Category: school

Hands

Hands.  
There are so many ways to shapes ones’ hands.  
I have seen them lifted up in fists of anger against enemies.  
I have seen them comfortably clasped in the familiar bond of friendship.
I have seen them playfully shoving one another in good-natured camaraderie.
I have seen them, fingers intertwined, lacing lovers together.
But today, I have not just seen them.  I have felt them.  Hyeon-jeong’s hands.  
I felt her hands squeezing mine goodbye.  
I felt the strength, the love, the urgency in them.  
It was as if her hands knew that this was the last time they would be in mine, 
and simply could not let me go.
They stayed with me, her hands, while I bid fare well to other students.  
While I bowed solemnly to other teachers.  
They crossed the broad expanse of campus with me, 
as I slowly, painfully walked it for the very last time.  
They gently wiped my tears away as I struggled in vain to not cry.  
They stayed with me, her hands, even long after the bell had rung, 
summoning her back to her studies.  
And, when we reached the edge of school, 
when I crossed the line that her society dictates she must not cross, 
her hands reached out after me.
In that moment, the frizz of my hair or the slant of her eyes were no longer noticed.  
The color of our passports were longer a dividing line between us.
It didn’t matter if we couldn’t wax eloquently about politics or religion or philosophy.
All that mattered were her hands in mine – 
reaching out to me, connecting with me, loving me.
And in that moment, we were no longer foreigner and native.
We were no longer adult and child.
We were no longer teacher and student.  
We were simply….together.  Friends.  Sisters.  

Winter English camp!

It is finished.  I’ll say it again….it is finished.  Winter camp, which consumed my life for the past 2 weeks and my thoughts for much longer than that, is finally over.  I have to admit, for as much as I had been dreading it, the end result was surprisingly enjoyable.  My students were absolutely fantastic (and I also had 4 senior students in my class, whom I hadn’t gotten the opportunity to teach during the regular semester, and they were amazing!), we did a lot of cool stuff together, and overall it was a lot of fun.  The administrative issues that I had to deal with were a bit less pleasant, but I survived.  For example, I showed up to school on day 1 of English camp, only to find out that my number of students, class location, theme, and time slots…everything…had been changed.  Oh, and they had pulled my funding.  But class was still expected to start that day!  So yeah, a bit of a stressful start, but I managed.

By the end of 2 weeks, they had written 2 acrostic poems, 2 haiku poems, 2 diamante poems (for an example of a diamante poem, click here), an expository essay, written and acted out their own plays in small groups of 3 or 4, watched the Phantom of the Opera and written a movie review of it, gone on a scavenger hunt, learned about idioms, cultural foods across countries, played lots of games, and made 2 class videos.  Looking back, I’m astonished at how much we were able to accomplish in 20 hours.  Seriously, I’m so super proud of my students.  Check out the videos that they made below, followed by random pictures taken during classtime.

And my life wasn’t all work and no play these past 2 weeks.  I was able to do some fun things, too, including going out for lunch and a movie with my host sister, attending a concert at my church which my friend Anthony was singing at, and also interviewing him for a book that I’ve started writing.  The most notable outing, however, was with some of my students just before class ended.  We went out for dinner together, and then they told me that they had a surprise for me.  They made me close my eyes, which made walking in the whipping winds and torrential rain difficult.  But they took good care of me, and made sure that I didn’t run into anything or fall.

Japanese food and Mission Impossible 4 with my host sister! 🙂

Anthony’s concert

Coffe and stories with a friend – doesn’t even count as an interview! 🙂

When I finally opened my eyes, I was astounded by what I saw.  I was in a baker’s paradise!  All around me, I was surrounded by cakes and decorations – delicately sliced fruits, marzipan flowers, icing, candy letters, colored powered sugar…it was pure delicatessen delight.  It was a self-decorating cake shop, and my students had taken me there to surprise me.  They didn’t even let me help pay for the bill, which was quite a big sacrifice for job-less high school students.  They insisted that I take the entire cake home with me, but then I evened the score by bringing it to class the next day and having a party on the last day of class.  But it was seriously one of the most enjoyable evenings I’ve had in Gyeongju yet, and I felt so completely loved by my students.  Add to that the barrage of messages that I got from my students after class ended – including one of my favorites, which said, “I learn many many!!!  Thank you so much <3 <3.  I never forget about your class!" - and I think that I can honestly say that winter camp was a great success, and I will truly miss it.

