Thursday, June 30, 2011

Velofix


I've begun to pack - living in a place for over two years provides me with just enough time to accumulate stuff that will not fit into a suitcase back to Canada. So, I begin the process of boxing, storing, and seeing what exactly will fit into my bags and still keep them under the Air Canada limits.

On thing that will definitely bring me over the limit is my bike, but this isn't an option for me and the $100 excess baggage fee is a small price to pay to have my Brompton with me on the West Coast.

Looking on-line for a time, I had been thinking about the "Brompton Pod" - a hard shell case that has just recently been recalled for being not as hard as advertised. Enter the Brompton Bag from Velofix - a padded case fit with a handle and shoulder straps should you ever have the urge to walk a fair distance with a 23kg bike strapped to your back. At any rate, my bike will be cozy on its way to a new land. Thank you, rabbit, for your Korean website navigating ways.

An Incident at School

This is a long post about school. You have been warned...

Things at work have been a struggle lately. This story offers a sense of why.

The past two weeks have been mostly about running my last group of speaking tests and doing speaking test review with others. It can’t help but be a monotonous activity – as I teach every student in the school, I must have 330+ of the same conversation for each of the 3 grades in my middle school, and this happens every period of every day for a two week run. This, I can deal with – with the help of a sense of humour, some strong coffee, and some White Stripes playing on youtube as students enter the classroom.

Of course, for the tests to happen at all, I require the class to be relatively quiet while students come to the back of the room to do their test one at a time. In a room of pre-final-exam stress, you might think that the pressure would cause the students to use their time to either quietly study for the speaking test they are about to have, or to study for other subjects quietly at their desks. You’d be wrong.

It’s not always madness though. It’s during a speaking test that I can really notice the varying levels to which my co-teachers have control over the classroom. On the one end, I have a co-teacher who leads the students silently into the classroom, where they sit – in absolute silence - with their text books open for the entire duration of the speaking test. On the extreme other end, well… we have the following incident…

Class 3-7 meanders into the classroom in little chunks of humanity – students frantically asking me (for the first time) to check the answers on their practice sheets, or to get an additional practice sheet (the completion of which is worth points toward the students’ overall test score) so that they can presumably copy the answers from a classmate – their last three copies of the practice sheet already lost.

The bell rings with only half of the class present. The rest of the students file-in sporadically over the next five minutes, and the co-teacher arrives minutes after that. I know that the standard for student behaviour held by this particular teacher is so low as to not really register on any of the students in this class, so – it is up to me if we are going to be able to get-through all 33 students within the now 36 minutes that remain in out 45 minute class time. I instruct students to remain in their seats and to quietly practice with their friends while I work one-on-one with students at the back of the room. As I am engaged in testing with one student at a time, my ability to assist in the classroom management responsibilities with this co-teacher is pretty much unavailable.

5 minutes into the test, the noise level is to the point where I cannot hear the student sitting across from me. Being that this noise level doesn’t seem to phase my co-teacher, I politely get the class’s attention and ask for quiet. This happens every couple of minutes.

15 minutes into the test, students are out of their desks, screaming, hitting each other and throwing practice sheets while the co-teacher leans on the counter and stares blankly across the room. Again, I ask for quiet.

20 minutes into the test, I look to the front of the room to hear yelling, then one student, who is standing over another, grabs the sitting student by the hair with his left hand, and with his right, open-palms the sitting student across the face, sending his glasses flying and knocking him out of his chair. This all occurs after I’ve asked students to remain seated during the test. At the point of this attack, half of the students were out of their seats.

I run from the back of the room to restrain the student who was responsible for the slap. He looks like he’s going to lash out again, so I stand to his side and reach around his shoulders to restrain his hands while I move him down the hallway to the discipline office. He is seething and ready to fight me, but I have a strong hold of him. I reach the office and am able to briefly explain the situation before running back to the classroom where my co-teacher leans against the counter and stares blankly at the anarchy surrounding her.

Very calmly (and with the history I have with this co-teacher, I am very mindful to be calm at this point), I ask all students to do three things for the remaining 10 minutes of class: 1) Remain in your seat 2) Put your head on your desk 3) Do not talk.

Within the next 10 minutes after I resume testing, students are out of their seats and dancing, wrestling, and pushing the swivel chairs violently across the room at each other. All of this occurred with my co-teacher staring blankly at the windows.

I am not exaggerating any of this.

I snapped – with the fury of God’s own thunder (to quote President Bartlett), I yelled for all of the students to leave the classroom at once – save for the 5 or 6 students that remained to be tested. And then I turned my fury on my co-teacher. It turns-out that she thinks I’m too strict.

I am not proud of any of this.

There are things we can control in the classroom and things we cannot, but the least we can do is try, and what we can strive for is to maintain a level of respect and decorum, regardless of what’s going on with these students - hormonally or otherwise. Yes, this is middle school, but it’s not effing Gangster’s Paradise.

The issue that I can sum-up as being one of “having different standards of behaviour in the classroom” has now been dealt-with through the proper chain of command at my school. With just over 1 teaching week left before summer camp begins, and with my departure from this school happening shortly after, this was not an attempt to salvage a single working relationship that has clearly become unsalvageable, but rather an attempt to provide for a better transition for my school’s new native speaking English teacher, who (I’m guessing) would prefer not to walk into a rookie teaching scenario where he or she is expected to deal with that level of disrespect and apathy from his or her co-teacher. I am grateful for the fairness and warmth that my Vice Principal employed in her dealing with this issue. Of the 6 co-teachers I work with at my school, there is only one that is capable of creating such a destructive and careless learning environment.

Aftermath:

Being that this incident occurred yesterday, I had to admit that I was still smarting from the experience. I don’t like losing my cool – especially in front of students, but I am firm in my belief that my level of anger at what was occurring within the walls of my classroom was justified, if not directed appropriately at first.

Speaking with the head discipline teacher at my school today at lunch, we discussed the following, some of which I was already aware of:

The attacking student (Student A) had come into the classroom without his practice paper (something he had been expected to bring with him every week for the past month, but was never in possession of, despite having had it replaced each time). He asked Student B to borrow his paper so that he could sneak a blank one and copy Student B’s work. Student B, being one of the smallest students in his grade, was reluctant to let him copy, but backed-down under physical threat. Student B asked Student A not to copy everything exactly because it would be obvious to the teacher (me) during the speaking test. Student A ignored this request and copied everything from Student B verbatim. When the paper was returned to Student B and he could see that Student A had copied everything word for word, he said “Why?”. This is when Student A grabbed Student B by the hair and slapped him clear out of his chair.

All of this happened within view of my co-teacher, who did nothing to prevent it, stop it, or intervene after it occurred.

Student A had returned to my middle school after nearly a year absence due to his parents’ divorce. He has been back and forth with his mother and father during that time, and the stress that the situation helped manifest is making its presence known almost daily in the classroom. Student A has reported that he suffers physical abuse from both parents. When asked by the discipline teacher why he held Student B’s hair in that manner before hitting him, Student A replied that his father hits him like that.

Nobody can fix this young man’s problems, but that least we can do is provide a safe school environment where he can’t lash-out and hurt others or hurt himself. To create such an environment, I would argue, involves caring, patience, and classroom management – specifically in the form of rules and real consequences when they are broken.

I’m disappointed. This group of middle school grade 3 students (grade 9 in Canada) were the ones I was most looking forward to working with this year. But, the widening gap between the students who are striving to succeed and those who have long since given up is more and more clear. I see it in the hallways and I see it in the classroom, and it makes me sad.

There are some classes, such as class 3-2 which I began my day with today, that is the perfect mix of trouble students and those charismatic leader students who are willing to drag the others up to their level.

Then, there is class 3-7. At the low end is a girl who lost a point in her speaking test because she was unable to pronounce the one location she needed to know, learn, and speak about over the past month. Instead of saying “Nami-seom” (Nami Island), she said “Nami-san” (Nami Mountain), which is not surprising as she too was a student who lost her practice paper and had it replaced each class the month previous. When she lost the point during her test, she looked at me with purpose in her eyes and voice and told me, in Korean, to go fuck myself.

There is reason for all of the worsening upheaval this semester. Up until last year, in a Korean middle school, teachers were allowed to administer corporal punishment to their students. For most, this took the form of hitting a student’s open-palm with a ruler or stick. From most reports, this was effective more for its ability to shame than to inflict pain. I’m not saying that I agree with it, but as an observer, the transition to no corporal punishment in the schools has (ironically, I suppose) been a very painful one. Students know what they can get away with. This includes beating on each other without the threat of getting beaten on by a teacher, and the fun of telling a foreign teacher to fuck off in their native tongue – perhaps thinking that I wouldn’t understand, or more likely hoping that I would. As shown in the story above, this has led some teachers to pretty much wash their hands of the whole effort thing. People are giving-up, and as our school services an economically-disadvantaged area of Seoul, the situations within our particular walls are often challenged proportionately.

On the other end though is Ophelia, who is also the president of students’ council and, if she is able to make it out of her class 3-7 experience unscathed, could very well go on to be a successor to Ban Ki-Mun, current secretary general of the United Nations and role model to South Koreans everywhere. A month ago, when I was clearly exasperated at the behaviour of the students in her class, I found this note on my desk, accompanied by a small package of chocolates…


This is for you ~
I hope you like chocolates.
Teacher Dave
You’re the best foreign teacher I’ve ever met ☺
From, Ophelia

To Teacher Dave,
Hello, Dave. I’m Ophelia. How was your weekend? I was so busy because of preparing for the final test… Um… the reason that I’m writing this letter is because of our class. As you know, our class (3-7) is very, very noisy. I think my class is uncontrollable, too. I’m really sorry for that. I can understand why you get angry. I know you are slow to get angry… Also, I knew that I can’t use a cell-phone in class… I’m sorry. It was my fault. Would you forgive me, please? Also, my classmates…… I’ll tell them to concentrate for your class!! I’m sorry, teacher ㅠㅠ. This is my small present. I hope you regain your vigor with this. Bye Bye ~

Ophelia


It’s impossible for me to describe how this gesture made me feel. With one week of regular classes left in my semester, what motivates me are students like Ophelia who, despite her unfortunate class placement, can rise above it to remain a caring person and a diligent student who took the time to notice that teachers need caring for sometimes, too.

Losing my cool yesterday was something I regret, but mostly because it happened in front of Ophelia, and this was after the letter, and the chocolate, and her scoring a 10 out of 10 on her speaking test and being rightfully proud of herself. In the midst of all of the shabbiness from yesterday, I feel that I let a student down, and I guess that leaves me with just over a week to make things right with the diamonds in the rough of class 3-7.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Rainy Days and Mondays


Back from a rainy weekend with 3 good friends. As previously mentioned, the plan was to head to Sokcho, a small city on the East Coast where the rabbit and I had previously ventured back in February. Lex is here for the summer holidays and rain or shine, we needed to take advantage of a weekend where the Tedward Park and I weren't working on a Saturday.


For all that we were able to see, we may as well have stayed in Seoul. The rain and mist kept visibility to a bare minimum and unfortunately, for the mountain-seeking folk among us, there was no way that Seoraksan, Korea's most beautiful mountain, would have been at all impressive seen through the soupy fog.

It's all good though. What mattered most was the company and we took advantage of a weekend away from the big city to relax, catch-up, cook, and play games. Special thanks to Andy and Lex who did well to make our eating experiences as authentically Korean as possible. I was impressed specifically with Andy's ability to whip-up a Korean-style breakfast with one visit to the resort convenience store. Nice work, friend.


Aside from lounging, games and eating, we did make it out to our second resort's "Aquaworld" - a much smaller Waterpia-type place complete with outdoor pools, sauna's and hot-tubs with water-massage dealios - all for 11,000 won each. Not bad at all, and it was about the only thing all of us were collectively willing to do out in the rain. Sometimes, a resort is the way to go - especially as rainy season hits.


It was a good weekend, but what will be remembered most is the odd lady sitting beside us on the way there. As we got onto the bus in Seoul, Ed and I saw a strange woman sitting directly to my right across the aisle with her face buried in a newspaper - it was like a children's detective novel - the one where the newspaper is in place so that the holder can spy through a hole cut into page 1 - I almost tried to sneak a photo. Ed and I took note of this character and carried on with our journey. Even when we took a short break at a rest stop, the woman had her newspaper covering her face as she seemingly slept on her reclined seat.

When we got off the train in Sokcho, we left the bus terminal in search of a taxi to take us to the resort, and a familiar voice called out to us. The rabbit had surprised us by coming on the trip after all. She hadn't planned to because of her need to be back playing the organ in church on Sundays, but we were glad to have her change her mind to join us on Friday night and the better part of Saturday. She'd been behind the newspaper all along, and I hadn't really thought twice about it. Her only complaint - the nappeun shinmun saemsae ("bad newspaper smell").

Surprises are good, and valuable, and they keep me smiling through dreary Monday mornings of speaking tests and gloomy skies and gloomier faces. Thank you, rabbit. And thank you, dear friends.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Off to Sokcho in the PM


After school tomorrow, I'll be heading East with three friends for a weekend of what was intended to be beaching and hiking, but will more likely (due to the forecast rain) end-up being a weekend of relaxing, reading, swimming, and (of course) Catan. We are old - well, three of us are, anyway, so rainy day shenanigans will likely be kept to a minimum.

The best part is that we'll be set-up nicely for a rainy weekend thanks to Ed's Seoul sister's time-share and the rabbit's bargain-finding ways. She was somehow able (with all of her discount cards) to get a 220,000 won/night room for 38,000 won. We'll be spending Friday night there and then heading to the resort that was secured through Ed's time-share connection. It'll just be good to get away for a while.

I'll do my best to give a full report upon my return. I love the minbak experience, but this will be nice, too - and roughly at the same price.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Lyndsay's Birthday Suit


...didn't fit very well, so the rabbit did some emergency sewing for the little girl's big day.

Well, in all of the busy school madness surrounding the last couple of weeks, I didn't get around to blogging about a few things as they happened. Little Lyndsay Whittle's first birthday party was one of them.

It's been great - comforting, reassuring, and fun to have good friend from back home living not too far away here in Korea. He was here before I got here and the lad's been busy. So, baby #2 is now a whole year old and a couple of Saturdays ago, the rabbit and I headed down to Sanbon to celebrate with the rest of the family and the in-laws.

One thing I really like about Korean birthdays is that the person whose birthday it is does the paying. It's like Bilbo celebrating in the Shire - you just show-up and get catered to. About all the rabbit and I had to do was ring the bell and avoid getting punched by Won.


Of course, as Westerners we tend to want to treat the birthday boy or girl to a dinner or something of the like. So, we never really know when to push or pull-back on the issue, though I'm pretty sure that I've somehow managed to make it through nearly 4 years of Korean living without once paying for anyone else' birthday dinner, or my own. It's a skill.

Anyway, the evening was lovely - a quick gathering at the Whittle homestead where fruit was cut and shared, Lyndsay did the ceremonial "choosing of the future career path" by selecting a telling item from a tray: stethoscope = doctor, money = CEO of Samsung Corp., microphone = singer, etc. Lyndsay chose the microphone much to Ian's delight.


Then, the whole famn damily piled into a van sent from the restaurant and we headed out to this very cool place on the outskirts of town - traditional building with traditional food, and a very non-traditional, at least by modern Korea standards, area for play in the woods near the restaurant.

All in all, a great evening, and if anyone ever doubts that letting a foreigner into the Korean family unit can lead to legitimate happiness, then I wish they could have seen the face of Lyndsay's grandpa as he sat on a lone lawn chair after dinner, surrounded by a group of completely unorthodox family and guests, including yours truly. I don't speak much Korean, and he speaks next to no English, but I was able to manage: "This is a good family. Are you happy?" At which he smiled and laughed and said "Yes."

Pretty simple, right?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Super 8 with 12


This past Saturday, a big ol' group of us headed to The Youngsan CGV to watch at 8PM showing of J.J. Abrams' summer action adventure movie, Super 8.

It was wonderful, and it was such a good feeling to be watching it in the theatre with 11 of my closest friends here in Seoul. I felt like a kid again and I haven't had that much fun at the movie for a long while.

If you haven't seen it yet, go. My only caution would be that kids under 10 might get scared, though I'm willing to bet that the ending is happy enough to nullify the possibility of nightmares.

Here's my review if you're curious...

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Popping-su!


With temperatures in the low 30s today, the rabbit took me out for an afternoon of tea, catching-up on work in coffee shops, dinner in Insadong, and a bowl of sweet and delicious 팥빙수 (Pahd-bing-su) to cool us off.

Pahd-bing-su is a traditional hot-weather dessert popular in many Asian countries and it consists of a combination of shaved ice, diced and sweetened red beans, and milk. This place we went to today, however, spiced things up a bit by making their ice out of a sweetened tea, and by adding a little bit of honey-ginger tea and lemon rind to the topping. That makes for a sweet little bowl of 팥빙수!

Of course, the best part of pahd-bing-su is that when spoken fact by the rabbit, it sounds like "popping-su", which pleases me a great deal.

Much more to write about and catch-up on, but I'll aim to do just that over the next few days as I finally have an easier week ahead of me. In the meantime, let me send a shout-out to my dad for Daddies' day, and to my aunt for an early birthday wish. And it's now that I realize that I'm pretty sure that I forgot Mother's Day this year, which makes me more than a bit of an ass. Sorry, mom - If I could send an apologetic bowl of popping-su through the internet, you know I would.

Friday, June 17, 2011

"Vancouver is Fire!"


The Stanley Cup Pizza Playoffs ended on Thursday shortly after lunch. Class 3-11 was devastated - back in April, they had drawn for the number 1 selection and swiftly snatched-up the Canucks while the second pick went to Washington and the rest was pretty much predictable.

Of course I was cheering against Vancouver all along, and I could go into the reasons why, but perhaps it can be summed-up into the fact that it's always nice to see a smarmy team and fan-base who thought so far ahead as to believe that a 16-win championship road was going to be easy, crash and burn after disrespecting other teams and players along the way. As a Detroit Red Wings fan, I know all about how this "everyone against the front-runner" stuff works. If you're a hockey fan, you get it, and if you're not, you don't.

I don't mean to drop the "burn" reference so casually, I am of course speaking about the hockey game - not the riot, lest you get the two events confused as so many did.

About the only thing that would have kept me from being completely dejected had Vancouver made good on the Sedin promise to win game 7 would have been giving pizza to Yeh-lin.

Yeh-lin is a grade 3 student from class 3-11 who was all about the Canucks the past two months. She attends a daily remedial English class with two other girls in my classroom before regular class begins, and every day when I came into the classroom in the morning, I would update the Playoff bracket on my board and Yeh-lin would get all giddy about Vancouver getting one win closer to the cup. It was kind of fun - I would come in and tell her that Chicago was going to win today, and she would say "No! Ban-kubuh is win!"

Soon, I was tormenting her with the Predators, then the Sharks, and finally the Bruins. Looking at the scores from TD Garden though, she was starting to get a little bit nervous.

