Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Head against wall...

I've been pretty fortunate this week. Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday were exam days for all students in the school, which meant no teaching and early home time if needed. It was nice to have the freedom, but it came with some frustrations too.

I've had a difficult time of late getting into my lessons. I realize that a lot of this comes from the nature of my role in the school, some of it comes from me and my own inconsistent ability to commit to a project at times, but more of it lately seems to be coming from my co-teachers who seem, well - a little reluctant to let me expand my role beyond that of "hired gun."

Don't get me wrong - I really enjoy my co-teachers and I have decent relationships with each of them - both on a professional and more personal/friendly level. However, I feel like I need to air some things that have been getting to me lately. It may sound petty, but here goes...

I realize that this makes me sound like the ultimate nerd, but I would like to have more responsibilities at work. I mentioned this in my previous post, but it bears repeating that I am really feeling the lack of purpose inherent in my job as a Native English Speaking teacher in my school. I'm trying to remedy this, but it seems like I'm the only one who sees any problem here.

Essentially, my job boils down to teaching two lessons a week to 20 classes. In addition to this, I am at times responsible for running after-school sessions with select groups of kids. This is a welcome respite from the monotony of repeating the same lesson throughout the week in my regular classes, but my after-school stuff needs some re-tooling as well.

Basically, my issue is this: I want to be a better teacher, but my co-teachers don't seem to think that there's any problem with what I do. I recognize that I have high standards for myself, but what I'm wanting to achieve at this school is not that unreachable - it just seems to be out of my grasp at present. I'm trying to find a way to work with my team of co-teachers to create lessons that will work with our students, and will make me feel that there is some real learning going on in my classroom.

Sadly, my school also seems to be the land of mixed messages. At the beginning of the year, I was told to have meetings with my co-teachers once a week to discuss lesson plans and to make sure that we are on the right track. In some work environments, I would say that weekly meetings are a pain-in-the-ass waste of time an serve only to satisfy micro-managers who are seeking to be in the know as opposed to seeking productivity from their employers, but here in an ESL teaching environment, I feel it's necessary to touch base each week - even for fifteen minutes. I'm trying to communicate that I'm not satisfied with what goes on in my classroom, and I'm looking for way to work together to change that. People look at me like I've got 8 heads when I suggest such a thing. I don't know.

But I do know that part of the problem is working with so many different teachers - each with her own style of discipline and classroom management, or, more accurately, lack thereof. If one thing needs to be solved soon, it's coming to an agreement on what rules we can have in the classroom so that our 45 minute classes can have at least 30 minutes of productivity. 15 doesn't really cut it for me. When I approach some of my co-teachers about this, they respond by telling me that they are more "mild" with their students when they are teaching on their own. "Mild"? Yes - as in they don't discipline at all. Apparently, when I'm not around, and my co-teachers are running classes on their own, nobody pays attention in class - at all. They admit that they let their students talk because it's too much work to get their attention. Ummm...

I'm really not that strict a guy. I like to have fun in the classroom and I like to have my kids feel comfortable and laugh on occasion. All I ask in return is that they try to listen to me and to each other. In a class of 36 grade 3 middle school students, maybe 10 will pay attention enough to understand enough of the lesson and to be able to participate to the best of their abilities. Paying attention, and trying - that's really all I ask. It drives me mental to see the other 2/3 of the class just tune-out, draw on their desks, and start talking to each other while I'm explaining an activity - all this while my co-teacher sits idly by and wonders why I'm getting frustrated.

Every school is different. Every Native English teacher here has different challenges, and I do consider myself to be pretty lucky in most regards. I'm just trying to be a better teacher, and I'm looking for a little bit of teamwork to achieve that goal. It's hard to get started though when people don't see there being a problem. It's tough to plan lessons when I don't see the collective goals of the school or the program. My textbook seems like a rag-tag patchwork collection of random phrases with little-to-no context upon which students can start to build an understanding of a second language. We NEED to talk about how to make their time in the English classroom more usefully spent.

