Monday, June 29, 2009

Creativity in Teaching

Through most of my days, I am bound, at least partially, by the sloppy, confusing, and inadequate lessons of the Korean public school system's English language textbooks. The lessons are all titled things like "Can I have some water?" and "She is tall!" They offer little to no vocabulary, and hardly ever require the students to write or read, instead relying on choppy, poorly acted flash computer animations to have students repeat shallow and useless dialogue. By the end of the semester, the students will be lucky to remember more than half of these phrases, and even luckier if they can attach meaning to them.

The good news is, I work with a group of people who also notice the flaws in these books, and therefore have quite a bit of freedom OUTSIDE of the classroom. You see, Korean schoolchildren, for better or for worse, go to school for between 8 and 14 hours a day. This isn't an exaggeration. Last Friday, Sara and I saw an entire classroom of children leaving a private English academy in Okdong at 11:30 at night, and boarding a bus to go home. Some of the kids were as young as 8 or 9.

As for my part in this after school overload of education, I am required to teach 5 English camps, or after school English classes, per week. Two on Monday and Thursday each, and one on Friday. I also voluntarily teach one at Youngnam Elementary on the 2nd and 4th Saturday of the month. During these times are when I get to wander away from textbooks and test material and get the kids interested in learning a foreign language. And in these times, I am free to teach whatever I want, however I want. The following are examples of some of the activities I use.

When I got here, the kids could look at a word they knew and never be able to figure out what it was. They know how to say it, and what it means, but give it to them in writing and it's a lost cause. To fix this problem, I now start many classes with Hangman to get them to spell things and work on their phonics. The kids can now sound out words, and sometimes even pronounce them correctly on the first try. They also love shouting out letters. (Who doesn't?)

Cafe Dongbu
During my first week here, given the opportunity to use the plastic food in my room, I created a game where students would have to order food in groups. Each group had a waiter or waitress, and I was the chef. I printed off menus of all the items available, and gave them to a "hostess" to seat the students. When the waiter or waitress for each group came to me with a food order, I would either tell them we're all out or give them their order. If we were all out, the server would have to come back and ask for something else. The winning team was the first group with one entree per person. This activity caused the students to interact with each other and me in English, but also to read off of menus and write down orders. They had to play the entire game in English. It was a bit hectic, and some food did break, but it was fun and they learned. And that's the key.

These kids LOVE it. Several very good Jeopardy templates are available online for PowerPoint. I download them and use them for review every 2 or 3 weeks to make sure the kids remember what they've learned. The categories usually include "Vocab" where they are given a picture of something and have to tell me what it is in English; "Say it" where they are given a Korean phrase and have to translate; and "Teacher Trivia" --a host of facts about me that they should remember such as my hometown and favorite baseball team. They play in two teams, and it is a blast.

My room is filled with small, round, brightly colored stools that the students sit on. One day, I decided to turn them into two large twister boards and have the students play boys v. girls. The boys liked it, the girls didn't. But it did make all of them improve their listening comprehension for body parts and colors.

Board Races
These games are versatile, fun, and appealing for everyone. I have two dry erase board in my classroom. I divide the kids into 2 groups and have them, one at a time, go to the board. I stand at the back of the room and say a vocab word (or phrase) from the day. The student who gets the word right first is the victor, and we go on until there is a clear winner. I've also used this with time, during which I drew two clocks on the board and had them write in the time as I said it. The students have a blast, and probably don't even realize how much better there listening comprehension and spelling have gotten since I've started doing it.

More games and activities another day, hopefully with some pictures/videos! Later tonight I will post a short blog/video about my latest creative acquisition! (Which some of you may already know about...)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Sara already beautifully described Bongjeongsa temple, so I won't bore you with another recounting of the same thing. Instead, I made a short video of our trip there for you to enjoy. Make sure your speakers are on so you can here the sweet Incubus song!

Saturday, June 20, 2009


Youngnam Elementary School is a very different environment than my 4 day a week school. It is 6 times larger and much, much busier. I go there on Tuesday, my busiest day, and teach 6 straight classes, at the end of which I am exhausted and ready to quit teaching all together. It's not that I have a terrible time there, it's just that teaching elementary school kids for 6 straight hours can really drag on you.

