May 04, 2007

Story Time at the Elementary School

The elementary school adjacent to our buxiban has twelve 2nd grade classes with 35 students in each one of them. These are the kids that are to be the bread and butter of our lives, so it seems like a good idea to go get to know them. When a parent of one of our students from a former life walked in our front door and offered to introduce me to the second grade teachers, I jumped at the chance. Well, it seemed like a good idea.

I've been getting up at six almost every morning for the last three weeks to drive from my house to the school and meet the aixin mama. Aixin mama (pron. "Eye Sheen"--Chinese English: Love/Heart) is a volunteer position for mothers and some fathers in the neighborhood who are interested in taking a more active role in students' lives. They are the crossing guards who risk their necks in early morning traffic to help kids navigate the intersections adjacent to the school. They might help to distribute snacks or milk to the class that they are assigned to for a day. When teachers gather for their morning meeting at 8o'clock, the aixin mamas hang out in the classroom to make sure students are writing down their daily assignments in their homework books, then they spend about half an hour reading a story or something along those lines.

I have become an aixin baba, and have been pressed into service reading stories or something along those lines. Actually, the nice lady across the street at the lunchbox stand tells me that my position is gushr baba (story father). So I am.

Apart from Wednesday which is Casual/Laundry Day, students wear uniforms to school four days a week. Each uniform has a name plate sewn onto it with 5 digits. A student with 30432 on his shirt is a third grader in class #4 who is the 32nd on the class role. The way things "used to be" is that all the "good" students were placed in the first class, and the best teacher was put in charge of them. When you saw a student with a high class number 31125, say, you could tell immediately that he didn't do well on his placement tests, or didn't turn in homework.

It is my understanding--by the way feel free to correct me if you have different information-- that in Jr high schools today, students in each class are ranked from best to worst and are given their class rating to wear on their badge; low numbers for good students, high numbers for ne'er-do-wells. Talk about negative reinforcement, and labeling!

Back to my second graders. As of this morning, I've worked my way through 9 of the 12 classes. This morning was class number 2-12 and I was feeling a little anxious; 2-10 and 2-11 were a little...hellish. I found that this class, today at least, was a well-behaved bunch, or at least manageable. Only one kid flipped me the bird, but no one told me to eat shit, and there were no boys jumping on their desks and grabbing their private parts while doing the chicken dance.

My contact at the school walks me to class every morning after we meet at about 7:40 and I exchange greetings with the kids from other classes whom I've met previously. Before the start of the school day, the exterior of the school is swarming with kids watering plants, sweeping the paths, picking up trash, and generally going through the motions of respecting their school. It a) teaches the students responsibility, and b) supplies free janitorial services to a tight-fisted educational system. 1st & 2nd graders normally just clean their classrooms. 5th & 6th graders get toilet duty. After one bathroom break, the place smells like a men's room at an NFL game.

When we arrive in the classroom, there are introductions amid gasps of awe at the giant hitting his head on the blackboard lights. Sometimes I feel like Gandalf.

The desks are normally arranged in 5 rows of seven, and I can compare sections of the classroom with one another as well. I'm used to teaching to a horse shoe shaped class, so coming up with ways of engaging the whole class with this kind of a set up has been something of a challenge. I want to do a high energy demo for them, because that's what they should expect when they come to my buxiban, but space for movement is limited as you can imagine.

It's a little slow starting with hellos and howareyous and I'mfinethankyouandyous and whatnot, but I play a little TeacherSays and decide whether boys and girls know who's who. After that, I've been drilling some color flashcards with them, and pitting the boys against the girls to see who can be the loudest, or quietest.

I wrap the class up with about ten minutes of TicTacToe stretched out by Rock,Paper,Scissors. I had to vamp for an extra 15 minutes for one particularly fiendish class last week. The teacher was obviously happy to pawn those kids off on someone else while she disappeared to smoke half a pack of cigarettes.

Out of 35 students, there are usually between 5 and 10 that show an interest in what's going on. In the good classes, the other ones sit politely and soak it in. Each class has its clown, some have two. In classes with three or more clowns, the top two are vying for the title of Ass. It's no holds barred.

Yesterday, the teacher stuck around through my shtick. Ten minutes in, she noticed that some students had their homework books out or were playing games. Not the rudest bunch in the school by far, but the teacher stepped in and ordered them to put all their gear away and to stand up and bow to the teacher. Twas a nice gesture, but I'd seen it once before in the class full of demons, so I was credulous. The rest of the session went extraordinarily well.

This morning, I managed to defuse the two clowns in class, and had the whole group eating out of the palm of my hand. I was even letting them win TicTacToe, when in flew a bumblebee the size of a Cessna. Under my capable watch, pandemonium was not reached, but damn near. Each class is equipped with electric oscillating fans bolted to the ceiling. Each time the behemoth flew under a fan, the wind sheer sent it darting down amongst the children who dove from their desks. "Kill it! Kill it!" the chanted. I told them to be calm and that it wouldn't sting them. No one would believe me, so I calmly opened the top window and assisted the bee on its way out to visit another class. I was the hero of the day and some of the students felt it would be ok if I stayed on for the whole day.

Not me. I needed a cup of coffee.

No comments: