Interesting conversations always come up in class, especially when we get off topic from the dumb story books we have to teach from. Here is a recap of 2 recent ones that stand out for me.
In my H2 class (high Junior level), we had to read a mini biography of the athlete Jesse Owens. In the story, it mentioned the 1936 Olympics and Adolf Hitler. I decided to use this to see how much my 14 year students knew about history. I started by asking who Adolf Hitler was. The first 2 responses were leader of Germany and started WWII. One student commented that he was bad. Yes, I said, and do you know why? A lot of confused looks. Ok, I thought, I'll try another approach. "He didn't like some people. Do you know who he didn't like?" More confused looks and muttering in Korean.
Finally, one boy cautiously said "Diary of Anne Frank." "Yes, good! And why didn't he like Anne Frank?" A few other students had also recognized her name which I took as a good sign, maybe I can actually get somewhere with this. I was a little over optimistic, because my previous question was met with silence. Alright, what else can I do. "Do you know what happened to Anne Frank? Is she alive?" No, the same boy said. She is dead. "Yes, she is. How did she die?" "She was very sick." Okay, now I've gotten myself stuck again.
New tactic. "What did Anne Frank and her family do?" "They were hiding." "Yes, and why were they hiding?" Silence. "Because Adolf Hitler didn't like Anne Frank. Why didn't he like her?" Silence. "Because she was Jewish. Jewish is like religion, like Christian and Buddhist. She believed in Jewish god so Adolf Hitler didn't like her." "Teacher, why didn't he like Jewish people?" "He just didn't." "But why?" "He thought they were bad for Germany and that Germany would be better if he killed all the Jewish people." Silence. By the reaction of some of the students, I could tell that this was all new information, and not just that it was being told to them in English.
I didn't want to pass up this opportunity, so I continued. "Do you know many people he killed?" A student guessed 1 million and another guessed 2 million. No, I said. He killed 6 million people. "Teacher, can you write the number on the board?" I did and there was silence as they looked at that figure. "How did he kill 6 million people?" The same boy again, "He had Nazis and Gestapo." Surprised, I agreed and drew a swastika on the board. When the rest of the students saw it, there was a murmur of recognition. I continued. "Yes, he had Nazis and Gestapo. They would find Jewish people and take them to places called concentration camps. Do you know what concentration camps are?" Silence. "They were big places way out in the country, faraway from cities. They would put Jewish people on trains and take them to these places. When they got there, they would put them in big rooms with no doors and no windows. And then they would put posion gas into the room through the ceiling and all the people would die." Complete silence.
It is a strange feeling to know that you are explaining the basic points of the Holocaust to 14 years old middle school students for the first time and trying to do it in English that they can understand. I could tell that they were trying to comprehend what I was talking to them about. I could tell they knew it was something big, something perhaps too big to fully grasp. Then, "Teacher, why were there no doors and windows?" "So that they could not leave. They had to breathe the poison. They had to die." Silence. Then from the same student, "Teacher, was Hitler crazy?" "Yes, he was." "Why?" "I don't know. He just was. He didn't like Jewish people and he didn't like people who looked like Jesse Owens. People with black skin. He only liked people with blonde hair and blue eyes." And then it was over. Class went back to being the usual hectic affair of rowdy, giggling, chatty teenagers.
On a more funny note, I inadvertently started a conversation about politics with my Junior 1 students a few weeks ago. It started out when I was trying to explain what a capital of a country was. "What is the capital of Korea?" "Seoul!" "Good. Why is Seoul the capital?" "Because it has a lot of people?" "No." I could see them all thinking and searching their minds for the right English word. I thought I would help them out a little.
"Capital is where the leader of a country works. Who is the leader of Korea?" "Roh Moo-hyun!" "Good. Is he a good leader or bad leader?" That question set off all the 12 year old boys in the room who all started shouting out. One boy raised his hand, "My father says he is bad because he make people with apartment pay a lot of money." Another boy nodded his head in agreement.
"Alright. Do you know who is the leader of America?" Half of the class quickly shouted out "Georgie Bushie." Even though I had expected them to know the answer, I did not expect to hear him called "George-ee Bush-ee" with the emphasis on the "ee" at the end. Now even though I don't really like him, I still felt it was my duty as an English teacher to correct their pronunication. "No, not Bush-ee. It is Bush. No ee." This was met with a chorus of "Bush-ee. Bush-ee." "No! Bush. Bush." Finally, I just gave up. It's actually funnier to leave it that way.
And now for some more fun. "Do you think he is a good leader?" Some general chatter to each other in half English, half Korean.
Then, "Teacher, do you like him?" "No, I don't." This sent shockwaves through the whole room. Immediately, they were filled with a hundred more questions. "Teacher, why?!" It's kind of complicated, but an easy explanation is that "I don't like war so I don't like Bush." "Teacher, you don't like war? Why?" "Because many people die and that is not good." "But teacher, you really don't like war?"
Now, this is tricky, how to explain the finer political and moral points of my personal beliefs and attitudes towards the Iraq War to a group of 12 year old Korean kids with quite limited English abilities. Finally, I thought of something. "War costs a lot of money." "How much money?" I quickly tried to think of all the figures and statistics that always fill the newspaper articles and opinion columns and decided to settle on $10 billion. I'm not sure how accurate that really is, but it has a lot of zeros and in that regard, it served its purpose. As I was writing that number up on the board, I could hear the students buzzing over the enormity of it. "Lots of money has to go to war then there is no money in the U.S. for schools, for doctors, for hospitals and that is very bad." Now, I had connected with them. Money was a language they could understand and this reason was good enough for them.
I can only imagine the conversations with their parents that night. "Mom, Dad, my American teacher doesn't like Bush-ee and she doesn't like the war! Can you believe that? And there is no money in America!"