Guest blogger Stuart Beaton, aka Our Man in Tianjin, is back with a fascinating post about teaching students outside the classroom. Stuart is a former China Daily columnist and has a fabulous author podcast site at http://rastous.podomatic.com. Here’s Stu:
There are times when I think I have one of the best jobs going.
Granted, it can be a long time between thinking these thoughts, and these periods are often punctuated by overwhelming thoughts along the lines of “How many years would I get if I just turned around and strangled one of these little bastards?”… but sometimes, sometimes, being a Professor in a Chinese University can be great.
I’m not going to dwell on the dark times here, as I can find enough places online to sum them up.
No, today, I am going to speak of the joys of escaping the confines of a standard issue lecture theatre or classroom.
I spend all but one of my contact periods each week in the same grubby spot – Building 26B, Room 110. In Winter, the wind wails down the corridor like a banshee, and in Summer the air hangs hot and lifeless – either way it saps the will to live, let alone learn.
Inside the room, on a good day, the computer and speaker system will work properly. When it doesn’t, there’s a flurry of sending a student off to negotiate a key to another room, and we all trek off to try again. The age of the dry erase white board is not yet come upon us either, so if I make the decision to actually write something so that students can see it, it’s with chalk on a blackboard… and not the dustless chalk, either.
I seem to have managed to move tangentially away from what going to talk about, once again… so sorry, let me drag this back to the better things.
It’s Spring here in the Middle Kingdom, and the trees are in blossom here on the campus. In fact it’s “The Crab Apple Festival”, although most of the best blooms are actually ornamental cherries (something my students can’t believe, after all, it’s “The Crab Apple Festival”, they must, therefore, be Crab Apples… sigh).
To take advantage of this newly sprouted green, and the much improved weather, I’ve been taking my classes outside – after all, speaking tasks don’t function best when the students are seated in rows, so why not form a circle to tell stories in. My writing classes have been tasked to “go and find somewhere to sit and write about what surrounds you” (with the proviso that they don’t surround each other, but spread out!), and that has resulted in a marked improvement over pieces produced “in captivity”.
Towards the end of last semester I did some baking with one of my writing classes, to illustrate some of the points we’d covered throughout the course – descriptions, instructions, processes and so on – which lead to a general interest in ideas about food.
Well, I must admit that food has always played a big part in my courses – as it does in my life. I spend ages each week picking over recipe books, watching TV shows, and generally pottering and practicing techniques in my kitchen.
So why not share a broader picture of food with the students?
One of my bright sparks suggested a trip to the local supermarket, which I wasn’t too keen on. Whenever you get a foreigner talking to a group of Chinese people, you suddenly have an far larger audience than just the ones you started with.
Couple that with the generally crowded aisles of the Carrefour near me, and I don’t think we’d be very welcome there – stopping people shopping tends to make managers pretty angry.
Where could I take them that wasn’t so cramped, or crowded?
Gazing at my desk, I absent mindedly fiddled with my shopping list, penciling in custard tart shells, when it hit me.
Take them all to Metro, the restaurant and catering wholesaler I go to for my bulk supplies.
The bus to Metro stops a couple of hundred metres outside the Uni’s gates, and the aisles and customers out there are certainly further apart. Metro also has the advantage of carrying things that ordinary supermarkets don’t… and I could do my shopping at the same time.
Thus a plan was hatched, classes shuffled around, and last Thursday, Class A and I set off to Metro.
Of course, this being China, nothing will ever quite go smoothly, and we nearly lost two students before we got on the bus. Time management skills seem to elude the male students in my classes, and they just don’t know how to arrive on time, having had breakfast. This resulted in two idiots bolting for a local café to buy bread, and then having to dodge traffic hurtling back to board with the rest of us.
This was after I’d managed to drag both halves of the class on to one bus, as they wanted to split up into groups of ten.
Not a hope in hell of that happening, as I knew I’d never see the ten that weren’t with me ever again if I let them go.
Before I keep going, I must point out that in Western terms, we’d view these students as adults, their average age being around 20. In China, they’re still kids, seemingly incapable of making adult decisions – or following rules and guidelines handed down to them….
Twenty odd minutes later, I dragged them all off the bus again, and along the street, where, in accordance with the String Theory Of Cat Herding, they managed to space themselves out like some sort of procession, covering about a hundred metres from first to last. By now my blood pressure was starting to climb.
Arriving at Metro’s main door, I delivered a safety briefing, and took them in.
Luckily the sheer size and scale of Metro cowed them somewhat into control, and I was able to lead them around, stopping to point out and explain items to them that they’d never seen before, as well as fielding questions about other items.
Chinese students lack a depth of knowledge, probably due in no small part to being taught over the years only those things that they’d need to know for a given examination, which leads to them not knowing that all fats are crystals, or that the different “colours” of sugar are down to the refining process, or even that different types of flour have different protein levels, and are used in different ways.
One student was insistent that all milk came from soy beans, even when confronted with pictures of cows on labels, and others couldn’t tell butter from cheese.
But, perhaps most telling of all, was when I took them into the meat storage area.
Stood in front of a rack of sides of pork, I carefully explained to them that this was the source of most of the meat they ate each day – an animal slaughtered, dressed and then butchered into primals and different cuts of meat for different culinary roles.
Most couldn’t make the leap from the hanging carcasses to the cling filmed wrapped pieces of pork, even with a butcher in the next bay working a side with a knife into the smaller pieces.
Nor could they understand why the area was so cold.
I’m not sure if this lack of understanding is unique to Chinese students. Maybe my own curiosity as a child led me to want to find out why everything was the way it was, or maybe other people in the West don’t know either, but I find the whole thing a little disturbing.
After two hours of patiently explaining different things on the shelves, I let them loose to do their own shopping for half an hour, while I picked up the things I needed (prawns, bacon, frozen puff pastry shells, butter, sausages…).
My Metro card got a hiding, as it was put through twenty transactions in a row, as the students bought bulk packs of things – I’d spent some time explaining the economics of bulk purchasing earlier – then my groceries went through.
I packed my haul of frozen goodies into a wheeled cool bag, into which I’d thrown a couple of reusable ice bricks earlier, and we were (after a head count) back off to the bus… this time with a little more urgency, as we were now fast approaching lunch time!
When we arrived back at our stop, I gave a final fast debrief on the morning’s activity, and sent them on their way.
Class A has asked me if I will take them to the local Water Park in a couple of weeks… and I probably will.
But I think, in their next writing class, I’ll get them to tell me why I should.