Friday, February 11, 2011

Graduation Day: Part 1

It’s Friday afternoon here in Seoul. I hate to be a walking (or sitting) cliché, but sometimes I just feel the need to pack up my computer, get on the train, and go somewhere else to read or write – somewhere that isn’t my apartment. I am very lucky to have the apartment I have, and I am very grateful to have it be as comfortable as it is – especially for the purposes mentioned above. However, I’ve been spending far too much time of late in my apartment, and I need to get out.

I wish I could say that I am more original than heading into a Starbucks with my laptop, but at least I don’t have a goatee, and I’m not futilely using any version of Final Draft . I am grateful to hear Harry Connick Jr. on the play-list, but more than slightly dismayed to hear some dreadful moody remix of a song whose name I can’t recall, but the only lyric this new artist seems to think bears repeating is “Blue on blue, heartache on heartache”. I’m sure there’s a title in there somewhere.

I wanted to say a few words about the past week. My limbo classes passed without much incident and I actually found that talking to my students about my hospital stay was a pretty effective ice-breaker and served to snap them out of their collective morning stupor. The display of welcome cards looks really nice, and helped me to feel as though something of some countable worth had been accomplished this week. For some reason that I had explained to me multiple times, but still haven’t been able to understand, I wasn’t able to obtain the new textbooks until yesterday – the final day of school until March 2nd – the beginning of the new semester. I’m not saying I would have been able to get a lot done in terms of planning, but having more time to check them over would have been valuable. On the positive side of things, the text books look fresh and fun.

Going to catch a screening of Winter’s Bone tonight with the rabbit. It’s up for Oscars for picture, lead actress, supporting actor, and adapted screenplay, though I am surprised somewhat to see it showing in Korean cinemas with the lack of star power. The King’s Speech comes out early next month, so looking forward to that.

Enough of the update on my hobbled holiday - I wanted to talk about something else.

This past Tuesday, I attended the graduation ceremony for the High School class I had been teaching on Saturdays. As the classes had been, the ceremony was held far from my part of town – down in the Nambu District offices south of the river. There’s not too much to say about the ceremony itself, except to note that students seemed genuinely proud and happy to be there. From what I saw, there were three special classes happening in the fall semester – along with my “Critical Reading & Writing” class, there was an English “Public Speaking” class, as well as one “Advanced Math” class – the only one of the three taught in the students’ native tongue. Names were read aloud, and we sat through a short but spirited video and slide montage. I was happy to see so many of my photos from our Olympic Park trip highlighted in the presentation.

There were a few quick photo ops after the ceremony, students said a bit of a teary goodbye to their teachers before filing-out, a short meeting with teachers, and then it was time to leave and meet the rabbit for dinner.

On my way out of the building, I noticed all of my students gathered around the gate. They weren’t ready to say goodbye to each other. I stopped to chat with them for a time and, tempted as I was to join them, I had a date. They were considering going somewhere for an early dinner, and I find myself hoping that they did.

I look back on that class and I regret only one thing – that I somehow wasn’t able to remember every student’s name. I got about 75%, but after 10 of the 17 scheduled classes had passed, it just wasn’t going to happen. There are only so many students one can be exposed to before whatever part of one’s brain that's assigned to name-recall begins to fizzle and pop.

The rest of the class, however, I couldn’t be more proud of. Segments of instruction time and some of the organization of the whole thing was far from perfect, but as a whole, as I’ve said before, this class reminded me of the reasons I have decided to truly pursue a proper career in teaching – as late in life as it may comparatively be for me. I only saw these students a total of 18 times, but each time was 2 hours on a Saturday, and each time was filled with discussion surrounding topics of some importance that Korean students rarely if ever get the chance to explore in a classroom setting in their own language – let alone in English. I also had the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with these students through their writing of essays and my grading of and commenting on them. I realize that sounds horrifically boring to the majority of people, but to me it was like a life-line. I wanted to know, I wanted to encourage, and I wanted to argue with these kids about things like celebrity culture, body image, socialized medicine, gay marriage, and vegetarianism – just to name a few issues that were on the menu in this course.

