We arrived in Harbin on new Year’s Eve after a long and interesting journey by sleeper train. Once we had checked into our hotel and freshened up a bit, we decided to go for a walk down the main street to see if we could find a bar or a restaurant to spend the evening in and celebrate the changing of the year. The main street was beautifully decorated with fairy lights and lined with ice sculptures, some still a work in progress. Along this street you can also find high street stores, shopping malls, restaurants (yes there is a McDonald’s) and some of Harbin’s famous ice cream parlours. Apparently no trip Heilongjiang province is complete without ice cream and so, this is how we found ourselves in a bar at quarter to midnight ice cream in one hand and a drink in the other. I think the main appeal of Harbin ice cream is the novelty of eating it in sub-zero temperatures, but it is still really good ice cream so I do recommend giving it a try.
The ice festival in Harbin doesn’t actually start until the 5th of January so we travelled Yabuli for three days of snowboarding. Yabuli is located about three hours south of Harbin by train and is probably the most well-known Ski Town in China, boasting three major ski resorts. More about this in a later post though…
There are three main parks in the Harbin Ice Festival, two I would say are a must do and one that I would recommend you squeeze in if you have time but is not essential for the overall experience.
The first park I suggest you go to is Sun Island Snow Sculpture Competition and Scenic Area. My research told us that it was best to see this park during the day and I do agree with this but make sure that you stick around for sunset as seeing the large snow sculptures bathed in the orange glow of the setting sun was definitely one of my favourite things about this park. We arrived just before midday and left as the sun was setting around half past three, spending roughly four hours there in total. I don’t think you need four hours to see the whole park, you could probably see everything in around two and a half hours, but we spent a good amount of time warming up in the coffee shops that are scattered around the park. Another reason we were at this park for so long was because of the amount ice related entertainment on offer, they had everything from giant ice slides to ice bikes and sledging. I pretty much had to drag Justin away from the attractions before I froze to death!
Also on offer at this park, and included in your ticket, is a shuttle bus from the main entrance to various stops around the park and back again. We chose to walk around the park first and then got the shuttle bus back to the entrance because when the sun goes down in Harbin the temperature starts to drop really quickly!
The second must see park and main attraction of the Harbin Ice Festival is Ice and Snow world, also located on Sun Island. A popular option for visitors to Harbin is to do the Sun Island Scenic park and the Ice and Snow World park in the same day. This is definitely a good way to do it but is not necessary if you are in Harbin for more than two nights. We chose to do the parks on separate days as we had more than enough time in Harbin and didn’t want to feel too rushed.
Ice and Snow World has been on my China bucket list since I made the decision to come to China way back in 2017 and it did not disappoint. I have never seen anything quite as impressive as the ice sculptures in this park. Before we travelled to Harbin I watched a few videos online and read a couple of blog posts as research for our trip, but even that did not prepare me for the scale of this place! The park has everything from to-scale replicas of famous landmarks to rides and slides made from ice. There were towers of ice blocks as tall as a block of flats and actual castles made from ice! Words honestly cannot do this place enough justice and even in photos it is hard to appreciate the wonder that is Ice and Snow World. I would say two hours is probably enough time to walk around the park and, as with the Sun Island Snow Sculptures, there are plenty of place to nip inside and warm up when the cold starts to get too much. We arrived around seven in the evening and stayed until the park closed at half past eight, we would have arrived earlier but I could not figure out how to get there. My advice would be to flag down a taxi and just show them a picture of Ice and Snow World, this is what we ended up doing and it was far easier than trying to figure it out on google maps!!
The third park I recommend taking a look at is Zhaolin Park. This park is free to enter and has more than 1,000 ice sculptures. These sculpture are more like what you would traditionally think of when someone mentions ice sculptures. Intricately carved designs lit up brilliantly with coloured lights line the pathways through the park; figures of animals, people and even an axe made up the art works alongside some smaller ice-block buildings. Don’t feel like you have to squeeze this one in if you are a bit short on time, it is worth checking out but there are ice sculptures dotted around all around the city so if you don’t make it to Zhaolin then you are still pretty much guaranteed to see one somewhere!
Harbin was the perfect way to end off my year in China (I was originally meant to begin my year there but with the Chinese New Year festival they changed our orientation week to Beijing instead). The festival for me really summed up my experience in China, it is the perfect combination of Chinese culture and the “how is this real?” moments that were a running theme throughout my time there. If you find yourself in need of sub-zero temperatures and pretty lights then Harbin is the place to go. Given the opportunity I would return to the Ice and Snow Festival in a heartbeat and I wouldn’t mind another one of those ice creams either!
Why not check out some more of my adventures around China?
If you are a TEFL teacher then you are probably about to move to a completely new country with completely new and sometimes confusing cultural differences. The first thing I want to say is; don’t see this a bad thing. It can be and is a wonderful learning experience and a way to open your mind to other cultures so embrace them!
Cultural differences can present themselves in some weird and wonderful ways, in and out of the classroom. They can range from kids falling asleep in class to fellow teachers giving you little to no information about what is happening at the school. It can be frustrating and it can seem like they are doing these things because you aren’t performing well as a teacher but let me assure you that unless someone has come up and told you that you aren’t doing a good job or that something needs to change then these occurrences are nothing personal!
I have had kids fall asleep in class before, this tends to happen mostly in my middle school classes, I do not take it personally and I often leave them to sleep unless the class is laughing at them. The reason I don’t let this affect my class is because I know how hard these kids work every day. They are often awake well before me, with their school day starting with a 6:30am run around the campus, and are still in school when I’m climbing into bed for a Netflix marathon, they finish classes at 10pm. I design my classes as a safe and fun environment for my students to learn and practice English in, so I never get mad at a kid if they happen to fall asleep in class.
In the U.K. we are used to having instant access to all the school’s timetable information at the beginning of the year. We know in August when the last day of school will be at the end of the year and we know exactly what days off we will receive for each holiday. This is not always the case in China and I have learnt to just go with the flow a bit. This cultural difference can definitely be the most frustrating of all the ones I have come across but the best advice I can give is just to stay calm and every now and then give your school a gentle reminder that you might need to know how many days off you will receive over the Spring Festival so you can start booking your travels. Most of the time if they aren’t giving you any information it is genuinely because they themselves don’t have it yet, my school has to wait for the government to tell them when the exams will be before they can tell me when my last day of term is and that is just the way it is. This semester it meant that I was told the Friday before my last week of term that I only had a week left and it meant changing my lesson plans completely to combine two weeks into one and abandoning the rest of them. A mild annoyance but in the long run it gave me a longer holiday and meant I didn’t have to work on Christmas or my Birthday so I wasn’t complaining!
At the end of the day every country is different and if you can relax and embrace those differences you will grow a better understanding of the world and how it works. How we handle these differences can vastly change our experience of a country and I have always found that calm and understanding gets me further than annoyance and anger. So, be aware that things aren’t going to be the same as home and incorporate them into your understanding of the country and even your daily routine and you will come out the other end will the best experience you can get!
For more TEFL tips why not check out one of these posts?
I turned 25 in December and inspired by the wonderful Rachel from Rachel meets China I decided to put together a list of things I want to do and achieve in the next five years. It’s just a bit of fun and I might not manage to tick off every single one of these items but I’m going to give it a good go! So here we are, thirty things I want to do before I turn thirty years old:
Everest Base Camp
Anyone who knows me we will not be surprised to see this on the list. I love me a mountain and Everest is the mother of all mountains. I’m not crazy enough to attempt the summit but base camp seems manageable. I may or may not already be researching a trip to Nepal for 2020…
2. Visit Cape Town Again
My first solo travel experience was way back in 2012 when I didn’t own a smartphone and Instagram wasn’t even a thought in my mind. There was no blogging or worldwide internet access back then, my only contact with home was an internet café which I visited once a week to sign into Facebook. Now I’m writing this post from a little coffee shop in Vietnam, WIFI is basically a human right and I can phone my mum from the backyard of nowhere if I really wanted to. Times have changed, and I want to visit the city that gave me the travel bug with this new-found connectivity so I can share it with my family the way I share my travels through Asia!
3. Become Fluent in Another Language
I’m not sure what language yet, the logical choice would be Chinese, but it is rather a difficult language to become fluent in, so we will see how that goes. I find it so frustrating to be in a country and not be able to communicate with anyone. I always try to learn a little bit while I’m in a country, as a result I can speak a few words of Thai and I can communicate in Chinese to an extent, but I am nowhere near fluent in any language apart from English and I really want to change that.
4. Climb Ben Nevis
This has been on my bucket list for a long time, but for one reason or another I have never actually gotten around to doing it! My mum recently climbed Ben Nevis and it has made me determined to climb it before I turn thirty. So, Scotland friends, who’s coming with me?
5. Travel the Mekong River
I don’t know how many people have seen Sue Perkin’s travel series about her trip along the Mekong river but ever since I watched it I knew it was something I wanted to do. The Mekong River starts in the Tibetan Plateau and runs from China’s Yunnan Province, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. It covers such a diverse range of countries and cultures as well as passing through some of the most beautiful natural landscapes in Asia. It is the travellers dream trip, well it is this travellers dream trip at least.
6. Learn to Swim
I know, I know how does a girl make it to the age of twenty-five without learning how to swim?! I really love the ocean and spending days on the beach but for some reason I just never learned how to swim. I put it down to a combination of Scotland being too cold to ever encourage swimming, a bad swimming teacher when I was really young and a fear of putting my head under water. I want to change this though as there are so many incredible experiences that I am missing out on because of my lack of swimming ability.
7. Study an Online Course
Again, I am not sure what yet, I have a few ideas but there is so much to choose from out there that I just can’t pick quite yet! Technically my original TEFL course was an online course but I did that when I was twenty-three so I’m not counting it!
8.Learn to Snowboard
This one I have already started on. I spent the first week of 2019 learning the basics in Yabuli and I can’t imagine a better way to have started my year! I have learnt that I need to strengthen my core if I ever want to be able to stand up on a snowboard in a dignified manner, but I think I made pretty good progress in the three days we had. Practice makes perfect.
9. Road Trip America
This is another thing I have wanted to do for a long time, but this one requires a bit more planning. I hope I can do this before I turn thirty, but it might be a bit of a big ask considering the amount of money and time it will take. I’m leaving it on the list though because you never know where life will take you and if the opportunity presents itself then I will be there with bells on. Also, it is the perfect way to visit all my American friends that I have made over the years!
10. Learn to Surf
Ok this one is going to take a bit of work. First, I as I mentioned earlier I need to learn how to swim and then I need to gain some upper arm strength and maybe work on my balance a little bit but after I sort all of that out then I WILL learn how to surf! I have actually taken one surfing lesson before, in Cape Town, but I can’t exactly say it was successful… see photos below.
11. Start Writing a Novel
Inspired by my lovely coffee shop best-friend who for about three years told me every shift that my life could be the next disaster novel; I have decided that maybe I can change some of my utterly embarrassing, sometimes wonderful and completely bizarre life experiences into an interesting book. I have always fancied myself as a bit of a writer anyway, hence the blog… This is probably on every hipster, traveller, art student, millennial’s list but that isn’t about to stop me from trying.
12. Go Interrailing
I’m a bit late to the game on this one, I know, but I realised recently that I have hardly seen any of my own continent which is really bad of me! If you don’t have a clue what I’m on a bout interrailing is a railway ticket available to European residents that allows them to travel through Europe by train for a lot cheaper than other forms of transport. Most people go inter-railing when they finish secondary school, but I was more interested in travelling to Africa than exploring the countries closer to home. Not that either one is better than the other but maybe I should have gone inter-railing sooner… did someone say Brexit… Hopefully I still have time!
13. Get My Kilimanjaro Tattoo
I have had a tattoo planned to commemorate my Kilimanjaro climb since I got back from the trip, but tattoos aren’t exactly cheap, and this isn’t a small tattoo. Most of my tattoos have a meaning behind them and I like to mark special events or experiences by getting a tattoo and this particular one is long overdue!
14. Go Full Vegan
I am currently a vegetarian and have been for about three year now, but I know that I can do better. I’m not here to preach that everyone should be veggie or vegan, but I know myself how much healthier I have been since becoming a vegetarian and how much better it is for the environment. I know it is not impossible to be vegan while travelling and it has been pretty easy to be vegetarian this past year, so the transition shouldn’t be too difficult. The only thing that has put me off so far is having Coeliac Disease and being vegetarian is already a pretty limiting diet so adding Vegan into that mix is a bit of a daunting prospect.
15. Become Good with Money/Learn to Budget
This sounds like a pretty simple thing to do but anyone who knows me will know how much I like to shop, and this can be my downfall when I am trying to save money. I have started at this already, I found a really good travel budget app which has been helpful on my Vietnam trip so far. I hope that by keeping a record of everything I spend I can stop myself from buying things that I really don’t need. This will also help me save up for more adventures so that is my main motivator right now.
16. Visit Australia
Some people might not know but I was supposed to be heading to Australia about this time according to my original plan. The plan was six months in China, six months in Vietnam and then a year in Australia… well it’s safe to say that plan went out the window. Instead I spent a year in China and now I’m off to Myanmar for six months and Australia is but a distant memory of a plan that never came to be. This is just the way I live though; I plan and it changes about as quickly as I make it. I do still want to visit Australia though so hopefully I will make it over there before I’m thirty!
17. Learn to Love Exercise
It can’t just be me, surely, but exercise is my least favourite thing. I am probably the unhealthiest human I have ever met if I’m honest. I have just never found a form of exercise that has kept me interested for long enough to keep me healthy. I used to run twice a week when I was training for Kilimanjaro and I was definitely fitter back then than I am now, but I can’t say I loved running. I just didn’t want Kili to kill me! I love hiking, but this isn’t always an option, so I can’t really use it as my main form of exercise. I tried kick-boxing in Uni and did actually really enjoy it but after I finished Uni I just stopped. Any suggestions for a fun form exercise that I can do while travelling are greatly appreciated!
