A Whirlwind of Activity

I’ve missed a few days of posting lately.

Things have been getting a little crazy here for me, and I’ve been burning the midnight candle oil at both ends (yes, I mixed my metaphors, because that’s just how extreme it is!).

Last week I had to navigate my way to two different schools in Daegu for lesson observations of other NETs (native English teachers). This took away from both class time and lesson planning time. (On Wednesday I literally grabbed a taxi back to my school, ran up the stairs and pretty much straight into the classroom just in time to start class. Whew!)

Additionally, I started a teachers’ class yesterday at my smaller school. It’s supposed to be a conversation class so some of the teachers can practice their English in a less formal setting. However, only two teachers showed up to the first session – a low level Korean language teacher and my basically-fluent co-teacher. We ended up sitting around a table and talking, but it was more like the co-teacher acting as a translator between the other teacher and me. Not ideal.

Not only that, but although I only teach 22 hours’ worth of classes per week, I have to create 7 new lessons every week because of juggling two different schools, two after school classes, and a teachers’ class. Combine that with worrying about my mixed level classes and low level classes and how to modify for them, and I’ve been more than a little stressed lately.

I’m hoping that once I become a little more experienced with lesson planning and teaching, I’ll be able to cut down on the time it takes me to plan.

So, this is just a boring update post to explain why I’ve been posting a little less frequently. I do have some topics I want to talk about, though, so those posts should be up soon.


Weekly Update

Is it Friday already? Wow.

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What’s been going on in the halls between classes lately (besides the usual screaming and shouting and stampeding and general chaos)? Well, exuberant singing of the Korean national anthem and the Korean version of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” as well as impassioned chanting. We have class elections this week. They’re all super pumped.

This also meant that a ton of the kids lined up along the school driveway/entrance with signs to encourage their fellow classmates to vote for their candidate… which also meant that when I arrived at school the last couple days, I was greeted by a row of happily cheering students. I just can’t tell you how much I love these kids. I enjoy them so much more than I ever thought I would when I learned I’d be teaching middle school.

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The 3rd years at my main school are doing idioms this week, plus the phrases “What does ______ mean?” and “How can I say _______ in English?” Which has been an interesting challenge for me, because the textbook includes the English and Korean translations of various idioms like “Long time no see,” “Help yourself,” and “I’m full” – so when I’m teaching, I have to say the Korean phrases in front of the class as part of the lesson.

My pronunciation has at times elicited giggles and mimicking from them (not malicious), but I do it anyway, because I think it’s important for them to know that they’re not the only ones expected to make an effort with the other language. I’m trying too, because I want to communicate with them and help them learn. I’m willing to make mistakes and it’s okay for them to make mistakes too. That’s not something I can really give them a pep talk about in class, but I can at least try to show them.

The bonus outcome of this is that I get to work on my Korean pronunciation a bit. The first time I taught this idioms lesson, it was kind of daunting to force the Korean phrases out in front of all the kids and my co-teacher, but by the 10th class, it’s not such a big deal anymore. A few times I even got a chorus of impressed “우와” (uwa, Korean for “wow”) instead of snickers.

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The English textbooks here, as I’ve mentioned, are not ideal. The phrases tend to be unnatural and cliche, but unfortunately, for my main school, my lesson has to stick to the book to make sure the kids are prepared for the exam. Additionally, the CD materials (dialogues, videos) are so poorly acted, so stilted, so cheesy. “HEY BRIAN WHAT’S WRONG?” “OH HEY SUJIN. I HAVE A MATH TEST TOMORROW, BUT I DON’T THINK I’M READY.” “DON’T GIVE UP! YOU CAN DO IT!”

What I’ve found, though, is that the kids and I have been able to share a good laugh over the videos. I wish I could post them here because some of them are pretty (unintentionally) hilarious. We’ve had a dog abruptly shout at a turtle “Don’t give up!” and an alien literally saying “Bee dee ba da boo dee ba doo bee” (so the other character in the video could ask “What does that mean?”), which the kids of course imitated for a good 5 minutes afterwards.

But rather than try to make them take it seriously, I just laugh with them. Nothing like a little humor to brighten up some seriously boring textbook stuff.

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I love my last class of the day on Friday an inordinate amount. It’s one of those classes where the kids will not only respond and participate, but go above and beyond that in terms of asking me extra questions, talking with me about something other than the key expression, and self-policing the other kids. Today I was trying to start an explanation of a game and one of the kids shouted “BE QUIET PLEASE!” which instantly silenced the class somehow. It was quite funny.

This class has unofficially added a rule to our list. We always review the class rules in the beginning, and I always elicit them from the students rather than just saying them myself. So I asked what the rules were a week or two ago and someone said “Be cool.” That was not one of my rules, but the kids in this particular class keep listing it as one, so I guess now it is. Why not?

