Thursday, May 10, 2007

the minds of my CNN English students

I teach a course titled "CNN English"-- the kind of title that will make any veteran English teacher here cringe. The course, based on CNN broadcasts as principal content, is primarily focused on listening and reading, but I changed the format early on to include a large expansion/discussion component because I saw that my students were getting antsy. Not without reason: the students in this class are high-intermediate or advanced-level speakers, and they want to talk. I'm glad, because their attitude and ability make tackling big ideas and abstractions easier.

Today, we were on the second day of a unit featuring a CNN report about the Japanese ritual called Shichi-go-san (literally, "seven-five-three"), a childhood rite of passage. I had given the students a mess of discussion questions, as I usually do, and one of the questions asked the students to invent new rites of passage for an imaginary culture.

They came up with some rather prosaic ones, but also came up with four interesting rites. I divided the class in half and asked each half to work on two of the rites, to flesh them out and be ready to explain them in some detail. They developed the following:

1. Literacy

This ceremony celebrates a preschool- or kindergarten-age child's ability to read the alphabet, and perhaps simple words. The ceremony is to be conducted privately in the home; the parents are the officiators and the ceremony carries no actual academic weight. Nevertheless, the ceremony reflects this imaginary society's emphasis on the need for literacy.

The child wears a special robe partially covered with letters (Hangeul, in this case). The parents give a short speech to the guests in their home (friends, neighbors, whoever), and then the child is brought out, in the robe, and is shown a large chart on which the parents have written something for their child to read. Depending on the child's reading skill, this could simply be a string of letters, or it could be some very basic words. Everyone applauds at the end, the family serves food, and the guests give the child literacy-related gifts-- pens, pencils, children's books, and so on.

2. First Kiss

This idea wasn't fleshed out as well as it should have been, so I had to pin down whether the ceremony actually showcased the first kiss, or whether it simply reenacted the first kiss, which would have occurred in private. The students thought for a moment and said the ceremony pertained to the latter: it was a reenactment.

The students treated this rite as a scaled-down version of marriage: guests would be invited to something like a yae-shik-jang, i.e., an all-purpose wedding hall where weddings are performed several times a day on a hectic, rolling basis. The First Kiss ceremony would take place in a hall decorated with lip-shaped lipstick prints all over the walls, and a huge sculpture in the center of the room would either be a Greek-style statue of two naked figures in a liplock, or it would be a gigantic rendition of a woman's lips in pucker. I voted for the second design.

The ceremony would be fairly simple; anyone would be allowed to come. A short speech by the couple would precede the kiss, and then everyone would get right down to the eating.

3. Getting a Job

I joked that, for this ceremony, the new hires should all assemble in an auditorium and be serenaded by the CEO. But the students thought differently: they felt the ceremony would be large or small depending on the size of the company.

Here, the students didn't concentrate very much on the ritual aspects; instead, they talked about the new hire's main gift: double pay for the first month, with the pay untaxed and free of other deductions-- i.e., the new hire would receive twice the gross amount of his or her salary that first month. Sounds good to me.

We didn't have time to discuss whether a person who jumps to another company would be allowed to experience the ceremony a second time, but my impression was that the students felt this ceremony should apply only to a person's first-ever job, and no other.

4. Pregnancy

Here, too, the emphasis was on benefits, not ritual, which was a bit disappointing since we were discussing rites of passage. But the consensus benefit was interesting: free buffet for a year once the woman's pregnancy is confirmed.

Here, too, we didn't have enough time to get into what distinguishes this ceremony from, say, a baby shower. I would have been curious to hear what the differences were.

In all, the students seemed quite engaged in the discussion, though one or two were rolling their eyes at the prospect of creating fantastic scenarios. Even the eye-rollers got into it eventually, though. I'm lucky to have a class of avid talkers; it would have been murder to teach a group of overly shy students. I've suffered through semesters like that before, and am in no hurry to repeat the experience.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love the literacy ceremony! Brought back fond memories for me. My first grade teacher sent home our little readers with us each time we finished one, to read to our parents. I still have a clear picture of sitting in our kitchen, reading "Dick and Jane" to my mom while she cooked supper. And bless her heart, she listened as though fascinated, which I totally took for granted at the time. Only later did I appreciate just how deadly, not to say stupid, Dick and Jane books were (You're young enough that you likely escaped them, but your parents may have been subjected to them. "Run, Spot! Run! Look Jane, see Spot run!" Riveting.)