An Eight-Year-Old Chinese Student, Pokemon,, and the Narrative Nature of the Human Soul

I teach English to kids in China every morning and every evening. Sometimes progress can be tough, but at other times it's great. I've been teaching Parker twice a week for the last 16 months. Parker is eight-years-old and loves Pokemon. I've tried to use that before in our lessons, but it's been more distracting than anything. Now, though, we're really on to something.

We had tried to read, or rather have Parker read, some Pokemon stories online, but we ran into some trouble. One, Parker really has a hard time focusing once we start reading about Pokemon, or looking at them, or talking about them, or if one is mentioned a single time. We've been working on that for awhile; easing our way into it.

The second problem is worse. There are tons of Pokemon stories available online. There are many sites online where anyone can write and post a story, Wattpad is very popular. "The Martian" was originally published on Wattpad. The problem is that most of the stories are pretty bad, and I'm not talking about plot or description or narration or characterization, I'm talking about basic spelling and something resembling reasonable English. Now, I have some unusual views on grammar and play with the rules quite a bit myself, but that's different than forgetting to capitalize the first letter of a sentence or forgetting to put in any punctuation at all. So, while reading through such a story I basically have to re-write each page to demonstrate what should have been done. The big issue here is that it builds an implicit presupposition into the learning that it's okay to use that level of English. I communicate otherwise, obviously, but I think that subconsciously that input is just too strong.

So, I stopped using them and we went back to lessons where I use published books designed for learning English as a second language, and word lists, and guided discussions, and open discussions, and extensive use of ostensive definitions, and such. But it's not as fulfilling. I teach for two companies. One is a behemoth with over 5,000 teachers. You are just a cog in a big wheel. The other is a startup that appears to be floundering a bit. There are some management, communication, and sales issues; that's basically everything. That value of the smaller company, which pays less, is that I can flex the lessons significantly more.

In the big company I get a student and some material and I have no say. For instance, yesterday I had 4 students that didn't like the book that they were assigned, which included the subjects of rockets, cats, hats, and some weird story about a plate. I try to transition away from the material as quickly as I can in those cases, but my options are limited. In the smaller company we just spend the session talking about things they like and things they might like to learn about until I find something. Often times that leads to remarkable results.

It's not uncommon for me to get students that are struggling in school. I do get some high achievers too, it's probably a normal distribution. One girl, Angela was having trouble in school and no one had had success with her in online lessons. I also had trouble with her for two lessons, I just couldn't get her to engage with any of the material I tried pulling up. So, the third session we just talked about what she would like to study. Many of the students are surprised when I do that and some of them don't know if they should really open up about it or not, but I ease them into it by regularly having my students ask me questions at the end of my classes. I do this with as many students as I can. Usually, they can't believe it. I've dumbfounded some, I've had others screech, I've had others act afraid. It's a bit unusual for a student to be able to ask any question they want of a teacher, apparently. It seems natural to me, but I'm not usually considered normal. I highly emphasize that it can be any question at all and give examples. I often have to explain how to ask a question, even to advanced students, because they never get to ask questions.

All of this leads to the students being more open to real discussion. I had done this a bit with Angela so that when we started talking about what she's actually interested in we were able to come to the subject of fashion design, which as it turns out is the only thing that she was interested in in this world. Over the next few weeks her parents reported to me that she was coming to sit in front of the computer early for class and just waiting for me. She was reading on her own, because I told her to read about fashion design, and she started asking if she could do writing as homework. I had been hinting for a number of sessions that she might want to write about fashion at some point. (Luckily I didn't have to know anything about fashion because I can just lean on the internet.)

Angela isn't the only case, I have four students with that company right now that I'm exploring alternative subjects with. Alex is learning about flowers. He was already a good student but now his enthusiasm is through the roof. And to get him access to his own learning materials I'm working with him on using the internet. Most of the internet is blocked in China, and Virtual Private Networks are illegal, so very little is available in English. China blocks the images on my blog, but they can still read the posts. Luckily, Yahoo Images and Simple Wikipedia are still available, those help a lot.

I have wide ranging discussions with Flora, who wants to learn everything about the United States. We've discussed everything from economics, to geography, historical politics, contemporary politics domestically and internationally, US economics, wedding traditions, colleges, the safety of the subway in New York City, the history of race relations, the average housing prices, and square footage of a house, and the average distance to grocery stores. These are not simple things to discuss. We also go over one or two pages of "Charlotte's Web" every class and focus on learning new definitions.

Jenny and I went over "The Road Not Taken" by Robert Frost word by word, line by line, stanza by stanza for a couple of weeks. Now we're working on "The Raven" by Egar Allan Poe. That might take us months and it's pushing her ability to learn and my ability to teach. All of this because I asked her what she wanted to learn and she said she wanted to learn famous English poems.

