Saturday, July 30, 2011

Melancholy and Sitting on Strangers

Feeling more than melancholy today.

Yesterday (Friday) was the last day of my week 2 summer camp group - a collection of 16 students that really did their best each day and were respectful and willing to have fun. I was sorry that I was unable to be more energetic on our last day due to the flu, but we managed to get through the day. I was seriously tempted to use a sick day, but this is the problem with running a camp by myself - nobody there to cover in times of illness.

I was happy to see that the team 1 girls loved their prizes so much. They told me that they were "moved" by the vases, and as they were all of an English level where they were able to complete their novel reading, the celedon vases seemed to hold extra meaning for them. It was refreshing to have a table full of female middle school girls who never once took out a comb or mirror in class, and who participated in all of the activities with a smile.

Yesterday was also sad in that I had to say goodbye to my friend, Lex, about whom I could probably write a book now - well maybe not a book, but a very long poem, perhaps an epic one. She is one of the most unique and inspiring people I've encountered in my life, and it makes me sad to know that I won't be seeing her for some time. She is currently on her East Coast Korean vacation with her mom, then she'll be heading back to Australia to continue her graduate studies. Though she doesn't leave the country until the 13th of August, our vacations overlap, which means that yesterday was goodbye for now.

Like the true cheese ball that Lex is, she invited friends to her favourite place in Seoul (The National Museum of Korea) for some afternoon Catan in the cafeteria - why not, right? The rabbit surprised me by meeting me at the subway station and accompanying me to the museum. We looked quite the pair with both of us in masks - me, from my flu, and rabbit, from the surgical removal of the metal plates she's had in her face since her original dental surgery a year and a half ago.

We stopped-by the group for a quick hello and goodbye - we delivered rabbit's giant jar of nuts to Lex to share with her mom on her trip, and then Lex escorted us out of the museum. Lex has left Seoul 3 times now, but I think it will be a while before her next visit. It was really hard to say goodbye this time. Perhaps a visit to Australia will be in the cards for rabbit and I. I'm happy to report that Lex won her very first game of Catan in her favourite place in Korea. She reportedly did a victory lap around the cafeteria.

Anyway, my flu has been overwhelming. I'm thankful that it hasn't caused any vomiting, but I still feel feverish and hit-by-a-truck-ish. I've also been sweating up a storm. I wake-up with my pillow soaked through, and it seems as though I sweat it out from the shoulders - up. It's like I had my hair washed in the sink and the damp towels have soaked through to my upper-arms.

I woke up this morning and dragged myself onto the train to go to my last Saturday class. I felt like garbage - stairs were difficult and I was dizzy enough to miss the handrail when the train lurched to a start and I almost fell. The best part was that after I had finally found a place to sit (the much sought-after end of the bench seat), I had to stand to put on a shirt to avoid the air-conditioner chill and the dude who had been sitting beside me just slid right into my spot.

This isn't an unusual phenomenon - people really want that end of the bench seat, presumably because it's the only time in their daily trek when they don't have to be surrounded at close proximity by strangers on both sides. If an end of the bench seat opens up, there is often a mad scramble to occupy it. If the person next to the end doesn't slide in right away, I've seen people from nearly a full car-length away come rushing toward the empty end seat to score their prize. It's really weird. There could be someone standing directly in front of the end seat when a person leaves it, but the person sitting next to the end seat will slide into place before the standing person can sit down. It's kind of embarrassing to watch sometimes. I usually just go with it except for one time when a girl one door down from me pushed her way through the exiting crowd and ran about 20 feet to sit in the empty seat just to the right of the door I was standing at - patiently waiting for patrons to leave before I boarded. As I had my bike with me, an end seat was what I needed. The girl nearly had to run at a sprint to leap into the seat before I could sit down. I stood in front of her and stared her down until she slid over one spot.

Anyway, today, as I stood to put on my extra shirt, my feet were still in the same position that they were when I had been sitting. That was enough of a sign apparently for the guy beside me to slide into my seat. Being that I was rather sick, dizzy, and delirious from the flu, I didn't even notice anything wrong until I had sat down in my seat, but this time on the dude's lap. I'm guessing he was surprised, but I was just sad. Because of the lack of energy I was suffering from, I just sat on this dude's lap for what seemed like at least three or four seconds. After a time, he patted me on the back, I stood-up, and he moved back to his seat. I think I could have sat there on his lap for the rest of the journey, and just slept. I didn't have the fight in me at that point. It must have been an entertaining sight.

Anyway, today was my last Saturday class. I regret that I was feeling so low energy for them, but it was fun to watch the very creative video presentations that they had made as an end-of-term project. We then finished our class with a "rolling papers" activity where each teacher and students passes around a paper with his or her name on it for others to sign. It's a chance for people to say goodbye, and for my students, a chance to express themselves personally and openly - something that they were reluctant to do at times in class.

