After the kindergarten graduation ceremony, the students at ECC still had about a week of classes before the end of the school year. Knowing that many of my students would be changing after the week, I came to class prepared by bringing my camera and going all kinds of picture crazy. Sadly (especially in the case of Mercury class), I don’t teach many of these kids anymore as we got our new classes on Friday. Some of my new students do seem to have pretty strong personalities so here’s to hoping the last third of my year in Seoul is just as interesting as the first nine months. And now, without further ado, I present to you: my classes.
Since the Korean academic calendar goes from March to March, the students at ECC are all about to move up a grade. Most students seem excited because in Korea age is a big deal; the older you are, the more respect you get. Nowhere is this mindset more apparent than with the kindergarten kids. They are about to go to elementary school and based off their discussions I discovered the process of getting into a good elementary school in Seoul is a lot like getting into a good college back home. First they apply, then they take tests, then they get accepted, waitlisted, or rejected. Apparently there are a lot of politics that goes into the admissions process, including bribes and grandfathering in less deserving students based on family ties with older siblings. When the students all found out which school they would be attending, they either shared their good news with the class or sulked and looked for sympathy because they didn’t get accepted to the school their parents wanted them to go.
This intense time in the life of a Korean kindergartener came right as their graduation ceremony approached. I didn’t have a kindergarten graduation. I didn’t have an elementary school or middle school graduation either. My first graduation came when I was 18 and finishing high school. To say that my high school graduation and this kindergarten graduation were similar would be like saying North and South Korea are similar just because they both have the word Korea in their names. This kindergarten graduation was more like a variety show put together for the parents who wanted one last photo op before their babies were no longer babies. Each of the five classes performed a play and sang songs. Mercury, the class I teach, acted out “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” that story about hardworking ants and a playful grasshopper that is supposed to teach kids to work hard so they don’t die of starvation come winter.
After the play, Mercury class did a rendition of Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl.” Why? Your guess is probably as good as mine. The kids had been singing that song in class while they were doing their workbooks for the past month or so but I didn’t know it was for graduation. I just thought they learned random American songs from commercials or something else playing on TV. They knew all the words and even had choreography. I’m beginning to think Mercury might have a few students become new members of NSYNC and the Spice Girls.
Despite the fact roughly half the population of Korea is Christian (a result of the heavy American presence in Korea since the Korean War), Christmas is in no way as big of a deal in Seoul as it is in the US. Christmas is actually more of a Valentine’s Day-like couple’s holiday than the day of presents, family, and food that comes every December 25 in America. I tend to enjoy Christmas. I like the tacky decorations, lights, and just overall positive outlook on life that comes around at the end of every year. Since Seoul seems to be missing almost everything that makes American Christmas great, I decided to do something to put me in a festive mood: I celebrated winter by going skiing in Pyeongchang, the future host of the 2018 Winter Olympics.
The day before my ski trip, my work had its office holiday party at a restaurant down the street from the school. Korea has a gigantic drinking culture and work parties over here have a reputation of being completely drunken affairs where managers are literally pouring shots down the throats of their employees. This was my first office party in Korea and I found that everything I had heard was 100% true. The entire time I’ve been at YBM ECC my manager has said maybe four sentences to me, despite the fact that I teach both her children. At the office party I coincidentally grabbed the seat at dinner next to her and about 10 minutes into the meal she was pouring shots of soju for everyone around her. Soon she learned that this party just so happened to fall on my birthday. When she made this discovery she was giving me extra shots. There’s a very strict order of respect in Korea that means it is considered rude to turn away a drink from a superior. By the end of the night I was eating as much rice as I could, trying to coat my stomach with something to soak up the alcohol as well as keeping my mouth occupied whenever the manager looked at me, hoping this might deter her from giving me another drink.
