Archive for teaching

At my school, there’s a handful of mainstreamed kids, some who are lucky (supportive classmates and teachers) and some who are not so lucky (merciless teasing, uninvolved teachers). When I first came to the school, it took me awhile to even realize that the classes had such a wide range of abilities – teachers tend to be mum on if there’s something ‘wrong’ with a student. Disability isn’t really a word that used – or understood? I’ve seen a lot go on with the mainstreamed students that have made me uneasy, but today (I say this without hyperbole) I saw the best thing ever.

Last year one of the high needs students (let’s call her Hyewon) had a rough time. I knew that English was her favorite class, but her classmates would almost never work with her, and the Korean co-teacher told me “You know why they won’t [work with her]. Let’s not make them.” She spent class either smiling at me, or with her head down on her desk, embarrassed whenever I made eye contact with her. She’s one of the bubbliest students that I have, but only at a distance. If you get close, she closes up like a cute shy clam. I think things are a little different now, with different classmates and teachers. Kind of… more nurturing?

Today, to prepare for the midterm, we played vocabulary Pictionary. The class of 36 is split into 3 teams, and they each take turns sending up one girl to draw. I choose the vocab pretty randomly out of an envelope, but if I know the students levels I try to adjust. The words are a mix of concepts (extinct, unusual), short sentences (“do you need help?”) and things (panda, pollution, envelope).

On Hyewon’s second turn, the draw-ers got the word “pollution.” It was a little bit more abstract than her first word (panda), but she was totally into the game and excited to just be in class, playing. As they started drawing and the teams started yelling out answers, I didn’t really pay attention to what they were drawing.

As Hyewon’s team called out the winning answer and I clapped and yelled that they had the point, the two other drawers put down their markers and stepped away from the board towards their seats. Hyewon looked at me, and back at her drawing, and back at me and back to the board, unmoving — She had made a car with smoke rising from the back, and a cloud overhead. Then, with incredible deliberation, she drew the Korean character-face ‘woo woo ㅜ.ㅜ’ in the cloud. The crying face.

I think I must have smiled about the biggest cheese ever. The whole class erupted into this wonderful laughter – that Hyewon had clearly made the best drawing about the impact of pollution to ever grace the school – or the world. I just about died. And Hyewon’s face? Like bliss. Everyone clearly loved her drawing, no one was making fun of her… it was just so 180 from when I first met her.

Honestly I’m a little teary writing this. This makes everything worth it. The next time I want to kill my students, I’ll try to think about Hyewon’s sad cloud, and her face as she turned around to look at me, glowing. Seriously.


full loop

I resigned my contract. Next week I’ll go back to the states for a quick vay-cay, and then return to Seoul.

I keep reflecting on my time here. A lot of it’s been good. I like how varied my job is, and I love worthing with my students. Sometimes the solitude gets to me. Sometimes all I want is some macaroni and cheese, or another small, unimportant comfort item.

This might sound dorky, but what’s really exciting to me is that by spending two years in Korea, I will have seen THREE classes advance onto their senior year. My first years (7th graders) that I teach now will be third years by the time that I leave. I feel all mushy inside thinking about that, watching ’em grow up.

This weekend, I was exiting the subway station when I saw one of my first years with her father. She yelled “teacher!” and ran over to me, gave me a hug, and then ran back to her dad. I dunno, I’m a huge sap. It made me smile.

I’m really happy that got placed at Hyewon. I know the system is random, but teaching middle school (at an all girls middle school) is amazing.

Hiking in Seoul

Last week one of my co-teachers asked me if I wanted to go hiking on the weekend.
After my disastrous attempts on the teachers retreat, I figured I’d never have to encounter another ‘san’ in Korea, besides my daily climb up the Hyewon Hill.
(SIDE NOTE: My kids hate it more than I do. Why? They’ve built monster calf muscles, haha.)