The size of my secondary school is undoubtedly its biggest downfall. Because there are so many students, I am constantly mobbed, surrounded, attacked, shouted at, and sometimes even harassed by students who are downright dumbfounded to see a foreigner in their territory.

Also because it's so large, the teachers are very busy. Yet for reasons that I cannot figure out, I am asked not to prepare a lesson. Each week I am supposed to assist the Korean teacher by helping with their lesson plans. Initially, the arrangement was set up so that the Korean teacher would start class for 5 minutes, I would be given 25 minutes to teach the lesson and play a game, then the Korean teacher would review and end the lesson with the last 10 minutes. Unfortunately, it doesn't work out that way. Instead, the teachers usually come into the classroom with either a lesson plan that is mostly in Korean or no lesson plan at all. And since none of them really speak more than 10 words of English, they have a very hard time trying to explain to me what they want. Usually, they just say, "Ok, you teach now!" As if I'm some kind of teaching cyborg that can fly by the seat of my pants for 6 hours.

I have to say, I don't always enjoy my time at Youngnam. It is exhausting and the students literally never leave me alone (even if I want to get a drink or go to the bathroom). But there are some shining moments in the darkness. I teach three 3rd grade classes and three 4th grade classes, so I am able to teach essentially the same thing a few times in a row. This allows me to improve it and refine it, and makes me feel accomplished at the end of the day.

Positive number two is a little girl in my 3rd hour class. She's a 3rd grader, and every time she's in my classroom, she stares at me until I look at her, at which time she reveals a giant, adorable smile that makes my day every time. To make it better, she waits until everyone is gone at the end of class and comes up to me with one of her friends to remind me that they love me. So cute!

Positive number three is the food. I don't know what it is, but the food at Youngnam is just fantastic. It always tastes fresh, they give me the perfect amount, and it is very rarely something that I just don't like. I know this has nothing to do with teaching, but it is one of the better aspects of my second school.

And that's all I have to say about them. Youngnam is a good school with a dedicated and talented staff. Unfortunately, I'm not there enough to ever get totally used to the environment, and as a result am usually tossed around a bit between the teachers, who aren't quite sure how to handle my presence either. But damn...they serve some good bulgogi.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


We're now nearly three months into my first year as a teacher, and for those who are wondering, I think I've gotten the hang of it. It's obvious to me that every single teaching job, even in the same school and grade, is so vastly different that they never match up perfectly. One teacher can never be compared to another and every situation is unique in both positive and negative ways. My next two posts will deal with this issue in my two schools. Here are the negatives and positives of working in a small school like Dongbu.
Because Dongbu is so very tiny (about 140 studnents), I am only able to use each lesson plan I make once. This means that lesson planning can be harder for me because I have to make sure it's perfect the very first time. I don't have the luxury or experimentation or guinnea pig classes, since I only see each class once or twice a week. Even if I do see them twice a week, the lesson has to be new each time. This is a challenge that I accept, since I think that teaching the same lesson over and over can be boring. But it is also very difficult since I need my lesson to go flawlessly on the first run without any sort of rehearsel. I can say that it does not always go that way.

The other major drawback is that I am the only full-time English teacher. Most other schools in Andong have several Korean English teachers and one native English teacher. This allows the other foreigners to spend more time planning and preparing with their co-teachers, since none of them have homerooms to manage. At Dongbu, all of my co-teachers are also homeroom teahers. HB teaching 5th and 6th grade with me, but he is also the 6th grade homeroom teacher. Mrs. Lee teaches 4th grade, and Mr. Kwan teaches 3rd grade. This leaves precious few moments in which to talk with them about lessons, and pretty much leaves me on my own when I have to plan one. This also means that when they prepare a lesson, I usually find out about it at the start of that class. It can be very hectic, and also very lonely, since they are teaching their classes most of the day while I am alone in my office.
Though the size of my school can be taxing because of lesson planning, it also allows me to bond more with the students. I know the faces of every student in my school, and I have started learning many names (a feat which most of my foreign counterparts will never accomplish). I have a core group of students (mostly 6th graders) who visit me in my classroom during breaks and after school. I don't think I teach them much during this time, but it's still fun to stumble through single-word conversations and see what they've learned since I've been here. They also do me favors like arranging the chairs in my classroom for the next lesson and the occassional shoulder rub, which is a real bonus. (Side note: yes, the first time a 6th grade girl started rubbing my shoulders I about peed my pants and ran to the office to tell them I didn't mean it. But I soon learned that this kind of student-teacher interaction is acceptable and common in Korea. It isn't uncommon to see a teacher grab a student and hold him/her tight to their chest for a few moments to calm them down.)