The next morning, I was up bright and early to catch a 7:30 bus and I was as hungover as I had ever been in my life. I met a couple of friends that morning and got on the bus. The ride from Seoul to Pyeongchang took about three hours. After about an hour of getting all the gear rented and ready, we were on the slopes. This was only the second time in my entire life I had been skiing and the first time was definitely not at an Olympic-worthy ski resort. The instant I got off the gondola and attempted to slide away I knew that professional skiing was probably not going to be a future career-path of mine. I spent more time falling than I did skiing and my hips felt like one of the titans in Ancient Greece had spent some time wreaking havoc on them. By the end of the day I had somewhat gotten the hang of turning and slowing down and, although I did ski into a bush, I managed to not pull a Sonny Bono.
Even though Christmas in Korea is nothing like it is back home, I was pleased with the way it turned out. I had no Christmas tree, my presents from home ended up getting to Korea a few weeks beforehand, and there was much more forced alcohol consumption in a workplace environment than I had ever imagined experiencing. Despite these significant differences, my Christmas in Korea was not as entirely unlike the festivities I know in America. Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas is You was just as ubiquitous in Seoul as it is every December in the US, and in the end that song is really what Christmas is all about anyway.
With the first snowfall a few days ago, it is safe to say that winter has officially arrived in Seoul. Temperatures are dropping, days are growing shorter, and I finally caved in and bought a scarf and hat. As many people in the world are aware of, I am an outspoken critic of nearly everything involving cold weather but this year I think I’ve decided to suck it up and accept the fact that I can’t hide from the icy Siberian winds blowing through Korea.
It’s a good thing I decided to just deal with winter because the next couple of months are going to be pretty busy. My last three day weekend was at the beginning of October so I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to leave Seoul. There are, however, a couple of vacations we get from work in December and January so I’m finally getting an opportunity to get out and see some more of this side of the world. I decided to post my schedule for the next month just because my skype account might end up going MIA for a little while.
December 17 – Seoul – 12 Bars for the 12 Days of Christmas Bar Crawl
December 24-25 – Gangwon-do (Korea) – Christmas Ski Trip
December 29-January 1 – Beijing!!!
January 7-8 – Gangwon-do (Korea) – Ice Fishing/Ice Festival
January 21-25 – Tokyo!!!
Unfortunately, I also have to go to work in between vacations and work is going to be anything but easy this month. Starting on December 26 (you know, all of one day after Christmas) my school is starting their winter camps. Just like the summer camp we did a few months ago, these intensive camps are provided to the students on vacation from their other schools and have parents who feel their children should be in school for approximately 83% of their waking hours. This means that soon I’ll start my 10-11 hour workdays that will last until after I get back from Japan. Merry Christmas to me.
It just past midnight in Seoul which means it is now December on my side of the world, future living at its best. December is significant for two big reasons. The first of which is that I have now crossed the halfway point of my year teaching at YBM ECC in Seoul. Less than six months from now I will be back on a plane flying somewhere over the Pacific, eastbound this time. The second reason December is so important is because it marks my birth, also known as the most important day on Earth. December 23 is right around the corner so if you haven’t gotten a package put together yet it’s probably something you should be doing right about now.
To celebrate December I decided it’s about time to show the world one of my prouder moments as a teacher in Korea: teaching my class the chicken dance. There is a boy named Jeff in this class (the one in the red sweatshirt) who loves chicken. He talks about it about 90% of his waking hours and he has become known as “Chicken Boy” around the school. I mentioned the Chicken Dance in passing and he was blown away that there was an entire dance devoted to his favorite meal. After some practice I think the class has this dance down. And now, for your viewing pleasure, I present the Chicken Dance as brought to you by Jupiter class:
Halloween isn’t the biggest holiday in Korea. It really isn’t even a holiday at all in fact. This means that I spent October without seeing pumpkins, costumes, or the witch-themed decorations that litter American stores for the entire month. Because the school I work at is an English academy, there is at least some effort to introduce the kids to certain parts of Western culture and Halloween was one of those things the students got to see.
We had a Halloween party at my school and the students got to dress up. Some of the costumes were interesting, to say the least. I had many male witches, a bride, an elaborately costumed Spiderman, and a belly dancer with an outfit far too revealing for a ten-year-old. One boy who came as a vampire even brought a bottle of “blood” to put on people when he bit them. I came dressed as Harry Potter, a costume that consisted of a vampire cape, nerdy glasses, a magic wand, and a Gryffindor badge and lightening scar to complete the look. The entire getup cost about $10 and took about two minutes to put together. It ended up okay, everyone knew what I was but I don’t think I will be winning any costume contests this year.