The other day, I walked into my English Only classroom after lunch to see all of my co-teachers having a meeting - I was the only one not invited. What were they meeting about? They were choosing the new English text books for next year. I wonder why they thought that the opinion of the only native English speaker at their school (who also has friends in the English publishing industry here in Korea, who also has 7 years of library experience) wouldn't have a valuable opinion to count among many in regards to what text books we use in class next year. This is not a case of me over-stepping my bounds, or getting involved where I shouldn't. I think it's more a case of my school having the lowest expectations possible and believing that the easier my job is - the happier I will be. Ummm... no. Seriously, people - give me something worthwhile - let me contribute in the best way I can. If anyone knew me at work last year, they would know that it's in my nature to work hard at school. It's what I love - why wouldn't I want to put the work in? I guess I'm saying that I'm not satisfied with "collecting a paycheck", which is all that most schools here assume foreign teachers care about.

Something needs to change. My teachers are so kind to me - they took me out for wonderful 3 hour lunches each day this week after exams. They treat me with respect when they see me, and they seem to care about me. That's nice. Now, if only I could convince them to have a meeting to talk about what actually happens in the classroom. It's tough to plan and deliver lessons when I'm doing it in the dark.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Feeling like a real teacher again

As I've mentioned ad nauseum, teaching in my current environment has a tendency to make me feel like a bit of a fraud. You know, I'm there, but my actual class and its suggested outcomes seem to be of little consequence - at least in terms of measurable goals for my students. I'll get back into that once I've been able to consider it from another angle. For now though, I'm pretty happy to be back marking essays on a Tuesday night.

That probably wouldn't surprise anyone who reads this. I love reading what my kids think, so thankfully I was asked to run an essay workshop for some of 정경아's Saturday English club. Almost all of the students in it are a high level and are able to approach writing English essays - some of them for the first time.

I was there in the class for just over two hours while they worked to write a short 5 paragraph essay according to the format we suggested. It was very cool for me to notice, in some cases for the first time, that some of my students are actually able to process English at an effective enough level to write decent essays - ones that might compare favourably to some of the essays I received from my higher level hagwon students last year. Clearly, some of my students go to hagwons.

This has really buoyed me. It's such a relief to know that somewhere in my admittedly necessarily repetitive day, there are some students who are wanting and are able to explore the language at a deeper level. I really hope, like all nerdish teachers do, that I get more chances to read their writing, help them express themselves, and get to know them better through this format. Essay writing can be a great human expression once the basic academics of it are second nature and kids are free to start telling their own stories. I really hope this continues. I have a lot of ideas that I don't mind giving the extra work to see through.

In the meantime, students were asked for this first workshop to share their ideas about what 3 aspects of life are most important when thinking of the "ideal family." Of course many of the students stalled enough with the essay format as to lose sight of their original intent. Still, there was one that came through and deserved mention here.

After reading "Ramona and her Father" for summer reading, students were asked to consider what makes the best family. Here's what one student wrote:

From the introduction:

"Many people want to have a husband or wife and they think they must marry, but I didn't think it's right. Marriage isn't important to me, and I want to be a "Choe sik nam" - this means a man that has a professional job and isn't concerned with females."

From the 2nd body paragraph:

An ideal family would have to do the best. This means that a father works hard, a mother does the housework well, and the children study hard."

From the 3rd body paragraph:

"Straightforwardly, I don't like babies. When a baby smiles at me, I smile at him too, but he sobs incessantly. I feel a nervous temperament when this happens."

From the conclusion:

"If I meet a partner who has some of the same ideas as me, I would probably get married with that person. However, finding that partner is very difficult."

This dude will not be getting dates next year in high school, me thinks.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Itty Bitty Puppy

My students found an accessory dog wandering around the school yard today. It didn't have any pink or blue hair, and it wasn't wearing any doggie styles (skirts, boots etc.) Sadly, it also was lacking any ID of any kind.

I took the little beast from my students and let them focus on PE class and, since I was on a break, I took him (I assume that it was a him due to the lack of glam-dog action) to the school nurse who was good enough to call the Korean doggie rescue team (no easy jokes, please). She assured me that this little puff-ball dog would be taken care of and that his owners would be searched for.

It was an old doggie (with stiff hind legs), but a friendly one who was obviously comfortable being carried about by me - so, while we waited for the boys to come get him, I toured the little guy around to some of my favourite classrooms, gave him some water, and made him a little house so he could stay in my room while I taught. I took a copy paper box - about the right size - and made a small hole in the top. He was happy to stick his head through while I carried him about - probably imagining that he was inside a custom-made Loius Vuitton doggie handbag with doggie pads.

I will try to post photos soon, though since I didn't have my camera with me, I had to use my cell phone. I'm not sure how to download that stuff onto my computer, so we'll see what happens.

A cute and polite little fellow who made my challenging Wednesday a little more friendly.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"Aaaaahhhhh! Sheeep!"

I'm at a loss for how to best handle my after school class. Truthfully, I could bitch about it at great length, but that would be tiresome. In a basic sense though - here's what's wrong with it: I have the wrong mixtures of students. It's really that simple.

Okay, I should explain a bit. The after-school clubs for Korean public middle school students are supposed to exist to supplement their regular daytime learning. While many students' parents can afford to visit academies to practice in regular subject areas, most of the students at my school cannot - hence: after-school clubs.

I like the idea. I want to connect more with my kids, and this should provide an opportunity for me to do so. Problem is, not to be too melodramatic about it, but it's kind of set-up for failure. I wasn't given any guidance or suggestions on how the class should run, what the expectations were, or what had gone before. In essence - pretty much my summer camp experience. All I was told was that I would have two separate groups of mixed-grade and mixed level students for 1.5 hours on Tuesday after school, and the other group for the same time on Wednesday afternoons.

I've done everything from story-boarding animated shorts, to creating subject displays for the board outside of my classroom, to writing poetry. I have had mixed success. And why wouldn't I? What was intended, I believe, to be a class where students could practice their spoken English, becomes an exercise in frustration for us all. I have students in middle school grade 3 (grade 9) who could be on an English debate team, alongside students in grade 2 who are not completely familiar with the alphabet. What a great opportunity for role-modeling and mentoring, you say? No - these kids have just finished an entire day of school and are not in the mood for such positivity.

To combat this, I tried suggesting that we separate the group into two groups divided by speaking level - that way, the higher level kids could actually speak to me and to each other in the language they are there to practice, and the lower level kids can engage in activities that aren't way over their heads. No such luck - the time table was set and that was that.

Sadly, things won't be getting better in semester 2, as I just learned that student enrollment in after school clubs is way down across the board and I will only have one day in which to run my one club of 15 mixed-level students. Oh, good.

Well, I'm just going to try something crazy and attempt some kind of theatre stuff for semester 2 and we'll see how they take to that. Could be interesting.

In the meantime though, I'm going with what turned out to be a great go-to game for the ESL classroom. Yes, my nerdish friends, I'm talking about Settlers of Catan. Jenn and Chris inspired me to bring my set out to Korea for year 2, and since I got all decked-out with all the expansion hoo-ha around Christmas time, I'm packing a whole lotta Settlers heat... and I really don't care how geeky that sounds.

My after-school kids started with regular Settlers of Catan today, and if they're ready for it, we might introduce Cities and Knights in a couple of weeks. Hey - these kids are done with learning for the day, so this is a way for me to get them speaking English, which is really the whole point of the thing. The students all have their cost cards which require English to figure-out, and they need to trade with each other on a regular basis. This day, I was fairly lenient, but next week, I'm going to take a resource card for each time that they speak in Korean. "Ahhhhh TEACHER!!! My clay!!!" That's right.
There's something incredibly rewarding about introducing this game to people. Within 15 minutes, I had eye-rolling teens turn into rabid and ruthless sheep barons and wheat thieves. Sadly, I didn't feel comfortable making the usual wood references - even though my students would have had no idea why I was laughing. Still, it was hilarious watching them go bananas over the longest road. It's quite amazing how quickly they can take to the game - even in English class.

My students weren't the only ones who have turned though. A couple of weeks back, some friends and I went to celebrate the birthdays of our freinds, Maria and Lexi at Gungneung - a beach city on the East coast. Awesome get-away, even if the weather wasn't perfect. We threw the football and frisbee around, explored, tried to find a familiar breakfast, and when people were hanging at the minbak, getting a bit blue because of the gray skies, I asked if anyone wanted to play a game.

People looked like they would rather die, but they humoured me. They sat there stone-faced while I explained the rules, but within the same time frame that I gave my students, the light went on. People played in pairs, which added a completely different element to the game. I did this with my kids too. They started strategizing and becoming incredibly bitter toward each other. To the outside observer, it would have been curious at least to see a group of relatively cool adults speak in hushed tones about their strategies: "Well, if we build that way, we could exploit the unused wheat and ore that everyone else is ignoring." That's, right. Andrew and Mike in particular while deep in their planning looked like Bush and Cheney.

So, game ends and we head out for a birthday dinner, to drink, to the beach for fireworks and more drinking, and then guess what 10 slightly inebriated and sleep-deprived adults wanted to do?

Settlers until 3 am - punctuated by random outbursts of "Damn clay!", "Get that f$#@ing robber off my wood!", and "Mike... take a shower..." It appears that all people - drunk and sober, old and young, birthday and unbirthday, just dig on Settlers of Catan. Those are my kind of people. I felt like a proud father... or something. My students might not know what present progressive is, but I'll be damned if they're going to brave this dark world without knowing the value of securing ore and wheat production on a high-probability hex.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Booking Kyoto

A nice relaxing weekend - pretty near perfect as these things go: Beer, pizza, Mukmuk and wee baby action with a friend in Sanbon on Friday night and Saturday morning, a trip to Namsan Tower with a pretty girl on Saturday night, sleeping-in, Bill Maher podcast, omelets and coffee on Sunday morning.

Now, here I am listening to my 112 song Sufjan Stevens collection on itunes - nearly half of which consists of his "Songs for Christmas" CD box-set that I picked-up a few years ago. If this were July or even August, I might hit "skip" and see what other Sufjan action is brought-up by shuffling, but it's well into September, which means not that I'll be listening to Christmas music regularly, but if it comes on inadvertently, I won't turn it off.

Of course, Christmas makes me think of home. When you're living abroad, it can be easy to let the homesick blues creep into your head. I've been fairly lucky in that regard. Skype helps, though it's only a band-aid for actual interaction with people from home. Last year, it was great to have our friend, Dee come stay in Korea for a longer visit, and then to relocate here for work for one year. It was a little unnerving at first to have your worlds collide like that, but it's rewarding when it works out as well as it did.

I'm pretty excited for next month. I've been in Korea now, for what in essence amounts to two years and I'm going to be welcoming my first family visitors next month when my mom and dad make the trek across the Pacific. It's going to be a three week visit - two weeks in Korea, and the better part of one in Japan.

Three weeks might on some ways feel like a long time when three of us will be sharing my apartment. Good thing is, I am lucky enough to have a loft for them to stay in while they are here. I'm making sure to complete all of my lesson planning before they arrive so as to assure that my working day evenings will be free for showing them around. There will be lots to see and do in Korea, though luckily we can kind of wing-it day-to-day - wait and see what the folks are feeling up to instead of checking-off an impossibly long list of places to see and things to do in a tightly scheduled itinerary. I do actually have such a list, however. We won't be short for suggestions, but we won't be piling things on either.

I'll write about the Korea side of their visit soon, but for now, I'm still doing my best to make sure that everything is set for our trek to Japan.

