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[Cross-posted at The Daily Kos, and rescued from diary oblivion. That’s 3 for 3!]

JISHOU, HUNAN, CHINA — Friday, my sophomores in oral English were more animated than I’ve seen them in ages. It was a set of posters that livened them up.

To preface this diary, I need to explain that our classrooms here are barebones dull: white painted walls, beige tile floors, fluorescent tube lighting, wooden desks and chairs bolted to the floor, and a single double-wide chalkboard. We at least have ample natural lighting from the windows along the exterior wall.

And no heat, but that’s for another diary. [It was at least warmer today than yesterday’s high of 6° C (about 43° F).]

In September I decided that staring at the mostly bare walls was getting boring, so I decided to spend a little money and order some posters from the USA off the Internet. (I won’t link to the site here, but the site’s name is no exaggeration. They have ALL kinds of POSTERS.) I ordered four at first, one for each class of sophomores, as the freshmen had not started classes yet.

Three were decently sized, but I failed to read the description of one carefully and ended up with a tiny little poster of Mount Rainier. Very pretty, but not exactly awe inspiring. Since class Z1 of sophomore Oral English meets on Fridays, they were the unlucky recipients of the miniature Mount Rainier. The other classes had claimed the larger posters.

Feeling a little guilty at giving Z1 short shrift, I promised to order several more posters to make up for my error. I was also going to outfit my four freshman classrooms with posters, as well. Fortuitously, my favorite posters website had a sale going on last month and I was able to order seven for not too much money. (Shipping is another matter: I spent $32 on postage for $38 of merchandise.)

The posters arrived yesterday, just in time for today’s class. I didn’t realize how much fun they would have in selecting their favorite.

I meet each class of students once a week for 100 minutes: 45 minutes of instruction, 10 minutes’ break, and another 45 minutes of instruction. During the first “hour,” they worked a crossword puzzle I had made up to help them review for next week’s vocab test. While they mulled over the puzzle, I unveiled the posters and laid them out on the front row of desks.

It is testimony to the self-restraint of Chinese college students that none of them were distracted by the posters’ display. My high school students in Louisville would have been all over the posters in two shakes had I pulled them out so early.

But that self-restraint sometimes can be worrisome to a teacher. After the break, I went over the solution to the puzzle, showed them the posters one at a time, and explained that they were going to vote on their favorite poster by secret ballot.

Nothing much happened.

Oh, boy, I thought to myself. Maybe they didn’t understand me. So, I wrote brief titles for each poster on the board and explained what I wanted them to do again. Then a student, Lydia Chen, suggested I use numbers instead of titles, which I did.

Magically, the class came to life. Students got up from their seats to look at the posters more closely. Some took them back to their seats, so their seatmates could see them better. Others took photos of the posters with their cellphones. There was a lot of chatter, most of it in Chinese. One boy rolled up one poster (you can guess which one in a minute) and pretended to take it with him. They were … happy! Like kids on Christmas morning.

I know you’re wondering which posters we had, so here they are:

* “Tranquil Cabin by the Lake,” a painting by T.C. Chiu
* Westlife 6 (Chinese students love Westlife, and Backstreet Boys.)
* Marilyn Monroe (She is posing, hands behind her back, in a low-cut evening gown.)
* “Daybreak,” a painting by Russ Carter of the Santa Barbara shore
* Muhammad Ali, a black-and-white photo montage (I lived in Louisville for 25 years, and I have met the Champ, thank you very much.)
* An extra large Jack Daniels label
* The Chrysler Building, New York City, 1948

[And yes, the boy wanted Marilyn all to himself. Didn’t we all.]

As it turned out, the students were fascinated by all the posters, even the ones I thought would be kind of boring to them. So I was very interested to see which ones would be the most popular.

I collected their ballots, and as I tallied them, gave running commentary like the race announcer at Churchill Downs. “Daybreak” had an early lead, with Westlife 6 bringing up the rear. Westlife 6 surged ahead. Then, they were neck and neck down to the wire. Finally, it was “Daybreak” by a nose! “Tranquil Cabin” was a length behind Westlife 6, and the others were distant also-rans.

After class, Lydia asked me why I wanted to give the posters to my students. I was touched by the question, since it revealed the source of the enthusiasm I witnessed. (Remember, many of these young people are from humble circumstances.) I answered simply that I wanted to decorate their classrooms, and as the local American teacher, I felt obligated to put up American (OK, Westlife is not American. So, shoot me.) images. I did not reveal my other motive: to show my Chinese students little slices of Americana they have probably never seen, but will soon have to discuss in class. Muwhahahaha!

One other gratifying moment came after the poster runoff. With only about 20 minutes left to the second “hour,” I had to truncate my planned listening and speaking lesson by half. Our textbook, Inside Out, has an accompanying CD. I had planned to have them listen to long and short vowel sounds, and repeat them, but skipped that to play a funk cover of the Carole King song, “You’ve Got a Friend,” by a ’90s British group, The Brand New Heavies. The song includes the words used in the vowel sound exercise, and the text splits each line in two, leaving it to the students to piece together the lyrics.

It’s a fun listening exercise, and I am pleased to say my students got 100% of the match-ups correct. So successful was this mini-lesson that Angelina Zeng, another student, asked me after class to teach it to the students at Sunday’s English Corner.

Today was one of those times when the students’ demand for learning almost outstripped my capacity to supply it. I wish every day could be like it.

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