Saturday, September 8, 2012

My First Week In The Trenches

I did it!  I made it through the first week of teaching! 

My mind, body, and soul are exhausted.  I feel like a first year teacher all over again.

It all started on Monday morning around 9:20 am Shanghai time.  After a 90 minute commute via foot, bus, and subway I arrived at the Shanghai Daning International school, where I teach English to first, second and fourth grade students for one hour twice a week.  If there were one word to describe SDIS, it would be nirvana.  When you walk into the school, you are greeted with a jumbotron showing highlights of school activities.  Students in darling uniforms run around the perfectly manicured playground, complete with a rock wall.  The students are very intelligent, and the teachers all seem extremely happy.  One of the biggest perks of working at this school is that all of the teachers are bilingual.  (They all speak Chinese and English.)  The teachers love to collaborate with the foreign teachers (that would be me and my friend, Meagan) and the classrooms have Promethian boards!!!  (This means I get to try everything I have been teaching others to use for the past 5 years!)  The average class size is around 15-25 kids.  Needless to say, I am a very happy camper here!

My fourth grade students stand at attention at the end of the Chinese National Anthem.
In spite of my fabo surroundings, I was very nervous about teaching first graders how to speak English. We were told that many of them have never spoken English before we walked into their classroom. My fears melted when a darling first grade Chinese girl walked up to my desk before class.

Student:  Hello Teacher! (Imagine a tiny British accent)
Me (trying to get set up for class):  Hello Sweetie.  (I still don’t know their names…it was day one and class had not started.)
Student: I would like to sing a song for you. 
Me: Okay…  (I was expecting something simple, like “Mary had a Little Lamb” or “Three Blind Mice”.)

She proceeded to belt,
“I throw my hands up in the air sometimes
Saying AYO!
Gotta let go!
I wanna celebrate and live my life
Saying AYO!
Baby, let's go!”  She then switched songs and serenaded me with “A Whole New World” from the movie Aladdin in its entirety.

So much for the kids not knowing any English.  It took every teacher cell in my body not to laugh or dance along with her.  It was too sweet!

I would say about 90% of the kiddos at the school have both Chinese and English names.  If the student had no English name, I had the responsibility of “naming” them.  This was a serious job.  I needed to be certain their English name was sturdy enough to appear on a Harvard application, but not be the same name as annoying students in my past. 

As part of my first day agenda, I would ask each student his or her name.  If a student did not have an English name he or she would usually look at me with a blank stare, and a classmate would say,
            “He doesn’t have an English name.”
I would then look at the child, and assign him a name that fit his or her personality.

One little nameless boy needed a new English identity.  I took a close look…he looked like a Michael.  I asked him if he would like to be called Michael, and he said okay.  We shortened it to Mike for ease of use and I moved on.

At the end of class I heard a tiny voice yell, “Teacher, Teacher!”  Michael came up to my desk.

“Yes sweetie?”
“I don’t like it.”
“What don’t you like?  I asked.
“My name.” he replied.
I immediately felt guilty for my bad choice.
“Okay sweetie, what would you rather be called? “  I asked.
“Three.”  He responded
I choked back a laugh.
“Yes, Three. 
“Honey, that is not a usual English name, are you sure you don’t want a different name?” I asked.
“Well okay then. It is nice to meet you, Three.” I replied.
“It is nice to meet you too.  Goodbye Teacher.”

Teaching in China is not always easy.  After my morning classes, I jumped in a cab took another 20 minute commute to my second school. 

As we pulled up to my afternoon school, I learned that I would not be teaching in the school.  I would be teaching in a smoky conference room. The Chinese government forbids teaching private lessons in government school least on sunny days.  My teaching conditions were not what I expected…at all.

This is my classroom before.

This is my classroom after.

After murmuring, “I will make this work.  It will be okay.” about 50 times, I knew I had to get my act together. I have taught for eleven years, I can pull off teaching English to kiddos without desks, books, and a projector…I think. 