I stayed the extra hour to complete this activity with the students, and then it was time to say goodbye. I held the emotions in-check, but it was easy to blame any shakiness in my voice on the flu. I'll miss this class a lot. It really made me feel like a teacher, and it made me challenge myself to become a better teacher and person. I really connected with these students and I'll miss reading and responding to their essays. They don't know how much teaching them has meant to me, but I tried my best to tell them.

I stumbled out of class, wishing I could have been more coherent for my last hours with them. I'll treasure the "rolling paper" I was given today. Reading it, I learned that Yin-na really liked my duck shirt, and that many of these students have really appreciated this class and are genuinely sad that it's over - that's the ultimate compliment, really. For Korean students to devote four more hours of study to an English class on Saturdays, and then to miss the obligation, well, that's something.

There were lots of nice things written on my paper, but I'll share this one with you:

"When I came here first, I was strange and embarrassed. That's why I acted timid. But your bright class makes me brave. I'm afraid you would forget me because you have many students, but I meet only a few native English teachers. So, I will always remember you and remain you with respect. I was happy in this class because of you and your passion. Keep in touch!"

Means the world to me.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


I feel like garbage. Started feeling a cold coming on at camp while doing our pottery-making again today. So, as the baseball game was once again rain-delayed, I stumbled home after camp and crashed for 4 hours. But first - crafting time!

I remember the first time I "aged" paper to make a scroll-style sign for Elementary school. I had only enough energy to sit in my apartment out of the rain and do something low-key.

I decided that the gifts of celadon vases for our camp's winning teams should have some kind of marking on them to be a memento of the summer, but I didn't want to write anything on the vases themselves - even on the bottom.

So, I sat the little signs in wet coffee grounds for a few minutes and then set them aside to dry by the window. Took a nap, and finished the deed after I woke-up.

Not, bad, right? Whatever - I can't get outside today (the rain just won't stop) and I feel like I've been hit by a truck... and the rain had fried the wires in our English classroom to the point that our TV and computer won't work - rendering the presentation, review, instructions, and games to accompany our pizza-making day completely useless.

If I'm going to crawl into class tomorrow to finish week two of camp, I'll power myself through the experience with the satisfaction that at least the prizes look nice. Though I'm very temped to use a sick day, I really like this week's kids, and I don't want their last classroom experience with me to be with me as a no-show.

Hello, Neo-Citran.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"Dreams Come True:...

... the Art of Disney's Classic Fairy Tales" is the name of the exhibit currently showing at the Hangaram Design Museum at the Seoul Arts Center. Being that the rabbit and I (along with Maria and Adrian) were already at the center to attend a Beethoven concert in the afternoon this past Sunday, we decided to make it a double-bill.

This is a very focused exhibit, and one organized with great attention to detail by the Walt Disney Animation Research Library. As the title would suggest, this is all about the "classic fairy tales", so while here you will find representative pieces from Snow White to Rapunzel (Tangled), there is nary a Peter Pan or a Lady & the Tramp to be found.

The Good: As a waning Disney enthusiast (I once worked at the company store in my hometown and was a 4-time Western-Canadian district Disney trivia champion - something I still like to put on resumes for shits and giggles), I still harbour a long-held interest in the theme parks and animated films - especially the concept work that rarely sees the light of day. I'm especially fond of the contributions of the background artists - there's something about the textures found in the background paintings of the really early stuff (Pinocchio and Snow White to be specific) that I have deep affection for. There is a fair amount of such work on display, and A LOT of completed original cels used in the production of the films.

The Disappointing: The best stories are the ones Disney never wants you to see. While there is plenty of attention paid to Uncle Walt as the source of inspiration for most of the studio's product, it would have been refreshing to have seen a little more focus on the actual animators. Walt's ghost-written quotes dominate the empty spaces on exhibition walls, but the real treats are the small and unassuming pieces hidden among the reproductions - the most affecting among them being some actual storyboard frames for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and a really wonderful character sheet drawn by Glen Keane for Rapunzel - suggesting many of the ways in which she might use her hair. More of this would have been welcome.

Now that I've been out of the company for more than a decade, and now that I have some distance from the machine, it's much easier for me to be subjective about the whole Disney experience. It's tiresome for me to watch and hear short films (designed for 5 minute museum consumption) that white-wash what is actually quite a historically and artistically fascinating process. I know this exhibition was all about dreams coming true, but for the hard-core Disney enthusiast (if indeed there is such a description), this is really all stuff you've seen before. I'm hopeful that a more exploratory exhibit focusing on the brilliance that was left on the drawing room floor will make its way to a town near me soon.

That all being said, the exhibit was worth it for me just to see these two pieces from Beauty & the Beast. Officially, one is not allowed to take any photos inside the museum and there are guards on every corner of the walls to enforce this rule, but I have my ways. These are the original animator's drawings for what is still my favourite film - animated or otherwise. They make it worth the price of admission, so I guess I'm a bit of a Disney nerd yet.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Summer English Camp (Day 3,4 & 5)

Things got a bit better in the middle of the week - mainly because the ring-leader of team 4 decided to stay at home on Wednesday. When she was telephoned to ask where she was, her mom was irate because the girl had told her that I had told the girl to not come to camp anymore. So, rather than cleaning-up her act, she looked for an out that involved lying to her mom about what I had said to her. I still see a clear difference between "If you don't want to be here, don't come" and "don't come". Other students translated for me so there is no using ESL as an excuse.

Anyway, mom was pissed because she paid all of this money for her daughter dear to come to camp and blah, blah, blah. I asked my co-teacher (who was also present for our conversation the previous day) to explain the situation to the mom and I started the class. Apparently mom was unaware that her daughter is a slacker who looks for any excuse to bail-out of English class - doesn't she know that it's either this or Math boot-camp?

Day 3: Team Challenges - We decided to split the day up into 3 segments - an activity followed by chapter summary exercises for each hour.

Lowlights: Other than the previously-mentioned phone conversation, not much at all.

Highlights: With the ring-leader away, team 4 really lightened-up and had a good time. We began with a scavenger hunt in and around the school - teams following hidden clues in the English room, on all four floors of the school, and in the school yard where I had hidden them the day before. After the chapter 4 summary, we had a water-balloon challenge where team members faced each other and tossed balloons back and forth, taking one step back after each catch - last team without a broken balloon earned points. It's amazing how much a fun game with easy surprises can create laughs among sleepy and phone-deprived children. The day's last activity before the vocabulary quiz involved taking Monday's "rock, paper, scissors" cards and having students create circle stories at their tables - turning over each card after it's used. Stories were read aloud at the end of class.

*Another things that helped was asking all students to put their cell-phones on my desk after each break. It's like removing their life-force, until they remember that they don't actually need to hold it in their hands with thumbs moving furiously in order to be fully-functioning human beings.

Day 4: Field Trip to the Onggi Museum - Onggi is the glazed, yet "breathable" brown pottery that is used to make kimchi pots and other workman-like items. Very few decorative items have been made with onggi - that's what celedon is for. I had visited this museum with teachers before my first summer vacation at this school. It's a cool little place, and the best part is that it offers an onggi-making course for small student groups. This fit in well with our story theme from summer reading, so I was looking forward to getting out of the school for a more hands-on approach.

Lowlights: Getting 16 students back on buses was no easier than it had been on Tuesday. Oh, well.

Highlights: My voluntarily absent student from the day before was brought into the office and interrogated until she admitted that she lied to her mom. This pleased me. I don't like making students cry, but I like reminding them that they can't always get-away with being lying twits. Of course, the best part of the day was having the students work with the clay. A museum staff member was able to instruct the students into making small onggi mugs and cups. Though I knew that those large kimchi pots were made with the same glaze and firing process, I had no idea that they were also made with the same roll-the-clay-into-snakes-and-coil-them-up routine. Huh... learn something new everyday. The kids appeared to be in a great mood when I bought a big bowl of ddeok-bokki and shared it with them just before we got on the bus back to school. Koreans seem to have no qualms at all about sharing food from common vessels, and I got a kick out of feeding them all with a toothpick like baby birds.

Day 5: Pizza-Making Contest - Rather than rush through pizza festivities for the sake of having enough time to watch a feature-length film, we took our time with the book wrap-up and took our time with the pizza making. This left about 45 minutes to watch a great 30 minute (largely wordless) Nick Park short clay-mation film ("The Wrong Trousers") and give-out our prizes to the winning team and the certificates to everyone.

Low-lights: A couple of my team 4 girls sneaked out of their dish-washing duty as the other students were cleaning and organizing the room. They were phoned to return to school and though they said they'd be back in 10 minutes, they never returned. Little do they know that the principal of the school will be phoning them this week to request that they now be present for the last two Fridays of camp in order to clean the dishes for the other students. I just don't let kids get-away with shit. It's amusing that they are so surprised.

Highlights: I love pizza-making day. I play the soundtrack from Big Night for background music and the kids get busy slicing bagels, and preparing their veggies. I provide them with colored paprika, cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms, onions, and tomato sauce. They can bring whatever else they want from home. I am using my mini-oven from home as well as my stand-up toaster oven. Dishes and cutlery are borrowed from the Home Economics room. Students make two mini-pizzas for themselves (two halves of a bagel) and each team makes me a half pizza to try. Teams are rewarded for the best tasting and the best looking pizza. I'm thankful that team 2 "The Potters" have won the overall competition for the week and as a result, are rewarded with beautifully-wrapped celadon vases that were purchased by me in Insadong, and wrapped by the nimble fingers of the rabbit. Sang-eun seems especially touched by his prize and he's proud as he should be since he was the one who carried his team through their homework and quizzes. It's nice to see people rewarded for their dedication.

Final thoughts: I've actually just started my 2nd of three camp weeks. I'm sure there will be more highlights and lowlights, but hopefully things will go a little more smoothly from her on out. This will be my 5th 3-week vacation camp run for this school. That's a lot of weeks, but it can be fun. As much as I would like to do a proper novel-study with related activities, I'm not given the ability to control who signs-up for camp - hence the shabby ladies of week 1 and the student abilities that range from barely knowing the alphabet, to those who have already read our book in advance of the first day of camp. The only way I see to solve this is to spend about a third of the camp time on actual edumacation stuff, and the rest on fun and games - it is summer after-all, and as much as I would like the personalities of my summer camp students to match those of my students from my Saturday class, I have to work with what I have. If that means tempering actual English learning with periods of throwing a balloon of refrigerated water at each others faces, so be it. I would like to have my last teaching experience at this school be a happy one.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Summer English Camp (Day 1 & 2) finished.

This means that I have suffered through some challenges that have served to keep my on my toes and try my patience, but most importantly, I've had the opportunity to refine a few things before moving on to week #2.

As I mentioned before, all native speaking English teachers are required to deliver a 3 week camp to their school's students. If for whatever reason we don't have enough kids sign-up, we don't have to run the camp, but then we also don't get paid for those three weeks - at least this is what the contract states. As I'm doing my best to save for university, my choice is to run the camp, so I do my best to plan a good one. So, rather than have the same group of students, I have a different set of 16 students (4 teams of 4) for each of the 3 weeks. This allows me to make 5 really fun full day plans as opposed to stretching it all out into 15 days with the same kids.

My first week looked kind of like this:

Monday: Introductions - We ran some ice-breakers, introduced the summer reading book through activities and comprehension questions, did a vocab quiz, created teams, had our first team challenge.

Lowlights: Inevitably, some students that sign-up for English Camp do so in an attempt to appease their parents who looked at their child's failing English grade and wanted to turn things around over the summer. Well, you can lead a student to English Camp, but even if the Kool-aid is Purplesaurus-Rex flavour, that doesn't mean they're going to find it delicious. I had a group of 4 girls who immediately formed a quartet of bitterness from before the moment of the first bell. When I wake them from their sleep or gossip session, take their combs and mirrors away, or take their cell-phones away, they look at me as though I'm their step-father who's pestering them to take out the trash. Thankfully these lovely ladies will only be with me for a week.

Highlights: Korean students love playing Rock, Paper, Scissors. I utilized a mixed set of vocab cards from our English room collection which have alternating symbols for rock, paper, or scissors on the top corner. Students sat-across from other team's students and basically played "War" with their cards for a set time before changing seats and facing a new opponent. Each team member then brought their spoils back to their team table to total them all up, and points were rewarded for the most of whatever category each team was able to keep or take through card combat: most adjectives, most food items, etc. As an added bonus, students also got to re-enforce stereotypes of unrealistic beauty standards through these cards, and continue down the road that leads to the inevitable country-wide support of the Korean plastic surgery industry. Good thing that "Ugly" and "Pretty" at least are equal in terms of their "scissors" value.

Tuesday: Field Trip to Seoul Dream Forest - we took an ill-fated trip to the North Seoul Dream Forest in order to get out of the school, enjoy a scavenger hunt, and check-out some cool modern art installations.

Lowlights: Though I had visited the Dream Forest 2 months previous to take photos, explore the art gallery, and organize a fairly in-depth scavenger hunt, everything went wrong. The exhibition which had been advertised to run until August 31st and had been free when I visited back in May (and had been the basis for the worksheets that I had made to accompany the scavenger hunt) had gone through some significant alterations. When we arrived at the museum, the staff were now looking for a 6,000 won charge per student - which was irrelevant as 75% of the exhibit had been switched over for new pieces - rendering my scavenger hunt material useless. We spent the rest of the time looking for the few scavenger hunt pieces not included in the museum. The majority of the students were good sports about it, while the quartet of K-pop princesses ate ice-cream in the shade and lied about finding all items - including the ones that they couldn't have physically seen since they were no longer on display. I let the girls know that if they didn't want to be at English Camp, they didn't have to come. I also learned that herding 16 students onto a bus (when half of them have large bills instead of T-money cards) is an unpleasant thing.

The weather was beautiful.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Turtle Release Party

This past Sunday afternoon, I headed-out to Utsav restaurant in Hongdae with a handful of friends to release Flip & Flop into their new home. Clearly, we were grief-stricken at the thought of saying goodbye.

I'll let the pictures speak for themselves, except I'll add that I know this was the right thing to do - the restaurant owner and turtle aficionado is truly the man for this job. He was lamenting the fact that Sunday night was the night when he would be changing the water in the central pool. He does this every three weeks and invited me back at some point this week so that I could see my two friends frolicking in the depths.

It was probably the best turtle release party I've ever hosted - it began with Flip making lightning-quick dash into the pool as soon as she was set-down on the concrete, and ended with us all enjoying the South East Asian buffet - a bit pricey on Sundays at 19,800 won per person, but delicious and compared to prices back home, it was about right.

We also did a George & Mary style send-off to Bailey Park by offering freeze-dried shrimp, so that life may always have flavour, and Flip & Flop's favourite rock, so that joy and prosperity may reign forever. I was only lacking bread, but being that they are living in a restaurant now, I'm pretty sure that, for Flip & Flop, life will never know hunger.

The best part was that we had a 2nd floor view of the central courtyard down to the pool where we could do some Flip & Flop spotting from above. We all considered the price of the meal to be like life insurance for our turtle friends - a gesture of gratitude for the restaurant owner for taking them in to their new turtle paradise.

I'll post pictures from when I visit again - maybe this weekend.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

My last day of teaching

Well, I should clarify - it's actually my last day of teaching regular classes at my middle school. Mostly, this means two things:

1) I won't ever again have to share my classroom with person X, who has demonstrated week-in and week out since coming to our school in March that she should have been put out to pasture as a teacher long ago. People are people, but when apathetic and vile people adversely affect my work and my students, it's time to call a spade a spade. Shaking off this thick soup of negativity that I've been swimming through 6 periods per week this semester will feel great. I can only hope, for the sake of next year's student population, that the rest of the staff step-out of their usual avoid-confrontation-at-any-cost stance on work-related conflict and actually make some changes. I can only hope that the students at our school matter more than saving face.

2) I will have to say goodbye to 래송 ("Rae-song", who wanted an English name so I gave him "Raymond".) Raymond is one of the grade 3 students in our school who will be graduating this year, and who I will miss.

Raymond is not a strong English student - he began that way and will leave the school without having learned too terribly much. He's got curly hair, he's badly in need of some orthodontic work, he's bigger than 99% of the school population (including staff), and as he walks our halls with his familiar apologetic lope, he's reminiscent of a shy Jar-jar Binks with a Jheri Curl.

Raymond is large and ungainly, but gentle, and though he's not what I would call "popular", he has a lot of friends - most of whom are so small comparative to him, that when Raymond sits down at his group desk during lunch, it seems like he's about to read them all a bedtime story.

Raymond had always been in my lowest level-differentiated class, until this year when the grade 3s were all grouped-together in their complete homeroom form for their time with me. In the first year, Raymond went from not speaking at all, to quietly repeating one word at a time with me, but only if no others were around. I clearly remember the very first time that I called on him in class. The question was "How are you today?" Raymond looked down at his desk like he was Lennie and I was George and I had just told him to "shut-up about the damned rabbits!" Raymond avoided my gaze for the first three months - head drooped-down like a child: "If I can't see him, he can't see me." During the entire first year, Raymond never came to class with a book. Daily, I asked him where it was, but never scolded him.

In year two, he graduated to speaking slowly in class, but only when called upon, and not always then. Still, Raymond would freeze-up completely during a speaking test, and more often than not, get a score of zero.

This year, something changed. Toward the end of year two and into this year, I made a point of caring less about the initial potential of embarrassment and awkwardness, and would sit beside Raymond from time to time in class during the small group worksheet portion of the activity. Previously, during this period, students could be counted upon to do anything with their worksheets from making paper airplanes, to tearing them into tiny shreds, to actually writing something of some educational and practical value on them. Raymond could be counted on to stare solemnly at his for a good 10 minutes with no hint of progression.

I decided it would be on me to help Raymond out this time around. It really is the smallest thing - taking 3 minutes of our class time to focus on someone who needs a little focus. Turns out, Raymond is capable of a whole lot.

This semester, Raymond proudly says hello to me in the hallway, and a few times, he's even sought me out at lunch time or in the hallway between classes or after school, and he seems to have lost all shyness with me as he sometimes adds to his greetings with the offer of a candy - usually a blue lollipop in the shape of a hand - available at the convenience store around the corner from our school gate.

For my last speaking test, I focused on asking a set of prescribed questions about the students' researched travel destinations from our "Travel Korea" lesson. It was easy for those that did the work, and impossible for those that didn't. Just rewards for the dedicated, as it turns out. During this multiple-week lesson, Raymond came to class with a new folder, upon which he had written the words "English Class Teacher Dave". Each day, he would open it up to reveal his worksheet that was steadily looking more and more complete as the weeks past. Raymond even came into my office one day at lunch to show me his progress and to have me check his work. This blew my mind.

When the speaking test day came for his class, Raymond was the last student on the attendance list, and therefore the last one to take the test. The other students had left the room as the bell had already rang. Though they were finished, four or five of Raymond's sheepish little friends stayed behind to cheer him on. Raymond sat down across from me, wiped his sweaty palms on his pants, and we began. I was cheering for him and hoping for a ten, but when he emerged from the test with an 8, he stood up, did a silent fist-pump, and had the goofiest grin on his face. I swear he left the classroom telling his hangers-on about each segment of his grand 45 second war with the English language, and how he had emerged victorious through the deft relation of why Everland Amusement Park was a famous place, and how far it was from there to Daecheon Beach, and how he had arrived there by car. Raymond was also one of the only students in his class to have a completed answer sheet, which was considered as a portion of the grade for the speaking test.

That was the last time that I will teach Raymond, and realistically I have no reason to think that he is on his way to becoming a more dedicated learner, but I have a little more reason to hope.

I told all of my students this week that I was leaving. Sadly, I didn't get to teach Raymond one last time because of a scheduling conflict with student outings on our regular class day. On Thursday, all students went on a brief morning field trip: the grade 1s to a nearby park, the grade 2s to the National Museum, and the grade 3s to the Korean War Memorial and Museum. I did my best to visit all three venues through the morning, but made it only to two. On my way to the entrance of the War Memorial, I saw that many of the students were already on their way home. I saw Raymond and his friends walking past and I called his name. He looked at me and smiled and said "Teacher... Canada?"

I said "yes."

I asked another student to take this picture. The statue behind us is entitled "Brothers".

I've still got one blue hand lollipop in my fridge and it may be one of the most meaningful mementos I will take with me when I leave Korea for a year this August. Certainly, it is the most meaningful souvenir I take with me from my time at my school.

There's been so little caring to witness in our halls and classrooms in recent months. It's disheartening, to say the least. But I'm honestly grateful that something so small as Raymond's joy at his 8 out out of 10 on a speaking test can still make me feel like a teacher. It's so easy to lose these moments. I know there have been others. It's what I want teaching to be.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A New Home for Flip and Flop

Another thing that comes with me leaving for Canada for a year is having to find a new home for my turtle companions.

From what I understand, the turtles began their lives in the pet section of a Home Plus type superstore here in Seoul, were picked-up by a friend of a friend, then transferred to my friends when the original owner departed for his home country, then the were transferred to me when my friends went back to Canada, and here they have been - sharing my wee apartment for the last two years.

I'm come to the conclusion that turtles should not be sold at Home Plus. They are irresistibly cute in the shop - their little round shells no bigger than the diameter of a squash ball. But they will grow... and how!

What most pet shop owners won't tell you is that the cute little bitters you see in the tanks will actually grow to be the size of a small dinner plate and live for 35-40 years. Every week or so I swing-by the turtle tank at my neighbourhood Home Plus and one week there will be 10-15 little guys swimming about - the next: none. This means a lot of little turtles being sold to people who most likely have no idea what they are committing to. It's become a well-known fact that many turtles get put into the Han River when they get too big for a people house. This doesn't end well for the turtles.

As you might be able to tell by the photo, my turtles (Flip & Flop) have grown. Though I was happy to provide them with a new aquarium complete with filter and sunning rock when they first arrived at my abode, they have long since outgrown it. I completely change their water, clean-out the filter, rinse the gravel, and scrub-down their rocks (a labour-intensive 30 minute process) every 5 days now. Their diet has added a significant increase to my monthly grocery bill, and they simply need a bigger place.

Believe it or not, I am a dedicated enough turtle father that, if I were staying here in Seoul, I would head to Dongdaemun market, get myself a 33 gallon aquarium, and start a new life for my two semi-aquatic pals. But, as I will be leaving, and can't see myself bringing two pet turtles to Canada from Korea for a year, and as I don't want to saddle anyone else with the now sizeable job of being a turtle parent, I was looking for another option.

It appears that I have found the perfect one in the form of Utsav - a very cool Indian restaurant in a quieter corner of Hongdae.

I found a very promising photo on a friend's facebook a while back - showing a beautiful courtyard with a pond in the middle of a resutaurant - under high ceilings and a skylight... and TURTLES!!! The rabbit and I went to visit there today with hope in our hearts.

The owner is a proud turtle father, himself - having had his oldest one for over 15 years. He currently has five red-eared slider turtles free-roaming in the courtyard of his restaurant - a huge 9 x 4 meter pool with fountains. This appears to be quite the turtles' paradise in all seasons.

We were afraid that perhaps this guy receives inquiries all the time from people looking to unload their grown-up turtle broods, and it turns-out he has. Turtles can be aggressive though, and if they aren't big enough, they simply won't do well in a competitive turtle environment.

I brought my camera to show some Flip & Flop photos just in case of such a reply. The man was convinced, and within a week or two, I will be taking my friends on a journey south to Hongdae for a teary farewell, and an introduction to a new life of greater freedom and much more varied cuisine.

You know how I can tell that this restaurant owner loves his turtles? Because one of the first things he asked me is what my turtles' names were. Turns out that all of his turtles are named after Indian cuisine: Tandoori, Palak, Paneer... and I can't recall the other two. He speaks of them like a proud papa, and I know he'll take good care of my babies.

You know how else I can tell this place is the right one? Lee Hyori says it's okay through her choice to film an episode of her TV show there, and what's good enough for Lee Hyori, is good enough for Flip & Flop.

I will be having a turtle release party very soon, and I'll be bringing-along their favourite rock, a tin of cubed shrimp, and a head of green lettuce, because they will need something to comfort them when the shock that they are, in fact, not the only turtles in the world hits them square in their little turtle faces. I imagine they will stick together the first while, and I imagine that Flop will fight tooth and nail to defend Flip's honour when called-upon.

This is a good thing, and I know I can visit them from time to time, but saying goodbye will be sad.

심태성 남학생!!!

I'll be leaving Korea on August 25th for one year - more on that in future posts - and this means that next Friday will be my final day of regular classes at my school.