18. See the Sunrise Twice in One Day
Ok, this one might be nearly impossible but I’m putting it on here because I really do want to do this. It’s going to take a lot of planning and good amount of luck but I think I can pull it off. Anyone crazy enough to try this with me?
19. Learn How to Play a Musical Instrument
I played keyboard and guitar when I was younger but I cannot remember any of what I learnt so I will pretty much need to start from scratch. I am hoping, like riding a bike, that some of it will come back when I start learning again but I know that it is probably wishful thinking. I don’t know what kind of instrument I want to learn yet, but it does need to be portable so maybe the Ukulele is my best option?
20. Go to a Red-Carpet Event
I’m not talking super fancy here, any sort of event or party with a red carpet. I just want to feel posh for a night!
21. Climb Mount Fuji.
Ever since Blue Peter went to Japan way back when I was still in Primary School I have wanted to climb Mount Fuji and see the cherry blossoms in Japan. The climb can take anywhere between eight to twelve hours but thinking of the view from the top is all the motivation I need to put this on the list!
22. Invest in Good Quality Camera Equipment
I love my camera and it comes everywhere with me but when I bought it I was a skint student who went for the cheapest option to get her started in the world of photography. I want to improve my skills as a photographer and one of the ways to do that is to start collecting good quality equipment. At the moment I only travel with one lens, the one my camera came with, mainly to save space in my backpack, but hopefully I can expand my collection to include a few more lenses and a better-quality body.
23. See Llamas and Alpacas at Machu Picchu
Machu Picchu has been on my to-do list for a while now, but recently my incentive to travel there was renewed after seeing how many llamas and alpacas are left to wander freely around the site. I’ll admit I’m not really that obsessed with llamas and alpacas themselves but the contrast of seeing their adorable, goofy-looking faces in such a historic and grand setting is what drives me to add this to the list. Add to this, the fact that I can’t look at an alpaca without thinking of my friend Evie and the joke “We’re going on an adventure? Alpaca my bags, then you will understand why this particular item holds a special place in my heart. This means that, if I can convince her, Evie will hopefully be coming with me!
24. Hike the Inca-trail
Leading on from the last goal, I have heard from a number of people that the best way to experience the Inca ruins of Peru is to hike the Inca-trail. There are apparently much bigger and older ruins along the trail than Machu Picchu itself but for some reason Machu Picchu is the one that gets all the press. Also, by now you must know, I love a good hike!
25. Read Lord of the Rings
I’ve seen the movies, I’ve read “The Hobbit”, I’ve even seen the extended editions of the movies but I still have not read the books. I have my Kindle now, so there is no excuse not to read them. By the time I turn thirty I will have completed the set.
26. Take Part in a Fun Run/10k Run
Ok, I was going to say “run a marathon” but we all know that’s a bit of a tall order for me! I’ve never taken part in anything like this and I hated cross country at school, but I think that was mainly because they made us do it in winter! As I said earlier in the post I used to run twice a week, so I know I can do it, but I need to get my fitness level up again before I can even think about taking part in something like this. Here’s hoping the next five years will bring me the motivation I need to tick this one off the list.
27. Become the Kind of Person Who Can Pack Light
I cannot for the life of me figure out how to pack light! How do people do it? When I pack it’s like my bag shrinks to half the size I thought it was and suddenly I’m squeezing my laptop in between my hiking shoes and wash bag while my bikini and beanie hat fall out the other side! I like to pack for all eventualities but I think I need to stop doing that and learn how to pack what I need and in case of emergency just pick it up at my destination. You would think as well that my inability to pack light would stop me from buying too many souvenirs but nope! I am left at the end of my trip with a bag fuller than I came and have been known of occasion to actually buy a bigger suitcase/extra bag just so I can actually take everything back with me!!
28. Try Out Bullet Journaling
I have always found bullet journaling fascinating; from intricate designs to minimalist layouts, it’s seems like such a beautiful and personal way to organise your life. I have started this one already, at the beginning of January I bought a cheap notebook from the local supermarket and started my journey into the world of bullet journaling. My plan is not to buy any of the fancy materials or specifically designed notebooks until I can prove to myself that I will keep it up for a whole year. So far so good…but we are only one month into 2019!
29. Go On Safari
Technically I did this in South Africa but it wasn’t a wild safari, it was more like a large animal park. It was a lovely experience and the park was full of rescued animals that had either been caught by poachers or transferred from zoos but I want to see these animals out in their true wild natural habitat.
30. Become Completely and Truly Confident in Myself
This one’s a biggie! I know it takes a lot of confidence to go out and travel the world solo and I know that on the face of it I probably look like I’m killing the confidence game. But in reality there have been days during this past year where I have stopped myself from doing things I want to do because I convince myself that I can’t actually do them. One example of this that sticks out in my mind, and that I kick myself constantly for, is when I was in Chengdu. I had just parted ways with my friend the day before and I had a whole day left to explore the city on my own. I had a really successful morning locating the ancient city ruins that I had decided to visit but then when it came to the afternoon I couldn’t find the confidence to go out and find the temple that I had planned to see. I spent an hour in a restaurant trying to sum up the courage to get out there and find my way to the temple but instead I chose to just walk across the street and visit the Chengdu museum. This was still a really good afternoon but it was not what I had really wanted to do. So by the time I’m thirty I want that little voice in the back of my head to know that when it speaks I won’t be listening anymore and that it can’t and won’t hold me back from seeing all of the wonderful places this world has to offer!
Check out some of the adventures I had before my 25th year:
Pictionary; the Christmas day family games sesh is never complete without it but in the classroom it becomes more than a party game, this is where Pictionary becomes a powerful tool for learning. Pictionary is great for teaching English because it requires the whole class to participate. It is the perfect game to get students thinking and talking in English, especially if they are new to the language.
I tend to use Pictionary as a cooler or filler, but it can work as a warmer just as well. You can use it to recap last week’s lesson and see how much of the language they remember or you can use it to round up your lesson as a fun way to make the new vocabulary stick in their minds. The way I usually play is I split the class into two teams and select a student from each team to come up to the board. I then ask the student to pick one of the new vocabulary words for that day (this usually takes a minute as whatever I suggest they complain it is too difficult to draw, but after a bit of encouragement I usually convince them it’s not so hard). Then the class has to work out what they are drawing and the first team to shout the correct answer gets a point. Using the point system really gets the students engaged in the game. When my students play they play to win and it can get quite competitive! You can make it so that the winning team gets a prize, but I have found that just the thrill of winning is enough to motivate the class to participate.
I have found Pictionary works for all ages; I have played it with kindergarten, I have played it with grade one and I have played it with grade eight. No matter what the age the competitive energy has been present and everyone gets involved. Even the moody teenagers who thought they were too cool in the beginning couldn’t help but shout out the answer when the rest of their teams were struggling to figure it out!
Pictionary has been my secret weapon from day one of my TEFL journey. I think my love for this game a kid really helped me to sell it to my students as a fun game. I was excited about the game and this enthusiasm was infectiously passed on to my students. The power of this activity to engage students in English makes it without a doubt my favourite classroom game. When other games have caused my students to groan in protest Pictionary has never failed to energise them. The best part is that you can play this game with minimal materials; as long as you have a pencil and paper, a blackboard and chalk or a whiteboard and pens then this game is possible.
For more TEFL tips why not check out one of these posts?
It doesn’t matter if you are teaching six-year olds, teenagers or adults; if your lessons are entertaining then your students will be engaged from the word Hello. One of the easiest ways to make a lesson entertaining is to use material that will get them laughing. How you do this is really up to you and your personality but by linking the new vocabulary to such a strong emotional response the words are almost guaranteed to stick in their heads! If you are a bit on the shy side then maybe your form of comedy is to include a funny GIF instead of a still image when introducing new language, if you are more outgoing then maybe acting out the new vocabulary in an over dramatic way is the best option for you. I use a mix of both in my lessons and it really does lift heads from desks when the subject matter isn’t all that interesting but has to be taught (somethings are unavoidable if they are part of the curriculum).
I can vouch for this from both the teacher point of view and the student point of view having sat in various language classes since I was in primary school. Like most people who went to school in the U.K. I studied a language (our school taught German) from the age of about 8 until the age of 15. The main phrases I remember from German are almost useless “I have one Rabbit” being just one example. The word for Rabbit in German is “Kaninchen” and we found this word very funny in second year of Academy (also known as middle school outside of Scotland) it was just a fun word to say! As a result, this phrase has stuck with me into adult life whereas most of the useful phrases have slipped from my mind…
Another phrase I can think of is more recent and comes from my time in Thailand last year. As odd as it sounds this example does not come from one of our Thai language classes (although there is one that comes to mind when I think of those lessons, but it is too rude for the blog. Those from the course might remember the Thai word for a certain green vegetable that caused a few smirks from orientation week). No this comes from a bonus Afrikaans lesson given to us by our wonderful TEFL instructor Jako. In order to demonstrate his teaching methods to the class, he presented his Afrikaans lesson to us as if he were teaching English to a class of Thai children. I don’t know how many people reading this will agree with me, and I don’t know how many people reading this will even know any Afrikaans but the language is quite similar to English (it is a hybrid language of all the colonies that invaded and colonised South Africa so there are bound to be some similarities). The four of us sitting towards the front of the class definitely saw the similarities, especially when it came to one phrase in particular; “die kussing is op die bed”. Now, I don’t know what happened exactly… whether it was a mix of four similar personalities sitting together, the high energy and enthusiasm that Jako brought to every lesson or just the fact that the sentence was pretty much exactly the same as the sentence in would be English; but the four of us were reduced to a quartet of giggling school girls! I can tell you one thing though, I haven’t forgotten how to say “The pillow is on the bed” in Afrikaans… (yet another very useful phrase in a foreign language, I know).
What I hope these examples show is that if you bring a bit of high energy contagious fun into your classroom then the language is more likely to stick, and not just the obscure phrases. Use this with everything. An example that really got my teenagers laughing recently was during my lesson on directions; I would ask them how to get from the classroom to my office. As they were telling me these directions I would act them out turning left and right and going straight until I got to an obstacle or a window or a door. Then I would either pretend to climb out the window, over the desk or I would actually just walk out the door. This did result in them purposefully aiming me towards these things, but as long as they are using the language I don’t mind standing on a few tables.
For more TEFL tips why not check out one of these posts?
December 29th, the day after my 25th birthday, I boarded my first ever sleeper train. It is a backpacker rite of passage when travelling through Asia to take at least one journey on a sleeper train and, having been in China for a whole year, I figured it was about time I gave it a go! Besides, I had only ever heard good things about China’s sleeper train network.
Let me tell you first of all that the thirty-six-hour journey between Guangzhou and Harbin is not for the faint hearted! One hard sleeper ticket buys you a bunk in a six-bed compartment that is roughly the size of a large cupboard. Justin had taken a sleeper train before so reserved us each a top bunk as, in his opinion, it was the best option. It does offer the most leg room of the three and you do have easy access to the luggage rack, but that would probably be where the benefits end for me.
As I settled down in my bunk I suddenly remembered how much I disliked small spaces… The space between the bed and the roof of the train is not even enough to sit up in which does lead to a feeling that the you are the last sardine being pressed into the tin before it is vacuum sealed and ready for the shelves. Getting up and down from the bunk was a whole other struggle for me and my non-existent upper arm strength, the top bunk is about twice my height! The sight of me trying to pull myself up onto the bed must have given a few passengers a good laugh. Take care on the steps, they are about the size of cd covers and they can be folded away so double check they are still there before you get out of bed. There are designated smoking areas on the train but either people were just ignoring them or maybe the doors weren’t closing properly because all I could smell was cigarette smoke which is not what I would call a pleasant smell and definitely did not help me sleep. Our train also ended up delayed by about six hours which put our journey time up to forty-two hours, almost a full two days!! On the plus side I did read about ninety percent of “Eat, Pray, Love”, a book I have wanted to read for about a year so it’s not like I wasted my time in sleepless solitary confinement.
At the end of the day it got us where we needed to go for next to no money, so I can’t complain too much. You get what you pay for, and the heavy duvets were definitely appreciated as we were travelling in winter! All I can say is that the sleeper train is an experience that everyone should try at least once. I have been told since that I was unlucky and that the cigarette smell is not usually a feature of the sleeper train experience. If you have been to the gym more than five times in your life, then pulling yourself onto that top bunk also shouldn’t be an issue for you like it was for me (maybe start the push-ups now though, just in case).
Final verdict: do it for the backpacker points, but I highly recommend choosing a shorter journey than Guangzhou to Harbin… much, much shorter…
Sleeper train from Guangzhou to Harbin: 600 yuan (about £68), 42 hours
Flight from Harbin to Guangzhou: £186.98, 4 hour and 40 minutes
Computers are unreliable. Computers in Chinese schools are extra unreliable! There will be times when you arrive in class only to be told by a student that the computer is not working today. What are you going to do?! You spent a whole hour on your lesson plan, you have funny videos to show them and word games that require the code you stored ever so safely on your powerpoint presentation but didn’t think to write down in your notebook!
This all sounds very dramatic and worst-case scenario, but it can happen. Unless you want to sit in silence with your kids for an hour or, even worse, sing that lovely song you had downloaded and planned your lesson around out loud yourself… Having a backup plan for days when technology fails you is vital to your TEFL experience.
The first thing I advise you to do is write your entire lesson plan in a notebook, I have a specific notebook for planning my lessons and while it might seem like a waste of time to write it all down when you have created a perfectly good powerpoint, let me tell you it is an important tool to have. (If you aren’t a fan of handwriting your lesson then you can always use that handy lesson plan template they told you about back when you were learning the ropes. Type it up on your computer, print it out and carry it with you. Personally, I am a fan of the hand-written lesson plan but that is just me!) The reason I encourage you to have your lesson plan to hand at all times is because, when you think about it, your original lesson can most likely be adapted to work without using a computer. Some schools don’t even have computers in the classrooms! So apart from missing out an interesting video or funny gif you can present each class with the same lesson, computer or no computer.
Say for example you are doing a lesson on personality traits, this could rely heavily on a computer for video examples of different personalities. Maybe you have a word game for a warmer, write this word game down in your notebook as well as all the possible answers you can think of (or that the internet told you about, but where’s the fun in that?) It might seem like common sense but honestly sometimes I create the warmer on my laptop and completely forget to write down the actual game in my book, I’ll open my notebook to see that all I have under the warmer heading is “word grid game”. GREAT, AILEEN!! What word did you decide on? What order did you put the letters in so that it isn’t obvious what word you they are trying to find? And what are some answers to the game so that when the students tell you it is too difficult you can rapid fire off some words to show them how easy it actually is?! The game can be easily transcribed from your notebook onto the board and actually I usually write the game on the board anyway to make sure everyone in the class can see it.
Crisis averted, you make it through the warmer and now you move on to presentation, this is where those videos would come in handy. The first thing I recommend is to have flashcards printed out, this was not possible at my school as we did not have access to a printer but if you can print flash cards then do print flash cards!! The second tip I have for this situation is to break out your inner artist and get drawing. Every school will have one of three things; a whiteboard, a blackboard or paper. Write the words alongside little illustrations showing what the word means, you may not be the best at drawing, but this is just an opportunity to have a laugh with your students about your artistic talents or lack thereof…
Then comes the practice section of your lesson. What were those question and answer couplets again? If you power point was working, they would be right at the front of you mind but there is no computer today so what can you do? Have no fear the lesson planning notebook saves the day again! Write down your questions and answers in your lesson plan and not just on your presentation. This actually helps whether you have a working computer or not. Trying to remember the questions and answers with your back to the computer is just asking for a clever student to correct you on your sentence structure. A quick look at your notebook lesson plan and you are sorted. Just make sure that any changes you make to your powerpoint you also make to your notes!
Production is easy, the students do all the hard work there. You can close your book and watch the magic (or chaos depending on the class) happen as your students communicate the new language with each other. No technology needed!
Ok so this is all well and good but what if your lesson can’t be translated from digital to analogue quite so easily? Well I admit that is a bit of a dilemma. The best thing to do in this situation is to have a collection of games that you can fall back on if it is indeed a computer free day. (I will be writing a post soon all about my favourite TEFL games and why they work so keep an eye out for that). There are so many good games out there and the kids will love the fact that they “don’t have to do work” for a whole lesson. Of course, these are educational games so they are still learning… just don’t tell them that.
The last thing I have to say on the theme of having a backup would be to literally have a backup. I have two usb sticks, this might seem like overkill, but my school’s computers tend to occasionally corrupt my usb which is less than ideal. There was even one class that I completely avoided plugging my usb into the computer, for pretty much the whole semester because every time I did it would stop working after that class! So my advice is to save it to your computer, save it to your external hard-drive and then save it on two usb sticks. Take it from someone how has lost a whole semester’s worth of lesson plans… BACK IT UP!
For more TEFL tips why not check out one of these posts?
Welcome back to TEFL Tip Tuesday! This week I’ve been experimenting in my classroom and it has completely changed the way I think about teaching. These posts usually come from something I learned last semester and now use in class but if there is one thing I know about life, it’s that you never stop learning new things. So this TEFL tip is almost as new for me as it is for you!
I have this habit of getting stuck in a rut, scared to try new things in case it doesn’t work out and disrupts my safe little bubble that I have created for myself. Now I know what you’re thinking, I moved to a completely new country by myself into a job I had no practical experience in, doesn’t exactly sound like the kind of person who is scared to try new things does it?! Well that’s just it, with me I’m either in my safe little bubble or I’m making a drastic change to my life or the way I do things. Recently I’ve been a bit bored when teaching my classes; besides my one grade two class I’ve used the same format in my lessons for almost a year and, well, it was time for a change! It’s not that the classes themselves are boring, in fact depending on the topic I can get some very entertaining answers, but I wanted to find a way for my students to practice their English that wasn’t just a question and answer session with the person next to them. This is what led me to this week’s lesson plan.
All my classrooms have exactly the same layout; about fifty students at square desks, split into seven rows, squeezed into a medium sized square room. This was the box I needed to think outside of. I was taught the PPP structure of lesson planning in both of my TEFL courses and I really do believe in it but it can be difficult to get such a large class to participate in a communicative production activity that isn’t centred around them sitting at their desks. Add to that the fact that my school has strong focus of textbook led lessons, the thought of doing any kind of activity that involves rearranging the classroom has always slightly worried me. So, naturally, I decided to dive right into the deep end and do a lesson on directions that had the students practically turn their classroom upside down. I first split the class into two teams. Three people from each team created a maze and five people from each team were blindfolded and directed through the maze by the rest of the class using the new target language. The first team to navigate all five people through the maze were the winners.
