The Dreaded “English Day”
For months, my friends who were ETAs at other schools had been complaining about the dreaded “English Day” on April 27th. At nearly every school in Hualien, students were given the opportunity to compete in three separate competitions all held on this day. These included the English Singing Competition, the Reader’s Theater Competition, and the English Speech Competition. Schools prepare for these competitions for months. They even have rehearsals on the weekends and take students out of their regular classes to participate. Other ETAs had been practicing practically since the start of the year and were frustrated by the insane pressure their students had to undergo to prepare for these events. There was also pressure on them as ETAs to deliver a winning performance. My roommate informed me that her for her students’ Readers Theater performance, they had to actually rehearse the page turns because the students had completely memorized the script, but they would lose points if they didn’t turn pages. I for one was grateful that I didn’t need to worry about preparing my students for these… or so I thought.
About a month before the competition, my co-teacher Demi came to my desk with the sheet music for two English songs. She told me that our school had decided to participate and she was wondering which one to choose. We opted to pick the song “Somewhere Out There” from the film “An American Tail”. I was a bit apprehensive about the plan because we only had a month to prepare but she assured me that everything would be okay and we would make it work. We would teach the song to the entire 5th grade class and then choose the top eight students to perform in the competition.
During our first class, we took the time to teach the students how to pronounce the lyrics to the song. Thankfully there aren’t too many difficult words in “Somewhere Out There” and it is fairly repetitive so after about three class periods, there student’s more or less had the lyrics down. Although I helped with pronunciation, the song was taught to the students primarily by an outside teacher who came to my elementary school once a week to teach the fifth grade class Toroko music.
As the date approached, I began to feel nervous. The song wasn’t fully memorized, several of the eight students consistently mispronounced words, and we didn’t have any choreography. At this time the only thing we had going for us was the singing. My students have really beautiful voices and although their pronunciation may have been off, they still sounded good. I had heard from my friends that they had intricate choreography prepared by the dance teachers at their school and costumes lined up already, and we still were on the first few steps! After talking to Demi, we decided to take things faster and use our lunch break to practice and reinforce the lyrics. At this point Demi and the outside music teacher had taken control and I saw my role as a support and occasional pronunciation expert for my students. I sometimes had the opportunity to work one-on-one with the students during lunch to practice pronunciation.
One day I came to class and the singing teacher informed the students in Chinese, “Great news everyone! Teacher Becca will be in charge of all of the choreography.” I looked up in horror. Not only had I not been warned about this, choreography was not my forte. Sure, I’m an expert at English simply because I’m a native speaker and I have training in music, but my dance expertise stops with middle school tap classes. Before I knew what was happening I opened my mouth and said, “Sure!” Yikes, now I was stuck with it. Thankfully Demi and I got together that afternoon and she agreed to help me. Together we came up with simple choreography that didn’t interfere with the singing, and perhaps most importantly, could be taught in our remaining week.
As the last week arrived, things started to come together. Demi worked to help the students develop power behind their voice, I helped sort out some last-minute pronunciation challenges, and the singing teacher came in a few times to help us add piano. Oh, and we taught the choreography in one week. Thankfully these kids are much quicker learners than I was at that age and figured it out in no time. The last challenge was finding some article of clothing that all the students had at home in addition to their Toroko cultural clothing (we ended up having them wear black pants or jeans due to the fact that there was no consensus).
The Day Arrives
The morning of the competition, I met my students at the elementary school in Meilun where the competition was held. For them this was a huge day because they had to drive about half an hour outside of their homes and into the city. Several other teachers also tagged along as chaperones, or just to witness the students singing. Even the principal came! This was the first time I had seen my students outside of school hours and they were excited to see me. We headed into the building and began to get ready. There were several other groups that were already there, fully decked out in costumes. One group of girls had gloves, beads, dresses, and each student had a full face of makeup and their hair done. Another group came in with army outfits, a flag, drums, and once again hair and makeup. I could see my students beginning to shrink behind the table so I did my best to encourage them. We got changed and one of the teachers brought out some lipstick for the students. They were so excited!
We practiced a few times in the lobby, and then it was go time. Demi and I left the group at the stage door so we could head into the auditorium and watch. Before we left I gave them all high fives to pump them up. Then, we slipped off to find a seat. As they read my school’s name, I started to feel emotional. My students had worked so hard and it was so incredible to see them up there all on their own, singing and dancing in English! Their performance is recorded on YouTube here 🙂 I teared up watching them hold hands and sway back and forth.
Before I knew it the performance was over. I ran into Lauren and Isabelle, ETAs who’s students also performed in the English Singing Competition, and we congratulated each other on making it through “English Day”. I said goodbye to my students and headed home.
My students didn’t win, and placed in the bottom half of the performances. Was I disappointed? Not in the slightest. I was so incredibly proud that they had performed well. We hadn’t had much time to prepare but despite this, they managed to pull everything together and put on a stellar show. We didn’t have the same resources as other schools but that didn’t matter, and at the end of the day the most important thing was that my students had fun! Sometimes I’m afraid this fact gets lost in the competitive nature of education here in Taiwan, and I’m glad my students, school, and coworkers weren’t caught up in this. We’re all here for the same reason, to support and teach our students and that’s all that matters.