As a fairly novice teacher, I was pleasantly surprised by how much one collection of young people can differ from the next. I seem to alternate one year of keen kids with a year of reluctant kids. This new crop is as keen as mustard, not shy about speaking in class, and they gladly plunge into the speaking activities I've prepared for them.
But how to learn so many names? Two weeks in and with just six weeks to the end of the semester, I fear that I can't. It's not that "all Chinese look alike." In fact, if you thought that was the case, and come here to teach, you will be surprised by the wide variety of heights, complexions, and facial features. And far from presenting an inscrutable face to the world, Chinese co-eds are very animated and show their emotions readily. including boredom.
Naturally the students whose names I learn first are those whose behavior sets them apart -- the outgoing student who is eager to speak after class, the boy sleeping at the back, the students with the readiest smiles, the students who never take their eyes off you as you stroll around the classroom..... but then it worries me -- how do the other students feel, as the weeks go by and it's apparent that I've learned some other kid's name but not theirs? They pass me in the hallway and say "hello teacher," and they are already past me before I can dredge up their name (Hi..... Nancy!) or worse, simply can't (good morning girls!).
The Cult of Pedagogy podcast makes an eloquent case for learning a student's real name and pronouncing it correctly -- not making a hash of the pronunciation and laughing it off, which sends the message to the student that "you are not important enough for me, a Westerner, to bother learning how to pronounce your name correctly." But I'm going to tell you truthfully that I, a Westerner in her, uh, late fifties, cannot learn all my students' real names. The odd one, yes. But all of them, no way. Typically students are addressed, in Chinese, anyway, by their last and first name, so I'd need to learn three random-sounding syllables with no frame of cultural reference.
Not every student adopts an English name and I don't press the point because I don't want to impose my culture on theirs. But then it becomes glaringly obvious that I learn most English names first. Then there's the handful of students that I keep mixing up, week after week, calling one by the other's name.... sigh.
In smaller classes I've collected all the English names, Googled them, and come back and reported on the meaning of every name, and I've featured names (and cheerfully embarrassed students) by playing songs like "Diana" and "Ida, sweet as apple cider," or "Nancy with the laughing face" during class breaks. All these things helped.
I've mentioned this before, but I like to take attendance by posing every student a simple (but not "yes" or "no" question, preferably related to the content of that day's class. If you could: go anywhere in the world/anywhere in time/meet any famous person/have any animal as a pet, etc. Their answers help me distinguish them as individuals and ensure that everyone speaks at least one complete sentence in every class. And also it catches out the student who isn't listening. In class of 40 plus kids, this takes a few minutes, and the class gets restless before it's over, so I have taken to breaking it up into segments, asking one group of questions of the first fifteen kids, then going to some other activity, then coming back to attendance later in the class with another group of questions.
So what else? Drawing a class seating diagram like the professor in the Paper Chase would help a lot. But that's time-consuming as well of course. And these kids move around and we meet twice a week in two different rooms, so I can't rely on the fact that Jane sits by the window. There's no room for name cards on their desks, and I wouldn't ask them to wear badges. I could take a picture of each kid holding a picture of their name like a convict, and study their names, but that feels like an imposition on them and I probably wouldn't set aside the time for studying the names anyway.
One way I get around having to know names is, when we are reviewing the answers to some questions in the textbook, I call on one student whose name I do know, and she answers the question and then I tell her, you choose who answers the next question, and so on. Or I divide the class into two teams, and the problems in half, and one team chooses someone from the other team to answer a question, and vice versa.