Sunday, February 13, 2011

Talk to Me…in English (3 – 5 January)

America has summer school programs for students while in South Africa (and only at some schools) we are encouraged to attend winter school programs in our final year of high school in areas where we feel we may need extra assistance.  In Korea, students seem to plan everything else around their school schedule and have a never-ending bout of summer and winter programs. 

You Thought What?

My understanding of the winter vacation was that the students would have nearly a two month vacation that they have more than earned, the new freshmen would have to attend a two week long ADEPT program that would help them to adjust to high school life and give them a lot of exposure to English to try and get them all more-or-less at the same level and, finally, that the school would be running on skeletal staff.  Imagine my surprise and confusion when I arrive at school on Monday morning, ready to tackle winter camp, only to discover that not only are most of the teachers back at school but so are most of the students – with a full self-study timetable to boot!

No Time For Ready and Steady - Just Teach

I know that we don’t have any lessons for the first day so it’s a bit of a surprise when, at 10:10am, my fantastic co-teacher (she really is great!) asks me to come upstairs so that she can discuss the conversation classes that we need to do.  More confused than ever, nothing can prepare me for the surprise notice that there are students waiting for us in two venues for conversation lessons that we haven’t had time to prepare.  Fortunately, I’m now much better at identifying moments such as this one as “Oh Korea…” moments and moving on with what needs to be done rather than dwelling on the limited notice.  Besides, aside from an hour of conversation classes, all that we have to do today is attend the welcoming ceremony for the freshmen in the auditorium where we’ll be introduced to the new students before continuing with our busy schedules whiling away the afternoon in the coldest weather we’ve yet had in Gunsan.

The second day of camp is far more productive since it involves actual lessons.  NZ2 and I had already agreed upon the class division in December so I have classes all morning leaving me with an afternoon free.  This also means that I won’t be able to take the conversation classes for the next two weeks so NZ2 will have to combine the two groups until then.  NZ2 and I each have a Spanish (102), Japanese (104) and Chinese (106) major class.  Experience with the previous year’s first graders predisposes me to the Spanish major classes as their English proficiency is generally higher and they’re usually more talkative; the Japanese and Chinese classes are generally evenly tied with one fairly strong group and one weaker group in each language major.  This group is no exception.

Getting Started

My first class is with the Chinese major students (106).  I enter the class with feigned confidence and hope that the lesson goes well.  In the midst of introducing myself, one of the Korean teachers walks in with the daily journals to hand out…and stays.  This is when I figure out, since she shows no sign of leaving, that I’ll have a Korean English Teacher with me in each lesson – something that adds a new dynamic to the lessons since I’ve never worked directly with Hyunju before.  It doesn’t long, however, before we’re both commenting on the very segregrated seating arrangements in which they’ve organised themselves: Boys on one side, girls on the other and the widest gap possible between the two sides!  As we leave the room, our first impression, and comment, is: They’re so young!

Confident for the next lesson – and now being more familiar with the structure of these lessons – I head for my Spanish major class (102) which is even more entertaining that my first class.  This particular class has only three boys and they’re well integrated by the look of things.  I can’t believe how talkative this class is and when I try to leave the classroom, they follow me down the corridor still chatting and asking questions – a pattern which seems to continue for the rest of the week and increases in enthusiasm the more time they spend with me.

I Understood That!

My final class is my Japanese class (104) and this is perhaps the most surprising – and seemingly hostile – of the three.  One of the boys looks like he’s hoping to be the seventh member of the K-pop group 2PM.  He seems uber-confident in many ways and is quick to lead other classmates astray.  His first words to me (in Korean I might add!): Speak Korean! It’s 10 minutes into this lesson and I officially have a student I don’t like and have dubbed “the malicious boy”…  In addition, this class seems to be as segregated as the Chinese students but they don’t share a similar sense of humour when we joke about this; in fact, they don’t seem to have much of a sense of humour at all. For the first time since arriving in Korea, I find myself in a situation where a co-teacher is literally translating every word I say in the lesson and it’s disheartening.  I leave the lesson wanting to cry and trying desperately to work out how to get through to this particular class.  The discrepancy between the three classes is unbelievable and it’s a bit like being on a rollercoaster: I have one amazing class that I can already tell I love (102), an average class that seems generally sweet and co-operative (106) and a class with one child who may just turn the next eight days of classes into my worst nightmare.

Breaking New 'Barriers'

It’s lunchtime and I’m starving.  I deliberately haven’t brought any lunch with me to school because I want to start having lunch with the rest of the Korean teachers so I ask Hyunju if I may join her for lunch.  Not only will this expose me to more Korean food than I currently eat, but I’m hoping that it will further endear me to them and, hopefully, lead to friendship with some of them instead of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ distinction that exists between the three GETs and the Korean teachers – that was forged, unintentionally, by the Kiwis and myself.  My appearance in the cafeteria doesn’t go unnoticed and I seem to have scored major brownie points with my fellow teachers by simply having lunch with them at school – if I’d only known what a difference this would make from the start….

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