A few weeks ago, on December 9th, the day of the English Story-Telling Competition finally arrived.
This year's English Story-Telling Competition was held at San-Tian Elementary School (三田國民小學) in Qingshui District (清水區), a coastal suburban district in Taichung City (台中市).
A view of the school track.
For approximately six weeks, I worked with Teacher Sarah at Huludun Elementary School in preparation for the competition.
First, let me provide a little background info about the English Story-Telling Competition in Taiwan. There are competitions held in different cities in Taiwan, and they are once a year, typically in December (I'm not sure how many there are, but I know that there are competitions in Yilan, Taipei, Kaohsiung, and Taichung, to name a few.)
The 2016 Taichung City English Story-Telling Competition for Elementary School Students is sponsored by the Education Bureau of the Taichung City Government.
Participating schools are divided into four categories based on size:
甲組 (Jia zu): schools with 36 or more homeroom classes,
乙組 (Yi zu): schools with 22-35 homeroom classes,
丙組 (Bing zu): schools with 9-21 homeroom classes, and
丁組 (Ding zu): schools with 8 or fewer homeroom classes.
Huludun Elementary School fell under the largest category, 甲組, with a total of 44 homeroom classes. The other school I teach at, Fuchuen Elementary School, fell under the second smallest category, 丙組. There were 51 schools in the 甲組, meaning Samson was competing against 50 other students. The total number of schools in the 丙組, Fuchuen's category, was 49.
Basically, students have 3.5 minutes to tell a story in English, completely from memory. The scoring criteria are as follows:
語音 (Speech)：（發音，語調，流暢度）pronunciation, intonation, and fluency：50%,
內容 (Content)：（詞彙，創意）vocabulary, creativity：30%,
儀態 (Bearing)：（儀容，態度，表情）appearance, attitude, expression：10%, and
The stories are selected by the English teachers at participating elementary schools. The story selection is one of the most crucial parts of the training process. It determines the movements that a student can use in his/her telling of the story, which is really one of the key elements to winning in the competition, as I discovered after-the-fact.
This year, Sarah opted for a more difficult story than last year, in the hopes that advanced vocabulary and a more developed storyline would woo the judges. We chose the Chinese folktale, The Magic Brocade. The edition we adapted the story from was written by Aaron Shepard, which was retold from "The Piece of Chuang Brocade" from Folk Tales in China, Third Series, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1958.
It's the tale of a widowed weaver who designs a beautiful brocade depicting the magical Sun Palace, a place where fairies live. Upon finishing the brocade, the fairies dispatch a strong wind current to fetch the brocade so they can copy the design (apparently they're not privy to the concept of intellectual property). Devastated, the widow becomes bed-ridden, and asks her son to retrieve her beloved brocade. Chen, the embodiment of a courageous (and filial!) son, embarks on a dangerous journey to rescue his mother's brocade. After enduring the hardships of the Fire Mountain and the Icy Sea and arriving at the Sun Palace, Chen successfully recovers the brocade. When he shows it to his mother back home, the brocade (blessed by a particularly charitable fairy lady, Li-en), grows in size and floats into the air. Chen and his mother step into the brocade, to live happily-ever-after in the shimmering Sun Palace.
We needed to shorten the story substantially, as the original full reading of the story took over nine minutes. I spent weeks revising the story over and over, but it was quite a challenge to shorten the length without sacrificing the content and appeal of the story. Sarah and I even entertained the idea of selecting other stories, out of concern that the original story had lost its luster due to the cuts we made. Some of the other stories we considered included Where the Wild Things Are and The Most Precious Thing in the World, a Dutch folktale with a heartwarming message.
Yet, through sheer willpower and teamwork, we managed to shorten the story to an acceptable length (3 minutes 20 seconds) while retaining some of the original spark to the story.
Initially, Sarah and I coached a different 5th grade student, Clay, for the competition. After three weeks of progress, he unexpectedly decided to quit. Clay told us that the pressure was too much for him to handle, on top of the demands of buxiban (cram school). This left us just under three weeks to select and train another student, which was not ideal. I wondered whether that would be the end right then, but knowing Sarah, I wasn't surprised when she refused to give up. Sarah selected a 5th grade student from another class, Samson, partially due to his English proficiency, and partially due to the fact that his mother is a teacher at Huludun and would certainly be a great help to us in tracking his progress at home.
