Brian Wermcrantz is the 2009-2010 Grinnell Corps volunteer to Macao.
Brian Wermcrantz's Reports
Report 1Brian Wermcrantz
Three months ago, I embarked on my Grinnell Corps Fellowship with the ambition to develop my teaching skills and aspirations by working within a profoundly different educational environment than Grinnell College. With such a mindset intact, I have already learned a great deal after teaching and living in Macau for the past three short months.
Any description of my fellowship must begin with my teaching experience, as it was and happily remains to be my main sense of purpose for my year abroad. At Macau University of Science and Technology, I independently teach conversational English to classes of approximately 36 college students. My students hail from a wide range of places all over eastern China and their English ability ranges to an even greater extent. Most of them have studied English for over 10 years, but almost exclusively by means of rote memorization via strictly hierarchical student-teacher exchange. Accustomed to learning the language through paperwork, many of my students make for supremely shy and inexperienced English speakers, especially in front of their teacher.
My efforts to break down these barriers to conversational English has been a rich opportunity to learn both the merits and drawbacks of different educational styles. For the past four years at Grinnell College, I learned the value of a conversation-based pedagogy. As a philosophy major, the majority of my classes were taught via discussion. Teachers expected us to voice different arguments and interpretations of the day's text, which would be followed by professor-guided discussion. Constant exposure to this learning style in my classes at Grinnell molded me into a self-reflective, analytic thinker. In addition, this spirit fostered within me a deep curiosity to interact with and learn from different cultural and teaching philosophies with a truly open, yet academically engaged mind.
Bridging the gap between Grinnell's discussion-based style and the tradition of rote learning in my students has served as a rich opportunity to develop both my teaching skills and the conversation skills of my students. My university provides me with a tremendous (sometimes daunting) amount of freedom with regards to lesson planning and course material. With this freedom comes a great deal of work and responsibility. To get my students speaking, I have created lessons that attempt to establish a comfortable and less-hierarchical classroom environment, as well as make subject material personally-relevant for my students. From class to class, this “liberal-arts” teaching strategy has been implemented through a number of different speaking activities. For example, when I taught a unit on social issues to one of my upper-level classes, I had my students write, conduct, analyze and present a survey about their life in Macau. Often my classes consist of discussion groups or debates concerning issues relevant to the daily lives of my students. In an attempt to breakdown student-teacher hierarchy and establish a relaxed classroom rapport, I often make my students present funny skits or practice speaking in free-form discussion groups. Classes have been for the most part fun to teach and there are times when I feel more like a participant in my student's education than a lecturer.
What have these experiences taught me? First, and perhaps most importantly, I have learned that a strong sense of classroom community must be maintained to ensure student participation. In every class, making my students participate by speaking English is the goal and students will only do so if they feel comfortable speaking to one another. Having academic speech topics and competitive debates, although initially effective, is certainly not a viable route to a full semester of speaking practice. Instead, to get my students readily speaking, I reinforce a sense of class community. For example, every class period I give both individual participation grades and points to the enter class as one whole. Last week, my students practiced impromptu speeches. Topics were written by fellow classmates and randomly redistributed within class. A sense of class unity helped motivate students to deliver the best speech. Many of my students seem to feel a great sense of collectivist pride in seeing their classmates excel, especially when there are already invested in (or, in this case, have actually written) the subject material. Furthermore, this teaching strategy makes my weakest students learn and participate the most, something I hold to be very important in education. To achieve these ends, I try to promote mutual respect and kindness in all my classes when I monitor and grade debates, speeches and discussion groups. I also have been fortunate enough to learn great deal the lives and hometowns of each of my students, something that has made conversations fun and interesting.