It appears to have made some sort of difference at any rate. I’m not sure how many of these students will be pursuing English education at a university level, but if I can be bold enough, I will say that I think this course has better prepared them for it.

For them and for the rest, what’s even more valuable to me is that I think these students gained some confidence in the practice of exploring and sharing ideas with their peers. There still exists in Korea a fairly universally held belief that the best atmosphere for education is teacher as authority figure, as defined through Confucian thought and practice. Of course this is changing. But, for my students – who are all of them the highest English achievers in their district – the strict line between student and teacher was likely enforced even more so through their education. Knowing this, I did all I could to make their time with me guided with a more student-centered approach. I dare say it worked – at least in terms of being something different. I will allow myself a small measure of pride in the knowledge that at least a few thoughtful, caring, and academically superior young charges of mine perhaps considered the other side of important human issues more fervently than they had before been given an excuse or even permission to. Good.

On a more personal note, I will miss these students, and it means the world to me that they will miss me. I have already received a couple of sweet emails and requests for photos from class, which I will respond to later today. I'll share a couple with you, because I don't think doing so quite crosses (even if it does begin to toe toward) the line of self-congratulation. G (I will name him thus so as to keep his identity somewhat secret for anyone who may have come across this blog) was one my best and most dedicated students. He studied German before he studied English, he is a history and war buff, and these among other things have surely contributed to if not been directly responsible for his likely social awkwardness in his regular school. At any rate, it says more about how this student feels about his own class experience, as opposed to me as a teacher. G addressed me by last name first. The first time it ever happened, I was so surprised and curious that I didn't bother correcting him. By the time our course was complete, the other students had looked far past G's awkward surface to see a really smart and caring young man who has value as a friend and classmate. That was entirely G's doing.

Here are three of my favourite emails from G through this past semester. For anyone who wants to jump on me for blowing my own horn, remember that the primary reader of this blog is my mother - who is always asking me some variation of the question: "what did they say?!!!" whenever an opportunity has arisen for praise directed at her son. Here ya go, mom... look - I'm a real teacher! G says so...

(November 6th)
Hi Dave~~
This is G***. Well, I was really interested in today's class. I originally liked(?) the war, but, I have changed my mind since last year. Because I saw the death of my friend - fall from the 5 floor. At that time, I felt extreme fear. And at his funeral, I could know about the sorrow of the bereaved family. It was very hard to pass my valued friend away. I was really sorrowful. I hated the death. Some times later, I reminded him, and thought that it would be same to the war bereaved. Cause war makes the lots of deaths. At that time, I became a pacifist. Today's Poem - The Flanders Field - makes me think lot about war, living, and death again. Pepero Day will be different this year. Thank for the instructive class.

(December 25th)

Frohe Weinachten meine bärenstarke Lehrer~~
Und Gutes neues Jahr~~~
Next year, finally, I become a 고3 (high school grade 3 student). Disaster..........
I really don't want to be....
Anyway, even though my future is not very good, I think i should enjoy the christmas.
And I also wish you a merry christmas.
Felis Navidad~!

(February 9th)
Hi, Gagnier!
Well...... After closing ceremony, I felt really sorrowful. And home, with arranging my CRW book, I was really sad that I don't have any more class to use this. As you know, This was joy of my life. I was really happy that I could meet you, other teachers, and friends. I never forget this memory. And I'll really miss you.


Kid Atomic said...

Nice, man. I think it's cool that your student's e-mails and essays, maybe because they haven't completely mastered the English language yet, display an earnestness that might otherwise be hidden.

Douglas said...

glad to see my favorite student of yours delivering an encore smile again.

George Bailey Sees The World! said...

Rob - definitely. I wish I could have kept or recorded much more of my students' work - there are so many instances of "found art" when one is looking at a piece written in a 2nd language. It's often either more direct, or just surprising enough to make me think more. It's like hitting "shuffle" on your ipod and coming across an unexpected song that you might know, but you haven't heard in quite a while - it fits, even though it's not the obvious choice. Anyway, I agree about the earnestness.

Douglas - oh, yes... Tae Hong warmed-up a bit through the course, but never on his facial expressions. Dude is stoic as hell and always will be.