We were also playing a guessing game to review and I let one team answer the final question even though another team had their hands up as well. When I went over to the losing team and said “Sorry, maybe next time,” one of the kids looked at me and said, “It’s okay. Be cool.”

Be cool.

Tales from the Classroom

This week I tasked my 2nd years (13/14 year olds) with creating their own step-by-step instructions for a simple task. They were allowed to choose anything as long as they followed the step-by-step format (first, second, third, etc.).

I got a lot of the usual stuff like “How to make ramyun,” “How to make coffee,” “How to draw a tree.” One group came up with “How to draw the Korean flag,” which was pretty cool.

But today I had a particularly creative/funny class, and here are some of the instructions they came up with:

How to breathe

1. Breathe in

2. Breathe out

Fair enough.

How to poop

1. Find a restroom

2. Sit on the toilet

3. You need power!

4. Wash your hips

I’m sure you can imagine the giggling that ensued when this group read their list. I think we need to work on body part vocabulary, though, since hips is not quite the area that needs to be washed.

And here is my favorite:

How to make the teacher angry

1. Stand up

2. Sing and dance

3. ‘Cut the cheese’

4. Run up to the teacher and shout “peekaboo!”

5. Run away

This led to a very serious discussion of “cut the cheese,” “fart,” and “break wind.” As in, my co-teacher wrote these expressions on the board and explained them in Korean. It was very entertaining for everyone involved. Especially me.

Day brighteners

As an example of using the phrase “I’m thinking of [doing something],” I told the kids “I’m thinking of going shopping this weekend.” One of the boys then said, “Teacher, 같이 가요!” (katchi kaiyo), which made me laugh because it means “let’s go together.”

Side note: how many people actually say “I’m thinking of doing X / I’m thinking of going to Y” when they’re considering a future activity? No one, that’s who. It’s frustrating sometimes that the textbooks often have such unnatural expressions as the target language, but that’s what we have to teach because that’s what’s going to be on the test. /rant

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After a particularly intense Jeopardy game with one of my classes last week, the 2nd place team (which had been tied with the 1st place team but lost the tie-breaker) called me over to their group and wailed mournfully about not getting candy: “Teacher, sad Friday.” “Teacher, I cry.” They are so goofy.

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My 3rd years at my small school are studying “What would you like to do in the future?” / “I want to be/do…” So I had them writing down some things they would like to do in 10 years. A cluster of boys in the back started laughing and snickering, so I went back there to find one of them writing something on his friend’s paper. Said friend hastily erased it as I approached and said solemnly, “Teacher, this is un-appropriate.”

Works like a charm

Just as I reach a point of feeling down, discouraged, and doubtful (whoa, I didn’t even mean for all that alliteration to happen), Monday comes around and makes everything better. Which sounds like a strange thing to say – who likes Monday? – but for me, the only way to feel confident about my lessons or what I’m teaching is by actually doing it.

Not that every lesson becomes magically perfect when I start teaching it, but I get immediate unintentional feedback from the kids as to whether something is working or not and then I can change it and feel more sure of it. No matter how much I try to play out how a class will go in my head, it’s never quite the same as experiencing it in the moment.

Plus, the kids today were just so enthusiastic about everything – about me, about English, about speaking, about every activity I wanted them to do. That always helps. (I have the “A” classes this week at my small school, which means the highest level classes. Hence their enthusiasm, I’m sure, since it’s hard to be enthusiastic about something when you can only understand every 5th or 10th word the teacher is saying.)

Since today was the start of Week 4, I also finally got to see my first class again – the one I had on my very first day of teaching. The kids paraded into the room with shouts of “Teacher, I missed you! Teacher, 3 weeks so long!” That made me happy too.

Also, there is nothing quite as joyfully chaotic as Korean students playing People Bingo. “DO YOU LIKE COFFEE? DO YOU LIKE SWIMMING? DO YOU LIKE SOCCER?” The classroom sounded like a zoo with all the animals out of their cages, but hey, it was an English-speaking zoo. So I’m okay with that.

Korean food and foreigners

To lighten the mood after my dreary previous post, here is something that makes me laugh:

This guy is an American who’s fluent in Korean and lives in Korea (although in this video, when he speaks Korean, he definitely purposely makes it sound stilted, like a “typical foreigner” clumsily trying to speak Korean). I can totally relate to this video though. It makes me giggle. (Language warning: he does swear multiple times, although it’s kind of bleeped out.)

Doubts and Insecurities

We all have them, right?

