Arguments in the Classroom

Matt | Classroom Arguments | Monday, October 27th, 2008

The other day I was in an adult’s survival level English class and we were reviewing nations and nationalities when I got into an argument with one of my students. I was writing on the board all the countries that the students could think of, e.g. Canada, China, Japan, and if they gave a nationality instead, e.g. Swiss, Swedish, Thai, I would correct them, “Thai is not a country it’s a nationality.” This is when one of my students became upset.

The student said, “Thailand is not a nationality it is part of China.” I said, “What? No, Thailand is its own country. Thai is the nationality.”

She said, “No, Thailand is part of China!” This time she said it a bit stronger than the last time. Now, I was a bit tired as this was the last class of the day for me, and I was thinking, well maybe a few thousand years ago Thailand may have been part of China or a tributary or something (my Asian history isn’t very good), and I know China is very important now, but Thailand is definitely a separate country. And I said this.

The other students were trying to convince her as well in English, “Yes, Thailand is its own country.” So, I couldn’t understand how this woman could be so wrong and stubborn. I knew I was right. The other students knew I was right too, so I was confused.

She repeated, “No! Thailand is part of China!!!”

At this point she mentioned it in Chinese to the other students to convince them she was right, and then she said two words. After that I realized she was right and I made a mistake.

She said, “Tai Wan.”

I laughed. The class laughed. She looked confused. I reassured her that, “Yes, Taiwan was a part of China,” as I would never intentionally talk of such topics in class. The other students said in Chinese, “Thai Guo bu shi Tai Wan,” or “Thailand not Taiwan,” then the students laughed, and she laughed. I was glad to see we all laughed and I learned some valuable lessons.

In an ESL classroom, or anytime you’re discussion things in a foreign language, there are great possibilities of miscommunication. When people don’t communicate clearly there is a strong chance for frustrations, arguments and discomfort.

Also, when people argue it is possible that BOTH people are right and the problem lies not in what they say, but in what they are thinking underneath their words. It is totally understandable that a beginner survival student could get confused with Thai and Tai as they sound identical.

As a teacher I learned that when miscommunication happens it is very important to try and understand the other person first before I try and convince them my point or get frustrated and argue with a student. In this case she was right and I learned a valuable lesson.

Teacher Inspiration

Matt | Inspiring Teacher Quotes | Monday, October 20th, 2008

Sometimes I feel as if my work doesn’t matter,

Sometimes I feel as if I’m an awful teacher.

Sometimes as a teacher I need some inspiration to get motivated.


At these times, I like to take a little break and read a few inspiring quotes to get me going again.

Fortunately, before I came to China I splurged in the check out aisle at a Chapters bookstore in Toronto and picked up one of those little books. This one is called Teachers: A Tribute. It was definitely worth the money. Here are some of my favourite quotes.


My heart is singing for joy this morning. A miracle has happened! The light of understanding has shone upon my little pupil’s mind, and behold, all things are changed! – Annie Sullivan

Teachers believe they have a gift for giving; it drives them with the same irrepressible drive that drives others to create a work of art or a market or a building – A. Bartlett Giamatti.

Don’t try to fix the students, fix ourselves first. The good teacher makes the poor student good and the good student superior. When our students fail, we, as teachers, too, have failed. – Marva Collins.

I was still learning when I taught my last class. – Claude M. Fuess, after forty years of teaching.

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. – Henry Adams

The most extraordinary thing about a really good teacher is that he or she transcends accepted educational methods. – Margaret Mead.

My joy in learning is partly that it enables me to teach. – Seneca

A teacher must believe in the value and interest of his subject as a doctor believes in health. – Gilbert Highet.

The true teacher defends his pupils against his own personal influence. – A. Bronson Alcott

Human beings are full of emotions, and the teacher who knows how to use it will have dedicated learners. It means sending dominant signals instead of submissive ones with your eyes, body and voice.- Leon Lessinger


And one of my personal favourites is,

Teachers are expected to reach unattainable goals with inadequate tools. The miracle is that at times they accomplish this impossible task. – Haim G. Ginot.

