various possible solutions. I have taught techniques like Reverse Brainstorming, PMI, Decision Matrix, Mind Mapping, Presentation Design and the rules of effective dialogue. The groups present their problem & solution and then lead a class-wide discussion based around the topic. They prepare questions to prompt dialogue but are not required to use any/all of them if the topic generates sufficient interest for spontaneous and enthusiastic discussion. I have successfully used this model before (with a different topic) and the students love the format.

To prepare them for this task I slowly (over the course of the first 10 weeks of semester) show them the various thinking, planning and presentation tools they need to produce good work. I show them examples of good work so they know what to aim for. I show them examples of bad thinking/planning/work so they know what to avoid.

I present thinking challenges in every class. Often these come from the students themselves when they talk to me outside of class. Because of this, the problems are often very real for the students so they are more motivated (and able) to ponder them and offer suggestions/solutions.

Another project I run concurrently during the first ten weeks is an opportunity for each student to tell the class something about themselves (this semester the topic is called "Five Minutes of Fame" where the students tell us about a talent, skill or achievement) and then answer questions from classmates. I record each week who presents and who asks questions — that participation constitutes a very large portion of their overall grade (and they are told so at the outset of the semester and reminded regularly throughout). I show a rank-sorted leaderboard before each class as an extra bit of motivation.

As my third and final assessment piece this semester, I am trying something new: I have asked the students to keep a Surprise Journal. They are required to show me their final journal and present to the class one of their surprise moments.

Each journal entry has the format:
  1. What surprised me?
  2. Why was it surprising?
  3. How has this changed me?
I spent the first few weeks inviting students to present surprise entries they had collected so far as a way to model expected behaviour for this assessment piece.

My goal is to get the students to use their English, not bore them with meaningless, isolated, disconnected snippets and exercises. They’ve done that throughout high school. In general, I get good participation and feedback — the students enjoy being given the opportunity to think and contribute their ideas.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Effective Teaching

In The First Days of School — Implementation Guide, Dr Wong posits that three characteristics make for an effective teacher:

  • Positive Expectations

  • Classroom Management

  • Lesson Mastery

Ineffective Teachers

Discussion question #5, Chapter 2, page 8 asks:

Why are all three characteristics of an effective teacher necessary?
Could you imagine a successful teacher only displaying two of the three characteristics?
Why, or why not?

It is easy to imagine teachers that fulfil only two of these three characteristics; none of them effective:

The Substitute

Positive Expectations + Classroom Management

These teachers know how to manage a classroom effectively and use appropriate praise and encouragement to inspire and motivate their students. The problem is, they don’t know their subject matter, or they don’t know how to effectively teach it. It’s great to have such teachers substitute for you in an emergency, but you wouldn’t want them carrying your core.

The Friend

Positive Expectations + Lesson Mastery

With well behaved students, these teachers appear to be effective. They encourage and motivate students with the right amount and type of praise and they really know how to teach their subject so that students are genuinely learning in class. The problem is when they are faced with unruly students. They lack the Classroom Management skills necessary to maintain an orderly room and recover from a chaotic one quickly & effectively. The misconception that they should be their students' friends causes an incorrect power distribution in the student-teacher relationship, rendering it ineffective.

The Moper

Classroom Management + Lesson Mastery

These teachers are capable of running a classroom efficiently and fairly. They know their subject matter and they really know how to teach it. The problem is they have somehow become jaded and as a result they have completely dropped all expectations of their students. They secretly or openly believe that there is no point in trying harder or expecting the students to try harder. They’ve lost faith in the system, their students and themselves.

The Tyrant

Classroom Management + Lesson Mastery

Just like the Miserable Moper, these teachers lack Positive Expectations. But rather than dropping them altogether, they have instead impossibly High Standards. Nothing seems to please these teachers and students rapidly grow weary of reaching for unachievable heights under the demoralising barrage of criticism relentlessly dished out by this mean and unyielding teacher.

The Effective Teacher

Positive Expectations + Classroom Management + Lesson Mastery

Positive Expectations

  • Give the right amount of praise for the right thing at the right time.

    • Carol Dweck says: Don’t praise their intelligence and talent; praise their process: their effort, strategies, focus, perseverance and improvements.

  • Encourage students to reach and extend themselves in a realistic way with clear expectations and constructive feedback.

