These were the thoughts that kept popping in my head for a week or two after I was done teaching this semester in China. Not that I haven't had challenging terms in the past, but this was different. This was my first time teaching without a team of coworkers around to share ideas and process day-to-day events. This was also my first time teaching without an assigned textbook, which meant that I officially didn’t need to be concerned about “following a textbook” or “covering materials” students need to learn. All I had was the curriculum I had designed: themes, assessment guidelines, course goals and objectives, and ideas to adapt materials and create activities as I got to know my students.
You could say I had a lot of freedom, but of course with this came a big responsibility. It was a bit scary at first to think about putting together lesson plans for 4 months without one specific textbook. I often wondered if I’d have enough reading texts available or the right kind of audio for students to practice listening and note taking. Fortunately, I had the Web and I was able to adapt materials and create reading and listening tasks using news articles or short videos.
Ironically, while living behind the Chinese Internet firewall, I started networking with several teachers around the globe via Twitter. I also took two online courses as part of an online certificate offered through TESOL and started reading more blogs from some inspiring teachers in different parts of the world.
At the risk of stating the obvious, I have to say that it is mind-blowing how empowering it can be to connect online with professionals in your field. At times when I felt isolated teaching in China, I could go online and share ideas and teaching reflections with like-minded professionals –giving me the creative energy that me made my term in China one of the most intense and enjoyable experiences I’ve had. By using Twitter and following blogs, I have started to develop what is called a PLC or Professional Learning Community, and I’m impressed at how supportive and nurturing this online ELT community has proven to be. I’ve posted questions, joined discussions, and shared materials with strangers. Now I feel like I have several colleagues in various parts of the world. How cool is that?
Networking with other ELT professionals out of the need to have coworkers to connect with while in China was one of the best and most unexpected "Chinese gifts" I got. Being 'forced' into not simply covering materials, but actually actively thinking of effective ways to engage students in learning was another gift. The students I worked with in China were receptive during our time together and embraced project work, group work, and the concepts/language that we worked on together. Through them I experienced what the Chinese education system can be like and even though I still wouldn’t claim to understand it, I now can now understand a little better what students go through. China makes a little more sense to me now, and that is a lot to say.
Many aspects that I still don't understand about China and its educational system have gone into my imaginary, mental, Chinese-mystery box –a place where I've thrown all the things I couldn't figure out and allowed them to just stay there. One day I hope to understand some of my Chinese-mystery items, but for now I'm thankful for all gifts I received by way of meeting my students, sharing experiences with the local teachers, reaching out to a larger ELT community online, and getting motivated to develop new lessons.
BLOGS I STARTED FOLLOWING
Here are a few of the new (to me) blogs I've enjoyed over the last few months. I've found it useful to subscribe to blogs via e-mail; this way I can save the message I get each time there is a new post and read it at a later time.
· Before traveling, join online forums of teachers in the country you are going to. I used a Chinese forum on Yahoo! to ask about availability of reading materials in China and the current use of technology in the classroom, but I saw others helping each other with questions related to living conditions and travel related issues.
· Ask many questions and listen to the teachers and administration where you are. Try to be patient and flexible –it will make your life easier. Things won’t generally go as you have planned, but any plan can be revised and adjusted, right? It’s easy to get stressed out when we are in a new situation, so I try to come in reminding myself to be extra patient.
· Check out a few activity books for ideas and see if you can get their electronic versions. I am a fan of the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers series and one of them was available for my Kindle.
BOOKS I REFERENCED:
-Teaching Large Multilevel Classes (Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers) by Nathalie Hess.
-Lessons from Nothing: Activities for Language Teaching with Limited Time and Resources (Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers) by Bruce Marsland.
-Discussion Strategies: Beyond Everyday Conversation (Prolingua Paperback) By David Kehe.
-Dictations for Discussion (Prolingua) by Judy DeFilippo, Catherine Sadow and Raymond C Clark.