Wednesday, March 28, 2007

It's like Christmas morning

Conversation while leaving school the day before the new teachers came.
Me: "I'm so excited about the new teachers coming. When we go back to the teachers' lounge after class, it will be like Christmas morning. There will be a new teacher waiting for us like a present under the tree."
Neil (in his fantastic South African accent): "Amy, man, you have got to get out more!"

Maybe no one else was quite as excited as I was about the new teachers coming, but all of them have been through that before and it was my first time. Even though it wasn't excatly like Christmas morning when I first met the new teachers, it was still rather exciting. I remember how it felt my first night waiting to meet everyone. Ten minutes after I arrived at the airport, they put me in a van to go to school. The driver got lost many times and so the supposedly 1 hour trip took at least 2 hours. When I finally got to school, everyone was in class and the Korean counter teachers were busy with parents registering new students for the upcoming session. I just sat in the middle of the lobby with my suitcases around me until Dave came by to tell me that I could go set in the teachers' lounge where it was more comfortable. Things quieted down and the counter teachers came into the lounge to take a break. They gave me some juice and pizza and then class was over. All the other teachers came into the lounge which was all just a blur of meeting people as they are running around, carrying on other conversations and gathering their coats and bags. My manager drove me to my apartment where my building mate Dave showed me how things work. Then it was off to have Korean barbeque with some of the other teachers even though I was so tired and out of it that I wasn't hungry and couldn't carry a conversation.

But now, after only two months, I'm not the new teacher anymore. That's a great feeling. Being the new teacher is a little rough. You feel like you're always under scrutiny, and even though you're trying so hard to do everything right, you inevitably screw something up and get told about it.
The first month I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. I was trying to remember everything that everyone had told me during my training week, but the minute class started, I forget almost all of that. I was amazed that the other teachers could prepare so quickly for the classes while I was coming in early almost every day trying to stay on top of things. On top of all the classroom stuff, you're trying to figure out how you fit in with the rest of the teachers and get adjusted to living in Korea.
When the second month started, I was much more wiser. I had learned the little tricks and hints from experience. I knew what worked and didn't work. I had mastered the art of prepping for my classes for maximum results with minimum time. I was determined not to make the same mistakes again. I felt more at ease with the other teachers and became part of the group. My apartment started to actually feel like home. I developed my everyday routines.
Now, at the beginning of my third month teaching (and the beginning of another session at school - same students, different levels), it's strange and somewhat comforting to see the new teachers going through the same process I did. Even though they don't say anything, you can almost read the thoughts going through their mind. And you're rooting for them. You want them to succeed. You want them to do great. You want to welcome them into the group.

I'm excited that from the first day of classes for this session on Thursday, I am officially no longer the new teacher. I also know that the new teachers are going to soon start counting down the weeks until they can hand over the new teacher title to someone else.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

What's in a name?