Lately, perhaps brought on by stress, I’ve been questioning everything I’ve done in the classroom since getting here and fearing that any mistakes I’ve made so far will come back to haunt me later on, when the kids are less enamored with me and English is just another boring subject.

There are so many conflicting opinions about the best strategies for teaching ESL in Korea, and reading all of them has caused a downward spiral of doubt in my mind.

Use PowerPoint games and pictures to make it fun… stop relying on PowerPoint for everything… the co-teacher is there to help you… you’re a worthless teacher if you have to rely on the co-teacher for translating… your class is an opportunity to let the kids have fun while learning in an otherwise rigorous academic environment… your class should teach them grammar… your class should skip grammar and teach them practical usage and pronunciation… these are the rules you should have in your classroom – no, these are the rules you should have… you should use a point system… you should use a stamp system… you should reward them… you should punish them… you should… you shouldn’t… should… shouldn’t…

I’ve been torturing myself with fears that I’m not doing a good enough job of teaching these kids. Comparing myself to what their previous teacher must have been like. Doubting that I’ll be able to actually make progress with them. Kicking myself for hardly knowing any of their names yet. Worrying that my lessons will be too dull (and lose the kids’ interest) or “too” fun (and not actually teach them anything)… too easy or too hard… that the day will come when they’ll simply stop listening to me.

There are so many facets to consider. Personally, I’m leaning towards the side of make it easy yet engaging, make it accessible, make it fun. These kids have really stressful lives, and many of them aren’t from the best home environment. They’re in school for 8 hours and then they may spend another 1-6 hours taking classes at hagwons (private after-school academies). Many of them don’t get enough sleep or enough fun for a 14 year old. So why not make this one class a week something they can enjoy?

The problem is balancing that with discipline so that things don’t get out of hand, and avoiding overusing the games and fun activities so they don’t get bored, and making sure to teach the content that my co-teachers want me to, and trying to make it understandable for the low level kids and still engaging for the higher level ones…

Hence the never-ending, torturous circle of doubt.

When is an encounter with foreign cops a good thing?

…When one of them is your former rescuer. I was walking home from school today and noticed a cop car parked nearby. I thought nothing of it until I saw the car rolling up alongside me out of the corner of my eye, and then heard a voice call out, “Madeleine!”

I turned and lo and behold, there was my officer friend from my eventful Night 1 in Daegu. I haven’t seen him since that night, but I recognized him at once. He was waving and grinning at me from the passenger’s side window, and then extended his hand, so I hurried up to shake it and greet him, “안녕하세요!” (annyeonghaseyo, the polite way to say hello). I was shocked that he remembered my name (but then again, how often does a foreigner get lost and end up in the police station here?).

He had clearly told his coworker, the driver, about my story – he said something to the effect of “She’s the one from that night” I think. The other officer asked about my nationality, and I told him (in Korean) that I’m American. They complimented my Korean pronunciation. Then I thanked them and said goodbye and they drove off. I wish I had the vocabulary to tell him specifically “thank you for helping me that night,” but I’m hoping my gratitude came through anyway.

So, I guess I have an ally in the local police force now. That’s pretty cool.

Bruno Mars and guilt and surprises (oh my!)

So this has been running through my head all week:

Our key expression of the week at my main school is “Don’t give up,” so I found that video to play for the kids at the beginning of class to make them guess what we’re going to talk about. I was a bit leery about showing it at first – I didn’t know if 15-year-olds would enjoy or scoff at the goofiness of dancing and singing muppets. But as it turns out, a lot of them know Bruno Mars (I’ve heard some of them singing “Count On Me” in the halls), and something about this video not only amuses them, but seems to grip them with some magical power. Every kid in every class was silently riveted to the screen for the entire 2 minutes – and that is an accomplishment in these classes, I assure you.

And it’s not just the kids – so far all of my co-teachers have also seemed hypnotized by it and will stare with a look of deep fascination. It’s really cute. As for me, after 7 classes with this song, I know all the lyrics by heart and can’t get the hook out of my head.

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I’m also having the kids play Jeopardy in class this week as a fun way to review the vocabulary in this chapter. I’ve been bringing bags of mini Snickers to each class to give to the winning team (5 or 6 kids).

The problem with this is that it is incredibly guilt-inducing, because afterwards I am invariably flagged down by the team that was a close second or third and asked, “Teacher… please give me chocolate.” “Teacher, I like candy.” And I really really really want to, but A) I just can’t be buying candy for 700 kids (at least not without a special occasion, like after a test or end of the semester or something), and B) it’s not a good principle to say you’ll give candy to the winning team only and then hand out candy on the sly to a few other kids.

Still, the looks on their faces kill me. It’s like the kids have never had chocolate. And, this being a really low income area, I’m sure it is a rarity for some of them.

