Monday, June 29, 2009

Turtles Make a House a Home

From the age of about 13, up until I moved out of my parents' house at an age I shan't relate here, I owned an aquarium. I started with a 10 gallon with the usual guppies and neon tetras, before moving onto a fine 33 gallon full of beautiful fishies and plants.

I really loved being in my bedroom at that time, and having an aquarium was a big part of it. There's something very soothing about looking at perfectly lit fish, coral, and plants - a foreign environment behind the glass in a place where you rest your own weary head.

This past Saturday, my friends Dee and Glen came-up to my neck of the woods to drop-off their two little friends - two water-friendly turtles that they had themselves inherited from previous ESL teachers in Korea who had to head home. Dee and Glen will be heading back to Canada soon, and though they were reluctant to part with their babies, they were happy to pass-on the little beasts to a turtle-friendly fellow such as myself.

I'm actually very happy to have them here. The light from the overhead lamp makes my place even more homey, and there's something about the sound of falling water. I decided to go the distance and set the little dudes up with a 10 gallon aquarium with a water-fall filter and submersible heater to keep their water consistent and clean. So far, they've been quite giddy about their new place - drying themselves up on their rocks, and swimming in their deeper water like mad turtles. I don't think the little guy has stopped diving off of his rock and cruising around his new digs.

Anyway, as a dude who had actually been considering getting another kind of pet while here this year (hedgehogs did come-up in conversation), I'm happy to instead take-on the responsibility that's been passed-down to now the 3 generation of turtle owners.

I'm quite glad about the result too. I've had some strange pets in my time - hermit crabs and geckos come to mind. But these little dudes are pretty great. They don't mind being held, they love running around the apartment floor for exercise (and I do mean RUN), and they are just effing cute.

So, I am now a Korean pet owner with some little friends looking for new names. Don't blame me if I bail out of evening plans to instead sit at home with a cup of hot tea and a copy of "In Praise of Slow." Thanks for trusting me with your little babies.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Pez Handel

Last night, I attended a pipe organ concert with the music teacher from my school. She majored in the instrument in university and she is a student of the classical genre, so it was both enlightening and entertaining to go with her to something that I would never realistically seek-out on my own.

The pipe organ is a curious instrument. It produces sounds that you naturally can only hear directly from a few select places on Earth - most of them being places "of God." It's really only comparatively recently that secular places have included them in their own performance architecture. Calgary's own Jack Singer Concert Hall has one of the largest pipe organs in Canada, though I've never heard it played. The one here at Seoul in Sejong Arts Centre is named as the largest in Asia - it's an impressive site, and it's pretty amazing to see the little doors and walls open and close to produce the higher octaves.

But it is a curious instrument. I asked 성숙 what drew here to the instrument - away from the piano - in university, and she replied that it was the complexity and power that drew her there. Fair enough. There were times last night when David Sanger, the organist brought in for the concert, looked like Captain Nemo stirring the depths in his Nautilus and playing his pipe organ like a madman - feet dancing across the pedals and hands flying across five sets of keys and hundreds of stops. At times, the music was undeniably stirring and it shook the concert hall. There were other times however when it was just plain weird. I'm not sure that the pipe organ is something I could listen to with regularity outside of perhaps 1930s horror films or the 1970s era Chicago Stadium.

The Hallelujah Chorus, with the addition of a 50 piece orchestra and a 40 member chorus was certainly a highlight, but the most memorable moment was when an empty seat in the row in front of us was suddenly occupied. Neither 성숙 or I had seen the person enter the seat, but suddenly, there she was - just this non-descript head of black hair. 성숙 pointed at the strangers head in fear, just as the organist launched into a particularly sinister moment in his concerto. I remarked that the woman was a ghost and that she had no face. 성숙 then leaned forward to look more closely at the woman's face from the side and reported back to me in ominous tones that she, the woman, had "one eye".

I realize that the humour doesn't translate in written form, but that was enough to send us both into quivering, then crying, giggling hysterics. For about 5 minutes we had tears streaming down our faces, trying to not be too conspicuous in the concert hall. The only comparable moment that comes to mind is this.

The concert was interesting, but it left me rather cold regarding the instrument. It's big, it's complex, it's purposes seem designed for the grand, for the masses, not for the personal. Of course, that depends on what is being played, who is playing, and for whom. When we got back to 성숙's apartment, I asked her to play something on her own rather gargantuan pipe organ that takes-up more than half of her home office. After some protest, she reluctantly sat down and gently played an impossibly layered and symphonic version of "Happy Birthday." It was, as she would say "my joke."

So here's to the June birthday's in my life - most notably, Shaners, Pauline, my Auntie, my Dad, and my best friend in Korea who I will be celebrating with this evening.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

A moment of clarity

I've been pretty low-key this past week. For a few reasons, really, I seem to be having a hard time motivating myself to prepare for work outside of work. Last year, it really wasn't a problem, but the combination of different content in the classroom, a different structure to my teaching position, and just plain-old not feeling 100% for too long have made me into a bit of a procrastinator. I am still giving my best effort in the classroom, but I'm not quite seeing the direction I'm going in in regards to work these days.

I recently conducted speaking tests with my students in both grade 7 and grade 9. The results were, as expected, quite mixed. For anyone who knew the content of our hagwon teaching last year, you can know immediately about which I speak when I tell you that the speaking tests at my public middle school consist mainly of very repetitive, basic, and, unfortunately, banal conversation. This is born out of necessity - or at least the way in which the school and my classes have been structured.

I'm not going to lie though... it's kind of been getting me down lately. When you only see some students once every two weeks for 45 minutes, you don't really get to know them that well. That's just the way it is. You also don't get to have any really substantial or fair measure for their progress. Since I am not responsible for report card writing for anyone aside from my after-school club students, I am left with these bi-monthly speaking tests as my only real quantifiable gauge for my students' progress. It's a bit disappointing to say the least, but since I see over 700 students, report cards are not anything approaching realistic either.

So, sitting down to conduct these tests, which involve the most rudimentary of dialogues, I just started to feel a bit down. I know that my students value me - like most other foreign teachers here, I'm sure, I am always greeted with smiles, high-fives, and excited voices in the hallways and in the schoolyard, but for many students - once inside the classroom, they simply shut-down.

I remember remarking to a colleague last year that I was really interested in teaching a high level class (upper-middle school students who were planning on studying abroad) because I was needing a break from the basic early-level stuff. She more or less laughed at me and told me that I shouldn't be teaching ESL, then.

In retrospect, that's a fair comment. I think that even the most experienced and highly-trained teachers can at times feel lost. I am of course telling myself that to make myself feel better, but I also think there's enough truth there. In the world of ESL, you are limited in ways that I didn't quite anticipate. While it was easy in my classes last year of 10-14 students to communicate about ideas, this year, in classes that sometimes consist of 36 students - none of whom have anything approaching the English skill of my students last year, I am simply unequipped to talk about ideas in the classroom. The time doesn't allow for it, the language barrier doesn't allow for it, and the structure of the curriculum along with it's set goals certainly doesn't encourage it.

Well there you go... don't know if I'm quite ready to throw-out a flippant two-word condemnation for an entire country, but there's a little airing of negativity for you. Last year I could pretend for a while that I was an English Language Junior High School teacher - diving into comparatively obscure short work from Twain and Plath and actually bridging the language divide through the exploration of some very heady stuff.

That experience is just unavailable in my current environment. I have students (some low-level grade 7s, mind you) who are completely content to never learn a word of English in their year with me - at least that's what their performances have dictated. When students disregard the previous three months and throw-away a speaking test with a shrug and a show of complete lack of retention, I can't help but wonder what exactly my purpose here is. I am able to snap-out of it and value my place here, but I just have to re-centre myself if the rest of this contract is going to play-out well. Like I don't believe that I could successfully teach Elementary school back in Canada - a healthy fear that too much "Elementary" speak would limit my own intellectual progress, I'm not sure that I could remain in this teaching environment for more than one year. I watch the Korean language teachers create activities and events for their students - things that come from a genuine and realistic desire to connect about more dynamic concepts, and then I look at my text book, which is asking me to achieve what seems to be so comparatively insignificant.

This is the trap - I know that. Language acquisition doesn't happen fast for most, and trying to learn with 35 easily distracted classmates surrounding you can't be easy. Still, my head needs to be in the game. I feel that part of what I need is a dose of University-level conversation to clear my mind, and to remember that I can actually speak in complex sentences still. My students deserve to be inspired, and with all of these obstacles that I see in my way when it comes to making those 45 minutes of class engaging enough, well... I guess I just need to stop placing those obstacles there of my own volition. I have been inspired though - some students have really surprised me with their sudden interest born from a good effort in class one day, and a little encouragement to help it along.

It's about small steps for these kids. I need to keep reminding myself of a few things: that no teaching environment is perfect, that not every student is going to possess the desire to learn a second language, and those that do are going to need to do so at a speed that doesn't allow for the introduction of Mark Twain's "What Stumped the Blue Jays." It's too obvious, but I'll say it anyway with the hope that my putting it in writing will wake me up: it is also about me, but my time with my students is more about them.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Neo Citran

I feel like absolute trash today. I've had a fever the last couple of days and finally went to a doctor yesterday. By noon, I feel like I could fall down. Thankfully, people at work have been amazingly kind and some have even brought me care packages full of goodies like orange juice and tea to make me feel better. I'm at least on some drugs now, so here's hoping there will be some good coming out of that.

Aside from the feeling like garbage, I have to say that I've had what maybe amounts to one of my best two weeks in Korea. It involves a 3-day trip during which it feels as though I saw more of South Korea than I did during the entirety of last year, a trip to Children's Grand Park with my grade 7 classes today, a language exchange beginning with some of the teachers at my school, connecting with my students and teachers in a way I never thought possible, a first birthday party for my friend's baby boy tomorrow, and a handful of happy surprises along the way.

Of course, I would love to blog about all of these things tonight, but as it is, it would be best to leave such description until I'm not being affected by the Neo Citran and copious amounts of drugs I've ingested into my system. Hence - I'll write again in the next couple of days. Things are good.