Turns out this optional weekend climb is on one of the easiest mountains in Seoul. But what me say yes was who else was going: The Bad Girls. Oh yes.
The way that school works here is that each grade is broken up into 8 or 9 homerooms. The homeroom teacher acts as kind of a parental figure. If a class of girls is especially awesome, tell their homeroom teacher – if a class is especially horrific one week, I tell their homeroom teacher. In every homeroom class, there are about 3 ‘bad’ girls. This isn’t an arbitrary number, the school evenly divided these students up.

What is ‘bad’ in Korea? I guess about the same as in the States – these are the kids who have been caught stealing, who get into fights, who have the worst attendance, who are disruptive in class and who have some of the lowest grade averages. The funny thing is, MOST of them behave decently in my class. Most. Well, no more worse than their peers. Anyway, in an effort to bond these girls with their homeroom teachers, Hyewon Girls’ Middle School presents: hiking.

Now, I ain’t no homeroom teacher. But I each every 3rd year class and every 1st year class, so out of the 25-ish girls that where chosen for the trip, a lot of them were my kids. A good chunk at least. So, strapping on some sneakers, I found myself on yet another hike in Korea.

SangAe is actually her class president~ She just wanted to go hiking!

You can't even imagine how much I was sweating. . .

The hike was promised to be easy. While there’s a difference between the Korean idea of an “easy hike” and MY idea of an easy hike (my idea involves walking around an air-conditioned mall) this was easily my most enjoyable hike ever. I didn’t trial behind everyone, I didn’t get hurt, and even though I was leaking tons and tons of h20, I still had fun. It was great to get to know some of the girls better – like that one of the toughest ones is afraid of dogs. And having them share their candy with me. And having them trying out their english skills outside of the classroom.

So yeah. All kinds of awesomeness being had here! 😀
In other news, I bought a plane ticket to go back to the states for vacation. Two weeks of Ben n Jerry’s ice cream, driving and forgetting all of the korean I have creamed into my head —- hopefully not on that last one! It’ll be nice to be back, for a little bit at least.

I’ve been in Korea for 8 months now. 8 months?? Really? Hmm.

I really enjoy my job. I think that middle school is a strange and exciting time to be teaching. But at the same time, I think that foreigners generally look at this type of job the wrong way.

Let me break down my school a little bit: We have 8 or 9 classes in each grade, each with about 36 students, give or take. ½ to 2/3rd of our students are on governmental assistance, and about two students in every class are from SE Asian/non Korean families, a huge amount for a homogenous country. Three students in every class have a difference of ability or (ha) are known to be disruptive. Each classroom has an elderly PC that may or may not work, with internet that may or may not work, with PowerPoint that may take more than 5min to boot up. My school serves pretty solid lunches; our students learn Chinese, English and Korean, and we serve almost exclusively a local community (since I live near the school, my weekends are often full of “Hi teachaaa!!” cat calls from my girls.)

Why do people come to Korea to teach? For the money, for the experience, for the opportunity to travel – and these aren’t bad reasons exactly. But this isn’t an easy gig. The kids here have needs that need to be met, and the government (and the entire English system) is willing to let a ton of relatively inexperienced teachers give it a shot for a year or two or whatnot.

I was reading some articles critiquing Teach for America, and I could draw an easy parallel between TfA and what I see a daily. Under resourced and over worked, perhaps schools across the world tell the same tired narrative. In both cases the callow and pretty are encountering the realities of educational systems that are challenging situations to begin with.

I think I’m an okay teacher. My classroom discipline needs work, and so does my direction giving. Nowhere near perfect. I’m here to make money, have fun, travel, gain experience… and to teach my kids. Yeah. Coulda just boiled it down to that.

So, in a surprising turn of events, my almost-brand-spanking-new mac suffered massive hard drive failure! What???! How is that even possible? My last back up was about a month ago – quite good for my records. I’ve gone years without backing up. Horrifying, but true. ㅜ_ㅜ

So, what does this mean? Well, I haven’t been online in a few days (except for at work) and I probably won’t have a working computer for at least another week. And, I’ve lost some writing and photographs. I’m not sure how to load my software from my backup either… so… I’m not sure what’ll be up with my Adobe stuff when I get my machine back.

