Discipline and Punish

Discipline has become a constant challenge in three out of my six classes (senior 2 classes 11, 13 and 14). The students are rowdy; they are almost constantly talking so loudly that I cannot finish a single sentence. They throw papers, books, and spitballs at each other. They text on their phones under their desks and listen to music with one (or both) headphones in. They look at themselves in folding mirrors, do homework for other classes, and, when I take their cell phones or books away or order them out of the class, give me sad-puppy looks: “who, me?” I’ve even seen students changing under their desks.

I don’t know how these classes got so out of hand. I have a set of strict rules that I’ve clearly enunciated and for which I’ve maintained an even set of punishments throughout the semester. If I see a cell phone, I take it – and the student – to the office. I also take students’ books, comics, mp3’s, homework (that they are doing), cameras, magazines, and more. If the class is noisy (status quo), I sit down at my desk and stare quietly at the students until it’s quiet enough that I can begin again. I do not respond to requests in Chinese. If students come in late, they must sing a song; if they’re 5 minutes late or more, they go to the office.

But it hasn’t been working; the classes have largely become rowdier than ever. Last week, I was in despair; I wrote a mass email to the ViA China crew asking for suggestions. I received a variety of helpful suggestions from the vols, some of which I’ve adopted (e.g. making the entire responsible for one student’s cell phone use: when I see (and take) a phone, class stops, and the entire class must copy a mindless sentence 10 or 15 times. The idea is to turn the class against the cell phone user, and it’s worked pretty well so far: one student, a great kid who asks me constantly outside of class about the lyrics of the gangster rap songs he listens to in class (“Teacher, what does ‘wassup motherfucker’ mean?”) copied down the sentences with an angry heading: “I want to kill this motherfuck man because I have to write these sentences.”)

But what was most helpful was an extraordinarily kind and sympathetic call from Ligaya, our TEFL teacher and former ViA vol who’s working here in Xining at 青海大学。 Ligaya listened to me vent for a while, then offered up some suggestions that I will probably start using after the midterms (which begin next week or the week after). I’m going to restate and clarify my rules, and give more explicit examples of the kind of behavior I’m looking for. I’m also going to start giving more awards and recognition for good behavior; while I do this now, I don’t think that I do it sufficiently.

I also made this week a type of test. Last week, my Senior 2 classes completed a unit on geography, landscape, cities, and travel – in general, words to describe places. Throughout the two-week unit, I emphasized that what we were doing was leading up to a culminating project, an assignment that I borrowed from Emily (thanks!): the students would have to work in small groups to create their own country, which they would present to the class. I gave the students details about the assignment a week before it was due, and gave them a significant amount of time in class on Thursday to work in their groups. I emphasized that the assignment was like an oral exam, and equivalent to a test grade; everyone would need to speak, and I would grade it not only on the amount they prepared but also on their speaking ability as evidenced in the presentation itself. I also let the students know that giving them this type of assignment – as well as time in class to prepare – was a test in itself; it would let me know what kind of assignments I could trust them to complete (not that I said it in those words). Today, two classes had their presentations. Class 12, as usual, did brilliantly; all of the seven groups had prepared an elaborate presentation complete with their made-up country’s map, flag, and national symbol, and each group sang their country’s national anthems – something I had not even asked them to do. One group even took on roles; one girl played the role of the country’s general, while another was the king.

In all honesty, class 14 went better than I expected. However, that’s still not saying much. Four out of eight groups had prepared short presentations, but the class was so loud and rowdy that I could barely hear. I stopped class twice when I took students’ cell phones to have the class copy sentences. The other four groups had not prepared at all, and – despite my extensive explanations to every section of the classroom the week before, some even in Chinese – looked surprised that I was asking them to do something. I’m still contemplating what action I’d like to take; their grades have suffered significantly, that’s for sure, but I don’t know if I have the patience (or the ability) to call up 20-30 parents to explain what happened.

Regardless, today went better than any day last week. My two senior 1 classes were (as usual) great; we’ve been doing a unit on news and stories, so I had them work in groups to create news stories from pictures I distributed before sending two group members to the front of the class to present the story as if they were TV anchors. It went beautifully. I feel like I could never have trusted my three ‘trouble classes’ to do the same work.

Discipline obviously occupies most of my mind right now; thus, the title of this post (thanks, Foucault!). I don’t have much other news; the weekend was a quiet and relaxing one. I spent a lot of time wandering around the city doing errands and exploring some neighborhoods I’ve been meaning to get to. I’ve also been hosting couchsurfers, so I had a French woman staying with me until she left on Sunday.

The most exciting news (also school-related) is probably from this past Friday. Early last week, one of the school’s Chinese English teachers came up to me between classes and asked me to come to the Senior 2 English Song and Drama Competition on Friday afternoon. But it wasn’t really an invitation; I had to come, she said, for I was to be the only 老外 on the panel of eight judges. Slightly confused, I went off to the next class.