I honestly felt kind of bad when I walked into the class yesterday and her eyes met mine and she realized that her team lost and that meant that her class wouldn't be getting any pizza - it would be going instead to class 3-8 (which I actually kind of resent, because they are just about the worst behaved class in the school). But, a promise is a promise. 36,000 won is a small price to pay for legitimizing two months of badly-needed entertainment.

Anyway, Yeh-lin was actually pretty sad. She was sadder still when we saw each other in class today and had a look at the highlights. When it was over, she told me that "Ban-kubuh is fire!" There were other stirs in the classroom and a few other students told me that they had seen footage of the riots on KBS and MBC - Vancouver making the Korean news cycle for the first time since Queen Yu-na captured gold at the old Pacific Coliseum.

I remember coming back to Seoul after a visit home to Calgary, where a great deal of time was spent watching Olympic action from Vancouver with my family. It was March when I got back to my school here, and when I introduced myself to the new middle school grade 1s, I discovered that a city I'm not from can be easily used as an complimentary adjective: "You are berry Ban-kubuh!" more than one student would shout amidst the assertions that I was also tall and "very handsome" which means nothing if you've ever been a white-ish guy living in Korea.

Back then, "Vancouver" meant "tall", "handsome", and "teacher with high nose and small face". But right now, "Vancouver is fire", and as much as we lament that it's going to destroy the "beautiful city's reputation" for years to come, let's not get silly. People outside of Vancouver aren't going to give a rat's ass about this in a week, and people in Vancouver are just going to go back to not feeling safe in large public gatherings, or anywhere near the Rogers Centre in opposing team colours.

That's a sad reality, and as much as I dig Vancouver as a visitor for all of the happy stuff that it has to offer, let me be the first to say that I don't find the riot footage at all reassuring when I think about the fact that I'll be living in that city for a year, beginning in just over two months. With all of it's blemishes, Calgary always felt safe to me - Seoul, even safer.

Vancouver never really struck me in the same way. Enough people who have lived there would speak of a violent undercurrent in the place that is tough to explain or rationalize in anyway. I can ride my bike in the dark of night across an entire cramped Asian metropolis of 14 million people and feel completely and legitimately safe. I won't be trying the same thing in Vancouver.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

My Old Phone


...is no longer operational as of July 1st. I was told this when I went in to recharge the thing with some cold, hard cash about a week ago.

For most Koreans, this would mean the ability to justify the purchase of a new and exciting 4G phone which can download a 50MB file in under 10 seconds or some such nonsense.

For me, it means a slight inconvenience as I will be leaving Korea for a year toward the end of August and only needed my old phone for another couple of months anyway.

But for me it also means saying good bye to an old and trusted friend that I never lost, that fit well into my pocket, and that I had become accustomed to and fond of over the past (nearly) 4 years since buying it in Youngsan Electronics Market with the aid of extensive body language.

I've got photos and messages on there that are nontransferable and hold a significant sentimental value for me, and how else am I going to wow people with a portable photo of my lifted toenail? More's the pity. The phone was so tiny in my big and clumsy hands, and I took a perverse pride in carrying it around. So long, ol' pal...

And a thank you to Miko, whose G2 phone (which she left here for me) is still compatible with the KT network and will still be operational at least until the end of this year. And a thank you to Oliver, whose G2 KTF phone, like mine, is destined for the scrap heap, a cell-phone museum, or a smallish glass display case in a memorial hall near Anseong. I would have preferred the old-school, but that's not what Korea's all about.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Postcards


This is essay week for me - I collected a fresh batch from my students this past Saturday and would really like to have them all marked before the weekend so that I can be essay-free going into the two week break from Saturday class. This means precious little time to do some of the writing I'd like to do - namely an X-Men: First Class review and a shout-out to a fine gathering this past Saturday - that will simply have to wait until essay week has come and gone.

But, let me say that I got two fine postcards from two fine American friends last week. Who knew that one day I would have a friend living in Reno, and another living in South Dakota?

What I'd like to know though is why no South Dakota postcard? And I'd like to know why the Reno graphics are so redundant. So many questions.

Because of the fudge though, I will forgive you, and in many respects, already have. You guys are good. There are few greater joys when living abroad than having little treats from afar appear on one's desk.

Thank you.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Friday Night Putt-Putt


My Friday sucked.

If your Friday sucks, too - then you could do worse than having a rabbit whose coupon-seeking abilities are not limited to eateries. Coupon night cheers me up a great deal.

This past Friday, we headed up to the rooftop of Youngsan Station to play both 18-hole courses of "Putt-Putt" - an aging, but charming miniature gold course.
The course, itself, is quite simple - most of the challenge coming from the varied concrete slants the runs are built upon. There aren't any windmills or pendulums to avoid, so the course will play pretty fast, and if it's just the two of you, you can easily whip through a course in about 20 minutes.

I'm not sure how long Putt-Putt has been around or is going to be around, but I'm glad we were there before it disappears. For the three hours we spent there, we saw only 3 other pairs playing the course, so we were essentially alone save for the weathered animal statues that may have been salvaged from Dreamland around the time of its closing.