One last bit of moping: I’m wearing dokkbukki pants today. I grabbed these jeans from the jean-pile, only to realize (now, as I sit in my office, preparing for the day) that there was a horrible accident involving that ever chewy and delicious hot rice cake: the dokkbukki. I seem to remember a night with a lot of friends and laughing and OH YES. I must have dropped a ton of the bright-red-chili-sauce-drenched – tomato-simmered-cakes. Cause there be red stains all up and down these legs. How I failed to notice as I got dressed this morning, I’ll never know… Fail. Major Fail!

Onto the awesomeness of life right now: things are pretty awesome. Life has taken on a kind of schedule: work in the mornings, of course, but every night holds something different. I’m taking an interactive class on Jonsen Dynasty culture at The National Palace Museum of Korea – last week we made soap. This week we’ll do calligraphy! I’ll be going on field trips and trying on hanbok. It’s all very interesting, and the palace is super lush.

Other days I go to Itaewon, to the Chabad. We’re studying women’s experiences in the prophet stories in Hebrew – oh man. There are some seriously strong women, but their stories are so fragmented. In Itaewon there are also weekly-or-so writers’ workshops and performer’s workshops, and lots of little coffee shops and English book stores. It’s amazing to feel like there are so many resources to plug into for the arts.

I study Korean a few nights a week, either with friends or with teachers at my school. My reading is getting to a workable stage. I’ve almost got all of the compound vowels down. Everyone knows how much I struggle with language, so learning to read awesomely is super sweet for me. Right now I’m only learning about 2 vocabulary words a week (mostly from my students, haha) which is not really enough to talk or anything. You’d be surprised though at who speaks awesome English in Seoul – it’s everywhere.

This week I have a super easy schedule – no 9th grades cause of finals, and for the 8th graders we’re giving an English speaking test. (we = my Korean English Co-teachers and myself). The speaking exam is on the slang I’ve been teaching the last two weeks:

That’s so wack! Fail, Major fail!
That’s sweet! That’s sick! Major win!
I’m chill. I’m cool. I’m solid.
I’m whatever. I’m eh.
I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.
What’s up?~ Just chilling.

The girls had to make dialogues with the slang and perform them in class. Yes, really. I love my job! I’ll put up videos of some of the good performances later – some of them are so funny! I feel like a proud mother every time I hear “I think I just threw up in my mouth a little.”


Oh, and Manisha and I made a new video for her students (elementary). You can check it out here. Funnnny!

race/ism in seoul

first thought: even the most oblivious of oblivious of white folks is bound to come out of their year in seoul with an inkiling of what “white privilege” means – and also what it means to be other in a culture. No where else have we (white foreigners)  been photographed and laughed at while at the same time given seats on the bus, cuts in the lines and unyielding tolerance at our ignorance.


second thought: Korea’s pretty racist. There’s a lot of shame in being other. My students are not all korean – hell, I’m not even the only non-Korean teacher in the school. But no one wants to say this. Of course, I’m white. I kind of stick out. I see it in the girls that are South East Asian or multiracial, the way students comment about them. “Oh she’s not smart teacher.” I see it in the push to be white. The “brightening” cream, fast bleaches and chems, the impressive  sun-shielding visors that the ahjummas wear. I try to present the USA as multicultural, as a place where racism still exists, but where strides are being made. . . however haltering on the side of white blindness. I try to send out the message: you are all smart. You can all do this. (and they are. No lies.)


third thought: I wonder, who am I to come here and judge what I see – from the other foreigners and from the city and country that is my home for the next year. HAHA am I so enlightened, so aware a person? no ways… not in a long shot. Just as racist and clueless as the next fool. I’m just saying what I see. Seoul’s been good for my soul – ha! For my self reflection. Maybe when I leave Korea, I’ll have some other thoughts – and actions- to pile on.

Our hero becomes a Korean movie star