One objective we have is to get to know better the students who live in these improvished part of the country so that we can reach out to them. It is with this objective, plus a desire to help them do better in school, that Annie and I volunteer to teach English one class from 7th, 8th, and 9th grade. Given our strength is in pronounciation, we plan was to teach them mainly on Phonetic, helping them to pronounce and listen accurately.
After few demonstration lessons, even one where the principal and most of the middle school teacher all attended sitting in the back of the class, we had a dialogue with the four English teachers. Through the dialogue we had a better understanding of the challenges the teachers faced in teaching these student English.
First, the State's expectation for English learning is much too high for students living in rural area. The English curriculum is standardize throughout the entire China. So those students living in Yangping are learning the same material as those learning in Shanghai. Students here don't have the opportunity to have tutor or extra help. Their starting point is much lower than other parts of China. The teacher felt there is not enough class time for the students to learn English adequately.
Second, the students are not motivated to learn. Many are thinking about going to find labor jobs, see the world, and earn quick money. The are not interested in studying hard to take the entrance exam to get into high school. Maybe the teaching method emphasizes on rote memorization or that the students don't see themselves improving, which also takes away their interest.
Third, the teachers are burnt out from teaching. Living away from their family, facing students with discipline and motivation problem, and being evaluated solely by their students' English test scores are some of the factors in taking away the initial motivation and passion of teaching English. After a year or two, most teacher just are content with just "running" the class.
Fourth, most teacher feel that their challenge in teaching English is less in listening and pronounciation, but more in spelling and writing short essays. This was a surprise for us as we thought their pronounciation and listening might need the most work as they have little opportunity to hear proper English.
With the above findings, we decided to try something different. Instead of teaching Phonetics, for the subsequent week, we led the class in an English learning game that focuses on spelling of phrases. We decided to do "Wheel of Fortune"! It turned out great. The students were very enthusiastic and we had lots of fun. However, we only had time for few vocabulary words so we need to think about modifying the game a bit to get more vocabularies.
We'll continue to think about how to improve the situation over the coming weeks.