We decided to make paintings to illustrate the story for the judges throughout Samson's performance. Sarah, who was a previous judge at an English Story-Telling Competition in Taipei, felt that the paintings would stand out to the judges and help distinguish Samson from the other contestants. So, over the course of about three weeks, I set to to work in designing the paintings. There was a line in the story that stuck out to me as I spent hours after school and during my lunch break for weeks on end designing the paintings: "She (the widowed weaver) wove her finger blood as red flowers and her tears as a river. She barely stopped to eat or sleep. Finally, the widow was finished!" I half-joked to my LET that I was channeling the old widow's spirit as I was painting the pictures in the storybook.
For three weeks, Sarah and I met with Samson for two-on-one sessions during our lunch breaks (from around 12:30pm-2:00pm, Wednesday-Friday) and even on occasional mornings (8:00am-8:40am). The sessions consisted of Samson reading the story a few times (at first by referencing the script, and then from memory), and us providing feedback on his intonation, gestures, and emotion.
At 7:30am on the day of the competition, Sarah, Samson, the Huludun academic administrator (zhuren 主任), and I headed for San-Tian Elementary School via car.
When we arrived, we stopped by the registration booth to pick up a copy of the schedule and Samson's number badge.
Then, zhuren kindly took a photo of Sarah, Samson, and I by the sign below, under the watchful gaze of Confucius. (Sarah later told me that she didn't appreciate the artistic homage to Confucius on the school campus, as she more identifies with Daoist philosophy rather than the school of Confucianism.)
This prompted me to do a little more digging about Taiwanese attitudes toward Confucianism. I came across an article in the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs that touched on this topic, titled, "Confucianism, Democratization, and Human Rights in Taiwan." The article references a book that explores the compatibility of Confucianism and liberal democracy through an empirical analysis of public opinion surveys, legislative debates, school textbooks, and interviews with Taiwanese politicians. Some of the Taiwanese political elites interviewed in the book expressed negative attitudes towards Confucianism that were "largely colored by their political experiences." This is understandable, given that the KMT (Kuomintang) took control of Taiwan after WWII, using the Confucian tradition to legitimate their brand of authoritarianism. One quote from the book sums this up nicely: "Specifically, pro-democracy elites identified Confucianism with the political authoritarianism and cultural imperialism of the pre-democratic [Kuomintang]."
The authors also acknowledge that some young Taiwanese political activists find ways to reimagine or reinterpret Confucian ideals in ways that coexist with liberal-democratic values. So clearly there are different views even within Taiwan, not to mention other places such as Singapore and South Korea.
Anyway, back to the competition -- after taking some group photos, we ventured off towards the competition site for competitors in the Jia zu (the largest school size category), the school library.
A beautiful room with wooden floors, colorful wallpaper, and natural sunlight flooding in from the windows.
Samson checking out the stage, where he would compete just about 1.5 hours later.
Shortly after, the competitors were separated from their teachers in two rooms -- the library and the "waiting/resting area."
Sarah managed to squeeze in some last-minute tips for Samson before he went to the library with the others.
A copy of the English Story-Telling Competition schedule.
The competitors' performances were broadcast live on a small projector in the room, where the teachers, school administrators, and likely some parents sat watching.
What struck me most about the students' performances was how much exaggeration was put into the different characters' voices in the stories, the students' body movements, and even the dramatic variations in pitch. I personally found some of the students' deliveries to be a bit contrived, but it turns out that the judges were looking for precisely that -- exaggeration, bravado, and over-the-top theatrical performances. Ironically, the content of the story seemed secondary to the student's performance. This ran counter to my expectations for the judging criteria and the entire English Story-Telling Competition. It seemed more apt to call it a contest in theatrics, rather than storytelling, in my opinion.
In the end, Samson did not end up placing in the competition. I was pretty shocked, because I thought he did quite well! It was a bit of a disappointment after so much time and effort had been invested in the competition by the three of us. But I know that Sarah and I made a pair of coaches and Samson showed a lot of improvement throughout the short time we spent training. I’m still proud of what Samson accomplished and let him know that after he finished competing. I admired his drive and positive attitude, and as long as that remains, that’s what really counts.
All in all, the competition provided me with insight into the competitiveness surrounding primary school speaking contests, as well as some of the additional responsibilities that English teachers shoulder. It was nice to get involved at school in something other than day-to-day lesson planning and teaching. Anyway, apparently there's another English competition coming up soon in Taichung. I hope to help out at both of my schools when the time comes!