Parker is a bit unusual because he's so young. Angela, Alex, Flora, and Jenny are all several years older. I tell him that I know the material is hard but that I also know he can do it. And I know he can do it because he's going to try hard, which is the key. See "The Culture Code" by Daniel Coyle and "Mindset" by Carol Dweck to find out how effective those little statements are. Sometimes I have a hard time remembering to use them enough, but you can see his posture change when I do. He's more focused, engaged, and confident.

Frustrated with the fact that I wanted a somewhat decent Pokemon story for Parker to read, and Parker was asking about it, I decided to just write a couple of paragraphs that he would enjoy reading. It grew to be a little larger than I intended, seven paragraphs to be exact. I wrote it off the cuff and without a plan at all, discovery writing, and I didn't think about the level of reading comprehension very much at all. This is how it came out. (Parker named it, wrote the title, and "The End.)

- - - - - - -

THE KING        
Once upon a time, in a land far away, there was a King that could not be defeated. Because he could not be defeated there was no one that dared to challenge him.

He did whatever he wanted whenever he wanted. He took things from people and they couldn't do anything about it. When he was walking through the city he would kick people to get them out of his way.

A boy was in his way one day, and he got kicked. Ash didn't like that very much. He went searching for a power that could defeat the King. See, the King's special power was that he had a Pokemon, a very powerful Pokemon named Charmander. Charmander breathed fire and would destroy anyone that he fought.

Ash went searching near and far. He searched across the city, then the farms, then the fields, then the mountains. Only when he came to the forest on the other side of the mountains did he find what he was looking for. He saw a yellow Pokemon that looked like it was powerful.

It was a great struggle, but eventually Ash captured the Pokemon and named him Pikachu.

With Pikachu Ash went back to the city and waited near the market. When the King came through Ash decided to challenge him in front of everyone. There was a magnificent battle. Charmander and Pikachu were both hurt. The King was angry, and because he was angry he made a mistake.

Pikachu won that day. The King had finally lost and left in disgrace. The people were free, and Ash was a hero.

The End.

- - - - - - -

Parker read the story. I marked the words that he struggled pronouncing and he asked about a few along the way. We went back through and worked on pronunciation. Then we started at the top and went through any words or phrases that he had questions on. There were fewer questions than you might think about simple definitions, although there were some. And, if the thing is an object I've already shown Parker how to search for the image to give himself an ostensive definition, and he's pretty good at that, he might like it too much. Some of the questions might be more advanced than you would think for an eight-year-old. Such as, in the beginning of the third paragraph why did I say "A boy..." rather than use the name "Ash?" That was quite a discussion.

Parker said it was a good story and that he liked it, so I have one satisfied reader. Parker was pretty darn excited about writing his own story. The hardest part is slowing his imagination down enough to actually capture what he's thinking. I use a shared online document that we can both edit at the same time. It isn't even blocked in China, it's awesome. We both write in different colors so we can see what we're both doing.

I led Parker through a story generation session, which was pretty easy because he's creative and loves Pokemon, and here are the notes that I took. 

- - - - - - -

(Parker's Story)
character - parker
plot - catches pokemon
character - pikachu caterpie charmander and more, up to 6
starting setting - in home, then go everywhere
plot - pikachu is given to parker, caterpie is caught in a forest, charmander he catches in lava stone
Go! Pokemon!     

- - - - - - -

The first thing that Parker did was to write down his title. The exclamation marks really add some punch. Next, I asked him who the characters were going to be and he was very excited to make himself the main protagonist. He wanted to list how he would catch all 6 Pokemon, but I reined him into just starting with 3 and then expanding, apparently a Pokemon trainer can have up to 6 Pokemon. The first action will take place. Parker already knew which order he wanted to catch them in and he came up with how pretty quickly, and I must say that it looks like it will be a pretty darn good plot with Parker being called away from his everyday world by being given a Pokemon that leads him on some sort of quest to find others. I'm looking forward to.

All of this just goes to show that the human mind, even at a young age, is being pulled in certain directions to create its own narrative. And that narratives are at the heart of learning, once you're beyond ostensive definitions to a certain extent. Whether you're talking about the story of how someone designs a dress, or the story of how someone cultivates certain flowers, or the story of the United States, or the story of "The Raven," or the story of Pokemon, it's all a story within a story. Once you can get the right story amazing things happen. That would be a good line to end classes with, although I usually end them by pointing out that if you can read and ask questions you can learn anything, which is why I focus on those to a large extent.

I don't know how Parker's story will go, but I know that we are going to put in the effort, have fun, and learn along the way.


I've written two fictional pieces that I like so far.

"The City of Peace" - A future science fiction utopia/dystopia action adventure in a framed story of a father telling his son a story about the child's grandfather.

"The Birth of Hanniba'al" - A dark, somewhat alternative, historical origin story for the Carthage General Hannibal.

Here are three of my most popular posts.

"The Make of a Great First Line in Fiction"

"A Letter to My Niece in 2034"

"The Most Important Question in Philosophy - Part 4 of 4"

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