Truth is, I love places like this. There is much new stuff in Seoul and I'm more than happy to patronize a place that is so clearly past its hay day. Best thing about Putt-Putt is its "Deokbokki Buffet" in the "club-house" - pay for your putters, and they hand over a greased pan for you to fill with various deok-bokki ingredients and heat-up on a table-top portable range. What's not to like?

All in all - a good night. We each hit a couple of hole-in-ones and I almost stayed under par on the back 18 until I ran into a stubborn hole on an incline. It was the rabbit's first time golfing in any form and she did pretty well. Best part was that she beat me in a riveting 10-9 game of foosball. As a handicap, I had my midfielders inactive, and she took full advantage. Atta girl.


Any place can be elevated when filled with the right company.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Say Hello to Yun-tae


This is my friend, Yun-tae. Yun-tae is a grade 1 middle school student, and as the semester began in March, he hasn't really known me that long. He does frequent my classroom though.

During my recent attempts to cheer-up between bells and to welcome my students to class with something fun, I've been turning to old Disney cartoons (as mentioned previously) and introducing them to some vintage Donald and friends.

Last week, it was Bug's Bunny's stint with the zany opera singer. It has to be one of my favourite Merrie Melodies moments ever: Stokowski-costumed Bugs marching through the orchestra to whispers of recognition. Stuff makes me laugh.

This week, it's been our good friend, Marc Anthony in Feed the Kitty, which remains my favourite Warner Brothers short.


Anyway, whenever the bell rings, within minutes - whether he's in the classroom next door, up one floor, or wrapping-up PE class outside, Yun-tae makes a B-line for my classroom to pop his head in the window or sometimes to come right on in to catch some cartoon goodness.

It doesn't matter if he's seen the thing 10 times, he's right there smiling right along, and if I don't have the TV on fast enough or I'm coming back from a quick restroom break, I'm sure to hear "Teacher... Mickey, please..." upon entering the classroom. Yun-tae just needs a hit and who am I to deny the lad? I can't get enough of Marc Anthony either.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Korean Travel Fail

Man - every intention to post more every day, but I'm simply running out of time and energy these past few days. I'm going to go ahead and admit that a big part of my woe is the fact that my Travel Korea lesson that I posted about a while back has come to a less than satisfying end for the majority of my grade 3 classes. It's sucked the life out of me.

As one might expect, the first time I actually asked my students to complete homework which would then be utilized in presentation the following class, approximately 50% of them actually finished the homework. This made for some mighty trying presentations.

So, the past two weeks with my grade 3s have been about me stubbornly trying to teach them a lesson by having those students with no completed paper go through the motions of coming to the front of the class with the rest of their responsible team mates and... well, nothing. You might figure that even a student who hasn't completed his homework would have something to say about one of the more famous Korean destinations (The DMZ, Lotte World, Busan, etc.), but you'd be wrong.

Turns out the bottom of the barrel can be just as stubborn as I - those group members who are able to relay their portion of the team's itinerary have their points canceled out by those who have all but given-up on English language learning in their middle school career and have done nothing with the lesson - even though I've given most of them personal assistance in and outside of class, and even though this activity will make-up most of the contents of their last speaking test before the summer break.

I feel stuck here - do I scrap the lesson (as it's clearly failed for most classes) and move on to something else? Or, do I follow-though with the intended presentation/quiz element and reward those who did the actual work? I suppose I choose the latter because I'm not ready to admit defeat - even though it's slapping me right in the face. I simply can't bear to have the laziest among my students dictate the flow of my lessons, or to take the rug out from under those students who actually did what was asked of them. So, we soldier on, the slackers are called-out and embarrassed, I get frustrated, and those who did the work get a reward. It's a sad thing, but reality reveals that the lowest common denominators in my classes are far more effective at pulling others down than they are at allowing themselves to be pulled up.

Sadly, of the 11 grade 3 classes I did this lesson with, only one class came through with flying colours. EVERY student in class 3-2 completed his or her homework and the presentation days for this class have been like episodes of a Michael Palin travelogue of the Korean peninsula. This is the level of comparative hyperbole I am happy to heap upon class 3-2 for just doing what was asked of them. But this is really all I wanted - teams using teamwork, students completing basic question/answer homework, and then presenting their findings with enthusiasm. This is a rare thing in my school.

I do this lesson 5 more times tomorrow and then I call it a week and emerge on the other side of the weekend with the expectation bar lowered one more rung.

Gotta get down on Friday.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Memorial Day


Had a really good day today. The rabbit's father went fishing, but the rabbit and I ventured South with her mom's side of the family to Anseong, about an hour south of Seoul to observe Korea's Memorial Day - a day to remember those lost in Korea's military conflicts.