We wrote notes and left them on the wall of the cake store 🙂

School festival

My school had a festival yesterday.  They had been preparing for it for weeks, and honestly, by Thursday afternoon, I was just ready for it to be over.  It was a huge deal, including the entire school and city, and preparations for it had everyone in the office stressed and on edge.  So Friday morning, bright and early, I showed up at school….and it was mayhem.  For the first hour or so, everyone was running around getting ready.  I didn’t know how I could help, so I just tried to stay out of the way.

The first couple of hours after the festival started was pretty rough for me.  A school festival in Korea means no classes and fun things to do, so of course all of the students had grouped themselves into their little knots of friends and were walking around together enjoying the sights.  Unfortunately, though, I didn’t have any of my friends to walk around with, so it was really awkward at first.  Everyone was really friendly and said hello, but waving in the hallway and actually hanging out together with someone are definitely not the same thing.

It was only about 10:30, and I was already contemplating leaving, when a few of my students came up to me.  They looked both excited and nervous, and I could immediately tell that something was up.  Eventually I figured out that they wanted me to spend the festival with them.  I emphatically said yes, and my festival experience after that took on a decidedly different character.

We ate food, and watched a movie, and hung out in their homeroom (and got lots of surprised reactions from other students who walked in and saw me there!), and watched the student and community performances at the end of the day, and overall just had a grand time.  I got dragged into a few rooms by random students – I have no idea who they were – and was always greeted with a chorus of cheers and cries of “TEACHER!!!” or something to that effect….I think the best room was the black room.  Which was actually a black-lit dance room.  And I danced.  And they flippedddddd outttttt.  My host father was there for a little while (I’m still not sure why), and he saw me interacting with some of my students.  When we got back home that night he told me that I was “인기 장” with my students – “most popular.”

I gave my number to a few of my students while we were hanging out, and they all texted me later saying what fun they had, and how happy they were to have spent the day with me.  One of my favorites, from Na-young, said this: “Hi I am Na-young.  Today I’m vary happy with you.  I’m awkward in speaking English.  but I think I have learned so much English becouse of you.  I am vary thankful about that.  See you next class and have a good dream.  byebye ^_^”

A lot of the second graders, the ones I subbed for last week, have also started calling me teacher.  Many people whom I can only assume are students, came up to me at the festival to say hello. It’s strange to me that these girls who I don’t really know at all can be so friendly with me…but I like it :).  Some of them even introduced me to their friends from the local boys’ high school!  They were super friendly…although one of them decided that I’m his girlfriend now =/.  Still, I had fun talking with them.  Overall, a wonderful day.  Enjoy the pictures and videos!

The entrance to the English department
Getting ready…
I still can’t believe I put that thing on my head….
Bomin – the student who wrote the letter to me a few weeks ago 🙂
Me and Na-young…
It’s me!!! 🙂
They were collecting cups.  They were really excited about it, lol…
Some of the second-graders that I subbed for last week.  They’ve already started calling me teacher <3
A local boy band.  They weren’t that good, but they were BOYS!  The girls went crazyyyy 🙂
Man, these girls can DANCE!
Some local high school boys.  Mr. Brown Jacket has decided that I’m his girlfriend now…. =/

The Korean educational system

This is a post that I’ve been wanting to write for a while, but simply haven’t had the time.  But now that travelling  has slowed down a bit, be on the lookout for more reflective posts!My first one is about the Korean educational system.  As an English teacher in Korea, this is obviously something that I have a lot of first-hand experience with.  And goodness, it really does break my heart.  As much as I love my students and teaching, sometimes I am just so burdened for them and what they go through.  I warn you, this is not a happy post.  I can think of no other world to describe it than tragic.  But please read it anyway.  Watch the videos.  It’s something that you need to hear.Korea is generally regarded as the most competitive educational system in the entire world.  But because of that, Korean students are under enormous, incredible pressure.  You think college stresses you out?  Worried about doing well on the SAT or GRE?  This is pressure like you’ve never experienced, and couldn’t imagine even if you tried.