Classroom Management
When I think of teachers with good Classroom Management skills, I remember them as being fair but firm. They have reasonable rules and are consistent in their application. Dr Wong recommends the use of Procedures to establish and maintain this situation.

Lesson Mastery
Knowing your subject matter is necessary but not sufficient to be an effective teacher. You must also be able to impart your knowledge and skills to your students. There are a vast number of techniques that teachers learn in order to ensure their students learn from their lessons.

The Accelerated Learning Handbook suggests these four components to ensure that learning occurs:


Prepare your students' minds for what they are about to learn and spark within them the desire to learn it.


Present the material in an engaging manner that embraces the learner as an active creator rather than a passive consumer.


Practice the material across many sessions spread out over increasing time gaps. Knowledge and skills are not consumed, they are created through deliberate, conscious, appropriate practice.


One of the single most effective ways to ensure learning is through testing. The mere act of being tested on material causes a greater amount of retention. This applies equally well to summative, formative and informal testing (where the student tests themselves).

Personal Reflection

I have certainly played The Moper and The Friend at various times throughout my career. I have occasionally stumbled on as The Tyrant. There have been rare moments in which I have felt out of my depth on the subject matter — teaching High School maths in Thailand, for instance — where I begrudgingly donned the robes of The Substitute.

Looking back, I have sometimes accidentally pulled off The Effective Teacher. The goal, looking forward, will be to do that deliberately.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Meaning of Life

How would you explain to a six-year old the Meaning of Life?

Holiday Plans

I currently teach freshmen oral English at a university in China. That’s what it says on my contract, but I aim a little higher in my actual classes. In the last week of classes this semester, I wrote on the board the following question:
What are your winter holiday plans?
I gave them a brief moment to read, internalise and start thinking about the answer and then said in alarm, "Oops! I forgot to write the question properly…" as I bounced over to the board and changed it to read:
What are your winter holiday study plans?
Which earned me a classroom-wide groan and screwed-up faces to which I gave my biggest, most oafish grin.

I let the laughter die down and then changed into Serious Mode and said: "I’m not joking."

You’ve Got To Be Joking

Chinese students are forced to study. A lot. In (and before) high school. All in preparation for the university entrance exams. Once you "make it" to university, though, everyone (the kids, the universities, the parents, society) all sit back and relax. Finishing university is a mere formality. All the kids have to do is coast and conform for another four years and they’ll get their little degrees and be out the door, on their way to the Promised Land.

The Promised Land

The Promised Land is the glorious, prosperous future that has been promised to them since early primary school; dangled as a carrot and wielded as a stick. It isn’t until the kids are months into the post graduation job hunt that they finally realise that the Promised Land was all a lie. There is no comfy, well paid job waiting for them. They are not the "talents" their little piece of paper asserts. They have simply moved from one institution to the next. And unlike their utopian entrance to university life where they had for the first time ever a taste of real freedoms, their transition into working life is far more miserable: mean bosses; competitive colleagues; hard work; long hours; little pay; familial pressure to marry and breed…


But as I said, I’m teaching freshmen at the moment so they don’t hear that message yet. I tell them. Some of the Chinese teachers tell them. But they can’t hear it yet. They’re still relaxing furiously; over-enjoying their free life. No surprises then that they should sneer at my question:
What are your winter holiday study plans?
So to break the ice, I calmly walked over to the board and wrote my own study plans for the winter holidays:
  • Continue with my Chinese studies
  • Start learning Japanese Hiragana
  • Learn to use Freeplane
  • Learn about and start playing n-back games
  • Keep working on LearnVim
  • Improve my existing Vim plugins and dev more
(okay, I didn’t really mention the Vim stuff)

In every class, this opened the door for the more lively students to offer some of their own study plans. And in every class, one or more boys brashly declared that Computer Games would be their sole focus all winter long, which would invariably receive knowing laughter from all in the room. These same boys and many beside them spent the whole semester doing exactly that — why should they aim to do anything else now that they have the permission to do so?

The Meaning of Life

Is this a meaningful life?

I opened this post with the question:
How would you explain to a six-year old the Meaning of Life?
I’m not sure how I would have answered until Neil deGrasse Tyson showed us all.

“I’ve been thinking about that!”

The magic word there is thinking. It’s sad not to see that spark of life in the blank eyes of my lost students. And I don’t know how to help them find it again. I hope they do though.