Now, I’m not recommending that you start with something as drastic as turning your classroom into a maze but I am suggesting that you think about how you can use the classroom differently. How can you engage your students in a new and exciting way? I made the game a bit mysterious by sending the five students from each team out of the classroom before I explained what was happening, this made the students who remained in the classroom feel like they were in on a secret and therefore more engaged when I explained to them that they were going to create a maze out of desks and chairs. The students outside of the classroom found the mystery exciting and were eager to impress their classmates and win the race through the maze. This got the whole class working together (with a few exceptions that tried to sabotage their own teammates, but there will always be at least one troublemaker when you teach over one thousand kids) and made them excited to use the English they already knew as well as the new language they learned at the start of the lesson.
The most important thing that I learned this week is that although thinking outside the box can be scary and the results can be uncertain, it is so worth the risk! I’ve always found that using games and fun activities works best in my classrooms but now I know that I can take it to the next level and I encourage you to do the same!
For more TEFL tips why not check out one of these posts?
Welcome back to TEFL Tip Tuesdays, this week I want to focus on speaking the same language as your students. I know this sounds counterproductive, but stick with me…
When introducing a new topic in English it is important to keep students interested and the easiest way to do this is to make it relatable to their own lives. When I say speak their language, what I mean is use their interests to communicate the topic to them. Find out what movies they like, the music they listen to, what they do on the weekend and translate that information into a fun and engaging lesson plan. My eighth graders are really into Marvel films so it is easy to get them engaged in a conversation if it has something to do with Captain America or Spiderman. I recently did a lesson where I asked my students to write me a scary story and you would be surprised how many of them involved Marvel characters saving the day!
These themes are so simple to work into all stages of your lesson from warmer, to practice and production, all the way to your cooler. It is even better if you share the interest and are able to show off a bit of your knowledge on the subject. For example; a lesson on the future can be easily focused around Marvel movies because of the very nature of the movies themselves, use the ideas from the movies to inspire a conversation about how we might live in the future. Will people have superpowers in the future? Will we travel to other planets in the future? These are some great questions that get students thinking in future tense without them even realising they are learning something new, because the theme is so familiar to them.
If you take an interest in your students you will soon notice a change in attitude towards you. It can be quite common for students to see the foreign teacher’s class as a time where they can switch off and stop learning for one hour of the day. While I think it is important for students to be relaxed in my classroom I obviously still want them to learn something from me. A classroom full of teenagers can be a challenge to control, they believe they have much better things to be talking about than the rules of the English language. Gaining their respect by getting to know them, even a little bit, is one of the best ways to control your classroom. If even one student starts to actively participate in your lesson then they will want the rest of the class to play along too, this will cause a ripple effect and soon you will find that it is the students asking for people to be quiet and listen instead of you!
For more TEFL tips why not read one of these posts:
For the first TEFL Tip Tuesday let’s start at the beginning; confidence! Confidence is key, even if you don’t think you have any. Being outnumbered is never a fun experience, the first time you walk into a classroom it might just feel like that dream you had as a teenager, the one where you realised you forgot to put your trousers on before you went to school! Everyone is looking at you… well get used to it, you’re the teacher now. No hiding behind a text book and dozing off in class, you are the one in charge here. But you are never going to be able to command a classroom if you walk in with you head down and a can’t do attitude.
I’m a believer in the fake it ‘til you make it method, the more you act like a confident person the more confident you will become. I know this works because my go to coping method for a situation where I feel nervous is to be loud and proud. Outwardly I look like I live and breathe self-assurance and eventually I convince myself that the reason I look confident to those around me is because I am!
The classroom might look like a scary place but who is going to know that you are nervous beyond all belief if you walk in there like you’ve been walking into rooms your whole life (which you have by the way, so what’s the big deal?) You’re the “fun English teacher”, the kids are going to love you no matter what, so don’t be afraid of them. Put a smile on your face and just have fun; if you are having fun then they will follow suit and soon you will forget all about the nerves. You won’t need to raise your voice to get them to pay attention to you if you look like someone who should be the focus of their attention.
My first day of teaching I felt so nervous (which was ridiculous because what is the worst that a bunch of six year olds can really do?) But I was prepared, I had lesson that I believed in and that was full of fun activities at the ready. I was confident in my lesson even if I wasn’t so confident in myself. That was all I needed to get me through the lesson, that little bit of confidence.
For more TEFL Tips check out one of my previous posts: