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JISHOU, HUNAN — I realized over this winter holiday how much I don’t know about teaching English. Despite accolades from my students and my fellow teachers, I’m not so satisfied with my work so far. I get better at it every term, but I have a long ways to go as a language teacher.

Last term, my workload was relatively easy: two periods of Western Culture and six periods of Oral English a week. Nevertheless, a lot of my time was spent prepping for the Culture class. I felt somewhat guilty that I was not putting in more time prepping for the Oral English classes, especially for the freshmen, but I had organized the classes well enough that things pretty much took care of themselves.

This term, I have more work to do. The juniors have me for two subjects: British Literature and Academic Writing. Needless to say, I’ve got several months of hardcore reading and writing ahead of me. The sophomores will still meet me twice a week for Oral English, and I hope to try some new activities to enliven the classes even more. The freshmen will have a different foreign teacher, since we each typically teach eight periods (16 classes) a week.

I spent part of my mostly indolent winter holiday scouring Amazon for books to help me with my classes and generally with my teaching. Maybe I’ve mentioned it before, but Chinese universities give their foreign teachers little support. The expectation is that, as a native speaker, you already know all there is to know about English, so why give you textbooks in advance or suggested syllabi? The office tells you, “Your subject is X. The books will arrive a week before classes start — maybe.” And that’s it.

Fortunately, I spent 20-odd years as the sole physics teacher in a tiny college-prep high school. I was pretty left to my own devices, and I’m used to flying by the seat of my pants. But there, at least I could choose my own textbooks. Here, I get whatever the department chooses, and as best as I can tell, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to the selection of the texts.

The Oral English classes use a textbook series from the UK, Inside/Out, which are really quite good. But these books are designed for all-in-one English as a Second Language classes, where adult students learn reading, writing, speaking and listening at once. Many of the cultural references are to things British, and there’s a definite Eurocentric slant to the activities. (My students, for example, have very little experience with dating, trying to pick up someone at a party, or hanging out in pubs and football games.) If I were teaching ESL in England, Inside/Out would be a great choice, I think.

But I don’t. I teach English as a Foreign Language (I discovered over the holiday that there is a distinction between ESL and EFL. I never knew. Duh.) in China. My students have separate classes for grammar, speaking, writing, reading and listening. There is little coordination among the various subjects, and I really have no idea what they learn in the other classes. I have skipped most of the written stuff in Inside/Out and use the book’s units as prompts for oral work. I’m not happy with this arrangement, but it has worked, if somewhat ineffectively.

(Brag moment: an American I met this weekend in Fenghuang complimented me on my standard and clear American pronunciation. Maybe the 30 years in Kentucky cancelled out the New York patois somehow. So, I guess I’m an ideal EFL teacher??)

The text for the Western Culture class was just plain abysmal, so I had a yeoman’s task facing me to compensate for the abysmal-ness. I am not expecting much better this term, so I decided to get my own texts.

Here’s my personal reading list.

British Literature
The Norton Anthology of English Literature (I only have volume 1 so far)
The Collected Works of William Shakespeare — in one volume! I found it at Barnes & Noble.
An Outline of English Literature (Longman)

Academic Writing
The Macmillan Reader
The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) — a gold mine of resources

Teaching EFL in general, but stressing spoken English
Teaching English as a Foreign or Second Language (Jerry G. Gebhard)
Fluency Through TPR Storytelling (Contee Seely)
Using the Board in the Language Classroom (Cambridge)
Live Action English

The Gebhard book is a concise and very helpful resource. He mixes practical ideas for activities in class with more theoretical discussions of methodology. I wish I had had it two years ago. He’s got some fun ideas on how to form student pairs and groups, how to remember names, how to break the ice on the first day of class, and how to get students to speak. The book also a comprehensive bibliography, which would take me decades to read through. I feel a lot less at sea with this one book.

I am still waiting for the last three books to arrive. I realized while I was packing for the return to China that my luggage was going to be way overweight, so I posted several things ahead of my departure. Of course, they are probably still on the way here.

The Norton Anthology and the Longman Outline have been useful to reacquaint myself with British Lit. I studied the modern novel for my CompLit concentration, so my foundation in the older stuff is pretty weak. (I have read some of Chaucer, though, with John V. Fleming as my professor. You should be impressed. Look him up.) The Outline is really brief, just 170 pages, while the Norton tome (volume 1) is about 3000 pages long. I hesitate to order the second volume. Shipping costs alone will kill me.

The Macmillan Reader will be a great resource for the writing class, although I expect the students will have another text. If anything, it will give me some support as I organize the course. I have taught the same students writing before, but it seems not much of what we covered stuck in their heads. So, I reckon I’ll have to review quite a bit, especially about the plagiarism part. A lot about the plagiarism part. Chinese students have no conception of the idea, at least as we understand it in the West.

Anyway, back to the original topic. There is a lot more to teaching EFL than meets the eye. (My former language teacher colleagues, Sarah and Angela, are probably laughing their heads off now at this rather brainless statement.) When I was here for my first year, I figured I would just do the best I could with as little as I had. But after two years going on three, I’ve realized I need to educate myself if I am going to be decent teacher. There are no pedagogy classes here, after all, and I was trained as a science teacher, not a foreign language teacher. So I have to make up for my deficiencies.

By the way, if you want to help me in my studies, you can always visit my Amazon wishlist. If you visit Amazon through the search box on the main page on this blog, I also get a little money.