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.
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.
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.
I have been living in Korea for about a month and a half and in that time I’ve become quite accustomed to life on the other side of the world. I’ll admit that there were certain creature comforts I used to take for granted until I got to Seoul, but when looking at the whole picture, giving up most of the material things I miss has been a small price to pay for this experience. To celebrate getting through the beginning and settling in, I thought it would be appropriate to record my random thoughts that haven’t really had a place in past entries on this blog.
- The Korean alphabet is ridiculously easy to learn. I printed off a copy of the alphabet from the Internet and studied it during my training. After three days I was able to read just about anything. I still have absolutely know idea what the majority of the words I’m reading mean but every once in a while I’ll see an English word written out in the Korean alphabet.
- Getting around Seoul without knowing Korean is much easier that I expected. After more than a month here, I can still count on one hand the number of words I know in Korean. This hasn’t stopped me from doing anything yet as most Koreans seem to know at least very basic English. If they don’t know any English, I’ve found smiles and hand gestures have gone a long way.
- Korean students are light years ahead of their American counterparts. Many of my students are about five years old and understand words and concepts that I could not imagine being mastered until second or third grade. It should also be noted that the way age is figured in Korea is different than in America and the students who we call five are considered seven in Korea, making their accomplishments that much more impressive.
- It is very easy to get lost in Seoul. Everywhere in this city tends to look the same as everywhere else. The streets are all narrow, neon-lined alleyways and most are unnamed. As easy as it is to get lost, it is also easy to get un-lost. Because the subway and bus stations are everywhere, if you get completely turned around you can hop on a train until you find a familiar stop. If all else fails, taxis are cheap and easy to hail.
- Cell phones are insanely nice here. My phone from home was an LG Optimus, and while it wasn’t an iPhone or anything super nice, it was a pretty cool smart phone. My Korean phone is the same model I had from home. The major difference between my Korean and American phones is that my nice American phone was the crappy free phone they give away when you sign a contract in Korea. Phones in Seoul seem to be as much of a status symbol as a Mercedes might be in America.
- Humidity in Korea is not something to take lightly. Having grown up in the Midwest, I know what humidity means but Seoul is in a league of its own. Florida in the summer can’t compare to Korea. The heat here isn’t terrible, but the humidity just makes walking long distances miserable. From the second I walk out of the shower I can guarantee I will not feel dry for the rest of the day.
- I still haven’t gotten tired of Korean food yet. It’s spicy and delicious. What’s not to love?
- Doing laundry is an ordeal in my apartment. Seoul is this amazingly high tech place but dryers are still scarce and with the unrelenting humidity my clothes never really dry off. Gone are the days of living out of the dryer. Hanging clothes out to dry at least 24 hours before they are wearable is the new thing.
- Though it may sound sad or pathetic, as much as I miss my family and friends from home, I miss my cat just as much. I’ve been told Clementine is enjoying her temporary stay with my parents but it would be nice to have her chewing on things and meowing at four in the morning in Korea. And just for your viewing pleasure…
This horrendously amazing conversation is seriously something I taught and it actually is a pretty good representative of my time so far. In just about every class there is some sort of cultural difference or language barrier that makes the students or the material unintentionally funny. Whether it’s because of a student’s inability to conjugate verbs or their strange word choice, I’m usually trying my best to hide a smile even when I’m trying to be strict.
Korean age is different from the Western concept of age. When you are born you are automatically one year old. When new year comes, everyone who was born in the previous year becomes one year older at the same time. So if you were born in November 2010, you would be one year old the day you were born. When the Korean New Year came in February 2011, you became two years old even though you would only be considered four months old in the US. Because of this difference in age reckoning, my youngest students (who are considered five in Korea) are really only about three years old. They can barely speak Korean, let alone English, and for the most part just look confused when you say sentences that consist of more than three words to them. As they should, I mean they are only three. My curriculum for this class is really just a book of children’s songs and I spend about one month on each song. This month is Old McDonald Had a Farm. Thankfully I only have to teach these kids for 40 minutes every other day.
Other than the youngest kids, most of my students are around seven to nine years old. This is when I am constantly keeping myself from laughing. For example, when I gave a class time to work on their assignments independently one student decided that I deserved a neck massage. At first I thought he was joking and just wanted attention but I realized he was being sincere and wanted to show that he liked me. Just today a student had his mom buy me dinner. This class only has two students and one was late so we ate our gimbap and talked about his tae kwon do practice. Later on he got pulled out of class and yelled at by another teacher for lying about that other student skipping school, but for now let’s focus on the positive. Other students are constantly ambushing me in the hall and trying to hold my hand as I walk to a different room even though I am usually carrying my giant box of supplies. This seemingly endless display of affection never stops surprising me.
They aren’t always warm and loving though. They can be violent to each other. They hit, they kick, they steal. They constantly have bandages covering random places on their bodies. But even when they are bad they are abnormally cute. It’s almost like I’m teaching a class full of puppies. They’re tiny, loud, hyperactive, and are constantly begging for treats and bathroom breaks. But most of all when they do something bad and you try to punish them, it’s hard to think about anything other than secretly just wanting to take a picture of their endearing mess.
Other than being extraordinarily cuter than my former American students, one of the first differences between Korean and American kids is the way the Koreans address their teachers. Technically I am Andrew Teacher but most of the time the Andrew gets dropped and I am just Teacher. With their accents this usually sounds something like “Teach-ahh!” and I hear “Teah-ahh!” roughly 10,000 times per hour. Every sentence begins and ends with “Teach-ahh!” and it is oftentimes thrown in somewhere in the middle. “Teach-ahh, I’m done Teach-ahh!” “Teach-ahh, can I read? Teach-ahh!” “Teach-ahh Ricky bit me Teach-ahh!” “Teach-ahh Grace kicked me Teach-ahh!” Tired of hearing “Teach-ahh!” yet? I am.
After 20 hours, three flights, and tornado-induced travel chaos I finally landed in Seoul, South Korea. Well, kind of. I actually landed in Incheon, a city west of Seoul on the coast. From there I rode the never-ending bus to Seoul that took longer than my flight to Korea from Tokyo. The bus dropped me off at Suyu Station, where I met Roy, one of the Korean employees at my school. When I stepped off the bus I was immediately immersed in a sea of neon. Neon is everywhere in this city; there is no escaping it. Roy led me through a bright pink and lime green glowing alley to the Four Season Motel. When Roy said that name my initial jet-lagged thought was something along that lines of “Swanky!” How wrong I was.
The Four Season Motel (not Four Seasons Hotel) is a sex motel. Like neon signs, these are ubiquitous in the city of Seoul. I’ve been told that many Koreans live with their parents until they are married and apartments in Seoul are tiny. Young couples who want to avoid mom and dad or married couples who just want to get down and dirty without literally bumping into the kids are frequent customers in these establishments. While the general nature of a sex motel might seem somewhat sleazy, the motel was actually reasonably nice. The Four Seasons it was not, but it was a step up from the Motel 6. I had a giant TV, nice desktop computer, and a pool for a bathtub. I even had a mountain view once I opened the intentionally blacked out windows.
I was in the Four Season Motel for about a week before I could move into my apartment. I had to wait for the teacher I was replacing to leave and for the school to clean everything up before I could get in. Now that I’m in, I’m pretty impressed. I’m not living in some chic Park Avenue apartment but I am definitely comfortable. The apartment is a pretty basic layout. When you enter through the front door you are in the kitchen and the door to the bathroom is on your immediate left. The kitchen is fairly basic. No oven, but I do have a hotplate and toaster oven. The bathroom is big but has no separate shower so the shower head just comes out of the wall and the water flows into a drain underneath the sink.
An archway from the kitchen leads into my dining room/bedroom. My mattress is next to the refrigerator and dining room table. Because the teacher I’m replacing was married, I got lucky and managed to score a queen-sized bed while other teachers just have twins. Another opening from the dine-in-bedroom leads to what I’m assuming is a living room. It has a desk, armoire, TV, and a couple of shelves. The living room also leads to my favorite part of the apartment: the balcony. I’m in a high-rise building up on the eleventh floor, surrounded by other high-rises. My neighboring buildings are not particularly pretty or architecturally unique in any way but my new, sky scraping view is something I was not accustomed to in my ground-level apartment in Phoenix. I’m really not in my apartment very often but whenever I’m here I almost always go out to the balcony and just watch the people go by from up above. The balcony also doubles as my laundry room, housing a laundry machine and clothes line instead of a dryer. It still amazes me that I am living in a country in which I have seen toilets that can speak and yet dryers seem to be Korea’s answer to the pot of gold at the end of rainbow. You’ve heard of them but never actually seen them. Here is a picture of the view from my apartment.
In addition to moving into a new apartment I also started this little thing called work. I’ve only taught one day but everything seems to going fine. The kids didn’t kill me and I didn’t have to discipline anyone. One thing I have yet to get used to is how they address teachers here. In America I was Mr. Brown in my classes. In Korea, I’m Andrew Teacher. Small detail but weird nonetheless. One of my Korean co-workers also told me that my name is incredibly hard to pronounce for the students. I guess they have difficulty with the “ndr” part of Andrew and the day before I started the students spent a lot of time practicing saying my name. The final result ended up sounding something like An-duh-loo but I’m kind of amused by it. With a name like Andrew Brown, I never got that experience of the substitute teacher mispronouncing my name. Now is my time and now I am An-duh-loo Bull-oww-nuh.
When my one day of working came to an end I was treated to a three-day weekend. I have absolutely no idea what holiday the country of South Korea is celebrating but I do know that everyone under the sun has left Seoul and gone to the beach in Busan. Since I have yet to receive my first paycheck I am still poor and cannot afford a beach vacation. Instead I’ve been doing a lot of the touristy things around Seoul. I’ve gone to three palaces, gotten the necessities for my apartment, and wandered around some of Seoul’s more interesting neighborhoods. This exploration-based weekend has taught me a lot about life in Korea. Here is a list of some of the things that stand out most:
1) The ajumma (the specific type of visor-adorned, permed old women pictured below) are everywhere and will kill you if that’s what it takes to get where they need to be.
3) Asian palaces just might beat out their European counterparts.
4) Korean pop (or K-Pop for those in the know) is one of the greatest gifts given to this world. This is my personal favorite example of the strange yet oddly fascinating phenomenon that is K-Pop.
5) Korean food is amazing and eating out is both better and cheaper than anything I could prepare.
With one day left in my long weekend I’m hoping to find a few more things to add to that list. I plan on checking out some of the big fish markets tomorrow but who knows what could happen. I may or may not have Internet access for the next couple of weeks so I’m sure my next update will be even more informative. Until then, you will just have to find another blog to live vicariously through.