Portfolio of Kimberly Johans

A collection of articles created during my stint as a journalist at The Macau Daily Times

American professors brush up the casino students’ English

Posted by Kimberly on August 6, 2007

By Kimberly Johans
Published in The Macau Daily Times
August 06, 2007, page 2 (1,418 words)

It’s obvious to see that the casino industry is booming. Recent tourism figures have proven that.
This boom is most evident in the number of students learning to be croupiers, hotel staff or front desk managers.
But while the skills learnt are undoubtedly integral to gaining a foothold in the industry, none are more important than the ability to speak English.
And that’s where Professors Katherine James and Rebecca McGeehan come in.
Originally from Montgomery college in Maryland, in the United States, the professors have been invited to teach local students for a six week summer course at Macau Millennium College.
“I told Dr. Fok [Director at the college] that if I lived here, I would teach here forever because it’s just such a great experience.
“He was concerned that maybe some of the teaching staff may go and work in some of the casinos because the salaries are better,” said Rebecca.
They began their tutoring in early July and will complete the program in the middle of August, a very short period of time to teach what is essentially a very complex language.
“It’s very fast but it’s a lot of information and when they’re dedicated and they’re working and really trying to get school done, it’s very rewarding even at the end of five weeks,” said Rebecca.
“You know that perhaps people are absorbing everything but they’re trying and the next class will be much more fulfilling for them because they have the foundation,” she said.
The exchange program between the two colleges was created by the US college’s Dr Clarice Somersall who used the program as the basis for her Phd.
“So apparently she’s come and gone many times and saw the opportunity for exchange and really, what we understand is the program is designed to be an exchange but we’re still in the infancy of the program so it has not become an active exchange with people from Macau going over to Maryland yet.
“I guess we’re kind of laying the ground work here,” said Katherine.
She added that the need here is greater, considering the tourism industry and the increased contact with English-speaking clientèle.
The way the program works is that every summer, two teachers from the Maryland college come over to teach the six-week course. During the standard school year, the 101 course, as it is called, is taught by the college’s regular faculty.
Asked whether the length of the course was sufficient to create an understanding of the language in their students, Rebecca admitted that even “three months isn’t enough.”
“You need to be flexible. You need to really realise when you get in the classroom what the specific needs of the students are,” she added.
The class she takes is divided into two sessions, morning and night. With a total of 55-odd students, this means that each class can be full or empty depending on the students who choose that particular session. It’s not an easy task when they all have different levels of understanding.
“You need to keep to a syllabus but saying that…my class is a composition course primarily but my students also need help in listening and speaking. I’m still trying to combine all of that and still achieve the goals of the course,” said Rebecca.
“And some students will have to take the class again and that’s just the way that it works,” she said.
But it’s not as strict as it sounds. According to Rebecca, students that fail the first time are allowed to repeat the course without repayment. And as the 101 course is a credit one and therefore needs to passed in order to complete the program, that’s surely looked upon as a blessing.
And there is a certain level of collaboration that goes on between the two professors, with Katherine looking upon her course as a foundation for the one Rebecca teaches.
“Mine is sort of a mini course of what they will experience in 101. Mine has more of an emphasis on language skills and I look upon it as a foundation, said Katherine.
“And six weeks is not enough time to really learn a language well. Even six years may not be enough time,” she added.
Despite the distance and language barriers, neither were trepidatious about coming to Macau.
Rebecca’s thoughts prior to coming here were “that it was going to be exciting and it was going to be a challenge.”
For Katherine it was a little easier, having previously taught a class that was more international than the traditional American classroom.
“Mostly they’re Africans but I do have some Asians and some Spanish speaking people and only one or two are pure Americans, if there is such a thing so I’ve had a lot of experience working with international students and its very exciting,” she said.
Rebecca added that “there was a lot of expectation, there was a lot of information that we had, but it was all incredibly positive and it’s all really coming into focus, in terms of the positive position that the program’s in and if it continues, where it has the potential to go.
“We were told at the beginning, write things down, make suggestions, we want the program to succeed,” she said, feeling comforted by the notion that “when you’re going into a situation where you don’t know if people want to hear what you have to say or if you’re just a place holder for a summer course.”
Their mututal collaboration also extends to keeping a record of future reccomendations for the program, where “we have a lot of ideas that are coming up just from our conversations about what we would suggest to make things stronger or things that would be beneficial to the students,” said Katherine.
“Yes, we will write some evaluations and recommendations for the Maryland side but also for the Macau side, because we have some ideas for how to make the curriculum stronger and so we would like the MMC to know that,” she added.
Asked why they had decided to apply for these positions, Rebecca put it down to having a sense of adventure, while for Katherine, it was simply following a passion.
“The reason, for me anyway, is incredibly simple,” said Rebecca.
“You’re always trying to get your students involved in a more global conversation. That’s what writing is, that’s what learning different languages is for!
“And so, to go out and be part of this global conversation yourself is incredibly exciting,” she said.
“For me, it’s an opportunity to practice my profession in another part of the world,” said Katherine.
“Teaching has always been my passion. I love working with students of different backgrounds and when I saw this opportunity it just clicked with me and I said ‘yes, I’d like to do that.’
“The more I heard about it, the more I really wanted to come and the arrangements sounded wonderful,” she added.
So did Macau, but according to both, their knowledge was pretty limited.
“Well I knew that it was a Portuguese colony for a long time and that it is now a S.A.R of China so that is somewhat comforting,” said Katherine.
“The thing that I had expected was more Portuguese influence whereas really it’s about 95 percent Chinese and 5 percent Portuguese,” she said.
Rebecca added that “I expected less of a city feel and more still of a small town feel. But this is a metropolitan city, much more happening than I’d anticipated.
“And there are a lot more people than I thought there would be,” she said.
The greatest challenge has been the lack of backgound knowledge of the English ability of the students.
“ I’m teaching essay and critical thinking and for many they’ve never had grammar, they don’t know the parts of speech, sentence structure,” said Katherine.
“So when I teach that at the beginning it’s meant as more of a review, to reinforce concepts you may have learnt ten years ago but some of them have never taken an English course,” she added.
She goes on to say that she’d like to see coursework arranged to create more of an English foundation. She also recommends pre-requisites for some of the courses, particularly the composition one.
But despite these drawbacks, both professor will be leaving Macau with a suitacse filled with memories and accomplishments. The students, meanwhile, will have benefited from the expertise of teachers who were prepared to go the extra mile.

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