Yesterday, for some strange reason, turned out to be Name Change Day in my Junior 4 class. It started when a boy named John asked if he could change his name because it was too common. The name change spark quickly spread because within a minute, half of the class was asking if they could change their names too.
Most of the students at our school have an English name that they have acquired in some way, usually either by picking it themselves when they start English classes or when one of the teachers gives them an English name. Some of my students either don't want or refuse to have an English name and so they write their Korean name in phonetic English.
English names are a great source of amusement amoung all the teachers. There is a sort of under-the-table contest as to who can give their students the best English names. Sharon is very proud of the student she named Keanu. Dave somehow convinced a boy to take the name Agamemnon (the leader of the Greeks from the movie Troy). Mandie had a girl one day try to rename herself Christ - not Christine, Christy, or Christina, but just plain Christ, which Mandie would not allow. I don't have any good contest entries yet, although myself and the other teachers who are fans of Talladega Nights are waiting for the day when we can brag about having a Walker and a Texas Ranger in our class.
Some students choose their English names wisely. For example, I have a new girl named Tyra (after Tyra Banks the supermodel). Other students don't choose as well, like Francis, a mischieveous and loud 14 year old boy who is about as big as I am. One interesting name phenonomon is that I have 3 students named June - all of them boys.
I helped one boy get a cool English name by writing his Korean name - Jae Kyu - as Jay Q, cousin of rapper Jay Z. He wasn't too sure about that at first, but he's slowly accepted the fact that that is how I am going to write his name, especially after he saw that the counter had written it Jay Q on the attendance form.
I don't want to force my students to have English names, but I keep a list of names in the back of my planner for days like yesterday when they decide that it is time to change. There is one exception though. I had a student who went by his Korean name, Yeolyee. As hard as I tried, I could not pronounce it right. By the third day of class, I could tell he was getting frustrated as I repeatedly said it wrong and the other students giggled. So I told he would just have to pick an English name. I wrote about 4 or 5 names up on the board and let him pick one - Nick. Now that I can say! This strategy doesn't always work. I had a student with the Korean name Min Churl. I suggested the English name Mitchell since it sounds similar but it a lot easier for me to say. The whole class started laughing when I said it though, it turns out Mitchell sounds like a bad work in Korean.
One day in my Senior 1 class, I was writing my full name on the board when the students became curious as to why I had 3 names. After I explained the idea of a middle name to them, 2 of the most eager students in the class said that they wanted to have a middle name right then and there. I ended up giving Rosie my sister's middle name and Jason my brother's middle names.
Playing the name game is fun. In Junior 4 yesterday, Rosa switched colors and became Violet. Tina who sits by Jennifer became Jenny and Jennifer became Leah. Daphne decided she wanted a long name like Elizabeth (the British Queen). Kyeong Jin didn't hear a name that she liked. And finally, John didn't have time to choose a new name before the class bell rang so he's going to have to endure 1 more day of being common.
By the way, most of the names on my list are the names of my friends, characters from my favorite tv shows/movies/books, and other names that I think sound cool. If you have any cool but not too strange name ideas, please send them my way.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Korean/American Penpals

Here are some pictures of my Senior 1 class writing penpal letters to my brother's 8th grade class in the US. I got the penpal idea from Mandie who had tried to do it with her class, but never got it off the ground. Luckily, my brother's teacher loved the idea and has been great emailing me to get it started.

When I first told my students about writing letters to American students, they were confused and somewhat skeptical, thinking it was just another one of crazy Amy Teacher's ideas. But once we started talking about things to write about, their eyes lit up with excitement and they couldn't wait to start writing. I brought in special stationary for them to write a final nice version of their letters before I scanned them and sent them by email to the US. I also took pictures of my students and every day they ask me when the letters and pictures from the US are going to arrive. Here are some excerpts from their letters:

From Mark - "I am from Korea where are you from? I want visit to you. Do you like kimchi? I like very well. I want you to come to Korea. Korea is very good world." Several students wrote about kimchi since I suggested that they tell the American students about Korea. I think I'm going to have include an explanation of kimchi, which is cabbage pickled in a spicy red sauce and served with everything, for the American teacher.

From Ally - "What kind of food do you like? I like steak and pizza, but it is make me fat. I don't like dog meet, because it is gross." Maybe I should include another explanation about how dog food is a delicacy in Korea and people don't just kill their pet dogs when they get hungry.

From Jasmin - "My grade is 6. 6 grade is the best grade in Korean elementary school. This is different from the U.S.A. I heard American students (You) don't have to go to academy from my teacher. Wow! Most of students in Korea have to go to 1 or 2 or 3 academies. How I envy you!" My students were shocked when I told them that American students only go to school from 8 am to 3 pm and don't have to go to any special study academies afterwards. For most of my students, English school is just one of the many extra academies they have to attend after their regular school.

