The Importance of Teaching Irrelevant Things

Every English period, I tutor the nine students from my class who have the lowest English scores. A lot of my tutor students ask me why it is important that they learn English. After all, they are Chinese. They live in China. Odds are that a majority of them will live in China, with Chinese-speaking people, forever. Why must they learn the words “beach” and “sunshine” and “badminton” for their everyday lives?

And for a moment after their questions hit my ears, I hesitate.

“Because…”

Because why?

The most reliable explanation is that English is tested on the zhongkao (Beijing high school entrance exam) and on the gaokao (Beijing college entrance exam), but many of my students are convinced that they can get by with their math abilities. After all, my class is comprised of the students who had the highest math marks on their entrance exams. Some are convinced that their English abilities are beyond repair. What could I possibly say to motivate these students?

I have never been a fan of learning a language by memorizing vocabulary and reading words and passages over and over again. I experienced a heavy dose of this kind of learning at Chinese school. As a child, I dreaded going to Chinese school every weekend, where I struggled to keep up, was the bottom of my class, and was bullied by my classmates for my bad grades. In many ways, I feel wrong for enabling a similar situation of foreign-language-dreading in my own students.

One of the major differences between our situations, however, is that my Chinese-learning experience had rather low stakes. The worst case scenario for failing was that I would have poor Chinese abilities, which eventually came true and did not hinder my ability to receive an American education. Meanwhile, my students’ English abilities (or lack thereof) would affect their zhongkao scores and, therefore, their chances to enter high school. So, as much as my students dislike English, and as much as I dislike watching my students painfully enduring it in class, learning English is a necessary evil.

Moreover, it’s not just learning English that holds all the significance. It’s learning the importance of study skills, of good work ethic, and of caring about things that affect your future, even if those things aren’t fun and/or easy. That means paying attention in class and doing homework on your own, without copying someone else’s work, even if you have to struggle.

But, naturally, my kids are only seventh graders, and it’s hard to think about the future and set aside more than an hour to dedicate to English homework when they have hours’ worth of homework from other classes, and there’s only really three and a half hours of study time a day, and morning running starts promptly at 6:20 AM, which means they have to wake up even earlier to get ready and make sure their rooms are clean and tidy.

So, I’ve tried to at least make English more engaging and fun. When we have time, we play games. We write letters to each other in English and talk about things they find interesting in English, and little by little, I like to think that they’re warming up to their foreign language.

I still don’t know if I agree with the importance of teaching English, but a few days before final exams, two of my students rushed out of the classroom for tutoring, proudly showing off the practice tests that they diligently completed on their own.

And I think that’s enough for me.

~Kato

*Note: This blog post was written several months ago, but I am only posting it now because it was lost in the abyss of my computer.

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