It was also a day for the rabbit's mom's family to mark the loss of rabbit's grandmother - who passed away about a month before I first arrived in Korea, way back in the summer of 2007. It would have been Halmoni's 99th birthday just over a week ago.


15 of us drove out to a fairly new memorial hall, about 20 minutes East of Anseong - through some winding roads and up some green hills. The building is pretty big, and its halls house smallish rooms which in turn hold glass display cases for the personal affects of those lost.

I've never seen anything like this before. Though there are other more traditional means of burial for some Korean families (under a tree, in a rounded tomb on a hillside), many are turning to cremation and internment in one of these rooms.

Roughly $5,000 will buy you a square display case about 30 cm x 30 cm, while double that will buy you a rectangular space. Prices go up or down depending on where the box is in relation to common eye level.


This is a very public thing. Looking in these little dioramas of lost lives, you can see a lot of love. I couldn't help but be sad while I was there. The whole family wandered into the room where rabbit's grandmother's urn was now sitting beside that of her grandfather, who was lost in the Korean War. There was some rearranging to be done after grandmother passed-away, so that they could move grandfather's urn from his original square into a larger one to be shared. In contrast to most of the other boxes in the room, the rabbit's grandparents' case was sparsely decorated with only the two urns, a small photo of grandmother turned slightly to her husband (no photos exist of grandfather), three small dog figurines, and a tiny toy bottle of soju (grandmother reportedly loved both).


The family was upbeat as they said their hellos to grandmother, and then they moved outside for some food and conversation. The rabbit and I joined them later, but we spent some time in this place - wandering from room to room and looking at some other cases, before coming back to halmoni.

I wish I had met her. I wondered what she would have thought of me. I wondered if she were anything like my mom's mom - short, feisty, and accepting of hugs. At any rate, I said thanks and promised that I would take good care of her granddaughter.

I'll be posting more about the place when I get another chance - maybe tomorrow. But it was very unique, and very thought-provoking, and so full of longing. Powerful stuff.

In all, it was a good day with a really warm side of the family. I was grateful to be included, and they seemed genuinely honored to have me there. There was an immediate closeness that seemed to take them a bit by surprise. I am grateful for that, too.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Boys' Day Out


Headed back the National Museum of Korea today with Ian and young Conor, but this time, we skipped the Princely Treasures exhibit for the Children's Museum - naturally.

Being the curious sort, I've always wanted to check-out the children's museum portion of the complex. I've been to the grown-up side a number of times, and I'm always curious as to what's available for the wee tots - perhaps wishful thinking about my nephews making it out to Korea one of these days.

The museum is organized well - only 100 people are allowed into the area at a time (90 minute duration followed by 30 minutes for cleaning and reorganizing after each group leaves) and each group books a free ticket, gets in line and enters en masse to check it out. With any more than 100 people in there, things would get to be less-then-pleasant, I'm pretty sure.

Inside the children's museum, there are a few hands-on exhibits for kids to check out that are pretty cool - how to put-together Korean roof tiles, making ink rubbings of ancient Korean art, and reconstructing broken Korean pottery replicas. Ok, that doesn't sound earth-shatteringly cool, but the museum does a good job of keeping the fun educational.

By far, Conor's favourite bit was the puzzle area - large magnet pieces that fit onto a outline in a stand-up case thingy. There were lots of puzzles around, and my favourite was a ceremonial horse that you had to decorate with magnet garb and baubles just like the illustration next to it.


Good to hang-out with the boys today, and I have to thank Conor as when else would I have the opportunity to book myself a time for a Children's Museum entry without looking like a complete tool? In truth, I'm often just a childish adult who needs a child to accompany him to fun places.

Best part of the museum is the fact that it's free. Here, Koreans, are your tax dollars at work.

Worst part of the museum: parents who say nothing when their 8 or 9 year old Korean prince of a child Bogarts the magnet puzzle - staring Conor down and roughly grabbing puzzle pieces out of the hands of a 3 year old who has actually made great strides in learning how to share. I wonder what goes through the minds of some parents who watch their child bully a toddler for the sake of completing an effing tiger puzzle.


Sometimes I'm glad I'm not a parent, because I'm pretty sure I'd lack the patience required to spend time in public with other parents who feel that their precious turd of a child is owed the world.

Kudos though to young Yoon-ho, another much happier and caring young lad of about 8 or 9 who was intent on helping Conor through the whole museum - showing him where the best puzzles were, helping him check out the castle, and passing the veggies at the "Ancient Kitchen VS Modern Kitchen" exhibit. What a sweet kid. He seemed so glad to be of help, and so reluctant to say goodbye.

Thanks, Yoon-ho, for restoring my faith in only-children of the Korean male variety.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

This Essay Made Me Sad


I've probably touched on Korean obsession with the aesthetic more than any other topical issue in this here blog, but I'm going to do so again. Here are the first two paragraphs of one student's Free Topic essay from my Saturday class - I've actually been completely buried in essay-marking over the last week as I'm spending about an hour on each and some require a great deal of attention. Anyway, this one caught my eye...