Side note: Some people may wonder about why I’m handing out peanut-containing Snickers in class. This would be an unwise choice in the States (actually, most schools probably simply wouldn’t allow it), but here, peanut allergies are practically nonexistent. Food allergies as a whole are much lower in Asia than Western parts of the world. That link goes to a study of food allergies worldwide. The TL;DR version: Asian countries have far, far lower rates of all types of food allergies. Probably due to a mix of genetics and diet. So yes, they do exist here, but it’s much less of a big deal and very unlikely that any of the kids will have an allergy. Also, since they’re older, they’re responsible enough to recognize if it’s something they can’t eat.

Side note #2: These kids are so freaking competitive. Whichever team raises their hands first gets to answer the Jeopardy question, and when I hit the button to make the slide pop up, those hands shoot up so fast I can’t even tell who was first, often accompanied by yells and screams and cries of “Teacher! Teacher, me! Me first!” and occasionally the attempt at bribery: “Teacher, beautiful!” (with arms making a heart shape over their heads). It’s hilarious.

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Surprise! Next week Tuesday and Wednesday, I will be leaving my school mid-morning to find my way to two other middle schools in Daegu – by myself – and participate in a lesson observation. All the EPIK teachers are required to do an “open class” – a class where other teachers, parents, and the principal can sit in and observe/evaluate the lesson. It strikes fear in my heart just thinking about it. In addition, all EPIK teachers are required to attend two (actually it’s four) other EPIK teachers’ open classes to evaluate and discuss the lesson with them.

And that is happening next week for me. I have no clue how to get to these schools, but I guess I’ll have to figure it out pretty quick.

Not only is the transportation and navigation part stressful, but leaving in the middle of the day means I’ll be missing multiple classes at both schools. Either my schedule will be rearranged or I’ll just miss seeing the classes, I guess. Which really disappoints me because I’m really starting to bond with the kids and look forward to seeing them each week.

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Which leads me to my final point. No matter what surprises are thrown at me, what stressful situations arise, no matter how overwhelmed I feel by everything I have to do, and no matter how dark and dismal it feels to spend hours and hours on the weekend cooped up in my apartment working on lesson plans…

All of that disappears as soon as I’m in the classroom with the kids. Every class gets better than the one before as they start to open up to me and we can talk a little bit more and figure out the best way to communicate with each other.

The laughter, the tiny smiles from the quiet ones, or just getting the super shy ones to make eye contact with me… hearing them cry “Teacher! Saem! English Teacher!” when they want to ask me something… the funny comments they make in English (or sometimes in Korean, when I can understand them)… the moment when something clicks and we both understand each other… all these things make everything else so, so worth it.

I walked into one class today and one of the kids said, “Teacher, you look happy.”

Yes. I am very happy.

A Day in the Life

So what is my typical day here in Korea like, you ask? Happy to oblige. Here’s a rundown of my schedule.

6:00 a.m. – Alarm goes off. Hit the snooze button multiple times.

6:20 a.m. – Shower in my freezing bathroom. Get ready for the day. Eat breakfast. Check my social media and talk to people on the other side of the world. Turn on some TV Kdramas in the background for company.

7:45 a.m. – Leave for school on foot. The walk to my main school takes about 25-30 minutes; on Mon/Weds I can leave later because the smaller school is only 10 minutes away.

8:20 a.m. – School begins. I don’t have to do anything, but all the Korean homeroom teachers go to greet their classes or something like that. I’m still not exactly sure.

8:50 a.m.-12:20 p.m. – Classes. Each class is 45 minutes with a 10 minute break in between. I don’t always teach every class during this period of time. If I’m not teaching class, I’m at my desk working on lesson plans… and/or updating my blog. Like right now.

12:20-1:00 p.m. – Lunch break. Teachers eat in a separate room from the students. Lunch always includes rice and kimchi and some kind of soup, and usually a couple vegetable side dishes and a meat or fish. If it’s a special day, sometimes there are strawberries. Almost everything is spicy, and Koreans don’t drink anything during their meals (usually they have a cup of hot water after the meal is over), so thank goodness for rice to dull the burn.

1:10-3:45 p.m. – Classes. Again, I don’t always teach every class.

4:30 p.m. – I’m off the clock most days. Many teachers stay later than 4:30 to finish up their work. Sometimes I stay a little longer too. On Tuesdays I have my after school class, which goes until 5 p.m. Then I walk home.

5:00ish-11:00 p.m. – My free time. So far I haven’t been doing anything too exciting in the evenings; this time usually consists of me going to the store, eating dinner, and lesson planning. And of course, talking to anyone from home who’s awake and wants to talk. And then going to bed to start all over again the next day!