I hope that through exchanging letters, I can open up the eyes and minds of both the Korean and American students to another way of life halfway around the world. I want them to realize that the world is a big place, with lots of differences between countries and cultures, but that it is possible to make friendships with someone of a different nationality, race, religion, and culture than you.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Lessons I have learned from my students

Remember what I said about my Basic kids drawing pictures of Chick being roasted over a fire. Well, here are some photos of that. They make me laugh & I hope they make you laugh too.
My Senior level students have to write 5-7 essays a month. As time consuming and painstakingly frustrating as they are to correct sometimes (Have you ever tried to read misspelled English in broken grammar with unclear sentence structure and make sense of it?), I actually really enjoy them because they give me a great insight into the lives of my students. Here are some of my favorite excerpts.
Topic - If I could visit any place in the world, where would I go and why
"I want to go North Korea. They are poor. South Korea give food for them. I want to go Norht Korea, but present South Korea people doesn't go there. But futher we are going to there. We are figting a long time, but now we're have a rest. We don't know when again figting. I have some picture, but I thing 'It is realy?' I want see North Korea from my eyes.......I want to go to USA. They all fat people in USA. They eat only hambuger, meat, chiken, and pizza all day. USA people have a gun, that is dangerous for other people." This is from Ally - a very quiet girl with a shy sweet smile who is very open and honest in all her writing.
Relations with North Korea are very important here. Articles about the issue daily occupy at least half of the opinions section of the newspaper and at least 1 front page story refers to North Korea. This is especially true after the signs of progress made at the latest talks in February in which North Korea agreed to shut down their main nuclear facility in return for fuel aid.
Topic - What are you scared of and why?
"First I am scared of my father. They're very scarey. My father is very tall and strong. He shouts at me. My ears are very aching. When my father is very agnry he hits me. He hits me everywhere. I'm very sick I'm scared of my father." This is from Andy - a boy bigger than me who usually doesn't talk much, but everynow and then lets a big grin cross his face. Unfortunately, what we would consider child abuse in the US is very common and an ingrained part of Korean culture. It was very hard to read Andy's essay and those of several other students, including Ally, who wrote that they were scared of getting hit or yelled out by their parents, especially since I am powerless to do anything about it other than make sure to make sure my class is a positive experience and atmosphere for my students.
Through reading and class discussion, my students teach me certain and rather unusual Korean words. For example, the Korean word for trampoline is "bahng bahng" which is you say it sounds like the noise you make jumping up and down on a trampoline. Sometimes, an English word sounds like a Korean word - the English word "copy" for example is very similar to the Korean word "ko pee" which is a nosebleed. This is not as bad as the word "salsa" though, which has the distinction of sounding remarkably similar to the Korean word for diarrhea "sol sa."
Korean students also sometimes mistakenly believe that an English word they have incorporated into their own language is really a Korean word. For example, most American children would think that pizza or taco are American words and not Italian or Spanish. The other day in one of my Junior classes, when discussing a playground, I started to draw a jungle gym. One 14 year old boy, Joey, excitedly shouted out "jungle gym" from the back corner of the room. "Yes, good!" I said and then proceded to write jungle gym on the board. Joey then quizzically said, "Teacher, jungle gym is an English word?" "Yes, Joey, it is." "Oh."

Friday, March 16, 2007

How much is it?