Tickets have been booked for well over a month now, and I have just yesterday received proper confirmation of my re-bookings of the guest houses and hostels we'll be staying at. We are planning four days in Kyoto, and two in Hiroshima before heading back to Seoul for the last bit of my parents' visit. There's a lot to consider, but I would hate to have them make it all the way here and not get to see some of the better parts of Japan that I was able to see on my trip there last August. Speaking of which, I find it very hard to believe that said trip was over a year ago now. Times marches on.

Anyway, booking for my parents was a challenge for me. I'm not a rich man, and mine aren't rich parents. Therefore, staying in the Hyatt or the Four Seasons is not in the cards for any of us. That's actually a blessing, as part of what made my last Japan experience cool was staying in a traditional guest house in Kyoto. Straw mats, wood and paper walls. It was a little traditional oasis in a quieter suburb.

Sadly, the Kyoto guest house I stayed in last year (Guest House Bola-Bola) is fully booked for the time we'll be traveling. The one I booked in it's place, (which shall remain nameless) contacted me the day after the booking and told me that they had a bed bug problem. Crazy. So, yesterday I was somewhat panicked to find a place. The thing is, if it's just me, or me and some friends, we can pretty-much put-up with anything. When I'm showing my parents a piece of Asia for the first time however, I want it to be perfect. I don't want my parents to have to share a dorm room with strangers, I want them to stay in a traditional Japanese-style guest house, and I want them to be in a decent and quiet area of town. We aren't visiting Kyoto for the night life.

Well, after struggling to find a decent place with room for three, I managed to find two in Kyoto, and one in Hiroshima. This means a little bit more moving around in Kyoto, but we'll have better situations once we're there.

At Kyoto, we will be staying first at the at the Roku Roku Guest House. It's split into two buildings - the more modern one being the sleeping quarters, and the traditional one being for reception and lounging. The best part if that Roku Roku is located 150 meters from the Philosopher's Walk - a famous stream and cobblestone path in North East Kyoto. The location should be perfect for our first few days there.

We'll be heading to Nagomi Ryokan-Yuu for our last night. It's more central, and walking distance to Kyoto Station, which will help us to get going to Hiroshima on the 21st. It's also a pretty sweet-looking place. Traditional Japanese wooden house with a few rooms and it'll be close to the central sites of Kyoto - a great place to spend our last night wandering Gion and the Geisha district by the river.

After a bit of panic that finding a place right for our needs was going to be completely unrealistic, I made a few concessions and we are all set. While I would love to be able to afford the high-end Kyoto Ryokans where you get your own silk Kimono and Geisha girls bring you breakfast, I'm not Hugh Hefner. These places will suit us well for our Kyoto experience. I'll write about Hiroshima another time - perhaps after I visit there again with my parents. In the meantime, I'm getting excited about the Kyoto leg of our Japan trip. So many times in Kyoto, I stopped to think about what my family might think of the things I was seeing at the time. Now I'll get to find-out for real, at least in terms of my ma and pa. There are over 2000 temples, shrines, and palaces in Kyoto alone. Lots to fill any 3.5 day itinerary.

Getting excited for the arrival, back to my planning, Korean studying, and maybe, if I'm good, some Deok-Bokki, ice-cream, and a good movie. It's nice to have these low-key weekends, when you've got slosh-ball scheduled for the next.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

An unfortunately bad movie...

There is great Korean cinema, and then there's this. It's not quite the debacle of D-War, but it's not much better. Take Off is based on the "true" story of South Korea's first ski-jumping team that debuted at the Nagano Winter Olympics in 1998. I'm sure that the real story would have been interesting to watch. Too bad that the film-makers filled it with so much Daytime Emmy pablum. 'Tis a shame.

My review can be read by clicking here.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Death in the Everland Family?

