Sunday, December 28, 2014

Fourth and final Christmas on the DMZ / Final posts ahead

Two posts in one day. The post about McCourt and storytelling had been sitting in the drafts folder and this is another one that should go out along with it. This one's more personal and that one's more professional...

Let's begin with two quotes. Here's one from John Lennon:
So this is Christmas
And what have you done
Another year over
And a new one just begun
"Happy Christmas (War is Over)"
Fellow Cheorwon Trooper DMZ Jazz recently wrote on his blog:
I guess it's been a minute.  The reason I haven't updated has been a series of immensely stressful, physically and emotionally painful, life-changing, but ultimately- positive changes. 
Same here. A quick look at the sidebar of Dispatches shows that a fraction of posts have gone up this year compared to 2012 and 2013. There are reasons for that.A major relationship has concluded and I've chosen to resign from EPIK at the end of this semester. These two things go together, and yet they don't.

I'm going to be leaving in February of 2015. The easiest explanation would be that I've been feeling homesick and especially out of place in the past month or two. Wait--that's not all of it. I've just been unhappy with being an EPIK teacher for a while. It's hard to figure out when it started, but it's been going for a year. Teaching English as a Foreign Language has been fun and challenging, but it's not where my passion lies. Joining NCTE in November and reading about unit plans for The Great Gatsby reminded me of how much I miss teaching literature and language arts. EFL has plenty of language arts in it, but it's not where EPIK (and my school) seems to care about now. Therefore, moving on would be best for all parties concerned. Making this choice wasn't easy, but I do feel better now.

Making this choice wasn't easy, but it's best thing for me to do. The past year has been fraught with stress at school over the direction of lessons, teaching philosophy, and administrative issues. No single person's to blame. It was my choice to renew for this fourth year and switch schools and it's not working out for anyone. This is not to contradict the Thanksgiving post below, for the coteachers have been helpful and have done things to the best of their abilities. We only played the cards we were dealt. I just don't think I'm the right man for this position anymore.

Why not?  This might further explain why: I finally got around to watching Dead Poets Society this September. The movie focuses on Mr. Keating, the magnetic, maverick English teacher who shakes things up at a prestigious prep school. His youthful and unorthodox style puts him immediately at odds with his colleagues because he teaches differently than the rest of the faculty does. I found the film heartbreaking on one hand and a moving portrait of inspired teaching on the other. It also made me consider my place as a teacher within EPIK. Was I like him? I certainly harbor different views on teaching and, let's face it, I'm a stranger in a strange land. Keating was a former student of the school; I'm an outsider in most every way.

No, I never set out to become a Mr. Keating and change the world. Far from it: I boarded that plane excited to learn about Korea and have a full-time teaching job. And that's what it was for a long time: Learning about Korea and transitioning from an English Language Arts teacher to an English as a Foreign Language teacher. And, let's not forget, working with a plethora of coteachers and all the attendant issues that that entailed.* What a time. Like the ZZ Top lyric, "I've been up/I've been down/Take my word, I've been 'round."

I found I couldn't reconcile who the teacher I'd like to be with the teacher my school wanted me to be. Combine that with a rampant strain of homesickness and equals "it's time to go." Korea's been great. No other word comes to mind. What a thrill, to get to spend some time here and have all of these experiences.

So...happy holidays, everyone. This is the first of the last Dispatches from Gangwon. We're caught in that No Man's Land between Christmas and New Year's Day. I'm still carrying on with a vacation to the States to visit family and friends. For a a while, I'd thought that the trip would provide the refresher necessary to charge through another semester here, but no, it won't. It's best to move on come the end February.

Enjoy some music:
Ah...J Rabbit. Cool duo. Here they are covering "Winter Wonderland" and having a fun time doing it. I should get some more posts out about Korean music; there are some good groups here.

Here's Chuck Berry doing "Merry Christmas Baby," a song I never knew about until this year.

The Beatles and their Let It Be gem "I've Got A Feeling," which may not be about Christmas, but it's about the peaks and valleys we experience in any given year.

My Morning Jacket - Moving Away. A good slow groover. I cannot thank a certain aunt enough for giving me this album.

*If memory serves, I've worked with around 25 coteachers in the past 3.5 years.

Frank McCourt's "Teacher Man" / Reflections on storytelling in class

A persistent question in ELT is teacher talk time. Many teachers worry about talking too much for fear of not giving their students enough time to talk. Some, myself included, fear becoming the archetypal “sage on the stage” who monologues his way through the class. All of that teacher talk precludes any time for letting the students talk. And if they aren't talking, then their speaking skills won't be getting any better. I’ve written about the “sage on the stage” stuff before, but it’s time to approach it from another angle.

