At the end of every school year, right before we dismiss for the summer holidays, my top priority is to visit my department’s office and pin down Mr. Chen, in charge of assigning courses to the teachers.
“Don’t forget, Mr. Chen,” I say. “I want to teach the freshmen. Be sure to give me the freshmen English Education classes for the next school year.”
“Yes!” Mr Chen replies with gusto. “I will not forget.”
“See?” he continues as he catches my skeptical look. “I am writing it down.”
I watch him carefully do this because one year, he didn’t remember and he had quite some time getting schedules moved about to finally remedy that mistake. Don’t think he wants to repeat that hassle again!
This Year, More Freshmen than Ever
Every department at our college has a cap on how many freshmen can be accepted into different majors. The cap for the 3 English majors offered (English Education, Practical English and Business English) is 266. This number was decided upon by the college office in charge of admissions and has remained the same for quite a few years.
Never in the history of the department has 266 ever been reached. But this year, for the first time ever, we are at almost full capacity for freshmen with 261 now majoring in English.
At present, I am teaching English Education Classes 1, 2, 3, and 5. The Peace Corp Volunteer, Zuri, is teaching Business English and Class 4. While I would have loved to have all English Education majors, I was already at full capacity with teaching hours because of the seniors that are always added to my schedule. I teach methodology courses which require a professional, experienced teacher, thus I am always given those classes rather than those be given to a novice.
My first homework assignment for the freshmen is a writing assignment, on Page B of their textbook which I create myself: “In the Classroom with my Foreign Language Teacher.”
The assignment is to write a 200-or-more word essay, choosing one of the following topics: My Family, An Most Exciting Day in My Life and An Important Lesson in Life I Learned. I announce that this assignment is not for a grade but for me to get to know them better. (It’s also a great way for me to assess their writing skills, although I don’t tell them that.)
The topics I devised for three different levels of language skills. “My Family” is the easiest. A majority of my students choose that one and give the basics about those closest to them. “An Exciting Day in my Life” demands a story-telling ability, which is a step above the first prompt. The last choice, “An Important Lesson in Life I Learned,” requires more depth in thinking, including not only the story of what happened but why it was life-changing.
Those that choose the last I notice outshine the rest of the class during the months that follow. These are the students I find are natural teachers, those who quickly catch on to methods and have astute observations about classroom management when we do have discussions on what makes an excellent teacher.
As an example of a few of my favorites, I’ll include excerpts below of such students whose essays I found both revealing and thought-provoking. (I have left them with their errors intact, as they originally wrote them.)
My Mom Learns an Important Lesson by Yu Ruyi
Fortunately, I have a very happy and harmonious family, but I have a very careless mom.
In my childhood, my mom and I went to the market to buy food. My mom concentrated on buying vegetables, so I played by her side. At this time, a human trafficker came and took me but my mom was not aware of it. Just then, the vegetable seller told my mom that I had been taken away. My mom was very worried so she ran after the human trafficker to the railway station. Finally, I was saved.
You see, there is always a careless mom who really hurts!
My Family by Mao Yiru
Once my family is very rich in 1987. Everyone admires our family because my grandma owned a hotel. Our family has a good business, so our hotel is famous. My dad was a teenager. Years later, my dad married my mom and soon, I was born.
But my father didn’t like me because I was a girl. And my dad was cold to me and Mom. My father bought clothes for my cousin during the New Year. When my mom knew this, she was very sad.
My father was a driver. One day, he had an accident. He needed a lot of money. My grandmother had to sell her hotel so our family became poor. I was only one year old. No one helped us.
Then my mom left me to make money. My grandma said my mom left because our family was poor and told me not to call her Mom anymore. I didn’t know anything back then so I hated my mom.
Later, my mom told me the truth. When I was 9 years old, my dad and mom divorced. I wanted to follow my mom because I didn’t like my dad. But my grandmother wouldn’t let me do this. She said: “I’ve been working hard to bring you up. What has she done for you?”
So I didn’t want to upset Grandma. I chose my father and we moved far away from my mom. I missed her. I wanted to be loved by my mom. Although my father found me a stepmother, I was not happy.
Fortunately, now I’m free to go to my mom. I am a college student now. My dad and grandma can’t stop me.
My Family by Chen Ju (Jennifer)
I’m from a happy family of 4 members: father, mother, sister and I. First, let me introduce my father. My father is responsible and dotes on me very much. But last year, he died of a serious illness. Although it was destiny, I realized that there was no choice for him to die or not to die. My mom continues to make money by herself for me to go to school. It is a great burden for her. She is a very strong woman. I will be like her some day.
Eager to Improve
This last excerpt shows how desperate students are to improve their English, how they truly wish their teachers to point out their mistakes and make them better in their skills. At the end of her essay, Guo Chunyan wrote a personal note to me:
“Lastly, I want to say I think it’s interesting that my birthday is the same day as yours. When I found out your birthday was January 12, I was so excited that I couldn’t believe I’d actually find someone born on the same day as I am. I’m sorry my English is poor. If it’s any trouble to you, you can write down my shortcomings on my homework. Thank you!”
Connie, I love this post ! Thank you for sharing these. What an insight to what you face every day and what a impact you have on your students lives. Thanks for all you do. Teresa
These student essays provide perspective in crazy times. Many forget or close their eyes to the personal troubles experienced by many. Even students in this country have challenges they do not share. We need to be mindful of this and be patient, understanding and kind. You are wise to have this assignment so you can know your students and respond as needed. Blessings to you for all you do to make this a better world.