To get the kids excited at the Halloween parties I played them The Nightmare Before Christmas, Hocus Pocus, and the Thriller video, all of which they loved, and I had them create ghost stories. They did not quite understand the concept of making ghost stories scary, so those turned out to be completely unrelated to Halloween but they had fun nonetheless. During each class we also went trick-or-treating to the other classrooms where the students got candy. They were instructed to sing “Trick-or-Treat, Smell my feet, Give me something good to eat!” by their Korean teachers rather than to just say “Trick-or-Treat!” making this process take a lot longer than it should have, but the students were happy and it got me out of doing an actual lesson so I can’t complain.
Outside my school the Halloween atmosphere was nowhere to be found in the entire city of Seoul. I wanted to celebrate the holiday anyway so I went on a Halloween boat cruise out around the coast in Incheon. This boat was filled with other foreigners who also wanted more Halloween in their lives. The boat itself was a almost like a gutted out ferryboat that was refilled with a nightclub. It sailed around for a few hours while the sun set and then all the passengers were loaded on buses headed to Hongdae for a night of more festivities after they were done drinking at sea. While it wasn’t quite the same thing as seeing trick-or-treaters wandering the streets back home it was oddly comforting celebrating a very big part of American culture.
This is Jupiter class, consisting of Jenny, Jasmine, Jeff, and Liam. Together they make up my most interesting class at work. These four kids have been learning English for years and are essentially fluent. They all have an enormous vocabulary and I can talk to them about anything without them even having to stop and think about what word they need to use. Because of that I can do stupid things with them to keep them talking about anything in English. I let them watch a fireworks display online for the Fourth of July. I had an ice cream party. I’ve even shown them Thriller, Billie Jean, Beat It, and just about all of Michael Jackson’s other major videos. They all love Zombie Michael Jackson.
At this point in their English education I think it’s important for them to see the cultural things that can make English fun and not just that stuff in their textbooks. One thing I do is teach them short little phrases in English that they for some reason remember and then drive them into the ground until you want to cut out their vocal chords. These phrases can be tongue twisters like “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood” or famous movie quotes like “Ahhhh’ll be baaaaack.” One phrase they use after what seems like every other sentence they utter is “Cheater cheater pumpkin eater.” I told them this when I caught them all cheating after I came back into the room from the copier. Now anytime someone even looks like they’re cheating they all shout “Cheater cheater pumpkin eater!”
As you can see in the video above they can oftentimes get carried away with whatever goes through their minds. In this case Jenny, the girl in the brown jacket, was supposedly cheating off Jeff, the boy next to her. They started chanting “Cheater cheater pumpkin eater” and it became as close to a gospel chorus at a Baptist church in Alabama as a Korean school can get. Midway through their chanting I decided to record their performance just so everyone else in the world can see what I deal with on a daily basis. Truth be told, though, this class is actually one of my easier classes. They are incredibly easy to manage (believe it or not) and they get their work done. I’m just thankful I only have them 40 minutes a day. Any more than that and I would very likely throw one if not all of them out the window.
One thing that always seems to come up when I talk to people back in America is how I keep control in my classroom. Classroom management is one of the most important things for teachers in the US; just about every education class I took in college dealt with classroom management in one way or another. So if it can sometimes be hard to maintain order in a classroom where the students at least speak the same language as their teacher, it must be nearly impossible to manage Korean kids, right?
While there are certainly many differences between running my old American classroom and my current Korean one, language is almost never an issue. My students all understand enough English for me to make my point known and to tell them what I expect. My biggest challenge is in the cultural differences between Korean and American schools. Smacking students when they act up was only recently banned in Seoul’s schools and from what I’ve been told it’s still widely practiced. This completely contradicts everything I ever learned as an education major so, while I don’t hit my bad kids, I have had to entirely revamp my classroom management philosophy to fit Korean schools.