The quote below shows a case in point. It comes from Frank McCourt’s excellent memoir Teacher Man, where he writes of his early days as a teacher in New York City and how he often told stories in his classes because they held the students’ attention better than the day’s lesson.
I argue with myself, You’re telling stories and you’re supposed to be teaching.  
I am teaching. Storytelling is teaching.  
Storytelling is a waste of time.  
I can’t help it. I’m not good at lecturing. 
You’re a fraud. You’re cheating our children. 
They don’t seem to think so. 
(P.26. Link to e-text at Google Books here)
Though I’ve never kept track of how often it happened, most every class over here has included at least one story or anecdote. Many of them got told on Mondays or Fridays because those days lent themselves to that time honored topic of weekends and what people do on them. Sometimes the stories would relate to the lesson and sometimes it wouldn't. They were fun to tell and the students enjoyed them. At least, it seemed like they did. Unlike McCourt, I had some basis for telling stories because of how EPIK teachers' classes are set up. Many EPIK teachers are encouraged to tell stories from or about our home countries because it lets the students hear real live English from a real live English speaker. The students still don't have much exposure to English speakers and hearing stories and anecdotes allowed them to hone their listening skills. Indeed, sometimes I or a coteacher would stop and quiz the students while I talked, Like the aforementioned quote goes, "storytelling is teaching."

Yet as fun as it was to tell stories, I started wondering about whether it was good to do so when my EFL studies turned to TTT, or teacher talk time. Suddenly I'd think, "Hey! Let them talk!" A lingering memory of a speaker at my EPIK Orientation would come to mind. He'd said, “Your job is not to speak English to the students. Your job is to have the students speak English to each other.” Questions mounted in my mind and I'd end up arguing with myself like McCourt:
  • How will the students know what to do if they don’t have any examples?
  • What if they know what to say, but they lack the vocabulary for it?
  • What about speaking itself? Korean and English have different rhythms and timbres. Shouldn’t I be doing some modeling After all, they would need to hear examples of correct pronunciation.
  • What does all this matter if the students are enjoying the story? They're getting vocabulary and syntax, right?
These questions would go on and on until I'd think, Fine, but it was one story that lasted for 5 minutes in a 45 minute class. The kids were engaged. Let it go. And I would. I should remember that stories and anecdotes have their place in the classroom. Storytelling constitutes a form of teaching. One form, anyway. It may be teacher talk, but as long as it doesn't dominate the class, it should be fine.

*ELT = English Language Teaching. It's quite similar to EFL, or English as a Foreign Language and ESL, or English as a Second Language. Or, if you want to go longer and more detailed, TESOL, which is Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages.

Related: ELT Rants, Reviews, Reflections: Reducing Teacher Talking Time

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Getting sick in the winter

Christmas isn't the time to get sick, but it happened.

I went home early today because of a cough and a cold I just can't shake. There weren't any classes, so I felt better about not being there. I told my coteacher, who in turn told the vice principal, and he said I could go home. "Thanks, I will go to the pharmacy," I said to him in broken Korean. He smiled and wished me well. The cough medicine I picked up on the way home is working.

I've only gone out sick one other time: Last Friday I woke up with a lot of stomach pain. Otherwise, I've never taken any sick days in over three years here. A combination of heretofore decent health, dare-I-say good eating habits, and a work culture that doesn't exactly function like the USA's accounted for why I'd lasted so long:
One of the most difficult cultural differences for many Westerners to accept in Korea is how sickness is dealt with in the professional environment.
At home, if you’re sick, you’re usually encouraged by your boss to go home, stop spreading your germs around the work environment, and rest up. You’ll be more productive with a day or two’s rest than you would be if you spent those days half passed out at your desk.
Not so in Korea. While Koreans will go to the doctor as soon as they catch a sniffle, they take the prescribed fistful of medicine (and usually a shot to the “hip”) and suffer through their time at work. It’s considered bad form to call in sick, especially to a school, where it means your co-workers have to scramble to cover your classes. While it’s standard to give 3 days a year sick-leave in a contract, you are encouraged not to make use of them. Some schools will only give you sick time if you are actually in a hospital bed.
 -- From Ulsan Online's " Feeling sick? Too bad! Get to work, lazy!"
 Anyone considering living and teaching in Korea should consider the above. It's not that people can't take sick days, it's that they're frowned upon. Heavily. I would still advise anyone to note that the EPIK contract does allow for sick days and many schools will be fine with a teacher calling in. I called in on Friday because the class load was light and they could easily be made up. Ditto today.

Stay warm and stay healthy, everyone.
Happy holidays!

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Link: Dom and Hyo on winter hats

I was going to write a post about the exact same thing when this couple already did it. Their site has an excellent cartoon that can explain this better than words can, but basically, many Koreans don't wear hats in the winter. Many eschew them altogether or some just use their jacket's hood. Either way, the reasons center on not wanting to mess up their hair.

At the same time, winter hats are available everywhere.

And on that note, it's gotten cold here. This is the coldest of the four Decembers I've lived through.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Pop song ELT: MAGIC!'s "Rude"

One of the best lessons of 2014. Originally written in early July 2014.

In my experience with teaching in Korea, virtually anything related to English can be brought into the classroom. As it's the end of the semester and exams have concluded, the students have been in dire need of some refreshing lessons. This particular one has worked well.

The lesson began when a boys middle school CT suggested that we do a pop song in class. I happily agreed to do so, but questions came to mind: Which one? And for what purpose? Things must have a purpose in the classroom. They must have some kind of practical application. As much as I love music, I cannot simply bring in any song without a purpose for using it. And just what pop songs were out there? Despite my affinity for older kinds of music, the students like newer stuff, so I consulted the Billboard Hot 100 and started at the top. If I was going to bring something into class, it might as well be popular in the USA. I knew I had something with #3, MAGIC!'s song "Rude," for it had simple lyrics, a catchy melody, an expository, humorous video. Moreover, it had an interesting topic: A boy wants to marry his sweetheart, but her father says no.

I sent a link to the song to my coteachers, who watched the video and approved it for class. Next, I typed the first verse of the song into a PowerPoint file. The song, the PPT, and the handout below are what I made for class.

Why only the first verse? I'd read in Teaching Unplugged about showing a block of text for one minute, having students copy it, and comparing their versions with the "correct" text on screen. The one minute time would make copying a kind of race, which my boy students enjoy. It would also save me from printing the song's lyrics for everyone. Once the students had the lyrics down, they then had a text to work with.

How the class worked

We walked in, said hello, loaded the PPT, and began. I said we were going to do a class about a pop song. "We'll ask questions, make predictions, and learn some new phrases. We'll also talk about what you would do..." and got to work. I showed the first verse, had the students copy it, and checked their writing against the original.

I and my coteacher then asked checked the students' comprehension of the lyrics, phrase by phrase. Since the verse includes a simile, a line about a suit, and the pronoun you, we had plenty to talk about. What does raced like a jet mean? Who's the you in the song? Who is the narrator? We asked these questions and got the following answers:
  • Raced like a jet = Drove fast
  • The narrator's a man because he wears a suit. When I pointed out that women can wear suits, the students held fast to their answer/
  • You is either the man's wife, mother, company boss, or friend.
Having answered the questions and pondered the verse, the students were now ready to see what happens in the song and whether it matches their predictions. I played the song and cranked it up.

The song:

After the song concluded, we went back and went through the lyrics, line by line, so everyone knew exactly what MAGIC! was singing about. We briefly discussed the idea of the father giving his blessing before setting up the group discussion. We asked the students, "What if you were the man in the song? What would you do? And what if you were the girl?" and handed out the table below. The students got into groups and discussed the problems.

Facimile of handout

Imagine you are the boy in the song. What would you do? Write four ideas:





Best idea? Why?

Imagine you are the girl in the song. What would you do?





Best idea? Why?

What if you are not so serious about your boyfriend?

We gave the students around 10 minutes to discuss and prepare their answers. Each group presented their papers, often to laughs from everyone. We circulated around the room and helped whenever needed, but overall, the students did a good job of figuring out the writing themselves.

We thought things went well. The students enjoyed the music and many felt good at having figured out a foreign pop song by themselves without any translation. All of us had fun discussing the best and worst courses of action for the narrator.

My CT and I placed no rules on grammar or the kinds of sentences the students should write. The groups were mixed ability, so some wrote more or more in depth than others. Some groups wrote entirely in Korea, which I took as a chance to help them with translating. My Korean's good enough to recognize some words and phrases, so I worked with the lower-level groups and helped them rewrite their notes into English. In doing so, I learned some Korean slang that's since proved fruitful for jokes in class.

As a side note, I also got to do this lesson at the girls middle school with the 3rd graders. Doing so allowed me to compare to boys' answers with the girls', which showed some stark differences. The boys overwhelming favored "Killing the father" if they were the boy. The girls, by contrast, thought "Pleading with the father would be best." It seemed as though the boys and the girls wanted to play up the drama.

Scott Thornbury - Teaching Unplugged

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Belated Thanksgiving 2014 / Sunday morning reflections

This week's been up and down. Most of it comes from feeling homesick because it's Thanksgiving today. As I explained to the students this week, Thanksgiving is quite like the Korean Chuseok holiday: It's a time for families to gather and enjoy spending time together. It also focuses on being thankful for what you have. And what you have isn't so much what you possess as it is about intangible things like family, love, and friendship.

I got to see Dave Sperling of Dave's ESL Cafe speak in Daejeon yesterday. He said, "You're living the lives you want.  You're in Korea, after all." A wave of happiness went through me when he said that, for it's something that, obvious though it is, I sometimes forget that coming to Korea was about more than taking a job. Coming here meant learning a new culture and leaving home. It meant getting--and using--a passport for the first time. And it meant having to keep an open mind about things.

Sometimes one needs to hear the obvious. Living and teaching here is what I want to do. What other explanation exists for having signed a fourth contract? At another point, Dave said, "If I'd known [doing Dave's ESL Cafe] would be so hard, I wouldn't have done it." Not me. If I had known in August 2011 that the next three years would mean traveling all around this peninsula and Asia, meeting countless wonderful people, feeling better and worse than ever, and becoming a better teacher, then yes, I would've done it. Korea continues to be a wonderful time. Some days go better than others. Living as an expatriate is a full time job. But even so, it's the best I've ever had.

I'd like to give thanks to
  • Family. Words fail to express the importance of family. I miss all of you very much.
  • Friends. I've met friends from around the world here and that probably wouldn't have happened--not to this extent, anyway--if I hadn't gotten on that plane. You know who you are. Thanks for being here and for all the things you've mentioned about your home countries. 
  • The students. The Korean school system pushes them to the limit, but they keep coming back for more. The longer I stay here, the more I feel for them. I often wonder how I feel in their shoes.
  • Coteachers. Thanks for all of your help with understanding the school system and teaching our classes.
  • Planes, planes, and automobiles. Korea has an excellent transportation system. One can go anywhere at nearly any time.
  • Anyone who comes here and reads this blog.
This will be my final Thanksgiving in Korea. It's getting to be time for me to move on, for some educational and work opportunities have come up in the USA. The final Dispatches from Gangwon will come in August of 2015.


Though I'm not Southern, this song's a favorite for what it says about the USA and how we should try to preserve nature.
Lynyrd Skynyrd - All I Can Do Is Write About It

Actually, though it's about the USA, those lines about "the concrete slowly creeping" apply to Korea as well? Other than Shin Joong-hyun's legendary "Beautiful Mountains and Rivers"? 


Previous posts about Thanksgiving

#1: Happy Thanksgiving! 2011.

* Ironically, Thanksgiving signals the start of the crazed Christmas shopping season. And Black Friday and its sales are on the next day. Strange.


Last, but not least, thanks to Cal and J for being here in 2013-2014. Rock on!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Proving that we can eat spicy food

From journal entry since revised:

4 September 2014 – Went down to dinner and ended up going to a new Chinese restaurant in town. I ate jjajangbap and R ordered jjamppong noodles. Both dishes tasted good!
R ordered the spicy version of the jjamppong because she didn’t want the owner to think that she, a foreign woman, couldn’t handle spicy food. She wanted to prove herself and to not further the Korean assumption that foreigners can’t/won’t/don’t eat spicy foods. Second, she didn’t want to set a precedent for future visits where she’d always get the less-spicy version of the dish.

This changed prompted a conversation about Korean perceptions of foreigners for a bit before we moved on to talking about how the school day went for each of us. The conversation about spiciness and precedence stayed with me, which is why I’m recording it here. The owner of the restaurant seemed to assume that R wanted the less spicy version and, judging from her brusque manner, wanted us to make up our minds faster than we did. When we actually had to tell her twice that, yes, we wanted the spicy jjamppong because she talked over us when we ordered the first time. We’d ordered and she’d said some rapid-fire Korean back at us. We caught enough words to know that she was telling us the dish was spicy and she’d make the less spicy one for us. But that wasn’t the food we’d come for.

Spicy food is a sticking point for both of us, for while we do eat it, we don’t care to eat it all the time. And for my part, I always wonder about this, because whenever spicy food is on the menu, I feel as though I’d better eat it, lest I get labeled with not being able to handle spicy foods. And possibility of being told, “Oh, but you don’t like spicy things, so we ordered you something else.” Lest any readers think I’m worrying too much or too irrationally, what I just described—the “one and done” assumption—can and does happen here. Many EPIK friends have related similar stories to me.

And I don’t want to sound worrisome or act like Koreans want to paint western foreigners into a corner. Goodness knows that the world has enough stereotypes and misconceptions about Koreans. No, the idea here is whether or not R and I, Western foreign teachers here, have to prove our culinary chops to Korean people, particularly with:
  • Using chopsticks
  • Eating spicy food
  • Eating kimchi (which is spicy, but even so…)
During the time here, I’ve alternated between two views:
  • There is no need to prove anything. I like what I like, and that’s that. As I like to tell the students, there are 300 million people in America from all different ethnic groups. There isn’t really a standard “American taste.” Not to digress, but I also hesitate to say, “Americans do…”
  • It’s best to go along with things and not make a fuss…especially in this small town. Or, for that matter, anywhere else. Being the noisy customer is not for me.
19 November 2014/extra notes:

I mentioned the “proving” bit above because that’s what we and others have experienced in our time here. Let me emphasize that this mostly small-town­ Korea…areas that haven’t had much contact with foreigners. And the old ideas about foreigners not eating spicy food or Korean food being too spicy tend to persist here because of that lack of contact. We get that.

But then, I can’t worry about whether or not ordering spicy chicken breaks down the idea that foreigners don’t eat spicy chicken. And I can’t worry about turning down a spicy thing…people will think what they want. I won’t be the only foreigner they meet. In sum, for those of you who think about whether or not you should prove yourself worthy of jjamppong, well, just eat it if you want to. 

What these two foods look like:

Jjajangbap [Black bean sauce/stew with rice. Picture:
Note: Bap means rice. I've had this dish with chopped vegetables in the rice. It's also come with a fried egg on top. Some restaurants do that. Also, jjajangmyeon means jjajang with noodles [myeon] instead of rice. 

Finally, this is the unofficial dish of "Black Day," which is a sort of Singles Day for Korea. Many single people from all over Korea eat jjajang on 14 April every year.

Jjamppong [Chinese/Korean spicy seafood noodle soup. Picture:]

Note: This dish took a long time to build a taste for.


Veruca Salt - "Don't Make Me Prove It"
"Words won't do/words won't do it"

Television - Prove It

"Just the facts"

Monday, November 17, 2014

Screen time: Me versus the students

Coteacher: So, how much time do you spend on your computer?
EPIK teacher: Hmmm…maybe 6 hours a day?
Class: Whoa! 
Coteacher: Really? What do you do?
EPIK teacher: Everything. Lesson planning, shopping, sports news, email…
[Coteacher and class nod] 
--Demonstration lesson video at an EPIK workshop, Yangyang, circa 2012.

I’ve written about phones and “screen time” on here before, yet…lately the idea of comparing my screen time to the students came to mind. It wouldn’t be right to complain about something others do when I do it, so let’s take a look at how the numbers compare. Bear in mind that this is completely unscientific...

I started with the overly cynical and unrealistic idea that students spend every spare moment on their phones. And how many spare moments do they have? Let’s see: There 10 minutes between classes, 60 minutes for lunch, 20 minutes for cleaning time, and 60 more minutes for the dinner hour at school. Considering the hours between 8:30am and 7pm, the timetable looks like this:

Breaks between classes (6 @ 10 minutes each)
Lunch break
Dinner break
Cleaning time
200 minutes (3 hours, 20 minutes)

And me?
Breakfast: Emails and blogs
School: Planning, research, emails
After school: Emails, videos, music


Well then. We both spent a lot of time in front of computers or phones...but to be realistic, there's no way the students can spend all of their time in front of computers or phones. It's impossible. It only looks that way sometimes. And as the cliche goes, looks can be deceiving. I probably spend more time in front of screens than the students do. It'd be good to remember that.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Test day hath arrived

Another short one:

Like I wrote yesterday, the big College Scholastic Ability Test/College entrance test day is today. The Korea Joongang Daily ran this little article about it today. Here's something that caught my eye:
Airplanes will be banned from flying over exam locations for 25 minutes from 1:10 p.m. during the English listening portion of the exam. Cars will be banned from a 200-meter (650-foot) radius from test sites. [NEWS1]
Some thoughts on this:

  1. Never have I ever heard an airplane flying over head when I was in or around Seoul. I can't recall even seeing an airplane flying overhead either.
  2. I'd known about flights getting diverted, but didn't know it happened during the English portion. 
  3. Again, not to harp on it, but I do wish the students well. Their experience is worlds apart from my experience with the ACT ~10 years ago. I (and many other American teens), apart from a couple of ACT-prep workshops, no after-school classes, and no cram sessions. The Korean kids, on the other hand, stand against a whole culture that pushes a high score and considers the CSAT the moment in teenage life. Pressure, indeed.
  4. And on the other side: "Businesses capitalizing on free time after CSAT." Mother-daughter surgeries? What a strange message, though: "Don't worry about the lines on your face from all that stress! We'll straighten your face out now. And you can go with your mom!"
  5. How many students will go to special schools to study and take the test again?

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Yesterday, today, and especially tomorrow

Yesterday was Peppero Day, the "holiday" for Peppero sticks. They're popular gifts for everyone.

Today's The Day Before the College Entrance Test. It's 1:30pm and all of the students are gone now. The middle school kids had a half day of classes and then got sent home.

And tomorrow's The Test. The big one. Students have killed themselves over this one. Those poor kids. I wish them well.

Korea Joongang Daily: "Students sacrifice year to ‘study again’ for test"

Friday, October 10, 2014

Lotte World observations

1. We arrived around 10:15am. There were no bag checks or security lines. The students got together and the teachers doled out tickets. I got one that said "guide pass." We passed through the turnstiles and wenot our separate ways. That is, I followed the teachers and the students went every which way. Our instructions were simple: Be ready to go at 3:40pm. I marveled at the amount of freedom given to middle schoolers.

2. Lotte World is indoors and outdoors, and while it bills itself as an amusement park, it also has plenty in common with shopping malls. I was surprised to see cosmetics stores and chain coffee shops here and there.

3. I think my past trips to Six Flags Great America have spoiled me. That park had more than five roller coasters; coasters that were much bigger, taller, and longer than the coaster I rode at Lotte World. Not that the Lotte World coaster didn't have its thrills--it was just too short.

4. Lotte World has a Folk Museum inside and a pretty good restaurant sits next door to it. I joined the teachers for lunch at that restaurant and enjoyed the bossam (steamed pork) and bibimbap. Both dishes are excellent by themselves, but the combination of the two made it one of the best meals I've had here.

5. Students and young people everywhere. One coteacher explained that October's usually a time for school trips, which explained why the place was packed on an ordinary Wednesday.

6. The Folk Museum: I got tired of the noise and rush of events in the afternoon, so I went there and spent an hour enjoying the exhibits from Korea's past three kingdoms of Gogureo, Baekje, and Silla. I honestly hadn't expected much from a museum that was attached to an amusement park, but I was wrong. The museum's worth visiting for anyone interested in Korean history, especially in seeing scenes from its past monarchies or its many temples and palaces.

*Lotte World is located next to Jamsil station on Line 2 of Seoul's subway system. It is less than 20 minutes from the Dongseoul Bus Terminal.

**Seokchon Lake is nearby as well.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Blogging on the bus: Going to Lotte World

We're on our way to Lotte World amusement park this morning. I'm on the bus with the art teacher and the third grade middle schoolers. It's my first time going there. It'll be good to ride a rollercoaster again.

Also: Updates on the way about the first month in the new town, hiking, and attending the KOTESOL International Conference. They conference was quite good because I got to meet Scott Thornbury, the renowned teacher and author, after his plenary talk.


Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Teaching tip: never contradict your co-teacher

[Note: This is not a new post. I originally wrote it in the spring of 2012. It probably got listed as a new post when I was rereading it and noticed a few typos. I fixed those types, clicked "update," and saw later that it became a "new" post.

As it happened, Jane transferred to another school when that semester ended. I never heard where she went. She'd be in the final year of high school now.]

One of the joys of teaching is that no one day's ever the same as the next. Monday's conference with a student sparked this post.

The military has a rule that says "Always obey your commanding officer." Teachers have a similar, yet unwritten rule that says "Always support your fellow teachers. Do not contradict them unless you absolutely have to." Teachers need to back up other teachers to establish consistency both within the school and within the classroom. To contradict or go against another teacher means that the student(s) can exploit a weakness and play teachers against one another. It invites power struggles. Power struggles are never good because all parties invariably lose face.

Being the foreign (Guest) teacher only amplifies this point because the language barrier and not knowing all ins and outs of school culture can lead to students playing the Guest teacher against the Korean teacher(s).

I thought of this rule when a student, Jane, came to my desk yesterday to ask about an exam question. It seems she thought the question had more than one possible answer. Right away, I knew I had to tread carefully because although I proofread the exam, I did not write it. I didn't know the answer to that particular question either because Ms. J the co-teacher had written the instructions in Korean and had said not to worry about it. I asked her to explain the question. She did. She asked about whether the expressions she used were right. In my mind, I knew they looked okay, but I also knew that the co-teacher had had a different answer in mind. To say I agreed with Jane would mean contradicting Ms. J'a answer.

After she finished talking, I said, "Okay, I understand, Jane, but I can't help you here."
She nodded and asked, "But, isn't this the right expression?"
"It may be. I don't know. I didn't write the exam. Ms. J did."
"Yes, but you're a teacher too, and I thought you could help..."

I thought she might say that because she didn't know the difference between my job and the Korean teacher's job. We're all English teachers to her, and while yes, we all do teach English, my status as an Guest English Teacher puts me on a different plane than the other Korean teachers. Guest English Teachers follow different procedures than Korean English teachers. For instance, I'm not officially obligated to write exams or record grades for my classes. It's possible, but I don't have to. This alone means that I have no say with other teachers' exams.

This would be hard to explain to her, but I told her, "Yes, Jane, but the rules for me are different. I cannot help you here. You'll have to talk to Ms. J."

I had no real sway in the matter. To do otherwise would be to put Ms. J in a bind because Jane could say, "Well, Ben said this, but you said that" and put her on the spot. She persisted anyway. She wasn't arguing to argue--quite the contrary, as a passionate learner*, she's dedicated to knowledge for its own sake and simply wanted further explanation. And I couldn't give that to her. Jane eventually said "Okay" and let it go. She thanked me for my time and walked out of the office.

Fellow teachers: back up your colleagues.

*Jane transferred to Gimhwa HS from a high school in Chuncheon recently. She's a teacher's student: she comes to class early, takes good notes, beams a smile everywhere she goes, and studies hard. Her English is nearly as good as the Korean English teachers themselves too. Her advanced abilities play into why she came to my office because students rarely ask me about anything in their regular English classes because they lack the English necessary to explain themselves. They go to their Korean teachers instead.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

High school poetry action

For Kevin at The Other Things Matter, whose post “9 Tanka” inspired me to try using some poetry in my 1st grade high school class a couple of weeks ago. His post was also where I learned about Tanka.

Tanka is short Japanese poetry. There’s likely a more technical explanation, but for our purposes here, tanka means short poems about everyday life. In his post, Kevin writes about a few poems he’d used in classes over the years. He used them because they contained things students could relate to, like loneliness, and they did it in a way that was direct and easy to understand.

The poem I used was this one:

because I thought
it was the girlish thing to do
I pretended
until my 2nd year of high school
to love strawberries

Please note that the poem was translated from Japanese by Kevin.

I chose the poem for these reasons:

l  In other words, I thought the students might appreciate being able to read and understand a poem in a foreign language. I know how good it feels to understand a bit of Korean and figured that the students would feel the same way.
l  It’s about time and how people change. It might spark some thoughts about how people change over time.
l  It’s about being a girl—or doing the girlish thing, which the students might enjoy discussing, so we can lead into gender roles and ideas about being a boy or girl.

Kevin had included some thought-provoking discussion questions that he used in his classes. I used them as well:
  1. What do you notice about the poem?
  2. Have you ever pretended to like something?
  3. Do you think there is a way to act like a boy or a girl? which I added:
  1. What are girlish things? Boyish things
  2. Why does the poem end with the word strawberry
  3. Could you change the poem to be about you?

We spent more time thinking of differences and similarities between boys and girls than we did writing, but we did end up with some detailed Venn diagrams in all four classes. My coteacher also stepped in and translated the poem for every class. This was good of her to do, since maybe not everyone understood exactly what the poem was saying. I hadn’t accounted for translating the poem.

As for the questions themselves, I listed them on the board and distributed copies of them to small groups.

The groups eagerly listed anything they could think of. After they had time to discuss the questions amongst themselves, I called the class to order and made a master graph on the board. I wrote everything down, from differences in appearance (long vs. short hair) to attitude. The group and class review took longer than I expected, so there was little time for writing. This wasn't a big problem, for the list generated plenty of vocabulary and discussion amongst the groups.

Something else that came up: Few if any of the students said they’d pretended to like anything in the past. They were surprised to hear that I've pretended to like or dislike a few things. One of those things is in this attempt at rewriting the above poem:

because I thought
it was a cool thing to do
I pretended
until age 26
to hate going to bed early

The students seemed to understand it. The bell rang right around this time in all four classes. And all four classes did go well. We may not have gotten to do the poetry recitals that I’d envisioned, but we got somewhere. Ideas came up. Words were spoken. They got on the board. The big thing in my mind was the students had read and understood a poem in English. They’d read and commented on a piece of literature. I count that as a success.


l  For the rewritings, I made this model:
n  because I __________________
it was a ____________________
I pretended __________________
to __________________________

l  And couple of students did attempt to write their version of the “because I thought” poem. One girl wrote this:

because I thought
it was a good sister thing to do
I pretended until the movie Frozen ended
to love the prince

l  Though I did highlight the poem’s short lines and show that it’s one sentence that’s divided into lines, I didn’t highlight the the girlish thing part. The difference between a girlish thing and the girlish thing amounts to something in general versus something important. Maybe it doesn’t matter as much as I thought, for such a distinction might have been too much for the students to bear at first. 

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Re: Plugging in / A cartoon about smart phones

Some of my former 1st grade high school students drew this picture for their newspaper posters during the 2014 summer camp.

It's accurate. When the middle and high schoolers get together outside of school, their gatherings look something like this. Is the same thing happening in the USA? Probably. Yet this isn't a case of "Wow, Korea's crazy," but rather, "Hmm, maybe we're spending too much time in front of screens." 

I've a close friend in Cheorwon. We meet every week or so for dinner and cafe action. Both of us carry phones with us, yet we both put them on silent and don't look at them during our conversations. The temptation abounds, though. We often discuss music or films and become curious about various release dates or creative personnel. We sometimes do get anxious for instant clarification, but we've agreed to let those things go and focus on talking to each other instead. 

Again, this isn't about being "better." Phones and technology have their places. I just think that the phones can be put away when friends are in the room. 

Related: Phones and dinner manners
Various scenes involving young people and smart phones between Aug. 2011 and June 2013

Monday, September 22, 2014

A quick hit courtesy of DPS / Kick that ball and say something

It's Monday afternoon. Time for a jolt of energy...

I finally got around to watching the classic film Dead Poets Society last night. This scene resonated with me:

Mr. Keating has each guy read a quote from a poem and kick a ball as hard as he can. It combined physical activity with poetry in a way that got me thinking of how (if?) I could do a similar thing in my classes here. At my previous school, my boys middle school teachers suggested going outside and using the soccer field for a lesson or two on sports, but nothing like that has come up at the new school. Not yet, anyway.

Still, while I'd have to change the language used, having the students come outside, yell something life-affirming, and kick a ball sounds like fun. Maybe they could yell something like "I am Min-su and I love my phone!" or "I am So-young and I can run!" I bet the kids would like a chance to get out of the classroom.

More on the film later.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Some assorted links and thoughts


"You don't need to use the book." 

Virtually every coteacher I've had has said some version of this sentence. In my experience, hearing "you don't need to use the book" usually gets followed with "You can play games." I heard it again today after a first grade middle school class. Perhaps my coteacher said so because I referenced a page in the textbook and had the students review it. I'd said, "Look at page 100. What are they talking about? What expressions do they use? We're going to use those expressions today." That part of the lesson was included for review.

Actually, I rarely follow the textbooks the students use, but I do reference them from time to time so to keep abreast of what they're studying. I've found that incorporating grammar points or vocabulary from the text into my "free" lessons has increased class participation and attention. 

And yet, why disregard the textbook? I understand that the Korean English teachers use the textbooks in their classes and wouldn't want the EPIK teachers to repeat the same material in their classes, yet the texts do have good content in them and they can provide useful supplementary material for classes. 

Finally, regardless of if I use the textbook's contents or not, in most classes the textbook is also the notebook. Most students don't carry notebooks around with them. They write in their textbooks. I should note that Korean students buy their textbooks and are free to write in them. Or rip them up. It happens.

Classroom etiquette 

I'm continually amazed at how many liberties some students will take with classroom etiquette: Turning around to talk to the people in the preceding row and nonchalantly walking in minutes late without materials are two sticking points with me. There's one more, and though I've said this before, it bears repeating: Materials in general, or lack thereof. How I'll see backpacks and pencil cases galore, but no notebooks or textbooks. I know this problem isn't limited to Korea or America, but I'm still amazed at how pervasive it is here.

Having a working bike again

The rear tire got punctured a few months ago and I got lazy about getting the bike fixed. I finally took care of it last weekend when I rode into Wasu, got the bike out of the old apartment, and took it back to Sincheorwon on the bus. The bike's fixed at last. It certainly makes getting around a little easier. And now I can resume the after-school rides around town. They were always good for unwinding. Woohoo.

"Is your beard real?"

It had to happen some time. I knew growing a beard while living here would prompt a few questions or provoke a few stares. For one, Koreans don't usually have facial hair, or, if they do, most Korean men are clean shaven. What's more, beards reside in the realm of older men, not those in their late 20s like me. This isn't so much the case in the USA, but the facial hair culture's different here.

And it shows, for two things have happened in the first two weeks: One was a boy who asked if he could touch my beard and another was a boy who actually went ahead and did it. The second boy took me by surprise. He quickly apologized for it. I said, "Okay, I know you're curious, but ask first." 

"Is your beard real?" was an actual question from a class.


A Czech EFL teacher reflects on a few questions about what communicative teaching really means. She posits her thoughts on some principles of Communicative Language Teaching. I'm linking it here because it's a good reflective piece about teaching and how a teacher's approach can shape a class.

She writes of how best to work with upper and lower level students here. I found this one especially relevant to EPIK teachers, for our classes have a wide range of students as well.

A teacher in France writes about the tricky relationships between teachers and parents. She herself is a parent and has seen both sides of parent- teacher conferences. It also contains some bits about how conferences work in France.