The second major lesson I have learned in my attempt to bridge “western” and “eastern” pedagogues concerns how to maintain discipline with a minimal amount of teacher-student hierarchy. Having little exposure to free-form classroom environments, at the beginning of the semester my students often became undisciplined when given freedom in discussion groups and speeches. However, over the course of the semester, I have learned how to keep classes academically focused through a combination of grading and positive reinforcement. As any introduction to psychology course will teach you, positively reinforcing students for good behavior increase student participation in the future and, to a certain degree, their sense of autonomy. In my classes, I constantly encourage students to express their opinions in English and reward their grades accordingly. Aside from attendance, I almost always refrain from threatening their grades or negatively reinforcing their lack of participation. I believe some of my students have developed a sense that they alone have the ability to successfully learn English. I always trust my students with a great deal of freedom and continually and patiently commend their speaking efforts accordingly. Doing so, I help reduce student-teacher hierarchy by offloading the power to my students themselves. In this spirit, I try not to impress the students, but have the students impress themselves, which makes class more engaging and in turn more effective. To a certain degree, this classroom atmosphere closely resembles the Grinnell's liberal arts approach, something that inspired me peruse a career in teaching.
Although I certainly have a lot more to learn, I believe that I have begun to form a more effective teaching style by integrating these two major principles with the discussion-based approach I gained from Grinnell College. I am optimistic that my teaching strategies will continue to evolve over the remainder of my fellowship. In specific, I still need to learn how to make my students more confident when speaking. They may feel comfortable and motivated, but confidence in their opinions and speaking ability remains a major obstacle for speaking. In addition, I still need to learn how to best balance a sense of class community with individual autonomy. By experimenting with new lesson plans I hope to determine how to further improve class for my students.
I owe the great majority of my success in teaching thus far to my students. My free-form teaching style would certainly not be effective if it were not for the graciousness and support of my students (indeed about all 165 of them). Having conversations with my students also provides me with a great opportunity to learn about Chinese culture. Chinese civilization is the world's oldest and largest and houses some of the greatest diversity of nature, food, religion, ethnicity and cultural practices on the planet. As someone without any Chinese heritage and little knowledge of this part of the world, I am immensely curious about the hometowns, customs and perspectives of my students. In particular, I have become interested in Buddhist meditation both as an academic subject and as something I do to relax. Although none of my students are practicing Buddhists, learning about Chinese culture in their hometowns as well as Macau gives me an interesting viewpoint on China's many forms of Buddhism.
Another reason that I enjoy learning about Chinese culture, is for obvious fact that when I'm not teaching, I'm living in Macau, a Special Administrative Region of China. Yes of course, Macau is not mainland China. It does not share China's political, economic or many of many of its social dynamics. Still, however, as a fairly young city, Macau's population and much of it's culture was recently imported from mainland China as the city's economic success skyrocketed in the late 90's. So where can you find China in Macau? The most immediate glimpses into Chinese culture for me have been food and religion.
Macau has a rich culinary tradition. Coming from Seattle, I have always been interested in east Asian food, especially fusion food. Generally speaking, Macau offers four different categories of food: Macanese, Chinese, Southeast Asian and Western. Macanese food is unique to Macau and consists of a fantastic combination of Portuguese and Cantonese cooking styles. Dishes, such as “Portuguese Chicken,” make use of local ingredients and Chinese species, while remaining faithful to Western European cooking techniques. Regional Chinese food can also be found in Macau, in particular from Manchuria, Schezwan, Mongolia, Shanghai and Beijing, as well of course all forms of local Cantonese cooking. Restaurants tend to stick to one area and use natives to prepare authentic and supremely delicious regional specialties. By a large margin, this is may favorite brand of cooking in Macau. (And I think my mainland Chinese students would be the first to say that they share my opinion!) The sheer diversity of Chinese food is mind boggling. In reference to Cantonese cuisine, there is a common saying that “the Chinese will eat anything with legs except a table, and anything with wings except an airplane.” Over the past three months, I've eaten alligator, bone marrow, prawns with cheese, pigeon, oysters with eggs, monk fish and octopus, each dish harboring a wonderfully distinct taste. Every week, at the end of one of my tutoring session, I have had the pleasure to eat dinner with a local family who recently moved to Macau. The diverse spread of Chinese food in Macau is astounding for such a small part of the planet. With about five millennia of history, China has had a lot of time to develop it's food culture and it's certainly on to something. In addition to Macanese and Chinese cooking, Southeast Asian food is also prominently represented in Macau's culinary scene. The diversity (and affordability) of food is excellent. Over past month, I have been fortunate enough to eat Northern Thai, Vietnamese, Northern Indian, Indonesian, Malaysian and Singaporean food. Another source of food is western. The success of Macau's casino industry brought droves of western contractors and consultants over the past decade. Although there are surely some good restaurants, American and regional European food in Macau is poorly represented and undeveloped when compared to Asian. All in all, the rich and dynamic interplay between these diverse cooking styles makes for a tantalizing food scene. It is never difficult to find good food in Macau.
