Telephone, Ethics, and Snickers

(from the previous semester)

My students are extremely competitive and love beating their classmates to first place. There’s nothing more satisfying for a teacher than watching your room explode with energy, as the kids race against the clock and trample over each other to emerge as victors.

In Class 1 I played “Telephone” and had three teams of 9 students lined up in rows. I prepared several sentences, and gave the first students slips of paper which read, “Over the weekend, I waited five hours in line to buy the new iPhone 7”.

One by one, they whispered this sentence down the team, and the final student had to run up and tell me the message to the best of his/ her ability. The first time I did this, I was shocked at how accurate their answers were.

On the weekend I waiting five hours in line and buy the iPhone 7

I know the level of English that my students have, and I know that the message – after being conveyed through eight, fairly low-level oral English mouths – should have ended up in a garble of complete nonsense… what is going on??

In Class 2 I paid attention to what was actually being whispered from one student to another.

“这周末, 我排队等了五个小时买 iPhone 7”

“这周末, 我排队等了五个小时买 iPhone 7”

“这周末, 我排队等了五个小时买 iPhone 7”

“这周末, 我排队等了五个小时买 iPhone 7”

(This weekend, I wait in line for 5 hours to buy the iPhone 7)

OMG! CHEATERS!!! Similar to how deer and other ruminants have multiple chambers in their stomach for digestion (eat first, digest later!) my students have two chambers in their brain: one for Chinese, another for English (win first, learn English later!).

a ruminant, with a multi-chamber stomach

They think and react 10x faster in their native language, and figured out that if they first translate and memorize what I wrote into Chinese, the phrase could quickly be communicated down the line with 98% accuracy. It was then up to the last two students to figure out how to translate this phrase back into English, and run up to me with their interpretation of my sentence.

I pretended to be annoyed, but I was secretly thrilled at how cunning and shrewd these kids were. They will all make great politicians someday. Politicians, lobbyists, or subprime mortgage peddlers with Bank of China and ICBC.

English class is surprisingly easy, when you speak Chinese!

Finally for Class 3, I reminded the students this was ORAL ENGLISH CLASS and I would listen carefully for any non-English sounds coming out of their mouths. The strategy paid off. The kids were struggling with this sentence: “My mother told me to drink hot tea, after I said I got sick this winter”

Amanda forgot the entire sentence.

“My mother tells me…”

“My mother told me… hot …”

“My mother tells me drink.. 我妈说啥??? (what did my mom say?!?)”

Her entire team was screwed. They were panicking. I was gloating. I leave to listen in on the other teams’ conversations. A minute later Amanda’s teammate Emory (at the end of the line) runs up to me with the sentence

“My mother says to drink hot tea because I am sick this winter”

I glare at Emory. I snatch the phone from her hand and see these QQ messages from various teammates:


(My mom said I have to drink hot tea, I told her I’m sick!)


(My mom said I have to drink hot tea, because I got sick this winter!)


(My mom told me to drink hot tea, this winter I’m sick!)

English class is still really easy, when you use your cellphone to cheat


Team: NOOOO!


Crystal (team leader): SO… DO WE STILL GET CANDY??


Crystal: BUT WE WON!


Whoa! Emory had a really good point. If everyone cheats, then no one cheated… technically. Lance Armstrong got away with this for more than a decade; he has since been stripped of all his medals, but objectively he was the fastest (doping) cyclist in the Tour de France, among a pack of world class (also doping) cyclists … and he repeated this SEVEN TIMES … that’s still an incredible accomplishment, right?

Plus, I’m just an English teacher, I’m not here to talk ethics or anything.


Team: YAYYYY!!!

Me: Its chocolate, are any of you allergic to chocolate?

Amanda: No! We love chocolate!!

Me: There’s peanuts in here too. Are any of you allerg-



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