Warmer Exercise

Matt | Teach English in China | Tuesday, October 14th, 2008

I usually struggle for some warm up exercises and recently I found two, and now have seemed to used them both up.

The first exercise is a simple warm-up exercise for Survival2-3 up to any level.  It is a fun movement, realia type speaking exercise.  You review with the students what you do or say when you first meet someone.  Such as:

  • :) Hi/Hello, How are you?  How do you do?
  • What’s your name?
  • Where are you from?
  • What’s your job?
  • What are your hobbies/interests?

Then you get the students to ask 3 different people these questions and to ask at least 3 questions to each and remember names.  During this exercise, I can also remind them the proper use of “Excuse me” when they spend too much time with their first partner.  This exercise works well to get some movement and excitement into the beginning of the class.  It also allows the students to use the English in a relaxed (and loud) way.  To take it up sometimes I get one person to introduce one of their partners.  For the lower levels (Survival 2-3) I’d ask who spoke to…”Johnny” and what do we know of him?  This allows for very low risk answers.

Lately, this exercise has become dull, so fortunately I found a nice little derivation that I “commonly” use for my higher level students.  This one is done seated.  And I can review the topics we’d cover in a first time meeting.  But instead I get them to Find out 3 interesting things about their partner and to make sure they remember their name.  In trying to find out 3 interesting things, the students usually get pretty animated.  In taking it up, this time I get the student introduce their partner.

These are two warmers I “commonly” use.  I need to find more.

Analects of Confucius – Ch.17

Matt | Analects of Confucius | Sunday, October 12th, 2008

The more I read through this famous book by Confucius, the more the information sinks in.  As a teacher, I think he had some great practices: not helping students who don’t help themselves first; teaching to each individual: building up the confidence of a weaker student and knocking a cocky student down a peg;  always learning by always asking questions.  As I read through his Analects, I can’t help but compare the writing to a modern day blog: there are lots of short posts in each chapter, some related, some not, but all interesting in some way.  Here are my favourites from Chapter 17...

6/ Zi Zhang asked Confucius how to be benevolent. Confucius said, “tho embrace five qualities at once is benevolent.” Zi Zhang asked, “what are the five qualities?” Confucius said, “They are gravity, tolerance, trustworthiness, diligence, and generosity.  With gravity you will not be humiliated; tolerance brings the suppport of the mulititude; trustworthiness wins the trust of others; diligence pave the way to success; and generosity makes it easy to exercise control over others.”

14/ Confucius said, “To indulge in gossip and spreading rumours is to abandon virtue.”

Don’t spread rumours, as juicy as they might be.  It never pays off.  It really can only hurt you in the end.

17/ Confucius said, “A man who speaks with honeyed words and pretends to be kind cannot be benevolent.”

Words alone don’t work, no matter how sweet they sound.  It’s your actions and the honest thoughts behind those actions that matter.

22/ Confucius said, “He who always has a full stomach but does nothing meaningful is simply a good-for-nothing.  Is there not a game of chess? Even playing chess is better than idling the time away.”

Doing something is always better than doing nothing.  I really like this quote especially, when I want to procrastinate and watch a movie or something.  There is always something better to do…like play a game of chess.

25/ Confucius said, “Only women and petty men are difficult to deal with.  When you let them get close , they are insolent; when you keep them at a distance, they complain.”

I don’t know why, but I quite enjoy his remarks about women.  I guess that if even the great Kong Fu Zi could have woman problems, then anyone can.  For me it makes him more real, more human, for having such challenges.  Even he could have learned something from Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, or from talking honestly with his woman.

26/ Confucius said, “There are no prospects for a man who is still disliked by the age of forty.”

I got to get a move on.  Frighteningly 40 is around the corner for me.

