Monday, March 26, 2012

A Day in the Life--Teaching in Xi'an

Our arrival to Gaoxin Number 1 consisted of a digital welcome sign, several half days of tours, a hot pot meal and a simple welcoming ceremony.  Our first weeks themselves were a veritable hot pot: the bubbling mixture of new experiences and unexpected changes.  Into the pot went buying cleaning supplies and peeling a layer of dust off from our apartment.  Dust and smog is the ever-present constant in Xi’an at this time of year.  Into the pot went the sudden discovery of aspects of the school day.  Into the pot went the gradual mental mapping of our environs.

Now that two weeks have passed, I would like to sketch out a general overview of our school day.

The view from the 11th floor on a clear day.
The Flat

Our day begins on the 11th floor.  A clear day affords a glimpse of our surroundings—a crowded street with character not too far from our living room window, immersed in a sea of apartment buildings, flanked by the towering buildings in various stages of construction.  The flat, as local English speakers refer to it, is comfortable enough: water is hot, and there is a heater/AC unit.  The living area sports a couch with a coffee table.  (Since our neighbors discovered that the coffee table doesn’t support weights heavier than a book, we use ours to display magazines.)  Although our bed is a direct descendant of early stone slabs, it includes two featherbeds, which serve as padding enough.  The shower, as we had been informed before we came, consists of a showerhead in the middle of the bathroom.  Consequently, every morning shower concludes with morning mopping.

The Food

Gaoxin Number 1 has kindly supplied us with a meal card, usable in the cafeteria (canteen) as well as in the small school store.  Liquids are not served with the meal, but we can visit the school store before or after the meal for a pear drink or plum juice.  With our meal card we have an assortment of choices.  Lunch is traditionally the largest Chinese meal, so the selection at lunch is quite extensive—rice and/or noodles with meats and vegetables cleavered into bite-sized bits, potato noodles, spring rolls, dumplings, or other delightful forms and flavors.

Eating supper in the canteen.

The Classroom

Since students remain in the same class all day long, receiving instruction from a variety of teachers, classrooms are bereft of content-centered decorations.  Most classrooms feature the red and yellow flag of China, hung above the expansive chalk-board.  This being the high-tech zone, all classrooms have computers, housed in a large metal box in the front of the room.  These are handy for PowerPoint displays, here commonly called ppts.  

When mentally sketching the model classroom, first put a slightly raised stage in the front of the classroom.  I begin by placing this stage, since Chinese methodologies are highly teacher-centered, and this is where the teacher performs.  Behind the teacher, draw the blackboard.  Make sure you dust the teacher well with chalk dust.  Next, fill the classroom with 60 desks.  Rows of desks stretch in three long columns, facing the teacher.  Then, at each desk, stuff a student.  With only two narrow aisles and small spaces, students spend much of their day cemented to their seat.  Fortunately, folded into the day are various exercise opportunities: physical education class, morning exercises and a two hour lunch break.

Team teaching with Kevin

The Students

Everywhere I’ve been I’ve noticed an inborn cohesion among students.  There is an implicit solidarity in discovering the world together and facing the same challenges together.  Certainly, there are students of every kind at Gaoxin Number 1.  Some students are highly motivated, still working, hours after the school day has finished.  Other students sleep through class.  Interestingly, the hard-working, motivated students sometimes lament their lost childhood, sacrificed to the leveling blade of the college entrance exam.

The Office

Since teachers move from class to class instead of students, we must have a place to stay between classes.  So, the Chinese custom is for teachers to have a group office.  I share my office with two biology teachers.  Neither speaks English (although one knows several English phrases), so that gives me a bit of a chance to learn some Chinese words.  I should point out the mirror and the wash basin in the corner.  Beside it sits a large thermos of hot water.  This, I must say, is quite versatile.  It serves as water for tea; it serves as water to wash the floor, and it serves as water for hand-washing.

Running with my office-mate, Tang lao shi

The Teachers

The teachers at Gaoxin Number 1 have been unfailingly kind.  They have allowed me to observe a variety of classes.  I even observed a math class.  One Chinese teacher has given me a few lessons in Chinese.  I am a slow learner, despite her claims to the contrary.  When we teach English, they turn the class over completely to us.  Regular English classes follow the book, but Spoken English gives us more creativity in lesson plans.  Thursday afternoons, Senior 1 students (equivalent to Freshmen) have elective classes, so I am teaching a beginning Spanish class—a first for this school.

The Schedule

Most teachers at Gaoxin Number 1 generally teach two 45 minute classes per day (social studies teachers being the exception).  However, with sixty students per class, teachers have their hands full with grading papers.  The extensive planning periods allow ample time for grading.  Apparently, however, the only real grades are the final exams.  Although the daily schedule begins at 8:10, students and teachers are already hard at work when I arrive at 7:30.  This is because students actually have a zero hour for morning reading.  Classes officially end at 5:35, and, according to the timetable that was given to us, are from Monday through Friday.  However, last week I learned that teachers and students are also at the school on Saturday.  This coming week, we will all be working Saturday and Sunday, since schools will be closed from Monday through Wednesday for Tomb Sweeping Day.  I wonder if this would go over very well in the US?

Of course, there is more to discover.  Every day brings something new.

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