Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Gap

I am sitting at a brand-new Starbucks in Jong-no 3-ga waiting to meet two other teachers to discuss a new curriculum. Jongno-3-ga is a downtown neighbourhood in Seoul not far from where Insadong-gil spills out on the south end. It smells a little too new here, so I ordered a slice of something called “Grandmother’s Apple Pie”, which would be accurate if the grandmother's maiden name were "Crocker." See, I recently had some strawberry/rhubarb pie made by my nephew’s grandmother and that makes this stuff taste not unlike cardboard, but it’ll do.

No internet here tonight, so this'll be posted after I get home.

Gosh… lots to write about. It seems that I do a lot of wanting-to-write, and very little actual writing these days. At least every second day, there’s something very worthwhile I would love to comment on, and when I finally get home, it’s time to fight-back thoughts of forthcoming school-related anxiety before going to bed – something I seem to be getting pretty good at, as the rabbit can attest to – me shooting-out a quick knee-jerk or twist before making a B-line for R.E.M. sleep not more than a minute later. Rage, rage against the dying of the bedside lamp.

First week back, as mentioned before, has been tough. I miss my family. I wonder about the friends I barely got to see and the ones I never saw at all. A shout-out to one in particular who will be completing some sort of circle this September when he stars in a professional production of 12 Angry Men. Greg was a key part of my first step-away into something “more professional” (quotation marks firmly attached) of the same play 7 years ago. Has it really been that long?

Anyway, as I relate to it, I regret not being there to see my friend in his latest role – being that it is such a special one to the both of us.

Staying on the subject of said friend – I have been using a rather appealing photo of him and I in the classroom this week as I told my students about my trip back to Canada over summer vacation. The 12 photos were selected from among at least a couple of hundred, and were chosen to reflect the high points of my trip – minus the engagement (I do want to be chosey about some things I share with my kids before I feel I should). I wanted to show the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains (Banff & Lake Louise), the city I come from (Calgary), and a taste of my family (you know who you are) as well as my friends – in this case, Greg.

It always starts-out the same way. I ask who this guy is.

“Your father!” some student shouts.

“Your grandfather!” offers another.

I love the sounds that are returned when I inform them that the man to my left is my friend, Greg. In Korea, it’s almost inconceivable that friendships between two people with such a supposed age-gap (I actually have no idea how old Greg actually is) would exist outside of the obligation-drenched environment of the workplace. It’s hard for even my teachers to understand how or why Greg, who is NOT a member of my family, would be on the ever-shortening list of people I simply MUST see on a trip back home.

He’s got white hair! Well… so do I. And so I explain that age-gap is not really as much of an issue. It’s not built into the language as it is here in Korea.

The picture that follows is one with me giving Brandon, my youngest nephew, a ride through the narrows of the Banff Upper Hot-springs.

“Who is this?” I ask, pointing to the 4 year-old on my back.

“Your other friend!” is the smart-ass answer, but it’s welcome.

And so school’s been slowly getting better, though there are stresses to fill my mind. Point form might serve well to enter here. Forgive my laziness…

1) Outside of the odd sassy student who wants to engage, the first week back from vacation is a challenge for all. There are few smiles in the hallways, and engaging my students with the duty of preparing for an up-coming speaking test so early in the semester is not one I look forward to. I dig deep these days. The grade 1 students have almost enough piss and vinegar to get me through, and I’m getting better and better at a key part of Korean classroom management – finding that one popular student who isn’t sleeping or smacking his table-mate and getting him or her on my side. It’s nearly enough to make the repetition of my duties bearable. The co-teacher then chips-in on days when I don’t bring enough… effervescence maybe, to the classroom to drag 36 weary students and a co-teacher over the edge into engaged happiness.

2) This Saturday, I will begin teaching a new class for high-level high school students in a district south of the Han River. Despite the madness, I am looking forward to it – but first, the madness. Though I was first invited to teach a class on critical reading and essay writing, I have discovered since accepting the position (which I wasn’t interviewed for, by the way) that the course may or may not be much more than I bargained for. In the practical and quantifiable sense, this is certainly the case. There is… wait for it… no curriculum! Of course this is a brand new course rolled-out before it is likely wise to do so. Myself, and two Korean co-teachers have been charged with the duties of creating curriculum for “high level” students whom I have yet to meet.