Students start off in elementary school already with long days – usually from about 8:00 am-3:00 pm.  Middle school students get out a few hours later, around 5:00 pm.  Even in middle school, though, the pressure has started to mount.  My friend Elizabeth, another Fulbright scholar, says that her middle school host sister gets up at 2:30 or 3:00 am – every morning.  When asked why she does that, she said matter-of-factly, as if it were completely normal, that she could get in 1 or 2 entire online lessons before school started by getting up that early.

But it’s my students, the high school students, that really bear the brunt of the enormous pressure.  By the time you are a high school student, you spend an average of 15-17 hours a day at school.  Many students arrive at school by 8:00 am, and often don’t leave until 11:00 or 11:30 pm.  That includes weekends.  The better schools have dormitories for the top students, so that they can “have more time to study.”  I’m serious.  That’s a direct quote from my co-teacher.

In a sense, it’s gotten even worse for me since I moved homestays.  My old host sisters, to be quite honest, were not stellar students.  But my new host sister is.  And so, as wonderful as she is, living with her means that I also have to observe first-hand on a daily basis the amount of pressure that Korean students are under.  It manifests itself with her physically, in frequent nosebleeds, numerous sores all over her mouth, and constant exhaustion.  I’m not talking about the “oh-I’m-kind-of-sleepy-I-should-take-a-nap” type of weariness.  I’m talking about bone-deep, unequivocal, complete exhaustion, the kind that makes everything, even just getting up and going to the bathroom, a monumental effort.

High school students in Korea have no life outside of school.  They see far more of their teachers than they do of their parents.  Many of them even live at school in dormitories.  Almost all students eat at least 2 meals a day at school, and sometimes even the commuters end up eating all three there because of the long hours they put in.  They bring blankets and pillows to school so that they can catch up on sleep in class sometimes.  Boyfriends and girlfriends are virtually nonexistent.  Most of the schools are gender segregated, and even if they weren’t, who has time to hang out??  They’re always studying.  They have no friends outside of school, no outside interests, no hobbies…their life is studying.  Period.  I wish I could say that I was exaggerating, but alas, I cannot.  I probably shouldn’t do this, but I always give a little cheer (both inwardly and aloud) when I see my students out and about in town at a time when I know that they’re supposed to be in school.  I don’t care if they have to skip school to do it, these children need a life!!!

The pressure that they are under to perform is obvious.  I gave English oral exams last week to my students.  It was a simple exam, really – they were given 6 questions in advance, and then during the test I picked 2 of those 6 and asked them to answer me in English.  Students only had to answer with 3 or 4 sentences to get full credit for completion, and the questions were simple things, like “What will you do during winter vacation?” or “What is your favorite movie?”.  My students were in complete anguish.  Some were so nervous they were unable to say even a single word.  A few of them burst out crying.  All of them were pale and jittery and nervous beyond belief.  And that was just a simple test.  It was nothing like the suneng, the big test that seniors take at the end of high school (more on that later).

And the thing is, the test wasn’t even a real assessment of their skill levels.  They had the entire test beforehand.  I was instructed to not give the lowest score, even if students did not say a single word.  I was also told to grade on “effort,” not actual English proficiency, because “we want to encourage the students.”  It was one of the worst cases of teaching to the test that I’ve ever seen.

Speaking of tests…the “Big One” just happened here in Korea a few weeks ago.  All of those years of studying, all of the after-school classes and self-study hours and sleep deprivation that they’ve endured for their entire childhood, come to a head for the seniors on November 10th every year.  This is the day of the suneng, the senior exit test.  But this is no ordinary test.  This is the test that will decide their entire future.  The grade that they get on this test will determine their university, their job, their salary, where they live, even on occasion who they marry – many people will not marry someone who did not go to a university with a certain ranking.  On November 10th, the entire country stops to cheer on the seniors.  Planes stop flying.  Buses and trains stop running.  Many stores close for the day.  This test is, quite literally, their life.  It is what they’ve been working for for the last 12 years of their lives, and it is what will determine the rest of it.

