That funny Chinese homework assignment... now with context!

Turns out, it was supposed to be written in Chinese.

This blog has recently received a spate of traffic from a Distractify list, 38 Test Answers That Are 100% Wrong But Totally Genius At The Same Time, which links back to this amusing November 2010 post, featuring a viral photo of a grade school homework assignment that a student seemingly took quite literally.

According to the assignment: "You are to assume the role of a Chinese immigrant in 1870 and write a letter home describing your experiences. Your letter should include the following: your contributions and experiences in the West." What folks found funny is that the student went the extra mile and wrote out the letter in Chinese -- just like an 1870s immigrant would.

But it turns out, that's exactly what the student was supposed to do.

I just heard from Anna Janssen, the former elementary teacher who came up with this assignment, circa spring 2008, for an English/Chinese dual language class. Owing to the language disparity in the class -- some were new immigrants from China with no English proficiency, while others were raised in America with minimal written Chinese, and everything in between -- the students were free to write the essay in English or Chinese.

And yes, Ms. Janssen speaks Mandarin. Here's part of the message she sent me:

DUDE! I'm the teacher who made that essay assignment back in the spring of 2008. I was teaching an English/Chinese dual language self-contained class, but the school administration didn't care about the program much more than for the bragging rights of having it, so they didn't hold true to the format. They would constantly throw newcomers from China into my classroom (even though my class had another 50% more students than the other classes at that grade level) because I speak Chinese (and thus can understand them if they happen to speak Mandarin...which they don't always...apparently the kids would have been a burden on the ESL teacher...)

Anyway, my class rocked at math and science, because they're pretty universal, but history and language could be hell. I was supposed to teach this unit on westward expansion in the 1800's to these recent Chinese immigrants who had no way to connect or care about what happened in eastern America 150 years ago. They were uprooted and living in the ghetto, next to a big Hispanic area down in Brooklyn, NY. There was the clash of Latino gangs and Chinese mafia, and an awful lot of racism. My students told me about the Hispanic kids calling them names, and said they were intimidated and made to feel unwelcome when their families tried shopping on Hispanic 5th Ave. (The Chinese stores and restaurants are on 8th Ave.)

So, I started thinking, what if, instead of teaching the story of European immigrants who came to America and pushed west, why not teach the story of Asian immigrants who settled in the West and pushed east? It would cover some Chinese history, which they might care about, while still technically covering the general goals of the original unit. Meanwhile, we could hit on topics like racism and hard living conditions that they could relate to.

Anna says she doesn't know who took the photo or how it made its way to the internet. She was just surprised and proud to come across this homework from her old students, all these years later.

When you put it context, it doesn't really seem all that funny now. But it's still pretty great.

(Thanks, Anna.)

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