To heighten my stress level, the course description, which was handed-out at a recent “opening ceremony” reads like a 4th year university syllabus. At the ceremony was also where I learned that the course was called the “Diamond Program”, or something of that sort. When I attended the program, I entered a high school south of the river. The school’s first floor entrance, down the hallway and up the stairs to the 2nd floor gymnasium was lined with bowing women in traditional Korean hanbok, and the guests of honour were played-in by a 10 piece student orchestra. One of the guests of honour must have been a very important guy, as he arrived fashionably late (the band likely playing some version of “Hail to the Chief” as he entered surrounded by no less than 5 “body men” who, once the man was seated, proceeded to scour the area, fix his tie, and dust off his shoulders before he spoke briefly and was whisked off the stage before we knew what had hit us). Clearly, this “Diamond Program” is a big deal.

Or is it? Is this program truly a university prep course for University-level high-school students who are looking for that leg up to get into one of the “S.K.Y. Universities” (Korea’s big-3: Seoul National University, Korea University, and Yonsei University – my lady’s alma mater, for those keeping score)? Or, is this what I have come to expect from Korean education – largely through the hagwon experience I had in my first year – a great deal of pomp and circumstance and show, to cover a rather generic after-school style program designed to help students become stronger readers and writers?.

I’m truly hoping for the latter here, though my adrenal gland kicks-in, even as I write this, and reminds me that I should and do have expectations for myself.
Lament as I often do about my lack of “real” teaching opportunities in this public school position, along comes just that and it scares the pants off of me. Of course, I haven’t been to the first class yet – I’ve only made it to the “opening ceremony.” But a real teacher I want to be, so here is my opportunity. I’ve got a few things I’d like to discuss. I think it’s going to be fun and enlightening to both teachers and students to see what the Korean view of gay marriage is. We will discuss the concepts of racial “purity” – a concept too many Koreans still hold tightly to, as well as inter-racial marriage, inter-racial children and adoption. I’m also looking forward to introducing some to the idea of vegetarianism. PETA’s “Meet your Meat” video will have a whole new audience.

And so there is a lot to look forward to. I miss the engagement I had with some of my hagwon students. It’s a new experience to inform me of my strengths, fears, and weaknesses with a new age a skill level of students, and (it must be said), is also some extra money.

Enough about school.

3) My bike. What would be a blog entry without at least a mention? I’ve gotten back to riding the little guy after a long Canada-induced absence. It’s been my first chance to try-out the new bike computer I purchased in Canada and I must say that I love the thing. A wireless reader reacting to a tiny magnet bound to a front wheel spoke and a few measurements and entries later, I am able to read the current speed, average speed, maximum speed, trip distance, trip time, current time, and total odometer measurement in a tiny display no bigger than a watch-face mounted on my handlebar. It’s golden. And I love how this relatively obvious and “old” technology is giving me such a thrill. I will become one of those nerds who enters numbers into some sort of “bike log” as I go through the weeks. What I’ve learned:

Since using my computer, I’ve traveled a total of 59.4 km on my bike – a drop in the bucket from how far I’ve gone since buying the thing back in June. Also, the distance from Hongdae to my apartment way up in Dobong-gu is approximately 22 km (not accurate as I started measuring a few kms down the road), my average speed on the oft-congested highways and by-ways of Seoul is a rather pathetic-sounding 14.8 km, and I have yet to go faster than 33.5 km – few safe down-hill straight-aways to take advantage of. So there you go – a little out of context information that is likely hard to care about unless you’re traveling the same circles.

But I’m back to loving my bike – even last night, when I was bound and determined, even after free up-sized ice cream with friends after class, to ride home under threatening skies. Constant drizzle about 3 km into my 18 km trip, but only drizzle until the skies opened-up with about 5 km to go. When your choice is a warm, dry and crowded subway, or a 2 hour ride home in the rain, I made the obvious choice.

Wet, but not cold, and happy to dry my bike off before heading into the midnight shower before bed.

And that’s where I am again. Caught in the rain once more on my way home – this post interrupted by a meeting and commute, then skype with an Australian friend who’s traveling across the globe and currently re-tracing my recent steps through my hometown and home.

The world is smaller tonight.


Douglas said...

Critical reading and essay writing, now that's definitely something to throw your enthusiasm behind (and I mean that seriously). Actual discussions! Books!

Got any books in mind? I'd recommend A Separate Peace.

Andy irwin said...

^^ I made your blog!! WOOOOT!! Fame and fortune!!! As always Dave, I love reading your entries. The diamond program sounds SO typical of the korean education system, I hope it works out for you. Glad to hear your still he'll bent on introducing new concepts to students!