I’m a Literature Teacher (in China)

If you’re reading for advice on how to be a proper teacher in China stop reading right now. GO back up to your browser and search again. There’s no advice for you here.  You have been warned. If you continue to read on— lower your expectations.

I just finished re-reading The Great Gatsby. I had read it once before many years’ ago. I had one identical thought in regard to both readings,  “Wow, what an easy a quick read.” It surprised me that it was such a short novel. Other than that my feelings about the book changed dramatically from the first read to my second.  I liked it much more this time around. I think the first time there was so much pomp and expectation that I thumbed my nose at it a little, but who cares about the first time that was ten or fifteen years ago. It’s this time that matters now. I really got into the story; gasping at parts, putting it down to whisper to absolutely no one, “wow this is a really painful story.” There were other thoughts in my head too as I read and reacted to the characters, and to Nick Carraway’s narration. I’d lower the book, and think, “wow that’s really good”, then I’d sigh, “god”, I hope my students like it”. My students are going to read The Great Gatsby in English. Did I mention they were Chinese? Of course I did.

It’s been a challenge trying to know what to teach to ESL students in an equivalent of an American high school course. I can’t even begin to go into what encapsulates those challenges, hell, I could write a novel about the challenges that range from culture to language to idealisms, but I’m not going to. I’m going to talk about me. Me and my choices. For better or for worse, I’ve made some choices. I don’t think I’m a good teacher by the standards of people who complain about teachers. I mean I’m not bad like all the movie stereotypes of bad teachers. You know the stereotypes. The ones who go out drinking and partying then stumble into school the next morning with a hang over and a lazy attitude. The ones who hate kids but are tenured and they’re mean and they humiliate students. The ones who are so boring and cling to the same teaching styles as teachers back in the 1950’s. I’ve seen teen movies, and so have you we know the stereotypes. I’m not any of those, but I’m no Erin Gruwell. I’m new and inexperienced, and when I applied for this job I didn’t even know I was going to be a Literature teacher. I thought I was going to teach creative writing because that’s where I do I have experience. It was when I got here I found out exactly what I was doing, and I was handed a huge tome of a book from Princeton Hall and told to do whatever I wanted; as if I knew what I was doing. There were no outlines or curriculum. The previous teacher had some stuff, but I could tell it was also her first time teaching literature and her notes were a mess plus they were for 3rd grade level and I had 17 year olds. I understand her reasoning once I figured out the challenge of language, but it’s too late now. I did have an advantage over her that I at least studied literature, but not enough to be a teacher. I wanted to be an actress and a writer, but that’s another post.

I know I told you I wasn’t going to offer any advice, and I’m not, but I will give you one small note of insight, just to prepare you if you’re thinking of teaching in China. You will never really know the level of English of the student. Just because they are in your advanced English class doesn’t mean they are really that advanced in English. Placement is not just based on English scores but in their overall scores. High in math and science does not mean high in English but it will still put them in an advanced English class. At least this is the case at my school. It could be the same at your school, maybe not, but you’ll still never really understand because they will never tell you that they don’t understand you. You have to pry it out of them. Today, I said for the millionth time. “You have to tell me if you don’t understand. Do not say, okay, okay, or nod or say, I got it, if you don’t.” They all nodded and said, “okay okay we’ve got it.”

The Princeton Hall book. Man. Dear Princeton Hall please do not be offended, but this text-book was hell for teaching my kids and I eventually gave up and abandoned it. Borrowing the words my cousins  from the California bay area liked to say, “It was hella boring.” I mean I could get into the stuff, but it was so academic and these kids just trudged, and then that made me trudge, and that made me bored, and then I was a boring teacher forcing the kids to read, ‘The Dog that Bites People’. We did make it through ‘The Monkey’s Paw’. Which was only enjoyed by one kid. The language was too old too old upper staunch British. This is not Princeton Hall’s fault. Who knows who picked the book. It is amazing that it made it though the censors. Right smack in the middle is a section on the Chinese poets who were a part of that student thing we are not supposed to talk about that happened 25 years ago, that we aren’t supposed to mention, with that iconic picture of that man and that thing that starts with a ‘t’ that ‘never happened’. I was shocked and almost scared to see it, but then I realized it passed the censors so who knows…, but still I abandoned the book and have since struggled to teach literature without it.

