There are those moments of teaching when magic happens – when the students are in the palm of your hand, when you’re all together on the same wave length and something “real” is happening. While it happens somewhat regularly in preschool with individual children and small groups, it doesn’t happen too often in large groups – there is always someone who is distracted. Three and four year olds just don't have great attention spans. So I was surprised today to reflect that I had had three such moments last week in Shanghai with three different groups of students. Such moments, for me, are “chocolate moments.” When I get a taste of them, I want more.
Wednesday morning I spent at the Shanghai Shi Yan You Er Yuan – a 600 plus kid “kindergarten” that takes up an entire city block and is 4 floors high. It was my second day there and my first look at local Chinese preschool. There were 30 kids present (four were sick) and the 4 year olds had been pretty busy so far. First came “morning exercises” (8 or 9 classrooms out in the grassy courtyard doing a set dance/exercise/song routine all lined up in military formation. This lasted about 10 minutes with everyone singing along and doing the actions, (everyone but me, at least.) Next there was another half hour where the kids were on the playground (in two groups.) After that it was “lessons, Chinese style.” First a circle time with recitation of poems, then a 20 minute group abacus lesson, (with math equations flashed on the overhead projector and children watching the teacher, suggesting answers and working on their own mini abacuses.) Next came the music lesson. After carefully moving the math tables away (they had clearly done this before) the children carried their small wooden chairs over and made three straight rows. The teacher had a song ready to go on her computer at the front of the room and spent 25 minutes teaching it to the children and discussing the words. It was hard for me to imagine that you could keep a group of children engaged and attentive doing one song for this length of time – but she kept the pace moving and clearly had the group well disciplined. By the end of the twenty-five minutes, most of them were well on their way to knowing the rather intricate song about an apple, some of the girls singing it with exaggerated motions and facial expressions that made me wonder if they had been to performance/dance/music lessons, which I gather is fairly common here. Thank goodness we have done basic fruits in my Chinese class as I the only word I recognized was “pinguo” apple – and there were no props for the first half of the lesson. But to my Western eyes, the kids were also getting pretty squirrelly – requiring increasing amounts of physical and spoken reminders to stay in their chairs and pay attention.
Suddenly the phone rings and the teacher asks me if I can “take the class” for a few minutes while she goes down to the front gate. “Oh great,” I think, thinking that the only thing I’d like to do with these kids right now is let them play on their own for the first time after an hour of doing what the teacher wanted them to do. I somehow didn’t think that would win me any points with the teacher, however, a serious 20 something year old with fairly good English. And it had taken me almost 4 months in Shanghai to make the connections to finally get in to see a local preschool in action, so I didn’t want to blow it. But my Chinese was certainly not up to the task of taking over with the song. (“la, la lea la, la laa la, laaa la, pinguo” was not going to do it.) With no particular plan in mind, I decided to at least stay with the apple theme, and went for drama. Figuring I would have their full attention at least for a short while, (novelty matters with four year olds, and I do look different than any of their teachers, ) I launched immediately into a short drama, with simple English words, and exaggerated movements. “I’m hungry” I’m VERY hungry - Look !!! An apple – I’m going to try to (“lots of careful tiptoeing) “pick the apple! (Big dramatic bite) “MMMMM” (You get the picture.) Fortunately, they immediately copied my words, (I guess enough of them are enrolled in English “lessons” in the evening that this was not totally unusual.) We tried it again, and that was when I felt that rare connection that you get with a class that keeps me in teaching – we were a team – they were excited about this, and it had come from nowhere and was somehow working. I imagined the teacher coming back (it had been 5 minutes now, WHERE WAS SHE?) and thinking, “Wow, not bad for a westerner.” It was not to be. I didn’t think I could keep them through it a fourth time, so moved on to the old preschool favorite, “Way up high in the apple tree, two little apples smiled at me.” Unfortunately, the motions that go along with “I shook that tree as hard as I could” sent them into spasms of four year old pent up giggles that I was pretty useless to quell. The assistant teacher came down from the sleeping loft (“great!” I thought, “she’ll have something to do with them”) and I politely said thank you and moved to my seat in the back of the room. But her plan seemed to be to “discipline them” into staying quiet until the teacher got back which didn’t seem quite right either. So back I went to the front. I remembered that the day before the group had sung all their “English songs” for me and so I launched into some of the ones I remembered, “Open shut them, Old macdonald, Bingo was his name,” and then I taught them “the itsy bitsy spider.” 90 percent of the kids were till with me, which is about what I’m used to, and I left the assistant to try and control the fringes who were climbing up onto their chairs, tickling each other and doing the other things kids will do. Somewhere along the line the teacher came back – who knows what she thought? Mostly I was grateful to see her. And fortunately she moved into “free choice play time” though she decided which area they would play in, and the “way they would play” was carefully scripted. Still, maybe there’s some common ground for us. That’s another missive.
The other two occasions were much less daunting – I was asked in my “International School” to go upstairs and sub for a kindergarten teacher on the day when I arrived to help with the three year old group I normally see. But this was in English, and here the benefits of the “drill saragent approach” became apparent. These little five and six year olds knew their routine and I wasn’t going to mess with that. When I finally got them outside I taught them a favorite song my mom used to do with her kindergarteners way back when, (the black cat arches it’s back) and they loved it. Then we smelled the grass (they had been doing one of those wretched “senses worksheets” upstairs and then we went over to the woman who was raking the leaves and smelled the cinamon camphor leaves. They were enthralled as was I! While substitute teaching is usually a drag, I left that day concluding that letting someone else get the kids into a “well oiled routine” and then taking over and loosening up a bit was not a disagreeable thing.
Finally, on Friday, with my own class of “little reporters” (the English class of 7 to 11 year old Chinese kids I‘ve been teaching since September) we had a few wonderful moments at the end of class all close together in the back of the room pointing to different parts of the room and singing the final words to “open shut them” (“do not let them in”) faster and faster until we got to the breakneck speed they like. This group is taking photos of their families at home and we will use them over the next few weeks to practice more English. Then, I’m hoping to ask my sister in law Karen, (an awesome photographer who will be visiting us end of November) to come to class as the “guest visitor” to ooh and aah over their best photos. Are you game Karen?Posted by sprut003 at November 12, 2005 5:23 AM