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Trying a bit of fun to keep classroom awake

By Stuart Beaton (China Daily)
Updated: 2011-03-01 09:57
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As I sit here in my office, overlooking the campus of Tianjin Medical University, I can see hundreds of students coming through the gates - each towing a suitcase, or lugging bags - as they get ready to start the new term.

I watch small clumps form as old friends come together, but each group is swiftly swept along in the stream of bodies headed toward the dormitories.

I've just finished putting together this semester's syllabus for my classes, a job I've put off until now, so I could spend more time with Ellen, my wife - that, and waiting to see if any of my classes would change at the last moment.

It's at this time of year that I think of when I first headed off to university. Whereas many Chinese students travel for hours, even days at a time, to get to their places of study, it only took me a little over 45 minutes.

Mind you, I didn't have to live at the campus, I lived at home, and only went in on the days that I had lectures or tutorials.

My students, during their studies, will spend more time with their classmates than their families, eating, studying and living together, day in and day out, for months at a time.

They mournfully tell me that they spend all day, every day, in lectures, and when they don't, they're doing work for other courses.

This monotonous life is breeding a campus of zombies, who lurch from lecture to lecture along the shadowy hallways, avoiding the light. Occasionally I go past rooms where a lecture is being given, only to see that several rows at the back are populated by sleeping students, and others nodding fitfully, trying to stave off a snooze.

When the bell sounds for the change of class, they drag themselves from behind desks, and stumble off to the next class, still trying to awaken from the fog of study.

To combat this, my classes are structured to keep students awake. I have a habit of moving around the room, as standing behind a lectern and reading from notes puts me to sleep quicker than the students. I ask questions, especially of those students whose eyes are just beginning to close.

Halfway through the two hour period, I'll make them all stand up, move around, get some air, a drink or go to the toilet - more often if it's a stuffy, crowded room.

Homework is also limited in my class, as I am painfully aware that I'm competing with many other subjects that are more important than English. I'm under no illusions that my students are training to be medical doctors, not simultaneous translators, so their knowledge of anatomy and physiology must be kept sharp.

That isn't to say that I make my course easy. It is as hard as it needs to be.

There is, however, fun in my classrooms. I find that laughter is one of the best reinforcements to learning, and so set out to make subjects light hearted whenever I can. Quite often I show an episode from a TV comedy show, or read from books, which can make the students howl in happiness.

When the bell rings at the end of one of my classes, the students aren't usually in a hurry to leave - but when they do walk out, it's in an animated way, chatting (hopefully in English), and chuckling over whatever it is we've just covered in class.

And just for that brief while, they're no longer the University Zombies From China.

For China Daily

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