Em in Asia!

My Experiences Living and Teaching in South Korea

First Grade Shenanigans

December17

My first grade boys are making me laugh which is good, because my second graders are almost making me cry. We’ve had so many schedule changes recently which doesn’t bother me normally, but since these schedule changes could affect the date of my last class I’ve tried to stay on top of them. I found out on Friday during first period that next Friday most of the classes were cancelled, which meant that this week was going to be my last class with 2.5 and 2.10. I was really really sad.

It was a good class. I managed to wrap up a lot of loose ends within the class and talk to a fair number of the students one-on-one. Sam was there for that class as well as others, and she managed to meet most of the students I regularly blog about. She also got a fistbump from fistbump kid, and had A NICE LOUD CONVERSATION with THIS KID (who we’ve decided we’re now calling Caps Locks Kid because it just fits).

After class I chatted with one student about Model UN for most of the break period, then went outside to find a student I had seen walking normally just minutes earlier hobbling around with one crutch shoved under his armpit, his walking eerily reminiscent of my friend pretending to be an urchin in Oliver Twist at my sixth grade summer drama camp.

“OH NO WHAT HAPP– wait. You didn’t have a crutch five minutes ago.”
“Haha yes I got you teacher.”
“Which poor student did you steal that from? Can the student walk?”
“Yes” he said, shrugging nonchalantly “he’s fine. This is my secret tool.”
“How is it your secret tool?”
“Teachers see me and they say ‘Oh DG, are you okay? You should rest’ and I say ‘okay’ but really I am okay.” Then the bell rang and he hobbled off, yelling over his shoulder “Goooooodbye teacher!”

It’s hard losing my second graders. I’ve got a teacher facebook set up and I’ve given them all my email, but I’ll still miss them, probably more than they’ll miss me. One student last week started up in her seat and exclaimed that they wouldn’t ever have another foreign teacher. While this is not necessarily true, especially if they take English classes in University or go to a private academy, I am the last foreign teacher they’ll ever have in public school, and for some of them the last foreign teacher ever. I’m the end of a long line of foreign teachers they’ve had that have, hopefully, tried to instill in them a love of English, learning, and cross-cultural exchange. They’re growing up and moving on to bigger and better things, though they have to get through this next year first. At least I get to keep some of my students, though next semester I’ll be wary of students on crutches.

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Scores Don’t Matter, Except When They Do (Which is Often)

November13

Fistbump Kid came up behind me, when I was looking at weird thanksgiving hand turkeys on Huffington Post (… yeah. It’s for a lesson plan, okay?) and he seemed much more subdued than normal. Normally Fistbump Kid is laughing and joking with everyone, teachers and other students, and you can hardly get the kid to settle down. Today, I didn’t even notice he was behind me.

“Hey teacher” he muttered.
“Hey FBK, what’s up?” I took a closer look. “Are you okay?”
“I’m nervous…”
“Ah, you have your test tomorrow, right?”
“Yes,” he said, barely meeting my eyes “and it’s an important test but my English score has been going down.”
“Really? I’m surprised by that. Your English is so good. I think that your English skill has really improved over this year.”
“Yes, but when I do tests I get so nervous and I can’t concentrate.”
“Well… score is important but score is not the same as your English level. Even if you do not have a good score, I know your English level is good. Another person may have a higher score, but out of all the students I think you and I have some of the best conversations.” I countered.
The bell rang, and he then smiled, thanked me, and quietly walked away.

I ran into my third grade students at Sloth’s Coffee last night, they were partying like rockstars (i.e. drinking cappuchinos) and wearing their pajamas, and playing on their smartphones. My second graders have countdowns on the chalkboard in their homerooms (358 days until the Suneung), there are more restrictions placed on them now, and they’re becoming more serious everyday.

As someone who doesn’t test well, particularly with Korean, I feel his pain. Every time I’ve taken a Korean language test I’ve scored lower than I should’ve. Part of it is that I psyche myself out, seeing all of that hangeul suddenly pop up on my page (이것을 조금 무서 보이죠? 아이구 외국어 너무 어렵네요) and part of it is that I’m more of a free-answer person anyway. As much as I want to tell FBK and the other students I work with that scores don’t  matter, unfortunately in the system that they’re currently stuck in, they do.

얘들아 – 좋은 점수를 받지 않으면, 괜찮아요. 아직 똑똑한 친절한 학생이예요. 내일 연습 시험을 열심히 해보고, 그때 걱정하지마세요. 점수는 중요해는데, 다른 기회가 또 있을 거예요. 좋은 점수를 받아는 것이 그리고 좋은 사람이 달라요.

