The Essay That Got Me Into Grad School

I just found this while going through some transferred files on my computer and…sometimes it’s wonderful to be reminded of the experiences and ideas that made us so passionate in pursuit.

(also, as I used this essay, you obviously cannot copy it and use any part of it as your own)

For an entire year I worked among teachers who believed they were gods.

They weren’t, of course. They were just underpaid teachers working without checks on their authority in a rural Yunnan village.

We had floated into that village on a soft late summer day, four Teach for China fellows full of ideals and good intentions. Ideals, we soon learned, were no match for social strife.

Within school grounds the teachers’ authority was absolute, extending to classes, the kitchen, the dorms, and even the individual habits and belongings of the students themselves. Teachers who didn’t bully and hit their students were soon coerced into such behavior by the fifty-odd senior teachers. Those coerced included two other fellows at Jindun. Midyear they took the bit that “all students are inherently evil cretins” and accordingly began to smack their students into shape. Parents who complained about [illegal] corporal punishment were either ignored or reprimanded by the teachers. Every student, from the top student of each class to the bottom, lived in fear.

And fear was, of course, what drove the entire system. Teachers feared their students scoring lower than the students from other classes on state tests for they feared being shunned or slighted by other teachers in the tight-knit school community. English teachers feared exposure of their incompleteness of knowledge, and thus refused to speak to us in English all year, even cancelling the Oral English practice classes for teachers set up by the county education bureau. Their fear fueled the fire of test-driven education. No one cared if a class were taught well, if students liked a particular subject, or even if students could apply their knowledge outside of class. The only marker of success anyone looked at was test scores. Three numbers determined a teacher’s standing in the community: number of students with “excellent” scores (above 85%), number of passing students, and class average.

Students, too, were driven by fear. For some this was fear of failure, fear of feeling stupid of being berated in front of their peers. For others it was a simple, short-term fear of being hit.

Students were stupid until they proved themselves otherwise, by consistently scoring well on tests. And stupid students were worthless students. In a regular year only half of the students at Jindun would test into high school. The other half might as well rot in their desks for all the teachers cared – as long as they didn’t test embarrassingly low or cause disturbances, the teachers didn’t really bother with them except for use as negative examples. More than a dozen teachers chided me for holding help sessions with kids in the bottom half of my class – they were worthless, they would never pass, and they wouldn’t make it into high school: why should I waste my time on them?

In short, students who weren’t going to pass the tests were treated like they would cease existing the moment they graduated or dropped out of school. Education was, after all, used only to herd students through a test. There was no concept of education for the sake of learning.

I tried to change this. With grandiose schemes in line with the lofty goal of our organization to “improve education in rural China” for the first month, and in increasingly small and practical ways afterwards. I spent the week before classes planning a complete system of rules and practices for a democratic classroom with student-led learning. After a few days I discovered that fifty-four of my fifty-six students didn’t know how to take initiative in learning. They waited for directions, expected instructions. If they weren’t told to do something by the teacher, they wouldn’t do it. The students needed the comfort of being told what to do before they were comfortable doing anything on their own. I couldn’t plunge them into an independent environment and expect them to swim.

I started looking for the roots of issues that appeared in class: I analyzed their sixth and seventh grade scores in every subject, looked over which questions on the English test they were getting wrong, talked to parents, visited their homes, and met with students for individual sessions. What I discovered was that there were a variety of issues affecting student performance and learning, but two factors were common to ninety percent of my students: they had never been taught logic or basic problem-solving skills, and few of them held positively enforced goals. Students only knew how to memorize for the tests, and their primary motivation to study was fear.

I adjusted my plans accordingly and gave them floaties – step-by-step directions guiding them towards independent learning. How many times to copy each vocab word. Skeleton essays with clearly denoted blanks. Daily in-class vocab practice and twice-weekly vocab listening quizzes. Small-group help sessions during lunch break. Points and stars awarded for every attempt, every correct answer, every piece of homework, every extra-credit opportunity, every improvement on quizzes and tests, every correction made on returned tests. Stickers, coins, notebooks or an hour with the soccer ball for so many points. Points taken away for late homework, for copying homework, for cheating on tests, for throwing chalk at other kids during class. Students who cheated had to stay after and retest. I also changed the emphasis of my classes from pure English to logic and problem-solving. I created worksheets that required students to add together pieces of information or use deductive logic in order to arrive at the answer. When going over homework in class I always asked students to explain why they chose a particular answer. And all students – from the top to the bottom – received recognition for effort and improvement. Wrong answers were opportunities to review.

By mid-fall I saw great improvement among many of my students: they completed their own homework, asked when they had questions, could work through word problems on their own and explain their answers, and guarded their stars jealously. On essays and during extra-curricular English activity hours students used the grammar and vocab learned in class to craft sentences and stories found nowhere in the textbook, such as: “Chinese class is like a horror film because our Chinese teacher is really scary”. The majority of had begun to take ownership of their learning.

My system did not work for all students. If I had stayed another year I could have better tuned it for that other twenty percent through further examining and calculating in their needs. The success I did achieve, however, was made solely through an attempt to understand and adapt my plan to the local situation. Teach for China overall was not as successful as it could have been because there was little effort to understand or adapt our mission to the local situation at an administrative level. It’s near impossible to positively change a situation one does not understand.

The same is true across other sectors of Chinese society. The language used in the Cultural Revolution, in particular the parallel existence of “correct” and “everyday” language, and the complex mixture used in underground literature, still affects the way Chinese use and view language today – and yet near no one has examined the language of those texts. Nor has the Chinese government sought to understand the root of resentment Muslim minorities in the North West hold for the incoming Han, or the effects of induced Chinese language education for Xinjiang minorities on this smoldering tension. If these issues aren’t researched, then how can they be understood? If they aren’t understood, then how can they ever be addressed?

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