Teacher Sarah Bucknall writing for Hello Teacher!

Updated November 17, 2018
By Sarah Bucknall

Students in China

Teaching English in China takes me back to being at school. Some subjects caught my attention, others not so much!

With many ESL teaching jobs in training centers, the topics may not be relevant to the students. Or, the topics may be relevant but not what the students want to spend their Friday night discussing.

How can you keep motivation going when the next four lessons will be about marriage in a class of 12 teenage boys and 4 girls?

Some things to consider when teaching English in a Chinese language school is that most of the students don’t know each other, they’re doing additional hours to their education and the curriculum can be rather rigid.

So, where do you find the compromise?

Fighting for your students' (and your) sanity

My favorite level to teach in China is middle school. The students have attitude, their personalities are developing everyday and they have a curiosity that can lead to some, shall we say, interesting conversations.

I also understand the need to measure the development of the students’ acquisition of English in all its four skills by providing a curriculum that I can then test from.

But when a class of teenagers lose motivation, that attitude of theirs that I normally enjoy can become frustrating and take the fun out of teaching. And teaching English as a second language really can be fun.

Leaving the curriculum behind now and again

After a few discussions with my academic coordinator and approval from the school’s principal, we found a compromise. I was able to compact two lessons into one to give me a free lesson when a topic was quite frankly dragging.

Take the wedding topic as a prime example. I had to try and keep the language relative so going too far off topic was out of the question. Hello Bruno Mars!

If I can find a way to bring music into the classroom I will. Bruno Mars’ song ‘Marry You’ was perfect for this occasion. The language was relative but the context was so much more interesting.

If you have a poor text book to work from in China, you may be able to leave the curriculum behind now and again and let the students control the classroom.

Teacher Sarah had this textbook to work from in China so decided to leave the curriculum behind.

Dissecting a music video in a Chinese classroom

The music video for this song is a flash-mob style wedding proposal. Perfect! We watched it with the music minus the lyrics. In pairs, students had to come up with a vocabulary list.

Rotating, a student would put a word on the board and everyone would have to race to find the dictionary meaning and present it to the class.

Then, in groups, students would have to use a selection of the boarded vocabulary to create a verse to the song (music playing in the background of course). In turn the groups would sing their verse and I’d play the chorus in between.

We followed on by listening to the song and seeing if any groups wrote a similar verse. We looked at specific language used to discuss the meaning and how it can be applied in another context.

Then the fun begins.


Getting to know each other

Sitting myself on a chair with my teaching assistant opposite me, we began getting to know each other with humorous questions in a quick-fire ask-and-answer style. I rang the imaginary bell and explained the concept of speed dating to the students.

Setting it up this way breaks the ice for students. If they can see you having fun with it they feel less self-conscious and more willing to open up to the activity.

After a few minutes students chose who they would most likely date based on their best match. Playing Bruno Mars’ music video again for inspiration, they now needed to come up with a proposal for their new partner.

Students were able to swap partners based on whether the proposal won them over or not. Brutal but entertaining!


Ending on a high note

We ended the class discussing wedding traditions in China and I showed a few clips of unique wedding traditions around the world. Some were so far removed from what the students had been exposed to they were fascinated.

Spending a little extra time downloading and editing clips from movies and music videos, etc makes the planning of a lesson so much more fun. And the resources aren’t limited to just that one lesson.

I used the music video again to test what they had remembered by using gap-fill sheets, writing conversations telling friends about how they (the couple) met, and we even went as far as wedding planning!

One tip I would give is to keep a catalogue of all the resources you make or download, particularly if you teach multiple levels as it’s often a case of tweaking resources to suit the level of English.

The initial extra work becomes an easy go-to of materials that will create a motivational and fun environment and result in some serious language output. You will also decrease your planning time. And who doesn’t want to sing along to American pop music!?

Do you let your students control the curriculum in China? What do you think of this teaching strategy? Comment below.

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