In my younger classes the most effective method of getting things done is by making up stories for the kids. I have convinced my six-year-olds (in Korean age, really four-year-olds in Western age) of two things: one is that they will turn into a troll with long fingers and giant feet if they are bad and the other is that they will turn into a street cleaner who lives at the dump if they don’t try to learn how to read and write. At the beginning of each class I quickly draw two things on the board to go along with this story. At the bottom of the board on one corner I draw an apartment building and write the names of all the students above it. On the other corner I draw a little shack by a dump. When my students are yelling across the room rather than doing their reading and writing I erase one letter from their name above the apartment and put it over the house by the dump and tell them they are getting closer to moving from their nice apartment to Trash Land. They are all positive if their full name gets put above Trash Land they will be kicked out of society and have to become Trash Lady or Trash Man. This might sound odd but the students get really excited and tell me when they see the people cleaning the street in the morning. It’s the really effective because it continues to scare them and get them thinking about reading even when they aren’t at school.
In my really young class I have a monster story (which they all love) by that says if they are bad they will turn into this quasi-troll monster I named Frobbit. In addition to Trash Land, I also draw an ugly blob with skinny fingers as long as its legs and feet bigger than its head. Underneath this drawing I write “Frobbit” and make a box below that. When the students are acting out I put one letter of their name in “Frobbit Box.” Just like with Trash Land, the students are convinced that if all the letters of their names get in the box they will suddenly turn into Frobbit for the rest of their lives. Every once in a while I have a student who is getting rowdy come to the front of the class and I show them all how that student’s fingers are starting to get really long, just like Frobbit. This usually scares the daylight out the bad kid and he or she will get right back to work as if their life depends on it. After all, in their mind it really does.
In my older classes stories like these do not work. The older the kids get the less gullible they become. Instead, the threat of extra work is the best form of classroom management for this age group. What I do for most of my older classes is called the “Korean Box.” If a student speaks Korean in class I write their name in the box and give them a check mark. If they get three checks I give them an essay to write entirely in English to be turned in the next day on a giant piece of paper. Considering Korean students already go to school from 8:00 AM until about 9:00 PM, sometimes close to 10:00, any extra work is incredibly scary.
Not everything I do in the classroom is in response to negative behaviors. My school has sticker sheets and the students collect stickers to earn prizes. When students are good I give them stickers. I even go all out and give away up to 10 at a time in certain situations. For instance in one of my classes the students can be fairly mean to each other and if I see someone doing something as simple as letting another student borrow a pencil I am not shy to reward them. I’ve also had movie or popsicle parties at the end of the month for classes that never had anyone get their name in the Korean box.
Even though the way I need to act in class is different from the way I had to present myself in my American classroom I still see how the kids are just kids and are still fairly similar regardless of what side of the Pacific they may live on. They both complain when they get homework, they both come up with excuses as to why their assignments were incorrect, and, in the end, they both just want to play and act their age. Really the biggest difference between the Korean students and American ones is that one group eats kimchi for lunch and the other gets mystery meat. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out who gets what food.
Tomorrow is October, which means in a few short hours I will again be living in the future. The onset of October also celebrates me living in Korea for four months. In the past four months I’ve become incredibly comfortable going about my day-to-day activities, more comfortable than I ever thought I would be in this short period of time. But while knowing that I can become accustomed to life on the other side of the world is pretty amazing in its own right, it also means that I’ve gotten stuck in a routine. I know some people enjoy having their routines, knowing what they have to do everyday before they already do it, but I am not one of those people. As of right now I am making it my new goal to do more spontaneous weekend trips out of Seoul and see more of the country. Actually, this goal will probably be put into action after my next paycheck given the sad current state of my bank account.
The past month came and went pretty quickly. Apart from my trip to Ulleungdo, September seemed to be spent mostly in the office. A couple of my coworkers renewed their contracts with our school and they got to go back to America, one a couple of weeks ago and the other this week. This means that the rest of us not returning to the motherland were pulling double duty to cover their classes in addition to our own. Any break we had in the day was filled with another class. Today was the last day we’re short-staffed so, thankfully, I will have my mid-day breaks back when I return to work next week. I’m grateful the extra hours are over but at least one of those coworkers brought me back American toothpaste and deodorant so now I get to smell like an American again.