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On Rice Cakes, Traditional Rice Taffy, and Hot 6

November8

Today was the 수능 (Suneung – the college entrance exam), and life here in CP went on like normal. You’d think on a day that determined the future of so many young people you’d be able to feel it in the air, the very atmosphere would be crackling with electricity and you could smell the standardized tests from miles away, but if you didn’t know you’d assume it was a day just like any other. If you live in a city you can tell. Planes aren’t allowed to take off or land, all high schools and some middle schools are closed, the police escort late risers to testing sites, and parents often spend the entire day in prayer. However in sleepy sleepy CP, less than a mile from my high school where all of the third grade boys in the county were taking the exam, the cars trundled along as per usual and the old people sat and chatted on the street corner for hours.

The first group of students that I really connected with, the students that were first graders back when I was a first year teacher, took the Suneung today. One of them was my host sister, who I have only seen twice since leaving Yesan at the end of my first year. We’ve tried to keep in touch through kakaotalk and skype, but with both of our schedules it’s been difficult. When I first moved in she was one semester into high school, and in February she’ll graduate and, depending on the results of this test, go on to the university of her dreams, or to a university she had to settle for. I want her to do well. I Miss You SO Much(e) Boy also took the Suneung. I also hope he did well. Same with all of the students who stood on their desks and shouted OH CAPTAIN MY CAPTAIN, all of the students in class 2.2 of SGHS I did the pen pal exchange with, the girls in my club class my first fall at CPHS, my thousand kilowatt senior, and so many more. I want them all to do well.

Unfortunately, they can’t. The nature of this test, and the way that it’s scored, is that in order for someone to do well, someone has to fail. You receive a percentile ranking, which is one of the things that makes this test so competitive. If it’s not my students that do poorly, it’ll be someone else’s students.

The students all know this, and though they are friendly and support each other, though they’ve spent the last three years eating, and sleeping, and studying, and playing with their classmates, when they walk into the classroom on Suneung day they know they are walking shoulder-to-shoulder with their competitors. On this day, a senior has no friends. The first and second grade students recognize and understand this burden and cheer on their seniors, knowing that in one or two years the same will be done for them. This goes beyond the actual testing day – you can see it all year. On an average day at CPHS, you’ll see the second grade class captains standing in the stairwell of the main building during lunchtime, two boys and two girls. They rotate this duty so that different students do it on different days, but it’s always four students standing there, ready to shush the loud first graders as they run up to their classrooms after lunch, because the third graders need lunchtime to study without any distractions. The first and second graders, though they dislike each other, take note of and respect the third graders’ drive to succeed, and do their best to help them along.

Korea has a lot of superstitions about tests, more so than Americans do, at least to my knowledge. As there’s a lot more emphasis on testing, this isn’t all that surprising. On a test day, you’re not supposed to wash your hair, because then you’ll wash all the answers out of your brain. Another superstition, is that you cannot eat 미역국 (miyeokguk – seaweed soup) before an exam. The seaweed soup is so slippery that it will cause you to do badly. This belief is so prevalent that an idiomatic expression for failing a test is 미역국을 먹다 – I ate seaweed soup. A surprisingly logical reaction to this superstition is the idea that if you eat sticky food, you will do well on the test. Therefore, it’s thought that eating 떡 (deok – rice cake) or 엿 (yeot – a traditional and very sticky rice taffy, normally eaten by the older generation) is optimal test food.

On Tuesday I ran into multiple students leaving school. I walked with a first grade girl for part of the way to the market, where she was buying rice taffy. I asked if it was for her, and she giggled and said that it was for the seniors taking the test. She mimed chewing rigorously, and then explained that it would help all of the things that they had studied stick in their brains on Thursday. I told her that if flavor didn’t matter she should get the pumpkin because it was the best, and she giggled and raced off. The second student I ran into, a second grade boy, was also buying presents for the seniors. Instead of rice cake or taffy he was buying Hot Six, a ridiculously powerful energy drink. I was struck by the differences between the two gifts – one, a traditional and difficult-to-eat snack that followed superstition, and one, a very modern invention guaranteed to take years off your life. However, more than that I was struck by the effort the students went to in order to support their seniors.