The intense pressure to succeed has obvious affects on other areas of life.  The suicide rate in Korea is the highest in the entire developed world – it has more than doubled in the last ten years.  Nearly 10% of the entire young population considered committing suicide last year.  The rapid increase has caused crisis hotlines to pop up. But the operators receive no formal training on how to handle potential suicide cases, and the numbers remain heartrendingly high.  Elizabeth, who teaches in a middle school, says that several of her students have already confessed to attempting to commit suicide on multiple occasions.  Imagine that….a 13 year old child trying to kill herself because of a bad test grade.  It’s absolutely heartbreaking.

Korea is a remarkable country.  For decades they have astonished the world with their nearly unheard-of economic growth rates.  In 50 years they have gone from a third-world country to one of the richest countries in the world, a global superpower.  Korean students consistently lead the global pack in test scores and academic performance.  But such success comes at a price.  And I can’t help but wondering if it’s too  high a price.

I want to conclude this post not with my own words, but with the words of a Korean.  This is a quote taken from the video below.  It’s about 20 minutes long, but so worth watching.  Please take the time to do so.

“I don’t know, there are lots of options or choices for them (Korean students who commit suicide).  But actually they chose to die.  Maybe they committed suicide because of their own expectations, or maybe they couldn’t see their parents because they believed that they had failed their parents…..but something is wrong.  Truthfully, taking tests and going to college – the reason for studying -…committing suicide just because you didn’t do that well, doesn’t make much sense to me.  But that in itself is a kind of representation of how there’s obviously a huge problem in our educational system.”

School pictures

So I realized that, even though the reason I’m here is to teach English, I haven’t really showed you many pictures from where I spend so much of my time!  So here’s a few to remedy that!  Enjoy! 🙂

My school in the fall 🙂
Last week’s dance lesson was the electric slide.  Teaching the electric slide to Koreans….cultural ambassadorship, baby!
My lunch class

Out with the old, in with the new

Where does one start telling about their life when their entire life has changed in less than 24 hours?  How do you explain everything that’s happened, or all of the crazy, mixed-up emotions you’re feeling?  That is the dilemma that I face right now.  I will do my best to fill in as many gaps as possible :).

Life was an absolute whirlwind after we got back from Seoul.  We spent all afternoon on Tuesday packing to leave for our homestays, and then had an ETA talent show in the evening.  On Wednesday we got to meet all of the renewing ETAs.  Since they had already been through orientation once the year before, they did not have to come to Korea early like we did, so we hadn’t met any of them before.  There are 25 renewees, and they’re all awesome.  Wednesday was a sort of “meet and greet” day, so that the new ETAs could get to know the old ones, and vice-versa.  We had group games, in which people were divided into teams based on the ETAs that were in their same province, and we battled it out to beat out the other provinces.  There was a scavenger hunt that sent us to some of our favorites orientation haunts all over campus.  We ended the evening with a dance – never a bad way to end a day :).

They were doing a K-pop choreography at the talent show.  It was amusing 😀
Our team was the “Beastly East”

Do I look beastly?? 🙂

Thursday, however, was a very different day.  Thursday was departure day – affectionately known by the ETAs as D-day – the day that all of the ETAs leave from the comfortable bubble of orientation, and go to their new home for the next year.  The day started off super early, as we had to be all packed and dressed and checked out of our rooms before breakfast.  After breakfast, we had a few hours before the departure ceremony started to say our goodbyes.  I was OK until the speeches by the orientation coordinators started.  Then I lost it and the tears started.  I was not the only one.  It was a very emotional morning.  But, despite the tears, the show must go on, and so we all dried our tears and put on an extra layer of makeup and tried to make it look like we had not been crying.

Some of my best friends in Korea – Adam, Dan, me, and Jake

My beautiful ladies Leora and Sarah…I love those girls

Daniel and Frank….they’re super awesome 🙂

Andy…he dances…need I say more?? 🙂

My adorable Korean RA, Lucy….sweetest girl ever!!

