The semester is almost over and it’s final exams week. I really wracked my brain this semester, because teaching non-majors is much more of a challenge. I needed the same final exam that would be appropriate for students with a vastly different level, as well as something that wouldn’t bore me to tears. These new students tend to take the easy way out and answer any question with some trite, “my parents support me and love me,” or “we should help poor people,” or “I want to travel around the world with my parents.” These are phrases and saying that just roll off their tongue but really tell me nothing about them or their real feelings.
So I ended up choosing 20 conversation-starting questions. Like, even for native speakers they are fun to talk about. For instance, If you could lock up one person in a room and torment them for 24 hours, whom would you choose and how would you torment them? Or, what vegetable do you resemble?
And through these questions, I have been getting to know my students a little better. Sometimes, I end up feeling quite bad for them.
One question, what was the worst punishment your parents have ever done to you, had a few especially sad answers. Here are a few:
One day when I did poor on a test my mom stopped talking to me for 3 days. It was the worst 3 days of my life.
I once got a 95 on a test. When I told my mother she closed the door and beat me for my carelessness. She taught me to take my time and be more careful, but unfortunately I am still careless sometimes and don’t get 100.
My dad was angry at me but he said “you are an adult now and you need to think for yourself.”
(Then I asked: That was a punishment? And the student said yes.)
There was one girl who was asked if she could go back to any time in history where would she go? She said her parents wedding because now her parents are so miserable, and fight all the time she wants to see them when they were happy. Her earnest naivete was heartbreaking.
And one girl gave everyone chills with the question, “when has a bad experience turned out to be for the best.
Me and my friends had planned a trip for several months, but right before the trip I got really sick and couldn’t even move. So my friends stayed home and took care of me. Then we later found out the bus we were supposed to be on got in a bad accident and many people were seriously hurt.
Some students used their wits. One question was, should books be censored? When I asked one boy another question (what would he do if he was president) he said that actually he had prepared the censored books question, so if he was president he would censor books because….and continued with his prepared speech. I gave him points for creativity of linking the questions.
Because I noticed that was exactly what was lacking in the exam….creativity. I’ll admit that I couldn’t even fathom how boring these questions could be answered. I chose them for their creativity and I thought there was no way they could give boring or trite answers. But I was wrong.
One question was “If you were immortal for 24 hours what would you do?” One student gave a great answer. She would try all different ways of killing herself just to feel what it felt like and she would drink all kinds of poisons just to see what they tasted like.
But most were annoyingly simple answers of, “I would go travel to all the wonderful places and eat delicious food,” or “I would go home to visit my family.” It showed a lack of understanding for sure (how does being immortal for a day let you travel???) but it really showed a lack of thinking, because “go travel around the world” and “help the poor” was one of the most common answers for pretty much every question.
If you could live 24 hours and then erase it the next day, what would you do? Help the poor, go travel around the world.
If you had one super power what would it be? Them: Help poor people. Me: how? Them: (panic in their eyes) ….help……them…..?
If you were president what would you do? Help poor people, or go around to all the countries to meet other leaders and eat delicious food.
One boy actually hit the nail on the head with his answer. I asked him the president question and he said he would build a movie theater in his hometown and watch movies with his family.
I looked at him incredulously and said, “If you were the president of China you would build a movie theater in your hometown and watch movies?!”
He looked at me and shrugged. “It’s too big a question. I cannot think so big so I think small.”
That was it. These kids I’m teaching are the smartest in the school. Their gaokao (college entrance exam) scores were the highest and yet despite that, or because of it, they have no creativity or free-thinking. Even though they are more free in college they have very few hobbies or interests outside of school. If you ask them most say their hobbies are sleeping and eating.
And I’m frustrated because I know students have it in them to be better. I’ve had 5 years of technically dumber, but more creative students. These guys aren’t English majors and this is the only class taught by a foreigner they will have in their college career. At least English majors learn quickly that foreign teachers and Chinese teachers are different and they can be creative and have fun in class. But my new students have never encountered a foreign teacher before and never will again. So they teach me like a Chinese teacher which I hate. They are more worried about giving “the right answer” and if they don’t know it, they would rather stay quiet then offer a wrong one.
(And I should clarify it is not all of them, there are a few that are great and funny and interesting, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule.)
So, while I fell disappointment in their behavior and lack of imagination, the good news is that it is their final exam which means the semester is over and I have more than 2 months holiday to look forward to. What’s the plan for this holiday? Just wait for my next blog post!