With the GMF program winding down, the diverse cohort met again earlier this month in Cambodia’s capital city. Through fellowship and worship, we processed our unique and shared experiences and looked ahead to the next steps God is calling us to take in faith and in mission.
I am so thankful for this program that allowed me to use my spiritual gifts as an educator in several capacities in China.
The community classroom setting in nearby Kunshan taught me so much about working with international NGO staff and engaging with neighborhood life of migrant workers in China. This program has run its course and had to end earlier this month because students are preparing for state-mandated standardized testing so, just like their same-age counterparts in the USA, these elementary and middle school students have to buckle down and spend their extra time on test prep.
For the last lesson of these 10-week courses, I always do a review of the things we have learned before. I was fortunate to have the same students for 2 courses in a row so I was really able to see their progress as English speakers. During the activities and games, the students were using English words and phrases to interact with each other. Even saying simple things like, “It’s your turn!” or “Me next!” or “Stop!” or “What?” means that these kids have absorbed something from our time together and most importantly were comfortable using the language in informal settings and not just the stiff, formulaic academic English that will be assessed on the standardized tests.
One of the pedagogical points that has stayed with me the most through my time in China is authenticity when it comes to language learning. If students aren’t using the language in contexts that are genuine or that reflect real-world moments, they will never achieve fluency. Also, when students use the language in informal settings, they are less likely to filter themselves and just try using the language to the best of their ability. Even if they make mistakes, they are still overcoming the sometimes crippling obstacle that fear of making a mistake creates in language learners. So, hearing my students interact with each other and with me in conversational English means they are one big step closer to proficiency.
As for my students at Soochow University, we are soon entering exam season. Both my speaking and writing courses have just completed their group projects in anticipation for the end of the school term.
For students in my writing classes, this meant a group project on an art movement of their choosing that they would later use to inspire an original poem in their final poetry portfolio.
These students’ project about Impressionism included a skit in which the students attended the first exhibition of early Impressionist works and used this to introduce the key features of the art movement as well as key artists.
In the presentation about the Romantics, these students dressed up and acted as though they were the famous poets of this literary movement meeting salon-style to critique each other’s works. They even brought their own props – including an old fashioned phonograph!
My speaking classes made short films that included the elements of narrative storytelling as well as demonstration of their spoken English skills. The films were so creative! Some included family drama, romance, coming-of-age, and even mystery. My favorite film was called “The Flute.” In this short film, an ancient spirit helps a young girl achieve her dream of becoming a musician.
I was so impressed by my students’ creativity and their efforts to edit and produce the films with transitions, sound effects, creative settings, etc. Because the students acted and filmed around campus, I have priceless footage of the special spots and people who have given me so much in this season of service in China. These young people never cease to amaze me. I look forward to continuing to be their cheerleader and champion as their journeys unfold but I know that the young women and handful of young men I co-learned with and from through the university will go on to achieve great things. Though my students always say that they learn so much from our time together, I was touched to hear them say that some of the most meaningful lessons they learned in our classroom were not related to the academic subject of English but rather were from the fabric of the course itself.
For example, I asked my students to complete an informal survey in which I asked them the following series of questions:
- Did I consider myself a poet/storyteller at the beginning of the course? Why or why not?
- Did that change? Why or why not?
- Which project did I enjoy the most?
- How did my relationship with written/spoken English change during the course?
- What is one thing I will take with me from this course?
- Did I make one million mistakes this semester? Why or why not?
And requested that any student who is willing would share their answers with me. I was touched by their responses.
Many students had not though that what they had to say or how they think about the world was important enough to make into a poem or a short film. So much of Chinese education is similar to the USA because students are required to memorize a series of “correct” answers and regurgitate them for an exam. This is not education – it’s indoctrination at best and brainwashing at worst. My students were able to explore their own ideas, inspirations, voices and produce finished works to show to each other. For some students, a relationship with the language did not exist before my course because they had never considered the personal relevance or utility of English in their own lives.
The final question produced the most moving answers. To encourage students to ask questions and make mistakes, I told all of my classes at the beginning of the semester that our goal was to make 1,000,000 mistakes. This was to promote authentic connection with material and allowed me to engage the students in dialogic practices, but I was stunned to find students also applied this to their personal lives.
A handful articulated so precisely that this paradigm of taking risks and making mistakes was brand-new to them and, for them, this was also related to gender stereotypes and traditional cultural values in China. Women are expected to be polite, soft-spoken, and to play it safe and this is compounded by the core concept of “saving face” (appearing to have everything under control and done correctly even if the given task was impossible due to unclear instructions or unrealistic expectations).
The work that God has done through me in the lives of these students is humbling. I know I will never forget their faces or the impact they have had on me during my mission service.
Thank you for keeping up with my blog posts and email blasts, which I will be sending out monthly. If my story connects with you, I encourage you to join me on my journey as a missionary! Please visit my Support page for more information on how to be part of my call to engage with local communities, connect the church in mission, and grow in personal and social holiness.