The Suneung is over, for most of the third graders. Some of the students that scored very poorly will elect to take off a year and study again. They’ll take classes in the city at an academy designed to prep students to retake the Suneung, and rent rooms roughly the size of closets near these academies to reduce distractions. For the ones that receive good test scores, or scores that are good enough, they’ll embark on the time-consuming task of applying to university, but also they’ll find themselves surprisingly free. If they hang out of the windows of their homerooms it’ll be to breathe in the fresh air, and gaze at their surroundings, instead of to keep themselves awake while studying. If they stay awake late at night, it’ll be to talk to friends instead of cramming for the practice test. If they go into the nearby city, it’ll be to go to academies that fulfill their own interests, or to get their driver’s license, instead of to study math or any other core subject. They’ll get perms and dye their hair, join gyms to throw off the weight they’ve gained studying, buy new clothes for university, and some of them will get plastic surgery. As they slowly come to life again, the second graders – my CPHS babies, my life for the past year and a half – will slowly start to fade into the 360-odd day “final” push to the Suneung, something that seemed so far away when they first entered high school.

This is my final Suneung as a teacher in Korea, I’ll leave six months after my host sister graduates. That’s good, because I don’t think I can take another one. It makes me sad that I won’t see Hongdae, Solomon, Fistbump Kid, EC, or any of my other CPHS students (or the SGHS students I was only able to teach for a semester) graduate, and I’m sad I won’t be there to support them through this process, but I’m also happy I don’t have to see them go through the pressures of Suneung day. I’m also happy to know that their juniors, the students who come after them, will support them.

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Mustard Tights and Politics

October30

Well it’s Halloween week and while most of the other foreign teachers I’ve talked to are trying to do something Halloweeny, I’m getting in the November electorial spirit and doing politics. Politicans are scary, right? Last week we discussed issues and practiced writing with the “I think/believe _____ because _______” grammar form, and this week I broke students up into groups of five and had them create their own political parties. I had them assign each group member a role (presidential candidate, vice presidential candidate, campaign manager, publicity manager, and speechwriter), decide on a name and symbol for their party, (current favorite name: “Ultra Peace: UP”) and choose five issues and write their stances on them. This went over surprisingly well.

I had mentioned that we were going to debate in the previous lesson, so students asked if we were going to debate these topics. I said yes, we were going to have a presidential campaign and next week we would learn debate expressions and create campaign posters, and the following week we would debate. They just about lost it.

This lesson probably won’t go over nearly as well with class 2.4 later in the day, but I’m happy right now.

In other news, today I wore my mustard yellow tights again and yet again chaos ensued. Fistbump kid comes running up to me.

“YELLOW!”
“Yes. Yes my tights are yellow.”
His friend chimes in “You look like 소녀시대!” I chuckle because I have no idea how my tights make me look anything like 소녀시대.
“DO YOU KNOW SEONYASIDAE? SNSD?” Fistbump kid shouts, trying to make his pronunciation of “소녀시대” as American as he can.
“Girls Generation? Yeah, I know them.”
Fistbump kid starts singing at the top of his lungs, pointing at me, as all of the kids in the hall stare.
“I am the best singer at CPHS.”
“[STUDENT’S NAME] – we have a saying in English. Don’t quit your day job.”

Konglish

September10

Ran into fistbump kid and 형우 walking around campus, and had a short but interesting conversation.

FBK: “Teacher! Nice one piece.”
E: “Thanks! You know ‘one piece’ is Konglish. In English we say ‘dress.’”
FBK: “Ah, but this is Korea. So we say ‘one piece.’”
형우: “Yes. This is our culture.”
E: “Well since this is English cl—Well actually, this isn’t English class. This is outside of class. So, sure, because this is Korea right now I’ll say ‘one piece,’ but in class I’ll say ‘dress.’”
FBK: “Very good. Anyway, I like your dress.”
E: *rolls eyes and fist bumps*

Speaking of Fistbump Kid, he now has a fauxhawk. It’s hilarious. Also two other students saw us fistbumping (one of which being BAD) and they now want to fistbump too. Which, of course, makes fistbump kid jealous. What a strange and charmed life I lead.

June22

Fistbump kid is becoming more of a gentleman everyday. Today before class he waited for me in the hallway and then opened the door for me. As I walked in, he bowed. I don’t mean a Korean style bow, but a western artistocratic-style bow. There was also no fistbump. Kind of strange…

 

I’m tired of the students in my club class refusing to talk to each other, so borrowed ideas from Sam and Dan and did a 2 hour long team building and game playing unit, which included a noun-adjective matching game, a scavenger hunt, and a word mix and match. One of the things for a scavenger hunt was that students had to make an acrostic poem of my name. This is what I got.

