teaching

Feb 25, 2020

But what is it that you DO all day?

Working in the time of Covid-19

Oh, yeah. I’m still an English teacher for babies.

The lucky thing that makes all of this staying inside feasible is that while the kindergarten at which I work is closed, I’m still on the payroll. We’re teaching all of our lessons by video, via our class’ private chat group. It’s a new set of challenges — not the least of which is my propensity for making things far more complicated than they need to be. But, at the end of the day, I really like making movies, whether it’s for adults or babies.

Oct 19, 2018

Under the Jade Dragon Mountain: No murders today

Uncle’s Shorts #34

We’re upping our game this week; For the past month, we’ve been working behind-the-scenes on some new features for the Uncle’s Shorts. This week, we’re super excited to be rolling out some of those new bits: interviews and city shots … with much more to come in the future! It’s a way to move my face out of the spotlight, and put the focus more on Luzhou, and the cool and interesting people we know here. Both personally and creatively, it’s already been very fulfilling. We hope you like it, too.

But we don’t really mind if you don’t.

As for this episode: A massage and a supermarket cause and relieve anxiety for Emily this week, but not in that order. And, we talk to our old friend Jessi about her life.

The Kung Fu Boys were filmed in Black Dragon River Park, Lijiang in 2015. They wrote this movie for our English class. Filming was never completed due to attendance issues.

Sep 19, 2018

Humble shyness

Don’t be shy, just try!

The subhead of this post is something I used to chant with my middle schoolers, to get them comfortable with speaking while facing up to the possibility that they might make mistakes. But the substance of this weeks video is about those kids who are shy … and why they like me as their teacher.

Also, it was so hot our first week of school that the government called it off for a heat day; my first one of those. To me, it didn’t feel crazy hot … not more so than usual for Luzhou summer, but I did also spend the day in the air conditioning inside. And I’m not one to look a gift day off in the mouth. What?

Jul 27, 2018

Live stream #6: Steely Dan and some other stuff

Return of the Chipmunk Voice

The live stream is starting to really take shape, with recurring segments and everything! It’s getting easier and easier to talk for a full hour — because I take notes all week of things I want to talk about.

This week, toward the end, we have a riveting discussion about Steely Dan and their presence in Barrytown and elsewhere. And, I tell the saga of our electric bill, including what it takes to run enough air conditioning during the Luzhou summer.

Jul 6, 2018

English names for Chinese kids

And naming myself in Chinese

The way this video came together … well, originally I had intended it to be a short. Peter was encouraging me to film my thoughts on my way to and from work with my cellphone, straight-up vlogger style. So one day on my way home for lunch, I filmed the first piece (which I think appears third above; it’s the bit with the gray T-shirt, about the process of giving out names to my students). But this led to more and more thoughts, so I kept adding pieces. It turns out, I have a lot of thoughts about names.

It can be a fraught topic. I have had students decline to take an English name; for whatever reason, they don’t want one. Which I can understand. As a kid, I didn’t like it when people made nicknames out of my given name — everyone has a preference of how they’d like to be addressed, and I try to respect that. It’s much easier now that I have a little more Chinese, but also that my class sizes are no longer 60+ kids. If one out of eight wants to be called by their Chinese name, I can make that happen. It does take me longer to commit their name to memory, but I get there.

Another theme, that only briefly touched on in the video, is that the English name is far from permanent. Our friend Patrick has gone through a few different names in the time we’ve known him as his relationship with English has grown and changed from a high school student tucked away in Luzhou to a citizen of the world who interacts regularly with people from other countries and cultures. I think he’s living in Mexico these days. We also know a couple of students who’ve grown up and chosen to be exclusively called by their Chinese name. For example, I don’t think Curly answers to that name anymore. But that’s all part of the fun of trying out a new identity.

May 24, 2016

School is in session

What is it that you actually do?

Teaching from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

We don’t talk a lot about teaching on this blog, because … well, that’s just not what we’ve decided that this blog is about. But, as both a teacher of English and a learner of Mandarin, language is a huge part of my life. Recently, I’ve been really into phonics. Not because perfect pronunciation is the be-all and end-all of language success, but because learning to hear a foreign language’s phonemes properly goes a long way towards making that language a comprehensible set of inputs, rather than just some strange noises. And I think that process is fascinating.

Lily and Lisa are good friends with each other, but they have slightly different abilities in language learning. Lily is much more focused on reading skills, while Lisa has a lot of energy that can be channeled into lively activities. They are a goofy pair of nine-year-olds, curious and outgoing. Their class was a lot of fun for me, because they were eager learners with just enough inclination for getting off task as to keep me on my toes. Tangent-prone kids are often the most interesting.

The video above is an hour lesson condensed into ten minutes. We hit the four critical components of language — speaking, listening, reading and writing — and, of course, do a little phonics work. Check it out.

