Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Article on a new/old approach to teaching junior-high-level Chinese composition in Taiwan

Chen, Fangyu (陳芳毓). "Without Memorizing Model Essays or Sentences, Students are Taught to Write their own Stories" (不背範文佳句,教孩子寫出自己的故事). Global Views Monthly (遠見雜誌), September 2014. http://www.gvm.com.tw/Boardcontent_26063_1.html (also available as "68位學生教出57位作文滿級分 不背範文佳句,教孩子寫出自己的故事")

This article by Chen Fangyu (陳芳毓)  introduces a junior high school Chinese (國文) teacher who took an approach to the teaching of writing that evidently differed from what most junior high teachers do--and that evidently worked.

The Comprehensive Assessment Program for Junior High School Students (國中教育會考) is an examination given to third-year junior high school students (ninth graders) in Taiwan. It was first given in 2014 to replace the senior high school entrance examination now that Taiwan has gone from a mandatory 9-year education system to a mandatory 12-year system, doing away with the need for a high school entrance exam. The new examination has been controversial, to say the least, but the purpose of this article isn't to criticize the test, but to describe the approach of one junior high school teacher, Zhou Tianyu (周恬宇), to helping students improve their writing--an approach that resulted in 84% of her students getting perfect marks on the Chinese writing portion of the exam, when nationwide, only 1.6% got perfect scores.

Zhou, a teacher at Taichung's Daya Junior High School, worked with her two classes of students for three years. Zhou emphasized being able to write from experience, and she tried to teach students to use their experiences in their responses to the exam prompts, which often were focused on personal experiences like "the time I made my own decision" (「那一次,我自己做決定」). Her approach to getting students more used to thinking and writing about their own experiences was to require them to keep a diary.

In addition to having students keep a diary every day, she had them watch videos like Malala's UN speech (in English, I assume, probably with Chinese subtitles) and read the novel, A Thousand Splendid Suns (in translation, I assume). Then she would ask students to write about questions that connected these international issues and events to their own lives.The point seems to have been to give them practice seeing connections between their lives and the kinds of topics asked about in the exam questions.

She seems to have adopted some of her approach from Erin Gruwell's depiction in The Freedom Writers Diary of her own work with underprivileged students. The article mentions in several places Gruwell's book and the movie based on it. Interestingly, what Zhou is doing is being evaluated--in both the educational system and in this news article--for its effectiveness in regards to a very traditional writing task for Taiwanese students: passing a high-stakes timed essay exam. To that end, Zhou's approach to writing instruction also needs to take into consideration her students' need to be able to write quickly at the same time that they are able to write from their experiences. The article directly addresses this challenge in the following paragraph:
68個學生程度不一,怎麼教?就像企業以標準作業流程訓練新進同仁,周恬宇也設下寫作4段標準作業流程(SOP):第1段解題;第2段寫生活經驗;第3 段引申論述;第4段再呼應首段做結論。上手後,程度好的學生自然會打破框架,程度一般的學生也能安全上壘。
 Roughly translated:

[Zhou's] sixty-eight students write at different levels--how to teach them? Just like businesses that train their new employees in standard operating procedures, Zhou established a four-paragraph SOP: first paragraph, the opening; second paragraph, writing about personal experience; the third paragraph, extending the discussion; fourth paragraph, concluding by echoing the introductory paragraph. After practice, stronger students could break [go beyond] the framework, while regular students could safely "get on base."
Interestingly, the framework that she provides is similar (if not identical) to the traditional qi-cheng-zhuan-he (起承轉合) four-part structure for Chinese essays. Zhou's perspective on providing a template seems similar to that of American teachers who use the five-paragraph essay framework when teaching primary or secondary students to write.*

As we can see then, although Zhou eschews the "traditional" approaches of requiring students to memorize model essays or "beautiful sentences," she still provides them with a fairly fixed structure to plug their ideas into. This is distinguished, though, from the memorization/imitation techniques that are often practiced in test-preparation cram schools because Zhou insists on students using their own ideas to fill in the the essays and not on memorization and imitation that she says would destroy students' interest in writing (她說,模仿固然能培養文學性,但一定要寫自己的故事,才不會扼殺學習興趣。).

There are other things I could mention about her technique, such as how she marks the students' writing (the article says she spends three hours a day correcting their lexical and grammatical mistakes). The one thing that I want to focus on in the end, though, goes back to the point I found most fascinating about Zhou's approach--her use of non-Chinese works as springboards for students' writing. In the past, I hadn't heard of other secondary school Chinese teachers in Taiwan who used materials from other countries, like Malala's speech or A Thousand Splendid Suns, as sources. Usually, students have been required to read (and memorize?) texts from China--classical texts in particular, though not exclusively. (I don't have time right now to find sources to support this; I'll try to add something here later--if anyone has any thoughts, please comment.)

I'm tempted to call this aspect of her teaching a translingual or transcultural approach to teaching Chinese writing in the sense that she brings in experiences and texts that cross linguistic and cultural barriers, indirectly showing students that to write in Chinese doesn't require one to operate only within the linguistic and cultural borders of Chinese.

*See David Cahill's 2003 article in Written Communication for more on the qi-cheng-zhuan-he structure; he focuses in particular on how the zhuan, or "turn," as it has often been translated, has been overemphasized and misinterpreted in Western contrastive rhetoric studies, effectively making Chinese writing seem more discursively alien to Western readers than it really is.


Heather said...

I would love to hear more about her approach to marking.

Thanks for taking the time to comment on this study, Jonathan. You posted a link about it a while back of FB, and it caught my attention then, too.

Jonathan Benda said...

One thing she does is to focus on different paragraphs for different essays. The article mentions that she tells students, for instance, that this time she's only going to focus on marking introductions, so they don't need to worry about how good the rest of their essays are. Then she will post the best introductions on the bulletin board in the back of the classroom.

In another example, the article tells about how Zhou made one student revise his essay 40 times. He was writing about car repair, and according to the article, his first essay had no logic and was missing words. After 40 revisions, she finally let him move on to another topic. The article concludes by saying he got a 5 out of 6 on the junior high exam.