Macau is also a crossroads of religion. As with the food scene, looking at Macau's many different religions allows for a brief glimpse into Chinese culture. Because of it's history of Portuguese colonization, there is of course a large and unique amount of Christianity in Macau for this part of Asia. Yet, Chinese religions, most noticeably Buddhism, are still authentically and prominently represented in Macau. When I explored Macau during my first several weeks, I found a huge amount of temples, often occupied with people meditating and worshiping. Religion in Macau seems very deep rooted. During the month of September, the streets next to my apartment were always filled with people burning fake money and offering food as part of the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts. Everyday as I observed hundred families in the streets and in temples, it seemed as if religion was more of a cultural practice and less of a personal identity. Coming from America, where perhaps religion is more explicitly pronounced and less culturally engrained, seeing religion everywhere in Macau has opened my mind to a new cultural perspective on the matter. I believe this tendency is also prevalent in mainland China and I am eager to explore the relationship between religion and culture (and of course food too!) during my travels in China in the coming months.
In addition to learning about Chinese culture in Macau, over the past three months I have come to appreciate and participate in local Macanese culture. As an odd combination of Portugal and China, Macanese culture cannot be summed up by a few choice words or descriptions. Walking the streets of Macau, your senses are inundated by an environment uniquely Macanese. You see Portuguese, Chinese, Filipino and Western people living and working happily with one another, while maintaining their own unique cultures. Taking the bus around Taipa island you hear the loud buzz of construction noises from Casinos to-be. You hear snippets of Cantonese conversations. You read signs written in a language that I, at this point, cannot begin to understand. At the end of the day, the snapshots that you capture from Macau are from the people you've been fortunate enough to meet or befriend. You slowly realize how the local culture has learned how to live in a ridiculously small place (Macau is the size of two Los Angeles airports!). During the Mid-Autumn Festival in October, I went to the beach to admire the full moon and lite red Chinese lanterns with locals. The beach was covered with friendly and remarkably gracious people. Perhaps, it is the Portuguese influence that has instilled a slow and relaxed attitude to life on the ocean. Every weekend the large, European-style squares scattered all about Macau are occupied with locals playing Mahjong, friends gathered together eating or families enjoying their free time with one another.
Living in such a social environment, I am immensely thankful of all the terrific local friends I have made here, as well as other exchange fellowship teachers. I have also been fortunate enough to have a had the opportunity to travel several times to Hong Kong, which is just an hour ferry ride away. The food, art and people (not to mention skyline!) of Hong Kong continues to fascinate and amaze me. I also had the opportunity to participate in a Fulbright orientation conference that discussed the Hong Kong Education Program, an effort for secondary schools to teach students critical thinking by implement more whole-person, liberal-arts teaching strategies. I found these lectures very relevant to my teaching methods and goals in Macau, as well as my time in Hong Kong to be an absolute pleasure.
To sum up my time teaching and living in Macau, requires the impossible task of stitching together all over the wonderfully unique experiences I have enjoyed over the last three months. The city presents one with uniquely Macanese rapid-fire bombardment of cultures that somehow seem to harmoniously coincide. My university presents me with classes of friendly and curious students, the vast majority of whom are eager to learn. Three months ago, I took up my Grinnell Corps Teaching Fellowship with the intention of living and working within an exciting and challenging environment and my wishes have certainly come true. Every day in Macau I try to learn a little more about teaching and culture by shifting my viewpoint to the perspective of a Chinese student, fellow teacher or local friend. Engaging your mind in this way changes you. It allows you to step back for just a moment and admire something for it virtues or for its humor. If my time in Macau thus far has taught me one things, it is that this process of adapting one's beliefs provides one with a rich opportunity to learn and grow as a teacher. I am excited for whatever awaits me next in Macau!
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