Reflecting on Suzhou

It’s been only a few weeks since arriving back in Australia after a whirlwind 2 weeks teaching English Conversation classes to university students in Suzhou, China.

While we all hit the ground running catching up with missed classes, study, assessments, meetings, scheduled workshops, family, and life in general here in Australia, a day hasn’t passed that I have not thought about Suzhou. It was a challenging, yet wonderful experience. Not many can say, “Hey, I spent 2 weeks in China teaching English conversation to Masters students.” A-mazing.

This is the last of my Suzhou series and the longest, but it is only now that I feel I can share my learning.

Suzhou Seven

From the very beginning, we dubbed ourselves Suzhou Seven.

Suzhou Seven

Our team leader, Ros worked tirelessly with staff and students in Suzhou, making connections, delivering workshops and running sessions for PhD students who may one day visit and study in Australia. We got to work with 5 young, energetic undergraduate students who possess qualities that are akin to veteran teachers but have no teaching qualifications nor are they studying education.

The Amazing Five (L to R; Eliza, Louis, Jeannie, Gaby & Matt)

Every day we seven facilitated eight ‘Let’s Chat’, English conversational classes, hosting about 240 students from different faculties including Translation & Interpreting, Transportation, Information Technology, Geomechanics/Water Resources, International Business and Industrial Design. We delivered workplace sessions on presenting yourself, networking, and preparing speeches. We collected data for our research about people’s experiences and attended Chineses language sessions every morning. We held planning meetings every day to discuss our workshops and ensure we were meeting the needs of our students. Together, Suzhou Seven was and remains a team to be reckoned with.

Hanging out with our support staff in Suzhou

A cast of thousands

Chris Wen, the General Manager at Monash Suzhou very graciously hosted us with the support staff who worked behind the scenes to ensure our stay was fabulous. They organised our teaching schedules, booked the rooms, bought supplies, booked our cultural experiences, advised us about where to go and how to get there. Matt, our resident Monash staff member in Suzhou, looked after us, giving up his office & the key to the photocopier, showing us around, finding little coffee shops, and giving us invaluable advice on local customs. Winnie, one of our favourite PhD students, took time out of her studies to teach us the language and culture of China every morning. A number of others joined us for evening

Where’s Matt?

cultural experiences including dinners, boat rides, shopping and, of course, karaoke night! Our students were always ready to suggest local eating spots, many helped us order our food when they spied us trying our best to order food unsuccessfully! Some even bought us bubble tea and snacks to try. Peer to peer relationships soon grew and the students began to lead conversations, asking facilitators questions and engaging in ‘small talk’. It felt so good knowing that just being there, taking the time to listen boosted our students’ confidence to communicate in English and made them feel they could do it outside of the classes themselves.

Winnie & Suzhou Seven

Language barrier

I’ve travelled many times overseas, especially over the last dozen years, but this was my first visit to an Asian country. My personal challenge in this regard was the language. For the first time, I experienced a real dilemma in that I literally could not understand the language. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a reflection on the people but a personal realisation. I felt hopeless and even anxious when out and about. I have not felt like this before. Even in countries where I was not overly familiar with the language, I felt I could manage and I did and maybe that was because of my European background. As an educator with many years of experience, I pride myself on being able to understand and interpret what people are saying out loud and internally. I felt I was really in tune with this but now I realise that while my ‘sixth’ sense works in some places, it made little sense to me while I was in China. As an independent, strong middle-aged female I suddenly felt unsure of myself and began relying on my fellow travellers and on the students with whom we were developing strong relationships.

Teaching (and learning) with passion

Buzzing

As a teacher of many years, actually, many, many years I’ve always been open to learning new things but still pride myself on being able to engage my students no matter the content. After all, it’s what I do. I’ve had many experiences also with devising, writing and implementing many programs and curriculum outlines. It was my redevelopment and extension of the existing Let’s Chat units that we based our workshops on during our time in Suzhou. I spent many hours writing, re-writing and meeting with my colleagues to ensure we were on track to meet all the requirements from our host university but still, I felt tense and nervous as I shared in my first and second Suzhou posts.

While it was wonderful to meet our students on that first day, engaging them was a different matter. You see many had very busy study schedules and these classes were slotted into their day. It was our responsibility to make those classes so engaging and relevant that they would keep coming. What I learned over the time working with my team was that they loved doing Let’s Chat as much as I did. The other thing I learned was that passion for what and how you teach is contagious no matter where you are and we all caught that bug. The students kept coming and while those first few days were tough, our confidence was building, we reflected and planned each day to make each session more relevant and as we got to know our students more and more our classes were buzzing. Confidence was building not only in our students but in us as visiting teachers.