During the course of the week, the competition gradually began to piss me off. First, class monitors came up to me and asked if I could give them time to practice in class (which I did for my good class). This happened repeatedly, and culminated in a minor scene where the English teacher for one of my classes asked if I could ‘donate’ all of my classes that week to ‘song and play practice.’

“Do you let the students practice their song during your class?” I asked her.

“Of course not!” she said.

“Well,” I said, “that’s my answer too. I have a class to teach, just as you do.”

That incident, though minor, really pissed me off as it showed me how insignificant my class is not just to the students, but even to the other teachers. To me, it showed how little they cared about what I did, whether or not I was here, who I was. Needless to say, by the end of the week the English competition and I were barely on speaking terms.

But all the same, at 2:30 pm on Friday I filed into the music hall and took my seat at the judges’ desk up front. We got free tea, as well as free ballpoint pens that had “Noblesse” written on them in curly italic script. And then the lights were dimmed (not really accurate: they were turned off, and it was so dark it was hard to write down our scores because we could barely see our papers) and the event began.

There are fourteen senior 2 classes, and all fourteen classes performed a skit and sang a song. As you could guess, this meant that the event continued for quite some time. Nevertheless, it was entertaining. The classes chose a wide range of songs, including “We Are the World” (complete with students waving glowsticks in the dark music hall), “New Soul,” “Scarborough Fair” (with brave if not successful attempts at singing both parts in harmony, the lines of the ancient ballad underscored by Paul Simon’s political lyrics), “Edelweiss,” “Country Roads” (which gave me slightly more love for class 14), and my favorite: “Breaking Free” – which I had never heard before, but what made it great was that all the students in the class which sang the song wore shiny silvery flamboyantly tasseled wristbands, which they swung around wildly in the air while they sang.

But the songs didn’t hold a candle to the plays (“operas” on my program), which were usually performed by the best students from each class. The plays included the following:

– A version of the “Three Little Pigs” fairytale where the wolf, after failing to blow down the third pig’s brick house, goes to Bin Laden who supplies him with dynamite to blow it to smithereens.

– Two versions of “Cinderella,” including one (by my very own class 12) where Cinderella was a mean and spiteful lady who had to be turned good by her slavelike stepsisters, one of whom ended up marrying the prince.

– A patriotic story about the government’s efforts to rescue victims of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.

-A scene from 西游记 (“Journey to the West,” a Chinese classic) remarkable for the surprisingly skilled actor who played Xuanzang/Tripitaka and the hilarious interaction of this character with Sun Wukong and Bajie.

– A play by my class 11 (which has some extremely advanced students) where two gangsters kidnap a schoolgirl for a fish picnic at Qinghai Lake.

– A sentimental story about friends who drift apart when they are separated into different high schools, and finally meet in a park one day in a melodramatic scene where they make each other feel bad for neglecting each other before they decide to forget their differences and reconcile in the name of their old friendship; all the while, snow is falling (being sprayed) out of a can of shaving cream so, by the end, the friends’ hug of reconciliation gets pretty messy.

-A story about a poor man who wanders around a city trying to find a home for the night. The police kick him out everywhere he goes before he finds a temporary home (and salvation?) in a church; afterwards, the police find him again and take him away.

Justice was a theme throughout the plays, which had titles like “Justice is the Winner” and “It happened in a Restrnaut (sic).” But overall, the skits were surprisingly well-prepared,  well-executed, and imaginative. While I noticed the time passing, it didn’t seem like things were going too slowly (well, maybe in a couple of the plays). But suddenly it was over, we turned in our scores, and the headmaster came up to give a speech.

“Because I can’t speak English too well,” he said in Chinese, “I didn’t really understand any of the plays or the songs. But they really looked good, and showed that your English has really improved. And what’s important is that as you improve your English, you improve your gaokao scores.”

He talked in that vein for another ten minutes, but that was really all I needed to hear. I sat and fumed for a few minutes while a couple of surprisingly good students beat-boxed to kill time while the scores were being tabulated, before the awards were finally announced. My class 11 tied for first prize (though they can be terrors, I was so proud, and the kids in the play had been practicing every lunchtime for almost two weeks). Even better, some of my best students dominated the individual prizes: best actor, best actress, best overall performance, and best 风采 (which roughly translates as ‘charisma’). I was proud and only noticed once I got outside that it was 6:30pm; we had been inside the hall for four hours. Thank god I took a run beforehand, otherwise I would have been extremely antsy.

Anyway, that’s all for now. The only other exciting news is that it’s snowing! Today’s high was .4 degrees C (32 degrees F); winter is really almost here!

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