Wednesday, May 26, 2010

So, how are the kids?

Last week I spent 20 minutes in each of 11 classes — a total of almost four hours — hitting on high school students like it was my goddamn job.

In a fit of roguishness brought on by Guangzhou’s increasingly unconscionable weather (how many thunderstorms must we have in a week, really? Can we keep it to under 10? Is that possible?) and my increasingly acute olfactory hallucinations (calling them hallucinations means not having to face the only other possibility, that someone has been violently and repeatedly peeing in our stairwell), I suggested to Gus that we make the theme of this week’s lesson “Cocktail Parties.” This is better than most of the lesson plans that I come up with in my head and never share with anyone, like (all true examples, seriously): a lesson about minced oaths, a lesson based on Dungeons & Dragons, a lesson where we start out saying everything in French and give a prize to the first student who calls us out on the fact that we’re not speaking English. I don’t really know what the goal of the last one was supposed to be, but Gus can confirm it’s real, because one day I was, like, wouldn’t it be crazy if we did this thing, but actually I was thinking, we should do this thing.

The cocktail idea is like this: we teach our students how to make small talk in English, and then in the last part of class we have a mock cocktail party where everyone pretends to hold drinks and tries to convincingly chit-chat.


Jon: What do you think of the party?
Student: I really like the music. Do you? (There is, of course, no music — we are Acting.)
Jon: Yeah! Actually, these guys are having a concert this weekend. If you’re into them, we should go.

For future reference, for anyone who comes to China with an improv background, there are, in fact, some times when you should not “Yes, and”. Talking with students at fake cocktail parties is one of those times. What ends up happening is that your instincts kick in and next thing you know you’ve made out with like 4 ladies at your VIP pad in the back of the classroom. That reminds me — you should not do this activity if the only exposure you’ve had to cocktail parties in the past 6 months is watching old episodes of The Pick-Up Artist on Chinese video sharing websites. This is not good practice for trying to teach your students how to make small talk, because what you end up teaching them is how to make small talk like a guy who goes into a bar wearing a boa.

When I first introduced this activity, my male students really started talking up their game. In two different classes, attractive alpha-male types used the group work time at the beginning of the lesson to offer impromptu seminars to their deskmates on the fine art of picking up women. These groups of boys then spent the entire mock cocktail party talking to each other. (I tried to tell them that the key to flirting effectively with a girl is not to be romantically interested in her in any way, but none of them seemed to get the message.) I guess they find women intimidating. Or maybe they just didn’t want to compete with me, which I can totally understand.

Moral of the story is that their final exam is two weeks away and rather than having them practice essential communication skills I’m having them walk around and talk about nothing while pretending to drink alcohol. Great day for learning.