Pretty
Ordinary
Teacher
Orange candy
Smart
Kind
Young

Of course this is after I clarified that the words in the acrostic, while they did not have to relate to each other and form a sentence, had to relate to the subject at hand. The original draft started

Potato
Orange candy
Television

I Will Remember You.

May26

Sports Day is always awesome. Because I’m the foreign teacher and they never make the foreign teacher judge any event (except when I got roped into helping with a dodge ball game because the other judges went to lunch. That was fun) I spent the day roaming and talking to teachers and students. I’ll be honest, I barely watch any of the sports on Sports Day, I just relish the extra time talking with my students.

A lot happened on Sports Day so I’ll be blogging about it in installations, but first I want to blog about a student:

The most memorable, and most enjoyable, part of Sports Day was the long and in depth conversation I had with these four boys. They’re all from 2.5 (no surprise there) but they’re the more quiet ones. The one all the way on the left’s name is Solomon. Really. His parents named him after King Solomon. He’s interested in speaking English, and comes up and talks me at the end of class a lot, but oftentimes gets drowned out or shouted over by some of the louder personalities in that class. The one all the way on the right is Hongdae. The one to the left of Hongdae is Hongdae’s friend, and while they don’t seem as close this year as they were last year, I tend to think of them as a pair. The last student (in between Hongdae’s friend and Solomon) is the one I want to talk about.

Class 2.5 had not won a single event, and they were very disheartened, but they had one more chance – basketball. They made it to the semi-finals, and were just waiting for the third-grade boys’ semi-final match to end so that their team’s match could start. I told them that I’d cheer for them (spoiler – they lost anyway. 2.10 swept the floor with all the other 2nd grade boys’ homeroom classes in almost all of the events, it was kind-of sad), so we sat down and chatted while we waited.

Hongdae asked me to teach him some swear words in English, because I “look like the type of person who uses swear words. Just kidding. Fist bump?” and then the other student started telling me about his previous foreign teachers.

When he was a first grader in middle school (7th grade) he had a male American foreign teacher. One day the foreign teacher got mad at him (he wasn’t sure why), called him over, and started beating him with one of his indoor teaching shoes and swearing at him in English. The foreign teacher was fired, and a new female foreign teacher was hired. My student had a good relationship with the second foreign teacher, and always visited and talked to her. Recently on Teacher’s Day this student went back to visit all his middle school. His foreign teacher didn’t remember him.

This student had related his story about the male teacher almost without emotion, but looked so disheartened after he told me about not being remembered. He quickly bounced back and changed the subject to what I normally ate for Thanksgiving (he really wants to try a turkey one day. I told him he could buy one at Costco. I then had to explain Costco, which was a lot more difficult than I originally anticipated), and then it was time for the basketball game, and we went and cheered for 2.5.

This student is so sweet, and so sincere, and in my mind is every teacher’s dream student. He pays attention in class, tries hard and participates while being respectful of the other students, and many times comes and talks to me at the end of class to ask for clarification, or with a cultural question. He was in my advanced class last year, and participated in the Korean Students Speak project. He’s been disappointed multiple times with his foreign teachers, but he still tries to connect with them. The thing is, I didn’t know his name.

So I went home, I looked through my students’ mugshots, and I found him. It took me a bit to place him, because his picture is really blurry, but I found him. 형우, I will remember you.

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안녕하세요! My name is Emily and when I started this blog I had received a 2010 – 2011 F*lbright grant to teach English in South Korea.  I then decided to apply to renew my grant, so I am now staying in Korea until July 2012. This blog is not an official F*lbright Program blog, and the views expressed are my own and not those of the F*lbright Program, the U.S. Department of State or any of its partner organizations.

I graduated from the University of Mary Washington with a degree in Philosophy Pre-Law and Classical Civilizations, and found myself 3 months later teaching English at SGHS. The town that I taught in, SG, is a small town of 12,000 people, an “읍” (eup) rather than a “시” (shi – city), and though it was sometimes hard teaching in such a small town I really enjoyed the unique experience of being the first foreign teacher SGHS had ever had. I lived in the largest part of the county which is significantly bigger (40,000 people) than the town the school is situated in, but is also considered rural by Korean standards.

During my second grant period (2011-2012) I decided to change schools and I currently teach at CPHS which is located in an even smaller town than previously, in Jeollanamdo.

This blog is meant to serve as a reflection not only of being a Native English Speaking teacher in Korea, but also of living as a foreigner in rural Korea.



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