Breaking the Internet

admin | Blogging in China | Monday, October 6th, 2008

So I learned that before you try to do something that you don’t know how to do, it’s a good idea to ask somebody who’s done it before. I didn’t.  Sometimes it’s good to act.  Other times it’s good to think.  In this case, and in most cases, I think it’s a good idea to read, or learn, a bit before jumping in.  I didn’t.

The result was I broke my blog. Sorry.

Fortunately, I’ve got it back up, in a slightly different format.  I’m working on improving it and getting it back to “normal” soon. If you have any comments on things you liked or didn’t like please let me know.

Book Review: Mindset

admin | Books: Mindset | Monday, October 6th, 2008

When a student gets a 100% on an exam and finishes quickly, should you as a teacher/parent/friend?

a) Praise them on how brilliant they are and on how quickly they did it?, or

b) Ask them did they learn anything from the exam and how they prepared for exam?

From my past experience as a student and now as a teacher, I constantly praised the result getting the right answer, “Great job! That’s perfect! You’re brilliant!” Instead I should have asked about the process the student followed and the work they put into getting that mark.

According to Carol S. Dweck Ph.D.’s book

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, she states that

By telling your kid/student that he or she is brilliant can actually result in the child performing worse in the future.  What!? You may ask.  Let’s jump in to see what we can learn from this book:

1) The Mindsets

In summary, everybody has one of two mindsets -  fixed mindset, or a growth mindset – which guides us in how we approach learning or doing anything.

Fixed mindset – people believe that we only have a fixed amount of intelligence, a fixed personality, a certain moral character that does not change, like it’s fixed in stone; these people urgently try to prove themselves over and over.

Growth mindset – people believe everyone can change and grow through their application and experience; that your basic qualities  are things that you can develop through your efforts.

Most people can have both characteristics, but we usually lean closer to one side.  I’m more of a fixed mindset, always wanting to prove myself over and over and terribly afraid of failing.  While I do have some growth tendencies – learning hockey at the young age of 26; working on my fear of public speaking; learning Chinese and calligraphy – I still have a lot of the mental baggage that fixed mindsetters carry: you either succeed or fail in your endeavor; focusing on the outcome more than the process itself.

In the book there’s a great test of 4 questions to test which area you lean towards (E.g. Your intelligence is something very basic about you that you can’t change very much.).  The most interesting thing for me was that you could replace the word intelligence with “artistic ability,” “sports ability,” “or business skill” and the results hold true.  Most people carry this thought process with them through all aspects of their lives.

2) Inside the Mindsets

This chapter describes in more detail the different mindsets in different settings, in school, in sports and in business.  The school examples talk about children who either love doing math/logic puzzles and can’t get enough of them, or kids who either quit quickly or won’t try in case they fail.  The kids with the fixed mindset don’t try because if they fail, or can’t do the puzzle quickly, it must mean they aren’t special, that they aren’t smart, so they don’t even try.  While the kids with the growth mindset are the kids who can’t get enough, who love trying new puzzles, new strategies, to learn.  I was the kid who’d try to get the puzzle done quickly, perfect and in the fast time, to show off that I was special or good in math.

3) Truth about Ability and Accomplishment

Again this chapter had more powerful examples starting off with students transitioning from grade school to high school and how marks usually are affected.  But her studies found that it was only the fixed mindset students whose marks declined while the students with the growth mindset actually improved.  The fixed mindset students were facing the transition and were threatened by it.  “It threatened to unmask their flaws and turn them from winners to the fixed mindset, a loser is forever.” My thoughts on this chapter were that some students enjoyed learning the material, whereas others simply memorized it for a test and then forgot about it.  In university, sadly, I was more of the memorize and move on mentality.

4) Sports: Mindset of Champions

As an university athlete, I loved this chapter as it compared athletes like Michael Jordan and John McEnroe: two athletes I enjoyed very much.  According to Dweck, John McEnroe had a fixed mindset always blaming others for his losses or problems.  Even though he was quite talented, he didn’t seem to enjoy the process of practicing, playing or improving.  While Jordan had a growth mindset, focusing on practicing and improving until he was the best.  The examples of him practicing till he got his fadeaway shot perfect and countless other examples were quite impressive.  Also, I really enjoyed hearing about Babe Ruth, the famous baseball player, who loved to practice and take batting practice.  In the growth mindset, it’s the effort, the practice, that matters, not the results. There are many other great examples, saying “we”not “I”, being a team player; being a role model, that these growth mindset athletes demonstrate.

5) Business: Mindset and Leadership

Similar to the sports chapter, this one compared business leaders who focused on profit at the expense of everything else, versus those who wanted to build a great organization that would continue after they left.  The growth mindset business leaders included: Jack Welch (GE), Lou Gerstner (IBM), and Anne Mulcahy (Xerox).  All who did amazing things and helped build amazing companies.  On the fixed side, were the likes of Enron, Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap, and Lee Iacocca (Chrysler).  The bottom line for me was: the the growth mindset leaders truly wanted to build learning organizations, left behind strong organizations that were set up to succeed in the future while the growth leaders were more about showing how smart an individual they were and didn’t care about the future of the company.

6) Relationships: Mindsets in Love (or Not)

This was another eye-opening, mind-opening chapter for me as I had never really thought about having a process to deal with and learn from relationships.  The fixed mindset people here are those who believe in the Hollywood love story, where the relationship is easy, does not take work and where the other person knows you so well that they can always know what you’re thinking and do the right thing.  The growth mindset people, and all relationship experts agree, that relationships always require WORK; that they require learning, honestly communicating and growing from both parties, AND that it’s usually the work that you put in that makes the relationship feel worthwhile in the end.

7) Parents, Teachers, and Coaches: Where do mindsets come from?

From the title of this chapter you can guess where they come from.  The example given earlier, that: “Praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance,” was another shocking statement for me.  She notes that children love praise, and they (we) always crave it, but by praising the wrong thing you could be motivating the wrong thing.  By focusing on them being “perfect,” or “brilliant,” or a “natural talent,” could lead the kids to believe they have to be perfect, so they stop trying when things get difficult.   The big takeaway I got from this chapter is praise the effort put in, the strategies used, not the results.

There were also many powerful examples, but the most powerful for me was the child gymnast who failed to get any ribbons at the competition, and how would you as a parent console the child afterwards? Would you:

  • Tell them they were the best in your eyes? (lie to your child),
  • Tell your child the competition really doesn’t matter? (tell them they really wasted their efforts), or
  • Tell them they deserved to come in the place they did?  (be honest)

In reality, only by being honest, can your child improve.  The example, shows how the parent was very tactful, saying that the other girls had been competing longer and had worked harder than she did.  If she wanted to do gymnastics for fun, that would be okay, but if she wanted to compete against those girls, she’d have to work harder.  So she worked harder and the next time around won all the ribbons.  Being honest with your loved ones is the best approach.

‘8) Changing Mindsets

This chapter gave some tips and some great questions to follow to help one change their mindset and also reminded us that it may take a while to change your mind (set), as we have some ingrained habits we need to change.  But to stay positive and keep growing.  Some of the questions included:

  • What can I learn from this?
  • How can I improve?
  • How can I help my partner do this better?

And if you want to set a goal, in your mind, secure it in “mental concrete” by picturing: When you’ll do it? Where you’ll do it? How you will do it?  By thinking in vivid details, you’ll be more likely to DO IT.

  • What are the opportunities for learning and growth today? For myself? For the people around me?
  • What do I have to do to maintain and continue the growth?

Should you buy this book?

This book was an eye-and-mind opening experience for me.  In attempting to summarize the book, I continue to write and write and write, being almost unable to summarize her book because I felt it’s so important for any and every teacher, parent and coach to read.  If you are one of these situations I strongly urge you to buy a copy yourself.  It has given me more to think about concerning teaching, training, and praising students, than any thing else I’ve yet to come across.  This book has also helped me open my mind to my own mindset and how I can work on growing it more and more every day.  Bring on the math/logic problem and buy this book!

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