Friday, February 17, 2012

Schools That Never Sleep

I'm pretty sure that the Korean kids wouldn't know what to make of Alice Cooper's song "School's Out."

For one, they have a winter vacation, not a summer one. They do get a break in summer, but it's about two weeks or so.

School is rarely, if ever, out in Korea. This is both literal (schools never close)  and figurative (school is fashionable).  If the public school isn't in session, you can bet a six-pack of soju that the neighborwood academies (hagwons) are.

Though I've only seen half of the year so far, right now I'm in the final days before the new semester starts on 2 March. Not counting the week of graduation between 6 and 10 Feb, regular classes haven't happened since 23 December. But the key word here is regular, for there are winter classes, winter camps, and winter studying. My co-teacher and I taught a winter class in January and some of the students have carried on with other classes.

This week I've been witnessing another aspect of Korean school culture that's unlike anything I've seen in the States: kids coming to school to study on their days off.

There's a group of 5-15 high school students who have been coming to school to study in one of the empty classrooms since Monday. Like I mentioned before, school is out and I find this nothing short of amazing. To think that they come to school to study more or less from 9 to 5 on their days off is inspiring. People--especially students and parents-- take school damned seriously here, to the point where I'm seeing stuff I'd never see in the US. No American high school kids is going to come to school on their days off. These kids get into it: I pop in various times during the day to check on them  and I find them all glued to their books. It's as quiet as a library in there.

I check on them because, well, I'm still trying to understand that no, I'm not just imagining this. There are real live students diligently doing math problem sets and studying Korean or English right there. I asked the kids and a couple of teachers about this; they've told me it's normal and happens every year. This morning I happened upon one of my kids groggily making his way to the classroom. I asked him how he was doing. "I'm tired," he replied, and mentioned that his family had a party for some relatives last night. I suggested that although it was nice of him to come to school, he could've slept longer and came later. After all, he had no obligation to be here so early. He just shrugged it off and said he needed to study. He said and walked to the classroom. Many of the students arrive before some of the teachers do. They say they want to get ready for their college entrance exam, and even though it's will over a year away, I can see where they're coming from. That exam's a hell of a big deal in Korea. The students' test scores are immensely important for determining the college they can attend.

With the kids coming to school, there've been some great opportunities to talk to them about school life. A few of the students jump at the chance to practice their English, so these conversations have been fun. One girl talked about a two day camp at Sookmyung Women's University in Seoul. She eagerly explained the pictures she took on her phone. It looked like she had a good time. Another boy wondered about guns in America. "Why do so many people have them?" he asked. I said that it's a long story, but it's part of my nation's history. I didn't quite know how to answer that question since I've wondered about it myself. America has more guns than people and though I understand why the Founding Fathers wrote the 2nd Amendment, I'm curious about guns in America today. I won't get into debating gun rights or anything like that here, but suffice to say that he asked a question that has many possible answers.* If a native English speaker asked this question, I would've had a hard time giving a clear and concise answer, but someone who speaks English as a foreign language? It's harder still, but damned heartening to hear.*

My students' work ethic makes me wonder about my own. I know that even though I did my share of homework and studying in high school, I doubt I put in as many hours of it as my students do. Even now, in the midst of we EPIK'ers call desk-warming, I'm wondering if I can't be getting more done in a given day. The online EPIK in-service that I've been working on will be finished by next week and it's been good planning lessons and talking to everyone and all, but isn't there something more? Coming to school feels strange without any lessons to teach.

 On another note, the students' life here provides a sharp contrast to American high school life. My school day ran from 7:20 to 2:45. I had 6 or 7 classes and 0-45 minutes of homework every day. Once the bell rang, the day was done and there was just the homework to do, not do, or forget about. The Korean students? Class from 8:20 to 5 or 6, self-study at school from 7 to 9, hagwon from then till 10 or midnight. This goes on 5 days a week, plus some weekend hours in hagwons.

* Some things to know about Korea:

Guns are banned here. This boy, Joo-yong, is not alone in asking about my country and its relationship or history with guns.

Every man has to do 2 years of military service. During this time he learns how to shoot a rifle. So though guns are banned here, people are aware of them. One of my co-teachers fondly remembered his days on the firing range. According to him, the M16 is the best rifle to use. (Since I'll probably never own an M16, I'll take his word for it.)

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