Also because it's small, Dongbu stays out of the lens of the Andong Office of Education a lot of the time. I am sometimes not subject to the politics and policy BS that other foreigners are, and I am eternally grateful for that. While some other foreigners in Andong are never allowed to leave early or just relax for awhile at school, I get a good deal of free time. They also sometimes seem to care more about my needs than my job performance, though I never let that get in the way of being a good teacher.

The school treats me very well and the staff understands that while I am in Korea, I am as much a student as I am a teacher. They are gentle, considerate, and at times forgiving when I do or say something that isn't totally appropriate. They also try their hardest to make me feel at home and help me learn about their culture and language. Yesterday, Mr. Kim (our special education teacher) sat me down on the mats in his classroom and brought out some flash card puzzles with Korean words on them. He taught me the words, then separated the words from the pictures and had me re-join them. I think I owe that kind of treatment to the fact that Dongbu has fewer staff members than the average elementary school classroom has students.

And these are my currrent thoughts about working in a small school. It can have its drawbacks, but I think the perks outweigh the downfalls. I am very happy to be at Dongbu four days a week and Youngnam only one. More on the situation at Youngnam tomorrow.

(The pictures in this post were taken during my open class, several weeks ago. That's why you can see some of the other teachers in the back of the room watching. We don't usually have an audience like that.)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Birthday 2.0

Day 1
My birthday officially started on Friday, June 5th when Sara and I, coupled with our friends Peter and Katie, hopped a bus to Seoul to meet our other friend Andrew for the weekend. On the ride up, we played "20 Questions" to two bottles of soju. (Did you ever realize you can turn any childhood game into a drinking game?) Eventually, we had covered all the simple topics (people, places, things), and when I became stumped with one of Peter's words, I asked him "is it in my mouth?" I was shocked when he answered "yes." I then asked, "Is it delicious?" This time, he replied, "Not particularly." When we discovered that the answer was 'light,' I felt compelled to text Andrew and tell him that "light is not particularly delicious."

Once we were in Seoul, we trekked out to find Andrew, eat some delicious Mexican food for dinner (a very special treat for us), and hit up a bar or two. But first, we thought it wise to find a motel for the night, before we became too inebriated to stumble through a conversation in Korean with a front desk clerk. Parents--you'll be happy to know that this hotel did not have any vacancies:
After eventually booking some rooms at the Hotel Nobelesse for 50,000 won a night, we headed out into the Seoul nightlife. Where we were, Shincheon and Hong Dae (Hongik University), the bars were mostly filled with foreigners, which was actually more of a culture shock for me than bars packed with Koreans. I've become so used to Korean bars that being in western bar filled with westerners was a little uncomfortable. Still, it was fun. Our haunt for the night was:

Normally, Andrew is a little more handsome than that. (but only a little)

After a day of work, a 3 hour bus ride, and several hours of nightlife and nore-bang, we ended night one by passing out in our hotel.

Day 2
On day 2, we all woke up and had lunch at a nearby Pizza Hut. This wasn't particularly special for us, since we have a Pizza Hut in Andong. After lunch, the girls went to shop and the men went off to sauna. I will let you use your imagination or ask me later about what sauna entails, but I will tell you that the women's and men's are on different floors. I can say that it is the most refreshing experience a person can have and the best cure for a hangover.