This was the day before D-day, when we tie-dyed t-shirts.  But Alex is still awesome!! (He’s my other Korean RA)

Jini!!  She worked at the convenience store, so I saw her alot.  She gave me a necklace before I left…. **sniff, sniff**

Once the ceremony started, however, the sadness went away.  Every Fulbright ETA is assigned a Korean co-teacher to help them get through the year.  All of the co-teachers were in attendance, as well as some of the principles and vice-principles of the schools.  On more than one occasion, the co-teacher would run up and give the ETA a huge bouquet of flowers when their name was called.  Probably about half of the ETAs were holding flowers or other gifts by the end of the ceremony.  It was so cool to see how happy all of these people were to have these foreigners that they had never met come to their school for a year.  Even though I didn’t get flowers at the ceremony, I was giddy with happiness at just seeing them given to other people.

After the ceremony, we all had lunch with our co-teachers and principles.  Alot of ETAs had commented before D-day that they were worried about having a very awkward lunch, since they didn’t know these people at all.  I don’t know if that actually turned out to be the case for them, but it certainly wasn’t true for me.  My co-teacher and I clicked almost instantly.  He seems like he’s really chill, really easy to work with, and super nice.  His English is very good, too, which is always a plus :).  My principle, who doesn’t speak very much English at all, was also at lunch.  Even though we couldn’t communicate much, he seemed very nice and worried about my well-being.  I found out later that he had studied dancing (I think in college), which instantaneously made him so much cooler than he was before :).

The ride to Gyeongju was long, but interesting.  My co-teacher (his English name is Shane) and I talked for most of the trip.  Well, apparently I talked for most of the trip – they took me to dinner when we got to Gyeongju, and he commented that I must be very hungry, since I had talked so much in the car.  Woops.  I guess I’ll have to learn to shut up sometimes, lol :).  But ya, dinner was really cool.  Several of the other English teachers came, and also the owner of the school (it’s a private school), in addition to the principle and Shane.  They brought flowers for me to the restaurant….I felt so loved I could cry.  There was alot of laughing at this giddy American girl, but I just laughed back, and I think that they really liked me – I know that I liked them.

After dinner, they took me to see the school.  It’s beautiful.  They have a brand-new English hall – as in, so new that it’s not even officially open yet – where I’ll be spending most of my time.  It’s gorgeous.  I’m so excited to spend my days there.  There is also a lovely walking garden outside that is open for all of the teachers to spend time in.  Between that and the English hall, I’m never going to want to leave my school.

Butttt….I also have an awesome host family to spend time with!  After the visit to the school, Shane finally took me to my homestay.  It was late and I had had a super long day and I was exhausted, but I didn’t want to start a precedence the first night of hiding in my room, so I made an effort to stay up some and visit with them.  My host parents, although they don’t speak any English, are so so sweet.  They told me, with the help of their daughter, Songye, that they want me to feel like I am one of their own daughters, and that they will treat me as such, as well.  They quickly found out that I do not have a boyfriend (Koreans are very blunt about asking about such things), to which my host father said something to the effect of, “American boys must all be very stupid, if none of them want to date you – you are so beautiful!”  To which I laughed and explained that I don’t have a boyfriend because I don’t want one right now, but it was still very cute.

The flowers that my teachers gave me on the left, and the huge basket my host family had waiting for me when I got there (the ribbon says “Homestay family welcome!”)

Today (Friday) many ETAs had to go to school, but I did not, so I’ve spent the day unpacking and catching up on emails and other necessary stuff.  This morning I was talking with my host sisters (Songye and Arim), and they decided that they wanted to meet some of my American friends.  So we Skyped with a couple of people who happened to be online at the time.  They thought it was hilarious (and apparently ALL of my guy friends are super super handsome!!), and I got to catch up with some friends, so it was a win-win all around.  I also have to prepare an introductory speech for the whole school on Monday – that’s a bit nerve-wracking =/. 

So overall, life is very good.  I’m very happy – much happier than I thought I’d be on day 1 of my homestay.  First day of school is in 2 days!!  Hopefully I won’t totally botch my speech – or my lesson!  I’ll keep you updated.  Love you buckets!