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