After that, we walked about a mile or two uptown to visit the cryptically named "Doctor Fish Cafe." I assume many of you know what this is. I knew about it, but didn't know the name. It's a cafe, like any other, with one important difference. Instead of resting your feet on the floor, you put them...well:

I think the video speaks for itself, but for those who are wondering: yes, it tickles like crazy. To be specific, the fish (from China or Turkey) eat the dead skin off of your feet. But since they are scavengers, they only eat dead tissue. They never nip at you, and it never hurts. They are simply a very natural (and manly!) pedicure.

After that, we met up with the girls and went out to a delicious (if expensive) Indian restaurant. While there, Sara presented me with the first of 4 cakes I would get over the next several days.After dinner, we went up near Hongik University and bar hopped for a few hours before getting a few more hotel rooms for the night some time around 5:00 AM. The next morning, we hopped back on the bus and headed back for Andong. When we got there, Katie, Sara and I were all a little shocked to realize that Andong felt like home for us.

Day 4 (after a day of rest)

On Monday, the students were mortified by the prospect that I would be at my 2nd school for my actual birthday. So at the end of the day, a few of them ran across the street to get me some cake and a small gift. For all of those looking for pictures of the poo stick mentioned in Sara's blog a few months ago, look at my left hand.
After a day of teaching, the foreigners went out for one final night of birthday fun. We went to Woodstock, one of our local regular places, and had a few drinks and another cake (number 2).
Unfortunately, since Sara's birthday was a week earlier, I was a little tired of cake by this point.

I also had a little too much to drink, which made the beginning of my actual birthday a bit slow and groggy. Still, I tried to make up for the morning with a positive attitude during:

Day 5 (June 9th)

At Youngnam that day, the teacher's bought me cake number 3 (not pictured), and some of the students gave me cards and presents. It was a great way to get over the rough morning and feel really good at Youngnam for the first time. I finally feel like I fit in there.

After school, I went to my bi-weekly teaching course, where the teachers/students had bought me cake number 4:After that class, Sara surprised me with a a picnic in one of Andong's most scenic spots, above the Nakdong River looking over downtown. We watched the sunset, ate sandwiches and watermelon (and drank a Dr. Pepper that she had hidden from me just for my birthday), and I opened my gifts. She got me the most perfect thing I could think of: a shirt. I'm not being sarcastic, I have been dying for a short sleeve, button-up shirt that I can wear to work, and she found one that fits me perfectly and looks great. I hadn't bought any shirts for myself because clothes are actually quite expensive here. She also bought me a very old, leather-bound, Korean Bible. I may not be able to read it, but my affinity for old books and Sara's tradition of giving them to me made this a birthday for the ages.

And that's the whole story. I have to say that there's nothing like spending your birthday in another country. I'm already awed on a daily basis by everything around me. To have attention shoveled on me at the same time was fantastic, memorable, and at times a little overwhelming--but I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Friday, June 5, 2009


A few days ago, one of the students in our school brought an air soft gun to school and shot some of his classmates. The assumptions from the staff was that he was acting out in response to repeated teasing about his weight. If you aren't familiar with air soft guns, they work like a BB gun, except the pellets are plastic and there's less pressure involved. They can't really do any harm unless you get someone in the eye. Still, when Hyun-beom told me about the incident, my first reaction was utter horror, having grown up in a place where the rule is no tolerance.

I know I'm making assumptions here, and feel free to correct me in the comments if you think I'm wrong, but this kid would have been out of school in a heartbeat in America. He would have been suspended with mandatory psychiatric evaluation at the least, and expelled at the worst. In Korea, the approach was a little different.

The entire class sat down and wrote letters to each other about the incident. By the end of the day, everyone was friends again.

I'm not saying this method is perfect either. In fact, I'm not necessarily saying one way is better than another. Guns shouldn't be tolerated, but at the same time--people should be. Certainly, some kind of punishment might be called for in a situation like this, but the matter was resolved anyway. The student understood what he did wrong and his classmates realized that teasing him about his weight probably led (in part) to the action.

I guess what really intrigues me about the situation is that in a country where you can buy any number of weapons easily and quickly, kids get kicked out of school for having them. But in a country where firearms are absolutely impossible to procure, a slap on the wrist is all that's necessary.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Happy Birthday

The happiest of birthdays to Sara, without whom my life would be boring, inconsequential, and incomplete.

I love you.