We read The Outsiders the last semester. We took most of the semester to read it. The advanced class came out with an understanding of narration, themes, symbolism, POV, protagonist, the difference between fiction and non-fiction; the basics. But, only two students actually read the whole book. My intermediate students walked away knowing what a protagonist is and that it was Ponyboy. They didn’t read it at all. Thankfully there was the movie. The kids today still think Dally is cool. After the movie some of the kids were even playing with switch blades, the butterfly kind, flipping them like they did in the movie. I wasn’t sure if this was a bad thing or not, but it ended soon after and there were no actual blades in the butterflies. This semester I tried to go back to the Princeton Hall, but I only taught for one week before getting the news that my mom had died, so I had to abandon school for two weeks. That is a whole ‘nother mess of life, but not for this post. When I came back I tried another week with the book and just had to give it up. So what did I go and do? I picked ‘Beowulf’. I don’t recommend this, and I don’t know why I did it. What possessed me? They have a big test coming up in the next week, and I just hope they do well, because I feel like I made a mistake trying to get them to read this poem. They didn’t really read it. If they didn’t read The Outsiders, they were not going to read ‘Beowulf’. I read ‘Beowulf’. I broke it down and eventually ended up spoon feeding it to some of them. And, they still didn’t eat.

My kids are good people, but not always the best students. It’s not true that all Chinese students are good students. They are normal people like everywhere, and some students are good and others are not so good. When I say good or bad I mean in the manner or degree of studying and application to the classwork. My students are also affluent so I think they get a little leniency. The leniency is not a fact it just seems that way… wink, wink. My class is an illusion. I wont go into what that means except to say that it’s a good thing I studied acting. I’m in the new fazes of the “new foreign teacher,” and I still have the idealistic hopes that I can somehow teach. After a year it seems that this ideal is given up on (not just by foreign teacher, but by Chinese teachers too). This can really only be understood by being here and teaching here, but my guess is that much of this frustration of “teaching” comes with the heavy, heavy, heavy emphasis on testing. Many teachers try to fight the testing trap because you learn very quickly that testing is not actually learning, but its impossible to fight. It’s impossible as a Chinese teacher so forget it if you’re a foreigner. But, like I mentioned I’m new and still have the stubborn ideals. Next year. Next year, I’ll give up and just do it for money. This year I’m trying to teach ‘Beowulf’, The Outsiders, and The Great Gatsby. What a mixture right? How’d I come up with this formula? By not knowing what to do. Was it successful? Well, my class doesn’t determine college acceptance so I’ll never know. But, since you asked I’ll tell you how I picked my literature.

The Outsiders: I wanted a book written by a teenager about teenagers because my students are teenagers. It was a plus that it was written by a girl because girls need to know that they are valuable and can write novels and do anything.

‘Beowulf’: Man, I don’t know. I guess I got this hair up my butt that told me I needed to get some classic literature into them. You know the 7th century stuff the first written work of England, cause well it’s supposed to be a literature class. I like that I said ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ was too old too upper class staunch British and then I make them read a 7th century poem originally written in Old English. Classic hypocrisy. Ironically, I never read ‘Beowulf’ before and I was an English major. Maybe sub-consciously I just wanted to read it. My advanced class seems to be grasping it pretty well, but my intermediate classes…. You know, I can’t even begin to explain what its like to teach my classes, but I will emphasize that I really like my kids, and oddly I think they like me too, but is literature being taught? Is anything being taught or is it all a big show?

The Great Gatsby: I read that The Great Gatsby and Catcher in The Rye are very popular books in modern China. They are translated of course, and for reasons I can infer but won’t, these two books appeal to people living in China. They’ve recently increased in popularity. I’m sure the movie helped The Great Gatsby, but Catcher in the Rye has never been made into a movie and its popularity is greater than Gatsby. So why Gatsby and not Cather in the Rye? Because The Great Gatsby has been made into a film several times. We’ll watch the flashy new one with Leo (even though I’m not a fan of it). I use the movies to bribe the kids into doing their work. We watched the 2007 Beowulf (So. So bad) and I said to my class, the intermediate kids, “Pay attention, because you will be asked on the midterm to write about the differences and similarities between the movie and the poem”. One of my students looked at me and said, “Hmmm. Good strategy.” So I have the student stamped approval as far as strategy goes.

I’ve felt bad at times thinking that I’m doing these kids a disservice by lacking so much preparation and structure, but during TOFEL time I learned a lesson about disservice. When the kids were really gearing up for the tests, and not listening to me because they were studying for TOFEL, I had asked them to put their test books away. I said this is not your TOEFL class this is your literature class. One student smirked at me and said, “yes, but this class is not important, TOEFL is important”. I knew he was speaking the truth. The school informs without telling me that TOEFL is important and that English literature is for the resume. So, I have room to stumble and be unprepared and dissolution myself with the belief that I’m teaching these kids some things about western literature, and helping them with their future transition into western college life— because that is what they desire, and a lot of money is being spent into making this desire a reality. With all of this in mind, I think The Great Gatsby is an excellent choice even if me and the two kids who read The Outsiders are the only ones who read it.

Some of my kids being forced to perform a scene from ‘The Outsiders’.

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