Yesterday I walked into class as no teacher should ever walk into a class- unprepared. I had forgotten that my Thursday class is a week ahead of everyone else. Out of sheer necessity, I went to “extreme creativity” mode. I had twenty minutes to come up with something that would fill two 45-minute sessions of Conversational English for these sophomore English majors.
So I went out on a limb. When the students came into class, I gave them the assignment: In groups of 3, over the next eight weeks, develop and launch a product or service (realistic or imaginary) for an English-speaking market. They will have to give 4 oral presentations, one to pitch ideas, one to get funding from investors (me), one progress report and an final advertisement. I told them we were going to start using everything they had learned in the previous eight weeks, and it would require them to talk to each other for most of the rest of their classes. Not only that, they would have to collaborate with someone outside China. Someone who doesn’t speak or read Chinese. That was the limb. The idea freaks most of them out.
It freaks me out a bit, too. If they decide to make a new kind of thermos, they have to find someone in the thermos business to talk to. Will they be able to manage the kind of research it takes to find people? Will people out there in the world want to interact with these nervous Chinese students? Will my nervous Chinese student begin to realize how much the world wants to know about them? They have been hidden behind a veil of mystery for so long, they don’t know how much the eyes of the world are on them.
This is a bit nerve-wracking, asking others to jump into this digital world with me. A few weeks ago, I had them surfing the ‘Net in English, some for the first time. Am I asking them to jump into the deep end before they can swim? I tell myself they are English majors. They NEED to know how to do these things. They no longer have only two options for work when they leave school. Honestly, many of my students believe that their only career choices are teaching English or interpreting. That was true for most of their teachers.
Collaboration is strangely lacking in this collectivist society. Critical thinking skills are not part of the Chinese curriculum. Creativity and initiative are not prized attributes here. It is so easy to look at these things with my critical Western eye. But then I remember the purity of these kids, their genuine sincerity, their curiosity – those characteristics that often seem to be missing in their Western counterparts.
I want to help them connect with the rest of the world, not just because they have things to learn, but because they have so much to teach.
Going to class unprepared is never recommended. But this time I got lucky. I found a way to get my students engaged in creative thinking, and in collaborating with others in the world all in ENGLISH! Now I’m scrapping the rest of my traditional ‘conversational’ curriculum, and we’re going to learn how to do something together.
We often need to go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit are.
(Thanks to Yemi for sharing the ‘limb’ idea with me today. Your hot chocolate was also fabulous!)