In the summer 2006 we organised a group of foreign teachers and ran an English Summer School at a poor mountain village called Li Quan which was about 2 hours north of Xi'an. An interesting bus journey in the height of the summer on a packed non air-conditioned bus over bumpy dusty roads. During the six weeks we taught up to 180 students a day.
I had been going to the Soup Kitchen for a couple of months when I heard talk of potentially having a summer teaching project in a village just outside Xi'an, in Shaanxi province. After finishing University in England I was asked by my friends what I'd like to do with my life I had two answers the first to go and do a volunteer project, maybe teaching and possibly abroad or become a professional poker player. At the time the former was too expensive while the latter wasn’t being fruitful enough. I had somewhat stumbled upon the opportunity to have a teaching career in China (probably while playing online poker) so by the time of hearing about the Teaching Project I had already been teaching for around 4 to 5 months in Xi'an, so it sounded exactly like what I wanted to do. The project was to be in a village around 2 hours or so from Xi'an and we would be teaching children from local villages who have never been taught by a 'foreigner' before - so hopefully it would prove beneficial for all parties concerned.
The thought process behind how best to carry out the project was important in attempting to make it a success. Various meetings were held and Tony was in constant contact with the village leader as details were being finalised. At one point this resulted in a trip to the village to check any facilities and class rooms, how we would segregate the students and their ability levels. Elliott, another one of the teachers, and I were fortunate to go and whilst Tony was speaking with the village leader Elliott and I were led into a room with some children waiting for us. We had to do a makeshift class to access their levels as both of us had teaching experience. The first thing we noticed was how quiet the children were and how nervous they were about speaking despite the fact that they were able to. A couple of hours later, after several games (some failed miserably some were more successful) the children were laughing and playing whilst at the same time speaking English. I think Elliott and I both saw the children’s confidence grow in the space of just two hours and them beginning to enjoy speaking English, which is the best we could hope for. By the end of the trip it had been decided 3 classrooms were going to be used with a maximum of 20 students all around the same age in each class, in an attempt to make sure they were of similar English levels. The project was to last 6 weeks, with 3 teachers teaching 6 hours per day which meant we where able to accommodate 180 students each day.
As we travelled to the village for our first week we looked over our self made 6 week syllabus and I think our feelings were of excitement as we were going into an unknown environment, nervous as David, Elliott and I were. Both myself and Elliott knew how difficult the couple of hours when we went to access the students had been and how tiring it was. Anytime that I am up before 9 o’clock it is always the case.
Upon arriving we were instantly made to feel welcome as we went into one of the local villagers homes for some much needed breakfast. Followed shortly by the first class. The day went fairly smoothly as did the following 5 weeks teaching. As expected the children proved to be very shy initially but given time this soon disappeared. In accordance with the Chinese syllabus the children’s written work was excellent, while orally they struggled to get their message across. As the weeks went by the numbers gradually grew, which sometimes proved a problem as students couldn’t fully participate in class but if the students wanted to learn we felt reluctant to turn them away.
The highlight of the summer for me was in the last week that I taught as in my class I had a group of girls 7 who were so keen to get involved and play games. In the break I discovered they’d walked for 4 hours from a nearby village just to get to the class as their families couldn’t afford to pay the 1 yuan (￡0.06 p) bus fare. I could have happily carried on teaching them for a couple more hours.
The energy and excitement before each class was also a great aspect of the project and just seeing how hard working some of the children were was eye-opening.
The village also kindly offered to accommodation us at the end of the teaching day as it would have been too tiring to undertake the return journey after teaching all day in temperatures of 40 degrees centigrade or more. This proved to be fascinating as each evening all the teachers and organisers took strolls through the nearby villages, meeting the locals and chatting and we also had the chance to see how some of the students lived.
In summary as a teacher the project was very rewarding as the students were so keen to participate and to see how much each child’s confidence grew was a wonderful feeling. I also got the chance to see another way of life to that outside of Xi’an city centre. The openness and warmth to which we were welcomed was amazing. The project as a whole, was only 6 weeks so we weren’t aiming to make non speakers fluent, merely give them the chance to study the language in a different way then they were used to in the hope they would gain confidence and less afraid of using their English in future, as it is considered a very important language in China. Hopefully all the students enjoyed the lessons and we gave them added incentive to carry on studying. Ideally we could open a school and teach the children for months and years to come but this realistically wasn’t feasible at that time but I believe the project for all parties concerned proved beneficial.