And now?

On returning to Australia, to Melbourne, to Monash and to English Connect, I bring with me a different confidence. In my first workshop this week I shared that I had just returned from teaching English in China and I cannot describe the pride I felt in simply articulating that achievement out loud with our international students who attend our workshops. Their smiles and nods of approval cemented in me a sudden realisation that I just want to do it again! I want to do it better. I want to experience more. I want to learn more. I want to keep making a difference.

We haven’t yet had a chance to meet as a team again and share our experience and our thoughts about our Suzhou adventure. Marta, the reason we went to China in the first place and the driver behind what we were able to do is away at the moment but I’m sure she can’t wait to hear. A special thank you should go out to our team back at Monash who held the fort while we were away. Lucas, who had to do both his and Ros’s job, Belinda, without whose help we would never have been able to get out visas and our money, to Negar and Lilian who love excel files and crunch the numbers for us, to the admin staff who re-formatted and copied all our files so we could use them effectively in our classes. And to anyone else who had a hand in getting us to Suzhou and back. I’m personally hoping that this is the first of many associations we have, not only with our colleagues in Suzhou but hopefully, in time, with other Monash Universities around the world. We’ve got this!

To find out what we do at English Connect please visit our website.

Thanks for reading 🙂

Confidence is building: Advertisements for Suzhou

Students preparing their poster

Having returned from Suzhou, I realised that there are two more posts I’d planned for but as of yet haven’t had a chance to complete.

This will be the first of the two that have been sitting in my ‘drafts’ for a couple of weeks now.

Student posters on places to visit

I titled it Confidence is Building as I wanted to share one of the most engaging and exciting workshops we ran on Day 9 of the 10-day course with our Chinese students. By this stage, absolutely, we knew that their confidence in holding conversations in English had grown exponentially. In this particular workshop, one of the tasks we asked of them was to work in small groups to produce a poster and short advertisement for a place they thought we should visit in and around Suzhou. They had 10 minutes to draw up the poster, one minute to prepare a ‘plug’ and one minute to present. Needless to say, we had a lot of fun. In fact, we saw they were having almost too much fun that we decided to make one for Melbourne and ‘plug’ that back at them!

We are very proud of what they were able to achieve in such a short span of time!

Thanks for reading 🙂

What do Suzhou and de Bono have in common?

 

Nothing.

But when we asked our students at SEU/Monash the other day to give us feedback about their experiences in the conversation classes to date, the two came together as our Suzhou students shared their experiences using the de Bono hats.

It is amazing how they have opened up and shared both positive and not so positive experiences with us. Their confidence has soared over the last 10 days and more and more they actively volunteer responses and seek out further conversations. The hats activity was a testament to this.

I realise the last few posts have been about student responses but hey, that’s what we came to Suzhou to hear and it is music to our ears. So here are some of the responses the students shared.

White hat

“We met three beautiful facilitators!” (Now there’s a fact right there!)

“We connected with people studying other degrees.” (Yes! The students were divided up in our classes so two different disciplines came together).

 

Yellow hat

“Facilitators encourage us, don’t laugh at us when we get it wrong.”

“I enjoy the classes as they are more active and participatory with lots of activities.”

 

 

“I feel challenged.”

Red hat

“I am happy to have the opportunity to speak English with native speakers.” Me: Guess what? My first

language is not English! (students gasp) 

“I am happy because facilitators are friendly and ‘cute’.”

“I feel happy as there is no homework or test!!”

“Relaxed, so comfy to speak.”

“So happy to be here.”

It was interesting to hear this comment: “Ashamed because we are being taught by undergrads.”  (All our Suzhou students are studying their Master’s degrees).

And this one: Translation students thought their English should be better than other students who are studying different degrees.

Black hat

“I enjoy the class but don’t like that it is during our lunchtime.” (Students here all eat lunch at noon)

“Facilitators speak too fast sometimes.”

“Too short, we need more classes!” (I hope someone really important is reading and perhaps can accommodate this request! We’d love to do it again)

Green hat

“Interesting getting to learn a different style of teaching.”

“Wish for more permanent staff to replace SEU staff!” (Umm not sure what this means exactly, but the green hat suggests that a good idea would be to have more permanent staff rather than current fly in, fly out arrangements. Maybe?)

