Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Tuesdays After School

This one’s all about teaching. If that bores you, don’t read on…
As a foreign teacher in a Seoul public school, I am contractually required to teach 22 class hours per week, which may or may not seem like a lot, depending on your own teaching experience or lack thereof. I arrive at school at 8:30, and I’m out sometime between 5 and 7 on average (4:30 being the time I’m “allowed” to leave, though rarely do I actually get to go at said time unless I want to be unprepared for the next day). This gives me 9.5 “at school” hours per day on average.

Back at my hagwon, I arrived at school at 2:00PM, prepared until the first class started at 4:00, and then left shortly after classes finished at 10 – unless of course there were some online essays to grade.

In short, I teach less at my current school, but I prepare with more regularity.
Part of what’s adding to this additional prep time is the three after-school classes I run each week. Mondays and Wednesdays each give me a class of 15 relatively high-level students for 1.5 hours from 3:30-5:00 PM. These two groups are honestly the high-point of my week – more to come on them later. Today however, I will talk about my Tuesday low-level class.

Basically, it’s like this: I only teach 20 class hours per week (15 grade 7 classes and 5 grade 9 classes in week 1, and 15 grade 8 classes plus the remaining 5 grade 9 classes in week 2). That means that I am teaching ALL of the school’s population of over 1200 students. Dilute me enough, and to most of the students who only see me once every two weeks, it’s like they don’t have a native English teacher at all. Speaking to my other teacher friends who only teach one or two grades at their schools, my situation seems more and more moronic, but I digress…

So, this low-level Tuesday class, which too runs from 3:30 – 5:00 PM, is populated with low-level grade 8 students. Now, its’ entirely possible that these students have any number of learning disabilities, though they are not part of the special-education classes that go on at our school. Who they are, are students who have been in the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education English Language Program since grade 1 – that adds-up to just over 7 years of English language lessons – 3 days a week.

So, imagine my sense of discouragement on day one of the class when I discover that 4 of the 7 students cannot read in English. They are not actually able to sound out words at all – even from the simplest examples. I am talking “man”, “dog”, and “bat”, here.

I could go on and on about why, when my Tuesdays come to an end, I feel like I’ve been through the grinder, but it’ll do the trick to relate a simple story from today…
After last week’s debacle when I tried to teach the concept of pronouns – words such as “it” and “they” replacing words like “shoe” and “shoes” - I tried to bring it back to basics. I wrote (in English AND Korean from this point on) the word “noun”, which broke down into its three common forms: people, places, and things. Remember, I am spelling these in Korean as well and checking for comprehension. I then start off with 4 vocabulary words for each category:

Things (banana, bread, shoes, bat)
People (man, woman, boy, girl)
Places (room, park, home, school)

Each word had been (by me in my spare periods today) printed, cut, placed onto colored paper and laminated as flashcards. In class, each card was then read aloud, while students were encouraged to give me the Korean words for these items. They were also asked to determine which category they were to fall under. We did this as a group in a game format and the students seemed to understand. Words they couldn’t name in Korean, were named and recorded on the board by me.

I then lined-up the cards face-down on the central desk with additional category cards “person”, “place” etc. (one for each name card) in the grouping. We played a traditional game of memory, with students having to find a noun and then its appropriate category to make a match “boy” and “person” etc.

Aside from the frequent instances of having to sometimes physically turn students’ heads away from the window, or take cell-phones away from them, I started to feel like this week’s class might actually be accomplishing something – finally, I had been aiming right at their level – if they could learn 12 new vocabulary words (which, after 7 years of learning the language, should not have been new) and know which noun category they fall under, the more than 2 hours of preparation and 1.5 hours of teaching might have actually been worth it.

To prove my point, I asked one student to take her winning memory word, “bread” (빵) and tell me which category it fell under. The categories were still up on the board, with the Korean names still under them. She considered the word for a moment – a word which had a picture of bread beside it, mind you – then considered the board, and gave me her answer: “Sa-ram” (person).

After 3.5 hours of planning and teaching 12 “new” nouns, to this student, “bread” was now a sentient being capable of emotion. It was then that I looked around the room at the rest of the students who were engaging in a combination of the following: a) breathing through their mouths, b) gumming the plastic noun pieces from our literacy set, or c) staring expectantly at me as they likely saw nothing wrong with their fellow students’ assertion that “bread” was indeed a person.


It’s not inaccurate to say that I at that moment felt like I was presiding over a newly hatched cuckoo’s nest in the middle of ESL group therapy.

So, it’s back to the drawing board. The madness of it all comes in knowing that I will be giving these students the same speaking test as all the other grade 8 students later this week. Today, they can’t pronounce “boy”, they likely think that a “woman” is a “thing” and a “banana” is a place, and on Friday, they will be expected to have a brief conversation about whether or not either of us have ever been to Jeju Island and what it was like when we were there. Regardless of their score, or the scores from the rest of the year’s tests, they will find themselves next year in grade 9, going through the same thing. The reality of this makes me crazy, and yet I’m actually thinking of giving that bread/person thing another shot. If I can’t make that stick properly, what good am I?

Anyway, my Monday and Wednesday after-school classes are well worth the lunacy of my Tuesdays. I will write about them next time, and I’ll continue to hope that something can be salvaged with my Tuesday group. They are clear products of a, let's say "less-than-perfect", system. At least I’m learning more Korean.


Anonymous said...

Maybe the kid who thinks bread is a person is just a fundamentalist Christian fresh outta his Tuesday communion. Tell that guy to proselytize ELSEWHERE.

Hang in there buddy!

George Bailey Sees The World! said...


Your comments are like fresh Spring air - free of yellow dust and kimchi/soju sweat smell. Thank you.