Jun 18, 2015

Video: Guitar with Mr. Super

No more school work, let’s make music

Guitar with Mr. Super from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

Graduation time is here, releasing a new crop of students out into the world, and freeing up their time for guitar lessons.

Zhang Yu Jie — formerly Mr. Super, an English name that he’s discarded — has been our friend for the past three years. Determined to improve his English, he would practice with us as much as he could, finding us between classes, walking with us wherever, getting in those precious few moments of face time during his busy school schedule.

On our part, we learned that he is a really sweet, hard-working young man. Raised on a farm by his grandparents with his twin sister Lily, he has big dreams. The video above takes from an interview we conducted last spring, and a group guitar lesson Peter gave last month with Lily and a few friends.

Jul 7, 2013

Year 2: More respect, less attack

Our life in China comes into better focus

Deconstructing China
Helen, me and TinaThe old school gets pretty roughed up
Left: Me, with Helen and Tina in the cafeteria. Right: The juniors are pretty rough on the old school …
Our grand computer, with no deskA typical Chinese apartment buildingThe view from the school's roof
Old city, new school
Mr. Super
In the bottom left corner you can see: Mr. Super!
The school's color guardYou gotta get that furniture across the bridge somehow
Left: The Tianfu Middle School color guard. Right: How else would you get your furniture from place to place?
Men play Chinese chess by the bridgeWe're out and aboutI love noodles
The noodle shop across the street from the old school is popular with both me and the juniors.
LuzhouThe business hotel
Business hotels are always impeccably decorated. They know just how to make the modern traveler feel fancy.
wo ai chuan chuan
Isn’t my Chinese calligraphy beautiful? It says: I love chuan chuan — in that delicious chuan chuan oil.

This year, we were much better teachers. It was obvious. We overhauled our lessons from last year, making them much more coherent and fun, and we actually interacted with the students rather than spending 40 minutes talking English at them and waiting for them to parrot it back. Classes just went more smoothly, we could feel it, but even more important was our students’ feedback: “That was a fun class,” “Thank you for teaching us,” “English is so interesting,” “TELL ME MORE!” On our last day of teaching, one student told Peter that he hadn’t cared about English before Peter’s class, but now he really enjoys it.

So with the lessons under better control, we ceased being single-purposed ESL teaching machines and relaxed into our role as sophomore foreigners, a little more at home in our adopted country. We made friends with the students, and had deep and meaningful conversations. And silly and irrelevant conversations. They gave us tips about where to travel, and insight on Chinese culture. They also let us know when school holidays and exams were coming up — oftentimes before our bosses did.

Tina, Jane, Helen and the gang remain a fixture; in fact, we just had dinner with them a few nights ago, where Helen invited us to visit her hometown of Yibin and take a tour of the Bamboo and Stone Seas. “It’s a sea,” Tina explained of the latter site, “… of stones!” We all laughed at the tautology of it.

We’ve also picked up another entourage centered on a student who calls himself Mr. Super. He is especially dedicated to practicing his English, seeking us out between almost every class. Edward, another member of the group, is also pretty passionate. He’s joined the school’s prestigious Singapore program, though he has no intention of going to university in Singapore. He just wants the rigorous English practice.

In class 24, I found a group of kids just mad about American pop culture. Jhon [sic], Storm, and Katrina are always picking my brain about which recent music videos and movies I’ve liked. Often, they’re better informed than I am. And in class 21 there was Jessica, who loves any and all things New York.

I have a whole slew of junior buddies, as well: from Amy who tries to shock me with her rebellious pre-teen attitude, to her cousin Barry — one of my gifted students — who would ask me to define stuff like “Silicon Valley” or give presentations to his class about Disney World. There’s also Cary, always demanding to watch TV instead of doing a class, but during each lesson falling out of his seat raising his hand to answer my questions. Of course Young Jane cannot be forgotten, my brash little buddy with a new favorite K-Pop group every week. And Sharon, my self-proclaimed “international translator,” who helped me out immensely when her class got wild.

Peter had his own junior translator, called the Interpreter (the non-blurry figure in this photo), who took an aggressive role in “assisting” Peter, which mostly consisted of shouting “Shut up!” at his fellow students. After class, one day, he helpfully pointed something out by the ping pong tables: “There’s a snake over here!” he said, delighted. “Is it very big?” Peter asked. “No.” the Interpreter replied. “Is it dangerous?” Peter asked. “Yes!” he said. And then he went to go find it.

We reconnected with some of last year’s students, too. Angie, my student from my first ever day in the classroom who told me not to be nervous, pops up from time to time and asks, “Do you remember me?” Which, of course I do. Especially since this year she helped us carry some heavy luggage the half-mile from the bus stop to our apartment. A boy we call the Crane (after his role in this performance of “Kung Fu Panda”) is another recurring character. I spent a lot of time this spring coaching him in his ultimately successful effort to win a full scholarship to university in Singapore. “It was thanks to you I did so well,” he told me. “No way,” I said. “It was your hard work. You deserve it!”