I have lived with dissatisfaction about my small eyes. Some friends around me solved their dissatisfaction early. There are some friends who had plastic surgery when they started the high school as a present from their parents. There are other friends who had plastic surgery in order to come closer to their dream. When I say that I will have plastic surgery in the future, my friends each react differently. There are some friends who criticize my opinion, but also those who agree with my opinion saying that they will also have plastic surgery someday. I agree with someone who has plastic surgery in order to become more beautiful.


Lookism is rampant in our society where we live now. Of course, many people think Lookism is a big problem and it should be solved. A lot of people have said we shouldn't judge people by the way they look, but most people do. So, I think it's better to change our appearance than to expect the change of our appearance-oriented society. One of the ways of change many people choose is to have plastic surgery. Plastic surgery can help not only to boost one's confidence, but also provide many chances to lots of people. Also, it can help to enjoy a happy life by growing love for yourself.


I'm not sure when I decided to have plastic surgery, but I have pledged to have it. When I was young, I wondered why so many people were trying to become prettier, but now I know why many people try to become prettier. There was an opportunity to change my thinking. I have a friend who didn't have good looks but was kind-hearted. She never talked to her favourite boy once because she was not confident about her looks. However, she had plastic surgery when she entered the high school. Finally, she was confident about her looks, so she told me she was confident enough to confess to her favourite boy. According to my friend's story, plastic surgery can help people to be confident about his or her looks and be brave.


She goes on to offer this suggestion:

It's wise to change appearance to fit the social trend rather than criticize inequality unconditionally, which is difficult to solve.


Anyway, there is one series of plastic surgery advertisements I've seen a number of times in subway stations around Seoul that catch my eye in an early ipod advertisement kind of way. They seem to suggest, in turn, that:

1) Going to Grand Plastic Surgery will allow you to get into a bikini this summer, rather than a one-piece.

2) Going to Grand Plastic Surgery will make your face look like a Korean Traditional Drama mask with a V-line as opposed to a "lantern jaw".

3) Going to Grand Plastic Surgery will give you courage to raise your hair-up and expose your newly reconstructed face.

4) Going to Grand Plastic Surgery will attract men who can afford a Tiffany engagement ring.

I do understand that these young almost-women need to operate to some extent within the confines of this society, but I'm dismayed at how many of them seem uninspired to make change. Of the 22 essays I received last week, 7 were about cosmetic surgery, and 5 were in defense of it. Only one was even able to recognize the larger issue at work here - that every young girl (or parents of a young girl) who gives-in to the pressure, simply increases the perceived "need" for the surgery in the first place. The fact that this student takes ownership of her "dissatisfaction about (her) small eyes" without once acknowledging the external forces that presented the idea in the first place, simply makes me sad.

I wish I could post a photo here to show you what a lovely person this young writer actually is - small eyes and all - but that would be an invasion of her privacy, and it wouldn't really mean much, because to really know who she is, you'd have to meet her in person and see what's on the inside.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Those Polar Bears


I would have to agree with Lex and say that this is perhaps one of the best essay introductions I have read - not in an academic sense, but strictly for entertainment value, and it's not without its merit in other respects.

I've been focusing on the "hook" lately - the first, attention-getting sentence of the essay. Here, sans corrections, is the result from one girl who wanted to write about the environment...

Do you know that you kill dozens of polar bears everyday? you would be annoyed because you haven't been to the Arctic. but it is ttrue that you have killed polar bears. But how? shampooing, throwing rubbishes, and driving a car... everything you have done causes environmental problems and this has ended-up killing the polar bears and the other species. Every single day, plants, animals and marine life are dying because their habitat is changing due to environmental problems. I belive that we have to protect environment because people can't live without the natural object, the environmental problems can destroy the eco-system and we can't see the beauties of nature.


She certainly got her reader's attention.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

An Emptier Nest


In addition to Lex who is vacationing in Korea until the middle of August, Leo (a public school teacher I trained with back in February of 2009) and his friend, Jacob, have been staying mostly with me during their short stint in Seoul after a 3 month journey through China and Southeast Asia, and before they had back to Toronto early next week. There, to face whatever life brings next.

It was good to reconnect with Leo before he left on this long-planned China adventure, and it's been great having him back. As one person I greatly admire once said, "sometimes we step sideways, and it takes us a while to find the center again." Such was the case with Leo and I, but I am glad we had the chance to hang-out again before he joins the legions of those who have come into my life in Korea, and gone.

It's also been nice filling the house with friends - something that inevitably happens less and less the longer one stays here, though that admittedly depends on one's ability to shift one's outlook as a social animal in this weird and wonderful world of expat life.

Thanks for the Asahi, and enjoy the rest of your journey, lads. I'll hope to reconnect in Toronto someday, and you can bet you'll be accompanying me to the Hockey Hall of Fame in your own hometown, 'cause I know you've never been there.