Wednesday, June 22, 2005

These videos I was given

Since I arrived in Shenzhen a couple of days ago I've been spending my mornings and afternoons in an office on the seventh floor of the Modern Education Technical Research Institute with Mr. Xu, my mentor here. Our first encounter was interesting, as he had agreed to stay in his office until I arrived from the airport sometime around 7pm. Of course the weather around China, and especially the south, has not been very conducive to air travel (it has rained every day since I arrived in Shenzhen with little sign of change in the next three or four days) and my flight was predictably delayed by about an hour. I had only a piece of paper that Minjie had written for me in Shanghai to show my taxi driver at the airport, and I quickly ascertained that he did not know the exact location of my destination. Fortunately Minjie had the foresight to include Mr. Xu's mobile phone number on the paper, and once we got to the general area of the METRI, he was able to call Xu to get exact directions.
When I first approached the building my driver had so enthusiastically pointed out to me as my destination, I was sure they were closed. On two of the three large, clear glass double doors I could clearly see bicycle locks. The third set of doors I noticed were not locked shut, but this appeared to be for the purpose of allowing the night cleaning staff access to the building. I tentatively wheeled my two bags of luggage and laptop shoulder bag through the door and leaned them up against a wall.
Wandering around the lobby of the building I noticed a directory near the elevators. While it did provide me with information by which to make a guess about what floor Mr. Xu's office might be on, it did not tell me explicitly and I was beginning to consider leaving in the hopes of finding another person with a mobile phone to call him again. Then I heard voices from down a hall.
What looked like a member of the cleaning crew appeared in the lobby and to my surprise, did not immediately attempt to address me, instead seeming unusually disinterested in me. As he walked past on his way out of the building, I was able to get his attention with the paper Minjie had written for me. His enthusiastic response encouraged the assertion that I was at least in the right building and, after yelling to an unseen coworker, he even guided me (luggage in tow) to the elevators and told me "seven".
As I waited for the elevator to open and take me to the seventh floor, a young man with short hair appeared from around the corner, nodded his head politely, and continued to the exit. I thought about asking him about Mr. Xu, but he was past me so quickly I wasn't able. "White people wandering around here must not be that rare of an occurrence," I thought to myself. When I arrived on the seventh floor of the building I noticed that all the lights were off in every office. I didn't know whether to go left or right, but chose right and hoped to come across some sort of name tag on an office wall.
My visit here has so far been punctuated by enlightening moments in awkward situations when I am able to finally remove myself from the scenario enough to see it for its true absurdity. Most of these moments have been the result of various communication barriers, but the moment of my wandering down a dark hallway on the seventh floor in an abandoned business building at 8 o'clock in the evening with my rolling suitcase behind me and nobody around was surely one of the most absurd of such moments to realize.
I had no sooner come to get this third-person picture of myself and feel a little smile come to my face when a voice beckoned me from back by the elevator. It was the young man with short hair from before, Mr. Xu. We both laughed at having passed each other downstairs and left for the housing building that holds both of our rooms (conveniently next door to each other). Xu then took me to eat at a Hunan restaurant (the different areas of China have very different cuisines, with Hunan being defined by its spicy flavors) before telling me about his family and wife on the walk back.
The next day, as Xu prepared to leave for Guangdong for an interview about teaching technology, I was given some CDs with some videos of Chinese students in English class. I assume that the footage was taken at the experimental elementary school next to our housing and just a block from the METRI, but I don't actually know. I took time yesterday while Xu was gone to watch the videos and take some notes, the content of which I thought I might share.
First I should say that the lessons are very impressive, employing the use of technology to a level I have yet to witness in any U.S. classroom. Each student is outfitted with a computer, either all laptops or all desktops depending upon the room, and the teacher has a large projection screen with a computer feed.
Every lesson I have watched so far proceeds through a fairly regimented, but highly effective from an educational principles point of view, structure. The entire lesson is conducted exclusively in English beginning with the teacher greeting the second grade students, to which they respond appropriately and collectively. The class then moves into reciting a song they have apparently learned previously, complete with hand motions and accompanying music. Then the teacher introduces the topic to the class, pointing to several laminated words on the blackboard that correspond to the lesson. A couple of verbal examples are given and the teacher may use the large screen for reinforcement using custom created software accessed through the Internet.
Each child is then allowed to individually browse stories on the Internet with headphones, encouraged by the teacher to speak aloud when prompted. The software is perhaps the most impressive component of the entire affair, with kid-friendly animations, text on the screen with accompanying narration in English, and many opportunities for the students themselves to speak. Each student proceeds at their own pace through the lesson until the teacher calls the class back to order. At this point, the lesson is collectively reviewed on the board, complete with laminated words and illustrations that match those seen on the computer. Then a review game of some kind is played in front of the class using volunteers. After a few students, and perhaps even the teacher have participated in the game, the students are instructed to group themselves together in preparation for role playing.
Five minutes are given for each group to select one of the stories they just read and practice. When time is up, the class erupts with students loudly reenacting the characters and situations from their selected tale. They may do so for several minutes, referring back to the computer to remember their lines and get their pronunciation right. After an ample amount of time the teacher invites the groups to perform their story until class time ends. While there are many impressive aspects to this method of teaching, perhaps the most impressive is that all of this is accomplished with 40-50 students in the class.
I told myself that I would try to keep my posts short, and until today it seemed to have been going fairly well. Tomorrow though, I am going to try and post on a topic that has been on my mind since I got here: "Should America fear China?". I would be surprised if I were able to wrap it up in any less space than today's entry. Maybe you'll get lucky though, and I'll just post another picture or something. -joe

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