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Did You Do Your Homework?


Homework and exams are certainly not the high points of teaching. Oh, we teachers can talk about the reward of seeing a class’s progress in improved scores. We can rejoice over students personally seeing benefit to a specific exercise. There can even be moments of creativity as we better a textbook’s chapter review with our own imaginative assignment.

However, in my experience, those never ending papers or projects to be faced can be simply overwhelming. For the language teacher there is the additional speaking assignment or group presentation. Often after the 30th description of a hometown or the 20th group skit of a family misunderstanding I want to give everyone a B and go home.

But, amidst all the required teacher feedback and correction, there have been thought-provoking surprises; those reminders that there’s always so much more going on than pronunciation or grammar.

As a vocabulary review, students were to write as many words as they could think of that fit under ten different categories. The headings depended on the class level; colors, jobs, feelings, cities, fears. The next day they compared lists by asking their classmates to state three words from their collection. I walked around the room and listened as they discovered what they had in common and what was unique. I slowed down when I heard “Name three fears.” In China and in two Southeast Asian countries the answers have been different but equally thought-provoking: ghosts, unemployment, snakes, darkness, loneliness, and soldiers.

A common decision-making exercise was eye opening. Students were given pairs of words and told to make a choice and give a reason for it. “Would you rather eat rice or noodles?” was the first. A freshman wrote, “Well, when there were noodles we ate noodles and when there was rice we ate rice.” Another choice was for tea or coffee. “I’m Chinese,” answered one boy, “of course I would choose tea.” A few years later I used the same activity and the answer changed to not just coffee but lattes or cappuccinos.

Sharing experiences leads to longer exchanges. Students were asked to describe a childhood mishap. Falling out of a tree, getting lost, and losing something were common experiences. Each was to prepare before class for sharing with classmates. As they swapped stories there was laughter throughout the room as they compared tales. One boy did not elaborate but simply shared that he swam in a forbidden place. Later I read his written account. At ten years old he had jumped into an irrigation ditch. As he and some friends splashed in the shallow water the gates were opened and the water poured out. He woke up on the canal bank with someone shaking him. His friends had all drowned. “I am still alive. My friends are not. I should never forget this.”

Journals are known for providing students a safe place to reveal deeper thoughts and feelings as well as try out new vocabulary. Whether the teacher is looking at a stack of notebooks or hours of screen time there’s always the question of how to respond. Correct? Comment? Empathize? Ask questions? I read of young love, failed exams and diets, criticism of my country, and many favorite movies. When I began teaching teachers I learned of good and bad bosses, jobs, weddings, mothers-in-law, and abortions.

I think you will be happy when you hear of my award. I want someone to share this good feeling.

Perhaps women give up more than men in bringing progress to our country.

Do you know a scientist who believes in the god?

Sometimes I have felt like a combination teacher/priest/counselor as I read.

A short-term job found me teaching hotel employees. Naturally work came first and attendance and classroom space was dependent on conferences and workshops. One morning I arrived at the designated room and found just that—a room. Only a small white board leaned against the wall. Every chair and table had been taken to another location in preparation for a seminar later that day. I just stared as the excited students/employees with their homework paper in hand flooded the room. They had been given the task of drawing a simple picture that they would in turn describe to their partner to recreate. What was the tableless plan B? Everyone else seemed to know. As my student assistant handed out blank papers the classmates got in their assigned pairs and sat behind each other on the carpeted floor. The one in the back took the paper and began to draw a picture listening to their partner’s instructions. The table? His partner’s back. And I thought I was resourceful and flexible.

So teachers, what did your students teach you today? What surprised you? Humbled you? What made you glad you gave that assignment? Maybe you don’t feel like any self-reflecting today? Ask a colleague! You’ll be encouraged and inspired.

Image credit: Sơn Trương from Pixabay
Barbara Kindschi

Barbara Kindschi

Barbara Kindschi has had the privilege and challenge of teaching English in six cities in China and now Myanmar and Laos. Undergrads, professors, hotel employees, monks, and beauty pageant contestants have sat in her classroom.  All have been both her students and teachers.  View Full Bio


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