Category Archives: Teaching

Things my students wrote: Love letters to strangers

Earlier this semester I was working with my students to craft class newspapers and quickly found that they had never really been taught to write concisely. They were used to writing long, flowery (read: bullshitty) prose that went on and on for days and days about very little.

At a loss for what to do I asked my old Wisconsin State Journal co-worker, George, what he would do to help explain writing compact news articles.

George suggested having them write love letters to strangers. He explained, “When I was learning Norwegian, I had difficulty writing because I was trying to translate in my head as I went along from English to Norwegian. I should have been simplifying everything, because the whole point of communication is to have someone understand your message. There is nothing worse than a misunderstood love letter. So I used it as an exercise in explaining to students that if you think of presenting your message in a foreign language, that is one way to keep it simple.” Continue reading Things my students wrote: Love letters to strangers


10 things nobody tells you about becoming a foreign teacher

  1. You will call all of your students your “kids”

Most of my students are 19, meaning I’m only a few years older than them. But despite their adult status and our narrow age gap, when talking about my students I always refer to them as my “kids.”

Because they’re your kids, you’ll feel every triumph and failure with them. You’ll be ecstatic when one student passes their driving test or gets accepted into a study abroad program or even when the two kids who’ve been flirting shyly all year finally get together. And then you’ll be crushed when a good student fails a test or doesn’t make the basketball team. Continue reading 10 things nobody tells you about becoming a foreign teacher

Finding the teacher groove

My life seems to be divided into chunks of time and people. Growing up in Wisconsin, where I was ferried from one sports practice or school activity to another; Des Moines and Drake, in which I lived and breathed newsprint and rowing; a spell in Australia, with long ago memories of Vegemite and my host families goose farms; a semester in Italy, a blur of gelato and cinema studies; Texas, a summer of road trips, romance, and magazine internships; and Madison, a brief taste of a quasi-adult life. Now there’s China. So stark in how it stands out.

No move is easy, but no move has challenged me like China has. Part of it was the (many) cultural differences. But another part was the difficulties of adjusting to a new gig.

I’ve been working or interning for newspapers and magazines for over seven years — writing is something I get. Like a bartender who constructs cocktails without measuring, or even really looking, I was self-assured. I was confident that I could ask the questions that were needed to get good responses; could weave nouns and verbs together well to create a mosaic of evocative quotes and facts.
Continue reading Finding the teacher groove

Creating Christmas cheer in China

It’s no secret that I love Christmas. As soon as it becomes socially acceptable to start putting up Christmas decorations – we’re talking ASAP on the day after Thanksgiving – it looks like a Pinterest board exploded in my house. Last year I turned our fridge into a snowman and hung origami mistletoe from our ceiling fan. My roommates and I called it “extreme mistletoe.”

I might have gone overboard on the Christmas cheer this year to get my festive fix. It could probably be likened to the scene from “Elf” where Buddy prepares the department store for the arrival of Santa. I didn’t turn an etch-a-sketch into an ornament bearing the likeness of Mona Lisa, but I did festoon my ceilings with blinking lights and paper chains and assembled a massive artificial evergreen tree that dominated my tiny living room.


And while I didn’t dump syrup on all my food a-la Buddy the Elf (“we elves try to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy corn, candy canes and syrup”), I did marry one of his main food groups with one of mine: coffee. Put enough candy canes in your morning java and eventually you’ll get a mutter of ‘Christmas’ and ‘peppermint mocha’ from far, far away. Continue reading Creating Christmas cheer in China

Things my students (re)wrote: The 12 Days of Christmas

By this point, our students pretty much expect that if a major Western holiday falls on a day they have class with any of their foreign teachers, the focal point of the lesson will pertain to that holiday. For instance, on Halloween I had my students write ghost stories.

Christmas was no exception. One teacher had this students create plays spawning from tacky holiday songs like “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” and “All I Want for Christmas is my Two Front Teeth.” An art teacher taught her students Christmas vocab by using random art supplies to turn her students into living Christmas trees. For part of my Christmas lesson, I had my students rewrite the lyrics to the holiday jingle, “The 12 Days of Christmas.”   Continue reading Things my students (re)wrote: The 12 Days of Christmas

Mid-semester musings

I’d originally planned on writing monthly blog posts dedicated to whatever I had been musing about as of late and the (many) questions about my adopted city that I have been trying to figure out. I did it the first month, but between grading papers and projects, traveling, and generally making a home for myself here, the second and third months slipped on by. Granted, this country wasn’t hit by the tide of pumpkin flavored everything that washes across America this time of year, so I guess I didn’t realize so much time had slipped away. Anyway, here we go.

Walking around in China opens up a whole new world of catcalling, particularly if you are a woman, and even more so if you’re a fair-faced foreigner with golden-colored hair. Wherever I go people will yell – either from a distance or literally inches from my face – “waiguoren,” “laowai” and “Ha-looooo!” It’s always a little jarring – especially when I’m running or reading outside. I’ve taken to pointing back and responding with “zhongguoren” (Chinese person), which either results in a laugh, a look that says, “well, duh,” or a dumbstruck look that says, “Holy shit, it speaks Chinese.” I’ve yet to figure what possesses people to call out. Sometimes it’s obviously mocking – while people are outwardly really sweet, racism is rampant. Sometimes I think people want to show they have some English education. Sometimes I think the shock of seeing a laowai genuinely causes the words to slip from them. Continue reading Mid-semester musings

Understanding the new normal

Life in the United States already feels so far away that it almost seems imaginary – almost on equal plains with Middle Earth or Oz. I hear news from home and think ‘that’s not what I remember happening.’

That’s always the most peculiar part of leaving a place. Whether it was moving to Australia or Italy or Texas or now China, I always seem to expect to be able to hit pause on life back home. Obviously it doesn’t pause, though. A new set of people move into my old house. A new intern occupies my desk. Someone else sits in my favorite worn down seat guzzling coffee at Smokey Row.

But, Guilin has quickly become my new normal, which is odd considering it wasn’t at all what I expect it to be. Especially the teaching. Continue reading Understanding the new normal