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.
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:
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.
As I’m sure 99% of everyone reading this blog knows, I was able to study abroad in Prague, Czech Republic my junior year of college. When I talk to people back home now one of the questions that keeps getting asked is how Seoul compares to Prague. The question sounds pretty simple to answer. I could say “Well, I like Seoul better” or “I like Prague better” but, truth be told, it nearly impossible to look at the two from a similar vantage point. In addition to comparing two cities, if I were to look at both Korea and Prague I would also have to distinguish between two completely different lifestyles as well.
Going to Prague was, and remains to this day, the most fun I have ever had. As a study abroad student I had next to no responsibilities in the classroom so the study part of study abroad rarely got in my way. Classes were only three days a week, which meant my weekends were longer than my weekdays. As a result of that beautifully minimalistic schedule that will likely never be seen again in my lifetime I left Prague most weekends and treated the semester as a tour of Europe. I had budget airlines, beds in hostels, and a good group of friends to accompany me on any spur of the moment trip I felt like going on. Want to go to Dublin? Sure. How does Barcelona sound? Perfect. Paris this weekend? Definitely. My semester in Prague was a great way to see a part of the world I had always wanted to see with absolutely no obligations tying me down.
Seoul, on the other hand, has many of those obligations. From my very first day of work, I was aware that I was employee first and wanderer-of-Asia second. I understand this, though. I would not expect someone from Korea who took a job in the US to spend the majority of their time on vacation so it should be no different in my case. Because of my long working hours and nearly nonexistent vacation time I have only been able to leave Seoul twice in my three months here, once to Taiwan and once to Busan. In the same span of time during my time in Prague I was able to see probably eight or nine of the 12 total countries I visited in Europe. This might seem like a let down of sorts but it’s just really just getting me more in touch with Korean culture and teaching me about a completely foreign way of life.
Comparing Seoul and Prague as cities rather than lifestyles isn’t much easier. Prauge has a metropolitan area of a little over two million. Seoul’s metro has a population of over 20 million. The city of Seoul alone has almost as many people as the entire Czech Republic. I can ride the subway for close to two hours and never leave the city of Seoul whereas in Prague I could walk or take a tram on the street to get virtually anywhere I needed to go. Seoul’s entire city blocks of nothing but neon and a cultural propensity to make nights out last until daylight truly gives the city that city-that-never-sleeps feeling that Prague did not have. But if Prague did not have that high-tech, glowing thing going for it, it did have a certain charm that came from the combination of its architectural beauty and a slightly less beautiful attitude found in many Czechs. If Seoul tends to embrace foreigners, Prague seemed irritated at their presence.
Despite their differences, Seoul and Prague do have a few (vague) similarities. Both cities are filled, much to my appreciation, with extremely cheap alcohol. Prague had amazing beer and Seoul has tolerable soju. They both also have annoying climates, although I would take Prague’s constant clouds and drizzle over Seoul’s monsoon any day.
If I had to answer the question as to which city I like better, I think I would have to give the edge to Prague. Prague was a world class, yet manageable city, with its own personality that I have yet to see anywhere else in the world. While many European cities such as London or Paris are so cosmopolitan that they have lost many of the unique things that made them special to begin with, Prague still feels very Czech, even with the hoards of tourists. Seoul is still an amazing city that I would recommend anyone put on their list of places to visit but it can oftentimes just seem too big for its own good. As I said before, this is a city where a subway ride can take a couple of hours without leaving city limits. Although with Korea’s cheap booze and absence of laws dictating where people can and cannot drink those two hours can easily feel like no time.
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.