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Moving to America

This is a guest post written by Bob Fonow. 

Bob Fonow (2)Chinese students are bright and industrious.  However,  students from China moving to the United States are often frightened and sad. Many are forced to leave home and friends at short notice when an agent finds an investment program that offers a visa attached, or an open homestay spot.   This creates a teaching challenge.

Earlier this year one of my students at a top university affiliated middle school in Beijing was given two months’ notice of her move.  Her parents were told by an agent that going to a public high school in Northern Virginia would increase her chances for “HYP” (Harvard, Yale, Princeton), the big prize conferring massive family bragging rights.   The irony is that her school in Beijing has exceptionally high acceptances at Ivy League and other to universities and liberal arts colleges.  She will have an adjustment period in her new school, working with a new teacher, in a school with students from many countries.

For a moment let’s review a Chinese public school, since that’s the system that 99% of the students who come to the United States attend.  In the major cities, the schools are likely to have over 2,000 students.   Classes will be large, 40-50 students.  Schools in the major cities have access to the best education technology.   Breakfast, lunch and dinner is available for students who want to extend their school day or participate in extra-curricular activities.

The English teaching emphasis is on grammar, phonetics and numerous multiple choice quizzes and examinations.  It is repetitious and reminds me of my own grade school, St. Peter’s in Steubenville, Ohio, under the direction of fierce Dominican nuns.  Everybody learned English, some better than others, and many students in China thrive in that kind of system.  Maybe you can’t write a story yet in your new American school, but you can function in math class where the emphasis is on numbers.

Teachers in China, as in the United States, are held responsible for the performance of their students. The classes are streamed by end of semester exams.   Students are under enormous parental pressure to do well.  During exams almost all my middle school students, both boys and girls become ill, withdrawn and display facial sores and boils during these periods.   They return to health very quickly, but the stress is apparent.

My wife and I run an after school program in northwest Beijing, the university area with many university affiliated schools.  Our job is to prepare students for a life that will demand fluency in English.

We think in terms of three sets of students.  First, are the more academic students in middle school and high school who plan to attend university in western countries.    We devise a curriculum that helps the students understand western culture.  Any teacher would recognize it: a history, literature and science curriculum that replicates what the students learn in their schools, but in English. This curriculum is also designed to prepare the students over several years for SAT and TOEFL success.  Each lesson will also have vocabulary and writing homework.

The second group are the students who may or may not go abroad.  We have greater flexibility with this group of students and are able to plan study sessions that engage a student’s interest.  This could be reading the “Twilight” books, or the many choices that fall under American young adult literature.   We have a 13 year old boy who hated English until we introduced him to Formula 1 racing, another interested in tanks and battles.  Each lesson includes vocabulary – write two sentences for each word – and a writing exercise stressing full sentences and short paragraphs.  For this type of student, who does not have a clear goal, we strive to teach to their interests, otherwise in our experience they lose interest and fade away.  Programs like ReadWorks can be helpful with these students.

Third, the students, especially in the summer, coming to us for emergency culture and English training before starting in their new schools in September.  These are often students going to homestay families and schools chosen by agents, and often the most confused and concerned kids.  Unlike the other two groups, which primarily come from northwest Beijing, these students can come from anywhere in northern China, and sometimes beyond.  Their English can range from completely fluent to working with students who will need a great deal of support in their new schools.  This program necessarily stresses conversation and listening and a close study of the new school’s curriculum and culture –  as much as we can discern from the school website or local publicity in newspapers.

I think it’s important to note that students from Beijing and many other Chinese cities have been raised with great privilege.  China today is a wealthy country.  The families moving abroad are not destitute refugees, and their parents usually highly educated, often with high expectations which sometimes translate to unwarranted demands on teachers. They may not recognize that their students will need a transition time to get used to their new school and teaching methods.

Most students will be responsible, polite and work diligently to succeed.   However, teachers should be aware that Chinese students have been uprooted.    Students will have a foundation of English, but may be unwilling or emotionally unable to progress for some time.   As with all of my students, I find that a friendly smile, patience and most of all kindness is the approach that encourages – or reawakens – an interest in learning English.

Bob Fonow is a management consultant and chairman of Discover Club, an after school English program in the university area of Beijing, China