Went to Everland yesterday. It was my 7th time there, and this visit was among my best. I suppose nothing will quite top my first visit, in all of Everland's "Christmas Fantasy", splendor, or my second visit, in which an army of friends and co-workers descended upon the park for an entire day of fun and frivolity back in the late spring of 2008.

Still, since then, I've made it a habit to visit Korea's largest theme park on a fairly regular basis. Four visits last year lead me to believe that picking-up an annual pass this year would be a good idea. It was. Each visit - despite rain and ride closures has been worth the bus and subway rides south. Sometimes you just need a little or a lot of cheesy- theme-park fun. Everland is a good provider in this case. I'm lucky enough to have had more than a few friends here who are willing to give Everland a shot - most of whom are immortalized in a T-Express magnet photo on the back of my door.

My seventh visit to Everland was the second visit for the majority of the people I went with yesterday. When we had gone in the spring, the rain slowed us down, and cut our day short, so it was good to go with a 100% guarantee (according to BBC weather) that there would be NO precipitation. All in all, a good day - capped-off with a picnic on mats - placed front and center in the 4 Seasons Garden. Cheap beer in Everland mugs while the fireworks went off over our heads. A good end to the day, even if this year's living arrangement means a 2 hour bus/subway/taxi excursion to get home at the end of the night. It's worth it.

As an update for all those who know and love their Everland, there may have been a death in the family. While the T-Express still reigns majestically as the steepest wooden roller-coaster in the world over the European Adventure section of the park, the park's two other coasters: the relatively mediocre "Rolling X-Train", and my beloved "Eagle's Fortress" have been closed since at least April of this year.

While I don't really mind missing-out on the Rolling X-Train (it's pretty much a carbon copy of any 1 minute, double-looping, double corkscrewing coaster out there), the Eagle's Fortress is not only closed, I received news yesterday that it may never reopen.

For roller-coaster enthusiasts, this is really bad news. It was recently rated as the third best overall coaster in the world by a group of international traveling coaster critics at - quite the feat considering that it is 16 years old and there have been many much faster, bigger, and g-force creating coaster since then. Still, this one kicked a lot of ass. As explains...

"Considered by many to be one of the best suspended coasters out there, Eagle Fortress is worth the trip and entrance fee to Everland alone. As well as being suspended, it's also a terrain coaster, which makes it a truly unique coaster experience. The coaster is built on the side of a mountain, and never reaches more than a few feet above ground level for most of the run. The lift hill takes the train up the side of the mountain, before it does a 180 degree turn and then plummets back town, then following a tight, twisting course through the trees, just skimming the ground. Although the top speed doesn't exceed 40mph, it feels so much faster due to the proximity of the trees and the ground. Also, the insane swinging of the cars, especially in the back of the train, makes for a pretty intense ride. While the location/trees are what makes this coaster great, getting photos is extremely difficult. In fact, most of the layout can't be seen at all from anywhere else in the park."

In short, this ride is grand. There are places in the ride where it nearly inverts. After having visited two times previously this year and having it closed both times, I inquired at guest services at to what the hold-up might be. The unofficial word is that they are planning for a new attraction in that area. Sadly, The Eagle's Fortress is not even on the handy park map that they give you as you come through the gates. It's gone, people. As far as I can tell, the structure is still there, but a lot of it is covered in scaffolding.

Knowing that both Universal Studios and Paramount have announced that they will be building theme parks in the Seoul vicinity (Starting with Universal's Scheduled opening of 2012), Everland has some big shoes to fill in more ways than one. I'm hoping that the scaffolding and tarps simply means a slight makeover and safety reinforcement of the Eagle's Fortress, and not a completely new attraction. I guess we shall see. In the meantime, The T-Express is single-handedly saving Everland's ass. Yes, the fireworks are cool, and Everland has charm to spare - especially at Christmas time, but once The Hulk Coaster, Spider-man, and Dueling Dragons opens-up near Incheon, I predict slow times at Everland, unless they bring their A-game. Come on, Samsung - let's see what you're made of. Let's hope the Eagle hasn't flown its last...