As I've noted a few times of late, things have been a challenge in that there place, but it hasn't been all bad. This past week I had a fair amount of downtime, which I actually felt quite good about - using it to get a lot done in regards to my summer camp planning. Desk-warming periods don't always result in productivity, but I'm grateful that I was able to get a lot out of this past week.

Supervising exams has also been interesting - well, not "interesting", but eye-opening at times. I learned recently that exams in the first two grades of middle school mean absolutely nothing in terms of applying to high school. It isn't until the 3rd year of middle school when finals mean anything other than a source of pride or applying what one has learned in the class to some form of measurable exercise. For some, this means a lack of sleep and hair-pulling. For others, whom I watched with my own eyes, this means accepting the test in-hand, randomly crossing-off answers, placing those answers from the test paper onto the computer scoring sheet, turning their paper over and going to sleep - before all of the students have received their test paper. I watched one particular girl go through this routine for three straight periods. She'll have a one in four chance of getting her 20 multiple choice questions correct, and a 100% chance of getting all of her short written answers wrong. That means failing grades in Math, Chinese Characters, and Music. But she's only a grade 2 student - so who cares?

Anyway, exams are done. I'm mostly ready for summer camp. A Single Shard is a beautiful little novel and I'm thinking I'll be buying some little celadon pottery vases with a piece of our prize budget - as opposed to the jigsaw puzzles and frames I've given the last couple of camps. The novel is well-beyond the reading ability of the majority of my students, so they will be reading 3 chapters per day in their Korean version of the book, and then answering a series of comprehension questions and studying 6 vocab words per chapter in English with page references to their English copy of the book. Gotta do what I gotta do - without the Korean version, the English one would unfortunately be worth very little to my students.

Where was I... oh, yes... the reason for this post was to tell you about a great souvenir I picked-up yesterday. My school's been a challenge of late, but I will miss it - and I might just mist-up a bit when it comes time to say goodbye to a couple of the students I've known for 2 and a half years. Next week, I'll be wearing my brand-new S******** Middle School boy's summer uniform shirt - made specially for me by the ajushi who runs the uniform shop by our school. He makes uniforms for only two schools, but there are over 1200 students in each, they are growing fast, and they need two seasonal uniforms each year. He must be doing okay.

He gave me a deal on my specially made shirt - 25,000 won as opposed to 30,000, and the name-tag was made for about 50 cents.

The name reads Shim Tae-seong, which is the Chinese version of the more uniquely Korean Shim Han-byeol - both of which mean "Great Sun". I may have blogged about this way back in the day, but the name's origin is shared between a good friend and a favourite essay topic assigned to my hagwon students in my first year in Korean. Shim (심) is the family name of my good friend and Korean sister (Shim Misun, AKA: Tanya) and she honored me by asking me to be her brother almost three years ago.

The given names comes from Sally - whose essay on the subject of "choose a Korean name for Teacher Dave" moved me. She said that I was "like a sun shining on the students' life road." That is certainly a bit much, but it's praise I'll do my best to humbly accept in the form of a Korean name that was stitched into a blue patch, and subsequently sewn onto my shirt last night by a kind rabbit.

I'll be wearing the shirt on my last day of school before summer break. I'm debating whether or not to tell the students that I'll be leaving. I'll let you know what I decide at the end of next week.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Watermelon, watermelon, watermelon

This weather makes me moist, and it makes me sleepy. Thank fully, there is watermelon ("Su-bak") to replenish the weary.

Subak started making appearances in grocery stores as recently as two months ago, but it's certainly in season now. I can't remember how much it is back home in Canada at this time of year, but here it seems a bit pricey - does $20 for a whole melon sound like a lot to you?

I make myself content with a quarter melon for around $5 and the rabbit gets right at brandishing a long knife. She's got the thing de-seeded, cubed, and popped into a nearby glass-lock container to chill for a late night snack.

Subak also showed-up yesterday after our last day of exams. The teachers were lured into the main office with the stuff and then had to stay for a meeting about the end of semester - all of them slightly bitter, but soothing their sorrows and soaking their chins in juicy red goodness. The principal's address was punctuated with the sound of resentment-filled slurping and dripping.

That wasn't enough subak for me though, so I met-up with Mr. Kim, and Mr. Lee (who left our school last year and I hadn't seen since then) for some tofu stew, beer, and then topped it off with some subak-infused popping-su. The rain had prevented us from attending the Doosan Bears vs Lotte Giants game, but popping-su and beer put a smile back on our faces. We're just a trio of wild and crazy guys.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

New Sunglasses

The rabbit got me a very generous "stay safe in Canada" gift. She's always wanted to get me a decent pair of sunglasses, and I've never once owned a pair, so it was a good fit.

After a trip to Lotte Department Store in Myeong-dong, we found the right ones. Being that this is my first pair, I went with the brand that sounded to most trustworthy.

Then, it was off to the Myeong-dong underground shopping center and the endless hallways of glasses shops. We were recommended one by the girl who sold us the glasses. This particular ajushi is apparently the go-to guy when the Lotte Department store requires some repairs on its own glasses stock. For future reference, if you're looking for glasses, adjustments, or anything eye related, this guy is quite the optometrist as well. Just look for Iris (아이리스) with the only orange sign in a sea of white ones. He'll set you up like Johnny Depp in Sleepy Hollow.

