On Friday, my boss and I were talking about the first and second grade program at our school. Since I laid out the whole curriculum without much of his input, and he’s never seen any of my classes, he’s understandably curious to know how things are going. My second grade class is going great. In a three months, they’ve made it through three books in the Up and Away (OUP) series, and I’ve been taking them through the phonics system that he designed for the buxiban classes. The kids are learning pretty quickly and they all love it. The first grade class is smaller, it’s moving at about 80% of the speed of the older class, and there’s one kid who’s pretty frustrated. It wouldn’t seem like one year in age would make such a big difference, but it really does. I have to slow the class down quite a bit and teach differently.
We were talking about what kind of demand this program will probably generate in the summer, and Ron asked a question that brought me up short. He asked, “Is this the best grade one and grade two English program in Taiwan?” What a way to look at things. No. I can’t say it’s the best. Our four hour a week buxiban program for older kids may be the best program of it’s sort in Taiwan. I’ve seen a lot of schools, and I’ve never seen any others get anything close to our results. But my first and second grade program? No, way.
The best program for first and second graders I’ve ever seen is one in Neihu, run by a guy called Ross. He doesn’t have the same phonics system, and so his kids don’t quite match mine in terms of new word recognition and pronunciation. But what he does have is a full fledged cultural studies program. The kids learn about a different part of the world every couple of weeks, learn some key facts about it, do some related activities, and move on. After they’ve covered the whole planet, they start going back and learning about smaller places in more detail, and learning about history. By the third year, they’re re-enacting the Persian wars on the whiteboard, taking roles as various Greek Gods in their writing assignments and talking about playing Age of Empires. While this may not sound like such a great thing for an English program, it is. The kids have tons of things that they can talk about, things that they want to talk about, in English. In my whole time in Taiwan, I’ve never met other kids who like history, but at Ross’s school, they do. I’ve seen them play a Civilization/Risk kind of board game on the whiteboard in which the kids are literally arguing like this:
Sudent one: Let’s attack Russia. We can use the diamonds.
Sudent two: No no no! The blue team has Canada, they can start building ships with all the trees. We shou-
Student three: Let’s build things this turn. Wait. Move next turn, ok?
Student one: But Russia has oil, too…
Ross gave them a minute or so to agree on a move and then went on to the next team. They could harvest natural resources from areas they controlled, and then use them to build all kinds of different things. He said they didn’t play these games very often, but it was a sight to see. Oh, and after a couple of years of doing this, the kids’ pronunciation gets pretty good, too.
I’d love to make a cultural studies program for my students, too. The problem is, it would be at least a two or three hour a day task for months on end to make something mediocre. Then it would be quite a bit more work, over a year or two to refine it into something really good. I already put about an hour a day into setting up the curriculum and preparing for my first and second grade classes. It’s hard for me to motivate myself to add a lot to that. If I make a program and it doesn’t work so well, the time was all wasted. If it works wonderfully well, I’ll have some sense of accomplishment, and I’ll have higher student numbers (and thus, more money). However, the upside is still nowhere near enough to justify the risk. It still won’t be my curriculum, and most of the financial rewards will go to others. For Ross, on the other hand, making a great cultural studies program was worth every second. He could have failed just as badly, but success meant a rapidly growing number of schools the curriculum and earning him millions of $NT per month. Equally importantly the system is his.
No, my program isn’t the best. I don’t have to motivation or ability to single-handedly out-produce an entrepreneur on my own time… especially not a focused and bright one, like Ross. I’m pretty sure my program is better than most, though. I’m shooting for the top decile. I’ll keep going with the Up and Away, Ronics (Ron’s Phonics) system, assortment of games and classroom activities I’ve been using, plus extensive reading next year. I hope it’s enough.