How do you like that SMART board?
This is my friend Megan's room.  Luckily she has a rolling blackboard she uses.

After school teaching is kind of like herding cats.  The kids have pretty much checked out and are ready to go home, and it is my job to keep them learning and entertained.  After two 35 minute sessions of Dr. Jean songs, SHINE raps, introductions, and more I was beat.  Every bone in my body was aching.  I wanted to hop in a cab, drink a huge bottle of water, and go to bed.  After one hour in traffic, I did exactly that. 
You can take the girl out of the Beech, but you can't take the Beech out of the girl!

My Tuesdays and Wednesdays are nice.  Classroom hours don’t start until 3:30, and I head for home by 4:50.  This leaves me plenty of time to plan my lessons for the week during the day, and I am full of energy for the afternoon crew. 

My after school students participate in Chinese eye relaxing exercises in their classroom.  Twice a day this eery music with a woman's voice  plays on the PA system and students rub their eyes and parts of their face for about 5 minutes.  Notice that we are in the school building, not in my normal classroom.  If it is rainy outside, we can use the students' classroom.

Since I did not have anything formally scheduled for Wednesday morning, my coordinator thought it would be a good idea to meet my Friday school colleagues.

On Friday mornings, I teach two 6th grade English classes and one drama class at a foreign language magnet middle school.  If you would have told me one year ago that I would be teaching drama to sixth graders in Shanghai, China, I would have told you that you were insane.  

After going through a rapid-fire interview with the headmaster, a local English teacher handed me a “Little Red Riding Hood” reader’s theater script. 

“Could you do this play with the drama class?” she asked.
“Sure!  Not a problem!” I replied.  I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

Much later that evening, I picked up the script and started planning my drama lesson.  This version of “Little Red Riding Hood” was not the story of my childhood where Grandma was locked in a closet, and Little Red Riding Hood ran away.  This morbid version included Grandma and Little Red getting eaten by the wolf, a hunter performing a c-section with classroom scissors to free Little Red and Grandma from the wolf, Little Red and Grandma filling the Wolf’s stomach with bricks, and the hunter finally shooting the wolf.  Awesome.  Unfortunately, Chris was sleeping so I could not wake him to determine whether or not I was hallucinating.  I know toy guns are allowed in Chinese schools so I had the shooting covered, but how in the world was I going to be able to pull off a c-section with scissors?  I knew it was time for bed.

Fortunately my sixth graders are awesome, and the school is beautiful. 

My middle school.
There are only 35 kids in the entire school, so class sizes are tiny. The students are energetic and enthusiastic, so my first class flew by.  

Around noon, it was time for drama.  I figured the best way to start a drama class would be by having the kids participate in an improv activity.  This way I could see who had natural acting ability for casting purposes.  I walked into the classroom and asked,
     “Hello!  How are you all today?”  One little boy yelled out,
     “I am full!”  This was a great opportunity!  I could see who was up for the Big Bad Wolf with a belly full of bricks.  I had all of the kiddos pretend they were a Thanksgiving Day level of full.  Immediately, all of the kids started rubbing their stomachs and started groaning.  I asked a little girl,
     “How are you?”
     “I am full.  I ate too many French Fries.” She groaned
     “Where did you eat your French Fries?” I moaned.
     “At McDonalds.” She whined
     “So you have a McBrick?” I asked.  I had to go there.
     “A what?” she asked
    “A McBrick.  It is the feeling you have after you eat too much McDonalds.”

The class cracked up.  I am proud to say I taught Chinese kids about McBricks.  It is these special moments that make me love my job.

Unfortunately, we ran out of time before we were able to reach the c-section portion during the cold read of Little Red Riding Hood, but I will gladly share what happens as soon as we get there.

This school year is going to be a huge adventure.  I look forward to embarking on a year of MacGyver style teaching and growing as a professional.  There will be more classroom stories to come!