Outside work hasn’t been too terribly exciting lately. The weekend after I got back from Ulleungdo I went to a bottomless wine bar at the InterContinental Hotel in COEX, the biggest underground shopping center in Asia. The wine was decent and there was a ton of non-Korean food that was also blissfully unlimited. The next week I did another Hash Run. A few months ago I wrote about the Hash, a run I did around Seoul that goes for a few miles and ends at a bar. Running isn’t exactly my cup of tea but this time it was a hike instead of a run so I decided to give Hashing another go. The hike was by no means an intense climb but it was still fun to see another part of the mountains I hadn’t seen before, and, like my previous Hash experience, there was plenty of alcohol to go around at the end.
This week has seen a sudden drop in the temperature that I’m still not prepared for. When I leave for work in the morning and come back at night I now have to wear a jacket. I haven’t really experienced winter since my senior year of college in Iowa and the current temperatures are already on par with Phoenix in January so it will be interesting to see how this whole fall-winter situation plays out. I probably should have looked for teaching positions in Tahiti.
Wednesday was a wonderful day. Other than giving me that feeling of being over the hill that comes at the end of work on Hump Day, Wednesday marked the end of my school’s summer camp. Summer camp here is less about speeding down the zip line and more about cramming in more school during a time when most children in the Western world are blissfully spending their days playing in the pool. Since summer camp here is a more books, less fun kind of experience, I had a more work, less sleep kind of summer.
I’ve said before that Korean kids go to many different schools throughout the day. They have their main school they attend in the morning and specialized academies they attend start heading to sometime around 3:00 and keep going to until 9:00. The main school students go to has a summer vacation that lasts from mid-July to mid-August. When students could have a break from studying, many parents here enroll their children in additional classes that take up the entirety of their summer break.
As one of the foreign teachers, I was given two classes that I taught with a Korean partner teacher. My students were at camp from 9:00 in the morning until 2:30, something that seems outrageous to my American, pro-summer take on life. While this may seem devastatingly long for the poor kids who should be anywhere but a classroom, any pity party out there should actually be focusing it’s attention on me. In addition to teaching summer camp classes, I still had all of my regular classes which meant I was working close to 12 hours a day.
Classes at camp were pretty basic language learning lessons. My classes were all for speech and listening, although the students also had English language science, cooking, and movie watching throughout day with other teachers. The students I was in charge of were about 10-11 in one class and 12-13 in the other. Our classrooms are named after capital cities at ECC school so from now on I will be referring to the 10-11 year olds as Wellington and the 12-13 year olds as Canberra.
Speech class in Wellington was great. I’m actually fairly sad I don’t get to have this class anymore because it was much better than any class I have ordinarily. The kids were super enthusiastic, they were always happy, and, most of all, they seemed to care about learning. They acted like they wanted to be there and because of that I could have lots of fun with the kids by doing things like playing stupid little games and introducing them to American pop culture. Wellington was my first class of the day so it was always nice to start the day off in a class where the students were just that good. Below is a picture of Wellington class just so everyone back home can see them.
My other class, Canberra, was not what I would call a class full of little angels. In fact, referring to them as the spawn of Satan wouldn’t be too terribly inaccurate. It wasn’t that there were really awful students in the class, it was that they were all just bad enough to become this strange superpower of behavior problems when they combined. It was kind of like Captain Planet in that all the elements separate weren’t much good but when they got together they could really get stuff done. The only real difference between Canberra class and Captain Planet is that instead of working together to save the world, this class was farting and ruining the world through air pollution. Just to give a brief reflection of my time in Canberra class, I’ll list a few highlights about the class: One student twitches. A lot. One student cannot speak without screaming, and she speaks. A lot. One student threw slices of bread at me, on multiple occasions on multiple days. Many students have asked me about soju (a Korean take on vodka). Here is a photo of Canberra class, my sweet little demon children.
Truth be told, Canberra did actually make things interesting and there were many times I left the classroom laughing at how horrible they were. But then again there were also times I left the room gagging because their farts were just that bad.