Tuesday, December 30, 2008

New Book, New Class, New Teacher

Chinese Conversation Book II

My New Class: Miss Yan, Melanie, Teacher, Beatrice, me (Susanna took the picture)

The Rest of the Class: Susanna (Venice, Italy); Melanie (Overseas Chinese from Madagascar); Teacher; Beatrice (France); me (USA); Miss Yan (Overseas Chinese from Thailand) took the picture.

Teacher Wen-Fang Chin (靳文芳老師) at my wedding
The office secretaries had instilled terror in my heart about Teacher Wen-Fang Chin. I was shaking a little when I entered her classroom that first day. I gave her my transfer slip and told her that I understood I was on probation for two weeks. She began quizzing me at random from the first book. I did not miss anything until she got to the last three lessons in the book. My old class was only two thirds of the way through the book, and I had not finished the last three lessons with my roommates. When Ms. Chin learned that I had not yet completed the first book, she tried to send me back to my old teacher. I begged and pleaded, and she reluctantly agreed to the probation.

Beginning that day and for the next three years, I was given a special grading scale of 100, 50, and 0. If everything was right, I got 100. If I missed one dot on a character, wrote one line out of order, or missed one tone, I got a 50 (which was failing). If I made two mistakes, no matter how minor, I got a zero. That first day, Ms. Chin told me that if I got a running total of three zeros during those first two weeks, I was out of her class. She didn’t think that the average American had the patience to pay attention to minute details, and details are vital to learning Chinese well. If I wanted to remain in her class, she would teach me better than any other teacher of basic Chinese in the school, but I had to play by her rules and work harder than I had ever worked in my life. I also had to finish those last three lessons in Book One on my own time before my two weeks’ probation was over, but I couldn’t use the extra work as an excuse for shirking on her homework.

Teacher Chin was a very old-school Chinese teacher. She was not in it for the money; she felt it was an insult to her integrity to even mention the monetary compensation because teaching was a “holy” profession devoted to molding the younger generation. Her grandfather had been an official in the Qing Dynasty, and her father had been a medical officer in the Kuomintang Army. Her parents had been put to death by the Communists hours before they were due to evacuate the mainland for Taiwan. Teacher Chin came to Taiwan alone with her aunt. She was born in the area around Peiping (Beijing), and her Mandarin was impeccable. She had learned Chinese the old way with a tutor, as her family had been quite wealthy and had had servants and farms around the city of Beijing. When she was nine, the family had to move south following her father and the Kuomintang Army. She was orphaned at age twelve. Some of her earliest memories were of the Japanese invasion of northern China. Ms. Chin was passionate in her teaching because she wanted to preserve the memories of what had been lost through the Japanese occupation of China and the Communist Cultural Revolution.

Teacher Chin was as tough on herself as she was on us. She worked very hard to be sure that we knew each book backwards and forwards so that we could hear, speak, read, and write every single word in each text. Ms. Chin said that a character wasn’t really “ours” until we could use it in our own sentences and write the sentences down. If anyone in the class didn’t understand something after the first explanation, Teacher Chin would re-teach it from several different angles until we all understood. The class I was joining had just spent nine months covering the book that I had covered in three. They really did know and could use every single character in the book. Because Teacher was so strict, lazy students with no real interest in becoming fluent in Chinese were scared off in about a week. I was in with the best of the best. I had a lot of catching up to do, but I also had a better learning environment than all of my classmates, so it did not take me long to overtake them.

Teacher Chin’s theory of pedagogy was quite interesting. She taught the first two conversation books in what she called “a line”. She did not stray from the text. She kept going over and over and over every single dialog and character until we could use all the words and idioms to make our own sentences orally and in writing. It took us an entire year to get through the second conversation book. After finishing that text book, we moved into the intermediate readers and Teacher began to teach on “a plane.” She gave us full background on every word or phrase that we learned, including stories from classical Chinese, proverbs, synonyms and secondary meanings of the words. She also began to teach us contextual clues and subtle shades of meaning, so we would know when someone was politely insulting us. She frequently told us that she had kept us to the line in the basic books because you can’t draw a plane until you have a line. If the foundation is weak, the whole house will tumble down. She prided herself on having students with consistently high test scores even though her classes did not move quickly through the text books. She always reminded us that when you “admire flowers from a galloping horse”, you cannot avoid picking a few with thorns. We carefully examined every “flower” of the Chinese language, and as a result, we all were able to avoid innumerable thorns.


gzim said...


How has your own approach to "teaching" been impacted by your experience with Teacher Chin?


Teresa said...

Hi Dad,

I think it made me tougher. I realized that the best way to have students do well is to expect a lot of them. But I also realized that you have to teach things from several different angles to get it to sink in. Especially when you teach languages, you have to give students many opportunities to use what they are memorizing or else it is not really "theirs", but that also works with math, reading, writing, etc. Teacher blended stories, games, tests, and there was never a dull moment in class. She didn't teach us Chinese songs, but apart from that she taught us every other way. Sometimes she would describe something and we would have to draw the picture. It was fun, challenging, and it helped us remember. Once we got with the program and were doing the homework regularly, she was very personable and class was fun. As soon as we started slacking off, she would go through a spurt of tests and quizzes that put the fear of God back into us. She kept changing things us so there was never a dull moment. I used to do that a lot when I was teaching English at the university and at the Gloria English School.


Barbara Martin said...

This was a very interesting insight into your life, Teresa. I will return to read more of your blog later. All the best in the New Year to you and yours.

Teresa said...

Hi Barbara,

Thanks for visiting my blog. I really enjoy your nature posts with the wonderful scenery from Canada. I also like your history vignettes. But so far my favorite post on your blog is the horses pulling that truck out of the snowy ditch. My daughter Joanna loves horses and we were both cheering the horses as we watched that clip.


murat11 said...

This reminds me of my best yoga teacher, though I am by no means the disciplined student that you were. But, just the meticulous attention to detail and her phenomenal and intimate knowledge of the body.

Teresa said...

Murat: I think all good teachers have common traits. The Chinese have a proverb: "Strict teachers produce excellent students." If the teacher doesn't expect the students to learn well, they won't.