A couple of students expressed their desire to now take up teaching given their positive experience! Now that’s a great idea!!

Blue hat

“This has helped me put English into a bigger context.”

And I’ve left the best till last…

“Even though we had only 10 hours [of English conversational classes], in 2 weeks our time will stay with me for the rest of my life.” (I’ll admit there may have been a tear in my eye when I heard this reported back from another facilitator).

Thanks for reading 🙂

Out of the mouths of ‘students’: Conversations from the Suzhou classrooms

Yesterday I woke up to a group of people out in the courtyard singing happy birthday to Paolo. This is not anything unusual except that it was 5:30 in the morning! In my stupor, I couldn’t decide if they were still up from the night before welcoming the birthday in or if they just got up early to make the most of the special day. Either way it made me feel happy and writing this post today is special because my dad turns 89 today! Happy Birthday, Pa!

That aside, it got me thinking about the idea for this post.

What else have I heard over the last couple of days in our Suzhou English conversational classes that made me feel happy? Better still, what have my colleagues heard?

Allow me to take you on a little adventure where we discover some of the wonderful things our Suzhou students have shared, not only with us but even between themselves.

Suzhou speed dating

Scenario 1:

After speed dating style introductions exploring conversation patterns, we asked the students about their experience. One said that he thought the conversation was ‘excellent’ as he did not know the person he was speaking with and that now he felt they could become good friends!

This makes us happy as the students build their confidence in introducing themselves using the English language with other students.

Scenario 2:

A group of female students spy one of our facilitators taking off his Monash hoodie. One comments, “He’s just so attractive!” “Yeah I know,” says another, “even when he’s taking his jumper off!” I inquired as to how the facilitator had understood what they had said, only to be told the students had commented in English!!

This makes us happy as we have a rule that if we hear them speak other than English in class, they have to buy us bubble tea!

Scenario 3:

Pick up line to a facilitator on the first day of classes; “I have 2 tickets to the Avengers, would you like to come?”

Nice one!

Scenario 4:

Three students gossiping over a test instead of discussing the task at hand, suddenly realise that one of our facilitators has overheard them. Embarrassed, they stop abruptly and seem quite worried. Our facilitator simply replies, “Oh don’t worry, I’m just excited you’re speaking in English!!”

This makes us happy!

Scenario 5:

A young man and lady were overheard talking in class. The young man says to his partner, “and that’s why it’s really hard to talk to girls!”

Eh?

Scenario 6:

A student comes to English Corner demanding to see a particular facilitator. “Where’s _____ ?” She said she’d be here!”

They have their favourites it seems.

Scenario 7:

The sassy student who corrected the facilitator greeting the class with “Good Evening.”

“I believe it’s Good Afternoon.”

Now that’s confidence for you!

Scenario 8

During the interjection segment of the class, a facilitator is explaining the different emphasis on Awww (sad) and Awww (when you spy something cute). One of the students explains it so succinctly. “The first is when your boyfriend hasn’t replied to your text message and the second is when he has.”

Just beautiful!

Scenario 9

On our first day, we made it quite clear to the students that our conversation classes were not going to have tests or exams. And then we began distributing one of the tasks, a matching exercise, and a facilitator hears, “So much for no tests.”

Haha!

Last one

Scenario 10

One of the students in our workshops watches a scenario being played out by the facilitators around feedback and solving problems and says, “That’s so nice, can I work for you?”

Oh, and one more exchange not spoken but communicated on WeChat. This made us laugh!!

Bubble Tea

Thanks for reading 😊

Nervous but excited: Our first day

We got this!

Yesterday was our first official day at South East University / Monash in Suzhou. I left our hotel full of self-doubt and angst. I have never felt so nervous, even though teaching is what I have done for the last 33 years. The welcoming party was wonderful. We met the staff at the university who put on a lovely morning tea but our conversations soon came to an end as it was time for our first sessions.

Gulp – we’ve got this!

Here is Suzhou, we are privileged to be in spacious, well-equipped rooms, the natural light from the giant windows streaming in, everything up and operating AND the students arrive.

Oh what joy!

I’ve discovered that Let’s Chat comes naturally to us and once we start – well, there’s no stopping us. We have a great program and now we get to share it with our partners in Suzhou, China.

I’m with a great team of colleagues who are dedicated and determined to make this work. Our first day was a testament to that!