Anyway, I'm really pleased with my new glasses - the first prescription pair I've ever owned. The lenses are a bit thick because of my truly shabby eyes, but if these Ray-bans are good-enough for Mukmuk, they're good enough for me.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Summer Camp Approaches

It's final exam week at my school, which means we have to be quiet in the hallways, but it's perfectly okay for jack-hammering to continue at the gymnasium construction site meters from the classroom windows.

I'm doing my best to relax this week. For some reason, I need to lend a hand supervising the exams this time around - something I haven't been asked to do since my first semester in the school in the early Spring of 2009. It's boring as hell, as we must stand silently at the back of the classroom for 45 minutes at a time. I amuse myself by stealing glasses set-aside on the desks of sleeping students, pocketing mine and putting on theirs and see what they make of that when the bell rings.

Gladly though, I also have a fair amount of time in the day to consolidate some materials I've collected over the years, clean, itemize, and organize the classroom cupboards, and most importantly - get ready for summer camp.

Another flash-back to my first semester at the school is the fact that I'll be teaching this camp alone again. I don't mind. Having a co-teacher for camp can be grand in terms of sharing the work and bringing two schools together for a new dynamic, but ultimately, it can also be more work in terms of planning - "Is this activity okay? How about this? Would you like me to take care of that?" etc.

Another thing that should make this camp a good one is the fact that the school has hung-on to my suggestion from this past winter: to use the three weeks to run 3 separate 5-day camps for 3 separate groups of students. With 16 different students every week, instead of the same 16 for 3 weeks, I can allow 48 students into my camp. Some teachers were a little bit reluctant to go this route as one never knows how many kids will be interested in signing-up. Thankfully though, I seem to have made a good impression on my grade 1 students and the camps filled-up in the first 3 days after posters went up.

I'm also grateful to learn that the summer reading book selected for our district is A Single Shard, by Linda Sue Park. Here's what the publishers have to say about the book:

Park molds a moving tribute to perseverance and creativity in this finely etched novel set in mid- to late 12th-century Korea. In Ch'ul'po, a potter's village, Crane-man (so called because of one shriveled leg) raises 10-year-old orphan Tree Ear (named for a mushroom that grows "without benefit of "parent-seed"). Though the pair reside under a bridge, surviving on cast-off rubbish and fallen grains of rice, they believe "stealing and begging... made a man no better than a dog." From afar, Tree Ear admires the work of the potters until he accidentally destroys a piece by Min, the most talented of the town's craftsmen, and pays his debt in servitude for nine days. Park convincingly conveys how a community of artists works (chopping wood for a communal kiln, cutting clay to be thrown, etc.) and effectively builds the relationships between characters through their actions (e.g., Tree Ear hides half his lunch each day for Crane-man, and Min's soft-hearted wife surreptitiously fills the bowl). She charts Tree Ear's transformation from apprentice to artist and portrays his selflessness during a pilgrimage to Songdo to show Min's work to the royal court. Readers will not soon forget these characters or their sacrifices. Ages 10-14.

I know that 12th century pottery may not be as thrilling as Starcraft II to most of the students who signed-up, and the short novel is mostly beyond the understanding of 95% of the students who likely signed-up for the camp, but I'm also excited to be teaching a Newberry Medal winner to a class that may gain a new appreciation for one of their country's more celebrated art forms: celadon pottery.

Though we won't be reading the entire book together, I'm taking the time to go through the book and make comprehension questions, crosswords, vocabulary lists etc to be completed in teams each day. Students will earn a better understanding of the novel up to the point of the beginning of Tree-ear's journey to Songdo, and then I'll let them see what happens in the last three chapters on their own.

So, I'm getting ready for camp, and this, minus the daily novel study bit, is what the 5 day (9:00am - 12:00pm) plan will look like:

Monday: Introductions, team-building, introduction to the novel
Tuesday: Field trip to North Seoul Dream Forest, scavenger hunt, art gallery visit.
Wednesday: Team challenge day, outdoor & indoor team games, activities & treasure hunt.
Thursday: Field Trip to the Onggi Pottery Museum where students can learn about pottery making methods and try there hand at designing their own molded piece.
Friday: Pizza-making contest and Movie Day

I'm not yet sure what I'm going to show for the movie, but I'm pretty sure I'm going to have a hard time finding something pottery-themed. Maybe I should just stick with the idea of the quest. Suggestions?

Anyway, I'm excited about the plan. The book is great, and though it's out of reach for most of the students, it may give some of them an edge should they decide to take part in the Golden Bell book quiz during our school's English Day celebrations in the fall.

Here's hoping for happy, pottery-making students and good attitudes for the three weeks of camp. I'm actually looking forward to it, and I'm glad to have finally found two decent field trip destinations that are within 10 minute bus rides from my house, as opposed to 70 minutes by subway.