Monday, May 10, 2010

Teach Chinese. In Oklahoma.

An article in the New York Times about Chinese teachers coming to the United States to be language instructors in American classrooms. The headline is, "Guest-Teaching Chinese, and Learning America" which already hints at how the issue is framed.

There are some funny points that contrast the American education system and the Chinese one. For example: “In China,” she said after class, “if you teach the students and they don’t get it, that’s their problem. Here if they don’t get it, you teach it again.”

In theory, America has a more open education system that teaches critical thinking and makes space for personal expression and creativity. These are excellent qualities for an education system that I fully support, and hope can be emulated by others. However, the reality of the American classroom is also starkly in focus in this article. With rude students who aren't serious about learning (and sometimes blatantly disrespectful), the impression of America doesn't always come off well.

Some choice lines from the article:

"In interviews, several other Chinese teachers said they had some difficulties adjusting to the informality of American schools after working in a country where students leap to attention when a teacher enters the room."

"One Chinese teacher who has built a successful language program in Wisconsin, Hongmei Zhao, said a few students sometimes disrupted classes by speaking English so rapidly that she cannot understand them. “Then the whole class laughs, maybe because of my accent,” Ms. Zhao said."

My first reaction was, "Wow, screw you, idiotic kids! If you're going to be rude, just don't take the class. No one is forcing you to be there, learning Chinese." But then I thought, maybe if we don't continue to engage and give them an opportunity to change, then they're just going to be left behind. Teachers really are important in the lives of their students, and maybe they can help change minds by being more patient and understanding -- by treating their students with love.

There is a question of streamlining though: should we put the best, most serious students on one track, while nominal students are on another? It doesn't seem fair to hold back a few talented and serious students, to make them suffer in an inhospitable context not conducive to learning, when they could be excelling in a classroom with motivated peers. But we should also not ignore or 忽略 those students who are not as quick at picking up new skills.

But part of the problem may also be a lack of a culture of learning and studying in the U.S. What is happening in our schools if not this? It is a little problematic. [See blog post on schools in S. Korea and Finland.]

Ms. Zheng said none of her students had been disagreeable ... [but] she believed that teachers got little respect in America. “This country doesn’t value teachers, and that upsets me,” she said. “Teachers don’t earn much, and this country worships making money. In China, teachers don’t earn a lot either, but it’s a very honorable career.”

Here's a rather interesting quote:

Barry Beauchamp, the Lawton superintendent, said he was thrilled to have Ms. Zheng and two other Chinese instructors working in the district. But he said he believed that the guest teachers were learning the most from the cultural exchange. “Part of them coming here is us indoctrinating them about our great country and our freedoms,” he said. “We’ve seen them go to church and to family reunions, country music concerts, rodeos. So it’s been interesting to see them soak up our culture.”

Erk ... this is just so ... culturally problematic urgh ... There are almost intimations of cultural imperialism, a missionary attitude -- "We'll bring them over and Christianize and democratize them." I don't have a problem with inculcating new norms and ideas and introducing people to our way of life -- but it should be founded on an idea of mutual respect, of tolerance and pluralism. It should not be about waving *our awesomeness" in their faces and trying to shove it down their throats -- that feels very threatening, makes them defensive, and is the quickest road to rejection. Instead, people should observe and make their own judgments about the positive qualities and desirableness of certain traits. We shouldn't just assume everything about our system is superior -- there are things we can learn from each other -- even basic issues like respect for elders and teachers. The phrase "our great country and our freedoms" is what really pushes my buttons.

I love this country -- the ideals it embodies and the opportunities it represents. But I don't like the moralizing and lecturing; it feels very self-satisfied and complacent, rather than expressing concern for the well-being of others.

Some more hilarious aspects of America featured in the article:

Our fat-ness:
After her morning classes, Ms. Zheng drove west through Lawton in search of lunch, passing a seed elevator. The Buick fought a stiff wind that had kicked up a vast khaki-colored dust cloud. Pulling into a Burger King, she ordered a fish sandwich. “I’ve gained 10 pounds in Oklahoma,” she said.

Our inefficient vehicles:
Some districts pay more, but Lawton is one of the few that lends their guest teachers a car — in Ms. Zheng’s case, a lumbering blue Buick Century once used for drivers’ education.

Our ignorance of the world -- always looking in:
That afternoon, Ms. Zheng taught classes at Central Middle School, drilling 22 eighth graders on how to count to 100 in Chinese and explaining some Chinese holidays before turning her back to write a Chinese tongue twister on the board. Out of the blue, a girl with long brown hair asked her classmates loudly: “Where’s France at?” “In Europe,” a boy with baggy jeans called out from across the room. “France is not in Europe,” another boy said. Ms. Zheng just kept writing Chinese characters on the board. “American students don’t know a lot about the outside world,” she said later. “Mostly just what they see here.”

It's possible the students knew exactly what they were doing -- they were just being sarcastic (and random) in an attempt to disrupt class. Simply juvenile. And what a waste of space. I know I should be more patient, but it's pretty frustrating to see people behave this way in the classroom, when there's actual teaching going on. There are lots of other kids out there who would love to be in your seat studying. Teachers can command respect if they live up to their duty and do things properly. But students should also behave in a proper fashion, too. Doesn't require obsequiousness, just an attempt to do your part.

No comments: