When teaching English becomes more than adjectives and nouns

A photo of Michael Chen with one of his students in Hong Kong. (Courtesy Amanda Man)

A photo of Michael Chen with one of his students in Hong Kong. (Courtesy Amanda Man)

“I can’t wait to meet my students,” I thought to myself as I lined up for a taxi at the Hong Kong airport. I was so excited to teach them about taking amazing photos, interviewing people and writing articles.

From July to August of this year, my role as a volunteer student teacher was to teach English through the medium of journalism to underprivileged students in Hong Kong. It was ideal – I was a journalism student, I knew English, I did summer camp and I worked with English as a second language students before. Little did I know that I would become the student this summer.

I taught them journalism, but they taught me their world.

The 90 students ranged from ages 13 to 17. Most were local high-schoolers from varying socio-economic backgrounds. Most of the students who arrived from mainland China were 18 and still in high school.

Most lived in the rural outskirts of Hong Kong’s Kowloon area and the New Territories, and travelled a long distance to take the free shuttle bus to the city centre where the Summerbridge program was held.

Some students were Nepali or Indian, ethnic minorities looking to integrate into the larger Hong Kong society. A few faced poverty, experienced neglect at home or bullying in school. However, they left all that behind each day when they entered the classroom. They were more concerned about learning English than sulking over their problems.

Hong Kong is an international city that was once a British colony. I expected that my students would be fluent in English. This was not the case. Cantonese and Mandarin are more widely spoken than English across the city. In Hong Kong, their education system is heavily based on memorization. Students could instantly tell me what an adjective or a clause was, and most were good writers.

However speaking was a whole different ball game. Oops, I just used an idiom. Probably not the best thing to use with ESL learners.

Once I asked a student, “How’s it going?” to which he replied, “toilet.” He thought I was literally asking where he was headed. That became the running joke of the summer. Whenever I asked him, “How are you?” I received “toilet” as a reply.

At the beginning of the program, students were shy and displayed a lack of confidence when they spoke English. For the first few days, other teachers and I received one-word replies and a lot of “yes” and “no” answers. It took a while, but after a few days in an immersive environment, they started to converse in English.

They asked me questions about life in Canada. We discussed our favourite street foods and our favourite places in Hong Kong. There was a lot of growth in their English skills over the five weeks.

To my surprise, the students were aware of and active in their country’s political affairs. They discussed current leaders and their political parties. They wanted democracy, the right to vote for their next leader and not have China select one for them, universal suffrage and maintaining rights for all people.

They knew all about the political differences between Hong Kong and mainland China, and understood that the future of Hong Kong citizens depends on decisions coming out of the central Chinese government in Beijing.

One student showed her political views in class. For a photography assignment, we took photos of each other using perspective.

In one instance, she took a photo of a student who looked like a giant trampling a tiny person. Afterwards, the writing assignment was to write a “news story” using the five Ws about what happened in the photo. She wrote a story about how the bigger person, who represented the government, was imposing laws and restricting the smaller person, who represented Hong Kong locals, from living their lives freely. She said the people want democracy and justice for all.

Another student wrote about a fictional conference between the American and Chinese presidents.

As part of the program, all students and staff learned about the Summerbridge “spirits,” including support, respect, teamwork, motivation, participation, love of learning, bravery and “English all the time.” Through dramatic skits, students learned about these life skills. However, I believe that I learned some of these values from the students.

Whenever I saw a student talk publicly in front of 100 people in a language that they were still learning, I witnessed bravery. When I saw people help and cheer on struggling students, I witnessed support and teamwork. When I saw students sharing and teaching what they love, just as I did with journalism, I witnessed participation and a love of learning. When I saw students saying sorry to each other for broken friendships, I witnessed respect.

Before I left, I told them to continue working hard in school, and that I wish them well in whatever they choose to do.

But a statistic still stands: only 18 per cent of students will be able to attend a university in Hong Kong. While many students are capable of studying and pursuing a degree, there are not enough spaces to accommodate them, and some simply do not consider it because of financial limitations. As a result, they may give up going to university. Some attend a sub-degree or college program or, if they have the means, go abroad to study in countries like nearby Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and yes, Canada as well.

If getting a good job first requires getting an expensive post-secondary education, how can poorer students expect to break the cycle of poverty and advance in society?

Only one-fifth of Hong Kong residents over the age of 15 held a post-secondary degree last year.

I hope my students can defy the statistics.

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