I wrote this probably two months ago or more. So embarrassing.
To help fledgling educators learn how to teach that good and authentic American English, hundreds of Chinese high school, university, and graduate students, and a few incredibly talented middle school students, volunteered their summer holiday to sit in Peace Corps trainee-taught classes for two hours a day.
If you know me, you’ll know that I believe mysteries to be one of the greatest delights and forms of entertainment in this plane of existence. Back at home, I honor Sunday as a holy day, religiously tuning in to the Public Broadcasting Service’s 9:00 PM “Masterpiece Mystery!” After years of enjoying mysteries, I thought I might be able to share this great art form with my practicum students by having them solve a murder mystery as their final assessment.
Marcus, my practicum partner, and I chose to teach high schoolers instead of undergrad and graduate students.Our TEFL trainers had consistently warned us that our students at final sites would have low English proficiencies and might not be able to string together a self-introductory sentence. We thought high schoolers might prove more receptive to playing a mystery game as their final assessment and also, since they had fewer years of English education, that they might be more similar in proficiency to students at our final sites.
Starting practicum (the two week model school) was nothing short of heart-attack inducing, but due to a lot of teamwork and the inherent awesomeness of my students, I made it through. Our class started out with 11 students, and every single one of them possessed amazing fluency. The challenge was not getting our students to participate, but in constantly revising lesson plans to stretch the knowledge of the students.
For most of our students, the time they spent with us was the only relaxing time they had during the day. Chinese high school students typically spend their “summer vacations” doing hours of homework, fitting in additional lessons and going to cram school (bu3xi2ban1, 补习班) in preparation for the national college entrance exam, the gao1kao3， 高考. In the final week of the class, we ended up losing two students to study camps.
To an American, the study ethic of Chinese students is INCREDIBLE, but makes sense when you understand the impact that the gao1kao3 holds in Chinese society.
A student’s gao1kao3 scores not only determine the college they are allowed to attend, but also the major that the student is allowed to study. This may seem like a slightly more serious SAT, but you also must keep in mind that China’s student population numbers in the billions, the admission slots of top tier schools (一本大学) are few, and the students admitted into competitive majors such as management and economics, are even fewer.
The gao1kao3 is such a huge cultural phenomenon, that during the end of spring semester, roads near testing centers will shut down, taxi drivers will ferry students to test locations for free, and parents of high school seniors are given time off work so they can ensure their child makes it to the test. The test is delivered over several days and takes around 9 hours to complete.
Despite this looming pressure over Chinese high school students, our practicum students eagerly participated, injecting creativity and enthusiasm into every drill. Their relentless competitiveness in review activities and the fervor they showed in recounting the names of murder weapons (baseball bat! blunt objects! poison! SWORD! knife! gun!) inspired me to find challenges that would keep up their engagement and help them improve their English.
I spent hours “driving the night bus” (开夜车: the Chinese equivalent of burning the midnight oil), writing lessons and often finalized the plan but one hour before I needed to start writing on the chalkboard. By the time the final assessment arrived, I was spent. In planning for practicum, I had originally found a few ESL mysteries online, but over the week, discovered these games were too simple for our students.
The night before the final assessment, I decided I had to find something difficult for them. Borrowing heavily from years of consuming Masterpiece Mystery!, Nancy Drew, and the myriad of novels recommended by my fellow mystery fan and former coworker, Lisa, I hurriedly attempted to write a mystery that would challenge my students’ brilliant minds. Assembling a convoluted story of murder and intrigue for the students to role play took all night, and like clockwork, I finished just one hour away from class.
The day of the assessment was rewarding beyond belief, and I had little to do besides announce the time limits. Each student assumed the personality of a character who was present at a dinner party, where, OF COURSE, some rich guy died. Couldn’t avoid that cliché. 😉 The students hungrily conversed with the others to gather information. By the end of the two hour class period, they wouldn’t leave the building and raucously accused each other of murdering Mr. Theodore Allen.
The students’ final task was to create a two minute speech on how they deduced the murderer. After the game, Marcus and I allotted another two hour class period to help them on their speeches, but soon found that help was not necessary.
On the final day of class, our students blew us out of the water, presenting speeches that averaged out to around four minutes. Without much of our help, they expertly used consequential and sequential transition phrases and worked into their presentations a healthy scattering of some of the 60 vocabulary words we had studied.
I initially felt anxious at having written a mystery that lacked a clear answer. The students deserved a proper and logical puzzle! Yet, their rationales were extraordinarily detailed and some were so creative, I wished I had arrived at their ideas for the true solution of the mystery. By unintentionally keeping the clues somewhat open, the students were able to show off their genius and imagination. My mistake turned out to be a happy accident, but also caused me hours of anxiety that will ensure I spend a lot more hours figuring out how to teach once I’m at site.
After all the speeches had been delivered, I revealed the name of murderer and 1/3 of the students rejoiced, having their accusation validated. We finished the day with snacks, sodas, and some violin performances by Marcus and an impromptu one by our student Cindy, who sight read “Do you want to build a snowman?”
My students showed me graciousness and eagerness to learn. They were open in their feedback, which helped me realize being a good teacher is about facilitating activities that allow the students to explore, practice, and help them arrive at their own understandings. Designing that 80/20 is a struggle for me, but ultimately, there are few things as rewarding as sitting at the back of the class, watching your students apply and create with the skeletons of instruction you’ve given them.