Life outside of school also gained more depth. It took us a few months to get used to living out in the countryside, but these days, we really feel welcome in this small community. We still primarily eat at BBQ or Tofu Soup every night, but we’ve got our friends all up and down the street. Last night, we sat and drank deliciously cold beers with the owner of our regular bodega (of course, while we waited for Tofu to open), and we practiced some small talk with her. I think I even managed to tell her that my parents are coming to visit later this summer.

We’re a big hit with the babies and young children, who stare and laugh at our weird white faces. “Foreigners!” they cry. When we wave hello, they run away, thrilled and delighted. It’s a strange game, but we don’t mind playing along. And they get used to us. The three-year-old son of the owners of Tofu Soup was initially terrified of us. Like, he wouldn’t even look at us. But after Peter offered him a peanut the other night, he’s starting to warm up. He’ll even wave at us sometimes — with a hilariously conflicted look on his face — as long as his dad is nearby.

My Chinese has been getting better and better, meaning I can talk with people who aren’t Peter, English students or English teachers! Locals approach us at dinner, cab drivers have questions for us, shop owners exchange pleasantries. A couple of nights ago, while waiting for the bus, I had my most complex conversation to date, with a pair of laborers who are working on the road being constructed just outside the school gates. It was still pretty basic stuff: “Where are you from?” “America. Where are you from?” “How about that Chinese food. I see you in town eating from time to time.” “We love it.” And so on. But we had new verbs, reference to the passage of time (Chinese verbs don’t have tense, so the grammar does it another way), and, of course, talk about food.

It all makes Luzhou feel like more of a home (even as we’re making plans to move on after next year), and we’ve finally got our feet under us. China still feels foreign, but much less overwhelming.

Luzhou city center
The busy city center of our adopted hometown. We love Luzhou!

Aug 26, 2012

Best English

Summer fun at summer school

The Best English class
From left to right: Judy, Nancy, Linda, Sophie and Jerry. Sadly missing on picture day were Bill and Yong Mei You.

My other summer job, I enjoyed much more. It was at a private English-language instruction school called Best English, and I had a class of 7 kids between the ages of 7 and 12.

As you might guess, the difference in skill level between the 7-year-old and the 12-year old was considerable, but as it was a small class, that didn’t present too much of a challenge. I got to try out all kinds of games and activities on them that we’re planning on incorporating into our lessons this year. It was a nice little laboratory in addition to being a pretty fun time hanging out with some cool kids.

Aug 21, 2012

Teaching the teachers

It doesn’t always have to make sense

Dinner with new colleagues
Here we are at a welcome dinner with my colleagues from the Luzhou teacher training program, including two other westerners!

To give a little structure to my three-month vacation (life is hard!), I picked up some teaching work during the month of July. One of these gigs was a week-and-a-half course at Luzhou Teacher’s College, where my students would be teachers from all over the area.

I was teamed up with two British guys who informed me that Peter and I were actually 2 of 6 westerners that lived and taught in Luzhou! We’d had glimpses of other westerners during the year, so it was nice to get an explanation.

The work itself was pretty intense. It didn’t become clear to me until after we started teaching that this course was not specifically meant to be an English course; what they really wanted was a course demonstrating western teaching methods taught in English. My students weren’t all English teachers, and some of them didn’t really even understand English that well. This was really frustrating. The only experience I have with western education was attending it, and I felt totally under qualified to instruct others in its methods using a language that we didn’t even have in common. I spent my first few evenings after work railing to Peter about the absurdity and inefficiency of the whole thing.

A huge part of my personal growth in China has been learning to not get so worked up when things are presented illogically or inefficiently. We’re constantly confronted with situations that leave me asking “WHY ARE WE DOING THIS THIS WAY? IT DOESN’T MAKE ANY SENSE!” But the only one bothered about the why or making any sense is me. Which means the only person it’s a problem for is me.

So I chilled out. The class never became super fun for me, but there were some bright spots. One of my students in particular, Ella, was just a joy to see every day. Her English was flawless, but she was also really passionate about learning and teaching. (At the end of the course, she told me that I showed her how to be patient and respectful with difficult students, and I almost cried!)

It was also interesting to hear from the teachers from the smaller villages that are just outside Luzhou. The conditions they work under are very, very hard. Not having the funding of city schools, their institutions are crumbling and overcrowded; Some of them have 80 kids to a classroom. Teacher shortages mean that some years the Chinese teacher has to be the chemistry teacher also.

Their job is also critical to their students. “These children can have a better life if they go to school,” one of my students said in class. Another added that, because often the parents are migrant workers who don’t live with their children, “the teachers become the students’ mom.”

“Teaching offers us something besides money and power,” said one of my few male students, when asked why he became a teacher. “It offers us love.”

So, yes, it was difficult when my adult students who were also teachers would show up without doing their homework or say “no thank you” when I asked them to participate in class, but it was an informative experience.