Today, I was walking in the shopping area near school on my way to get a cup of tea and just sit outside and enjoy the wonderful weather for a few minutes before going into work when I was stopped in my tracks by 2 Korean women. I knew right away what they were going to do - try to convert me. This has already happened a few times to me when I have been out with my friends, but this was my first time solo.
Sure enough, these women smiled at me and then pulled out their literature, which conveniently enough is always in English. I tried to just smile back, politely decline, and keep on walking, but these women were good. One stood practically in front of me and the other came out me from the side. They started opening up their binders and talking to me in Korean of course.
I had learned how to say "I don't know" so I started saying "Oh-my-oh" while shaking my head. This didn't seem to faze the women at all. They found the English part of their materials and one of them started pointing line by line down the page. The material was basically a series of question & answers, but to make this more fun, it was all about why God should be a woman and why we should worship a Mother God. I immediately started thinking of the Da Vinci Code - interesting, but not for me.
After having to read about two pages line by line, I started quickly thinking of ways to get away. I stopped looking at the paper and stepped back. This started another round of Korean. I said "Oh-my-0h" again several times. This only seemed to encourage more Korean. I really wanted to get away now so I said "sonsaengnim" at pointed at myself and then at my imaginary watch and then in the direction of my school. They understood that so I thought I was in the clear and could make my getaway. But they weren't completely finished.
After talking to me in Korean some more, they indicated that they wanted my phone number. Well, I'm not stupid enough to give it out so I said "opssoyo" which means "I don't have." No problem for them though, one woman decided to give me her phone number. While she is trying to find a piece of paper and a pen, the other woman keeps chattering away in Korean. I can tell that she is asking me questions and expecting answers, but I have no idea what she is talking about so I just play dumb, saying "Oh-my-oh" over and over again, looking clueless, and giggling nervously wondering when is she ever going to figure out that I don't understand anything and stop.
By this time, the other woman has finished writing her phone number. She gives it to me and then I think asks me what time I get off work. I tell her ten pm by holding up my fingers because I've forgetten the time set of numbers. She nods and then says a whole lot back in Korean. By this time, I've resorted to repeating back what they are saying to me as if that way I will magically understand and then staring blankly back at them in silence, since they don't realize that I really truly "Oh-my-oh."
Finally, the telephone woman grabs my hand and I see that she is holding up her other hand with her fingers clenched into a fist except for the pinky finger that is sticking out. She waves her hand like she wants me to do the same. Then I think she made me pinky swear to come back and meet her at that same spot after work. All of a sudden, I realize that I am in big trouble. I have no intention of meeting her at all and here I am pinky swearing to do just that. Finally I make a break in the direction of work, but the lady decides she is going to walk me there. When we get to the corner, I firmly turn around and wave good bye and keep on walking, hoping that she really gets the hint this time which thankfully she did.
During our prep period at school, I tell Mandie this story, making sure to emphasize how many times I said "I don't know." At the end of my story, I say "I just don't know why she didn't understand me when I was saying 'Oh-my-oh.'" Mandie pauses and then says, "You were asking her 'how much?'" It was my turn to pause and then we both started laughing.
In my initial reaction, the first phrase that popped into my head was "Oh-my-oh" or "how much is it?" instead of "Mu-lie-oh" which is the real "I don't know." No wonder those poor ladies were so confused - I was asking them how much it cost to believe in Mother God.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

All the teachers not teaching

All of the teachers at my school (except 1) got together this past Saturday night for a big going away/wedding potluck supper party. In the picture there are (from right to left): Matt (with half his head cut off), Matt's friend Sarah who works at another branch of our school, Matt's friend Emeil who works at a university in Seoul, Mandie, me, Victor, Gina, Annette, Sharon, Dave, and Neil. There are only 10 teachers at my school and we are all really close. Thankfully, everyone is fun to hang out with and easy going. We usually celebrate Fridays by going out to eat after we get off work. Not many restaurants in our area are open after 10 pm so sometimes it's a little difficult, but Korean barbeque places are always open as a good reliable standby.

The party was to celebrate Gina, a Korean who grew up with her parents in Saudi Arabia, who is getting married in a few weeks. It was also to commemorate Victor, an Australian Malaysian, who is leaving our school in 2 weeks and Neil and Annette, a couple from South Africa, who are leaving at the end of March.
As for the rest of the teachers: Dave, Matt, Sharon, and the missing teacher Joanna are all from Canada. Dave is my building mate; he lives a floor below me. Mandie & I are the token Americans. When I tell my students that I am from the USA, they look at me in disbelief and question me if I am really from America. A majority of the English teachers here are from Canada and most Americans in Korea are military so the students are a little surprised to have an American teacher.

Before I came, my friend from college, Mandie was emailing me about how glad the other teachers were that I was coming since the teacher I was replacing was a bit of a jerk that no one liked (which was fine, because he didn't like any of them). I thought it was strange that the rest of the teachers already liked me before they even met me, but now I realize how big a deal it is to get a new teacher.

I was the first new teacher at my school in 5 months, but we are starting to enter a big transition period. 3 teachers in March, 1 at the end of April, and 3 more over the summer. Since our school is so small and our group so tight-knit, it is nervous getting new teachers. You hope that they are going to be neat people who will be able to become part of the group. You hope they will be fun, interesting people who will want to get together on the weekends. You hope they won't be strange and weird and mean and self-isolating.

Even though I knew Mandie before going to Korea, I still found it kind of difficult at first to find my place within the group. Everyone was great and friendly and wanted me to fit in, but it's still hard figuring that out. It felt like when you join a conference staff partway through a cycle. Everyone else has already formed a bond, and as nice as they are to you, you still feel like an outsider for a while, until you have formed a bond with them. But now I have.

The party was so much fun and it felt like I had known these people for more than 7 weeks. We had a late meal and later went to a noraebang - a place where you rent a room to sing karaoke with all your friends.

Emeil and Sarah

Mandie and me
Matt and Sharon
Victor, Gina, and Annette

Monday, March 5, 2007

School Days

These pictures are of the outside of my school's building. The school is in the middle of a few blocks filled with all kinds of small shops and restaurants. My school is called a hagwon in Korea. Hagwons are essentially private academies that students go to after their regular schools for special instruction. Sometimes it is easy to tell that the students do not really want to be there, but have to attend because their parents want them to improve their English. I have 5 classes and about 60 students total. I have 3 classes on Mon/Wed/Fri for 2 hours each and 2 classes on Tues/Thurs for 3 hours each. Those can be really rough, even though there is a short 10 minute break, 3 hours is a really long time to expect a group of 11 year olds to be attentive. At my school, the students are divided by both level and age. I have 1 basic or beginner class, 2 junior or middle level classes, and 2 senior or high level classes. For most of the class time, we read story books and I ask a lot of questions and try to start conversations. Then we move onto grammar which neither they nor I like doing. The downside to this is having to stick to a strict schedule determined by the school which forces us to move through the material really fast. It also makes us use rather dumb story books. It is hard to make the books interesting and age appropriate, yet readable for the students' level. My basic students have demonstrated their dislike of the books by drawing pictures on the whiteboard before class that show one of the characters from a book - a fat chick called Chunk - being spit roasted over a fire. It's hard not to laugh with them, instead I pretend to be overly shocked and upset that they are destroying a beloved character.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

I never thought I would do this...

...but I found that I am just too lazy to try to keep sending out emails to lots of people writing the same thing over and over again when i could just do something like this and let everyone know everything all at the same time. someone suggested this to me before i left but i just kind of laughed at the idea. now i realize maybe there was some wisdom there that i ignored.

anyway, the best place to start is my apartment. as you can tell from the pictures, it's small. but hey, it's all mine and i don't have to pay for it. no complaints there.

so that is the grand tour of my study, living room, kitchen, and bedroom all conveniently located within about 5 feet of each other in a space as big as my brother's bedroom.
my building is nice though and much smaller than all the 20+ story apartment buildings all over my neighborhood like this "blue apartment complex" that i walk thorough every day on the way to school.
you would think that it would be really difficult to move furniture in and out of these apartments, but it's actually quite easy. each apartment has a big window that can basically be completely opened. then, the moving truck actually has a crane & platform kind of thing. so, the window is opened; furniture and boxes are placed onto the platform; the crane takes it directly up to the apartment where it is unloaded and then sent back down for another load. it can be kind of fun to watch.