Democracy, and Other Hot-Button Issues

Next week is final exam week at our college, so Justin and I have been wrapping things up with our students and saying our goodbyes. I really wanted to do one more “fun” American culture lesson with my students before getting them into their final exams, but I wasn’t sure what to do. Usually I just tell them about western holidays, and we make something crafty (like hand turkeys or green shamrocks) and watch some video clips that I download from the internet. We really didn’t have any special holidays this late in the spring, though (except for Mother’s Day, but the Chinese also celebrate Mother’s Day, so that wouldn’t be very exciting. By the way, after hearing about all of the over-the-top things Chinese children do for their mothers on Mother’s Day, I think mom’s everywhere should be jealous. I asked them if they take their mom out to a restaurant, and they said, “No! Of course not! The children make meals for their mothers themselves. They cook breakfast, lunch, and dinner!” I can’t see that happening in America).

After perusing the textbook a bit, I saw a lesson in which they suggested holding a class election, and I thought, “Perfect! We have Election Day coming up in November! I’ll tell them all about elections!”

I had my PowerPoint all planned out, including some fun facts about our first president and first election, and downloaded some campaign ad videos and presidential candidate debates from the internet. I was all set to go when Justin walked through the room and saw what I was working on and said, “Whoa! You’re going to teach the Chinese about democracy? Do you really think that’s a good idea?”

Shoot. I hadn’t really thought about it that way. My PowerPoint was entitled “All About Elections!” but honestly, elections are the cornerstone of democracy, right? And preaching the wonders of democracy in Communist China is about as dangerous as declaring yourself a communist in America was during the 1940’s and 50’s (if not more dangerous).

So, I was going to have to be very careful with my wording. I made sure to never say anything about Democracy being “good” or “better than Communism.” I made sure to just stick to the facts– “This is how we do elections in America. Strange, isn’t it?” and that sort of thing. Even so, I was feeling a little bit nervous the day I went to teach my “fun” American culture lesson. (Thanks, Justin!)

I was feeling even more nervous when a man I’d never seen before showed up in the back of the room and took pictures of each slide of my PowerPoint. But I don’t think he was a government official (was he??). I have no idea who he was or why he came to my class…but he was smiling and laughing during my presentation, rather than looking disapproving and offended, so I took that as a good sign.

All in all, I don’t think I had anything to be nervous about. Everyone seemed to enjoy learning a little bit about how mysterious American elections work, and some students were even a bit bored by it, just like any American student sitting through a civics lecture might be. Everyone got excited when they saw Obama’s picture on my PowerPoint–they really seem to like him! Whether they like him because his political ideals are so closely aligned to the Communist party’s, or because his name is just really fun to say, I still have yet to determine.

After the lecture/lesson part of the class, we held our own class president election, and it was really fun! My students nominated two people in each class to be presidential candidates, and I had them choose colors and political party names and everything. I had students making campaign signs and slogans, and I had the candidates weighing in on pressing school issues such as, “Should we ban homework?” and “Should cell phones be allowed in class?” Then I had everyone do a secret vote for their favorite candidate, and we collected all of the “ballots” and did a tally up on the blackboard to declare a winner. The students got really into it, even heckling candidates as they made their speeches (all in good fun) and demanding that the winner say a few words by chanting, “SPEECH! SPEECH! SPEECH!” It was really cute.

Here’s a video of my student Russ giving his campaign speech in class. I only caught the last half of it or so. Even if you can’t understand everything that he’s saying, you have to admire his conviction and his ability to really captivate the audience!

During the same week, I did another lesson entitled “Agreeing and Disagreeing” in which the students had to take a stance on different controversial issues such as, “Should China set an age limit for drinking alcohol?” (right now they don’t have one), “Should public smoking be banned?” and “Should China have more population control?” I swear to you, this was straight out of the book! I’m not trying to get arrested right before I head back to the U.S., I promise!

I was surprised to discover that my students held such drastically different opinions on these issues. I’m so used to everyone in China standing together and being united in everything; but in their hearts, they are still individuals with very different viewpoints. I found out that many boys enjoy being able to smoke in public places (restaurants, hotels, buses, etc.) but many girls would like it to be banned. That’s a no-brainer…in traditional China, it is usually only the men who smoke anyways, because it is not a very “feminine” activity and not acceptable for the ladies. Banning public smoking would be a huge lifestyle change for many of the boys in my class. I can’t tell you the shock I had the first time I held class and called a ten-minute break, and all the boys stepped outside the door to light up, right in the hallway! (And then I saw the same boys throwing back beers at lunch time in the school cafeteria!) It took some getting used to.

I was also surprised that my students were split down the middle in their opinion of the one-child policy in China. Many students claimed that it is really necessary to keep the growing Chinese population from getting out of control. Others said that it really isn’t fair, especially since the specifics of the law keep changing every few years. I was proud of the students who spoke out against the law, but I also need to remind them to be careful of what they say in public. What kinds of crazy ideas are they learning in that foreigner’s class? 🙂

During my last classes this week (before the final exams), I got the chance to say goodbye to my students and take some pictures with them. I had a little heart-to-heart with my student Caster during the ten-minute break, and he told me how much the students in his class had improved their English since I became their teacher. He said, “Before your class, their English is all very poor. But now that you are here, they want to talk to you. They study English so that they can say some things and make a good impression on you.” I’d noticed a marked improvement in several of the students in that class, but it was nice to hear Caster really confirm it! I’m going to miss my Chinese students!

Playing a listing game: My students are racing to list English words ending in “ch”

You’ll have to forgive me for teaching in shorts…I usually stick to a nicer dress code, but with no A/C in our classrooms, it is SO HOT!

4 thoughts on “Democracy, and Other Hot-Button Issues

  1. It’s so hard saying goodbye, right? I really enjoyed reading about the class elections. Sounds like they really got into it. I tend to prefer teaching the really young kids in Japan, because they still like learning English, but your university classes look like a lot of fun too.

    • There are always a handful of students who don’t want to learn English and try their best to sleep through classes (and I never let them). But for the most part, my university classes were really fun and I had a great group of students who participated in everything I threw at them! It was great!

  2. I am so glad you have had this opportunity to teach! It is obvious your students love you and it is easy to see why. 🙂 glad your particular lesson plan didn’t get you in any trouble. 🙂 and allow me to side with the girls in your class… Banning public smoking would be great!!

    • I had a great time teaching in China! It’s been very different from teaching in America! I hope pictures of my lesson don’t resurface somehow and get me into trouble…it’s only a few more weeks until Justin and I head back home!

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