If you read the title of this post and it sounded in your mind like a clown at the beginning of a TV show, you read it the wrong way. Imagine a slightly frustrated teacher instead. (Yae means kid, deul (changing to deur before a vowel) is the same plural I mentioned last time, and I gather that a is something akin to the vocative case ending, if you’re familiar with Latin, or if not, it’s what you use when you call out to someone, sort of a “Hey!”.)
Sorry for not writing for a while. I decided a while back that I’d only write during my downtime at work, which worked for a while, but then I stopped having so much downtime, for little reasons here and there. Most recently I had to make a plan for a week-long winter camp that’ll be held at the school (“camp” is a euphemism for “come in to school on vacation”), and after I made it, my co-teacher said it looked too “old-fashioned”, and I should try to come up with “fresh, new, and brilliant ideas”. Amanda was told to do the same, and later she asked her co-teacher what my co-teacher might have meant by that, and what she gathered was that my co-teacher just wants us to do everything over again because we aren’t busy enough.
But besides that, I was also feeling pretty well up to date with most of the readership of this blog, as a consequence of a great Thanksgiving replete with Skype calls. You may have heard that I made some kick-awesome Thanksgiving food here, too. I was pretty satisfied with the way the holiday went.
Now, though, I ought to answer a question that people have been wondering about, because I haven’t really mentioned it much. That is: what are my students like? Now that I’ve been teaching them for most of an entire semester, I think I can actually answer that question.
The short answer is that they’re all different. When I got here I was sort of picturing a perfect grid of students, all looking dutifully straight ahead, the boys with identical, unimaginative bowl cuts, the girls with hair the same length and probably wearing dresses. Of course it’s not like that; not even I really thought it would be, but I didn’t realize precisely how wrong I was going to be. First off, although Koreans are racially very homogeneous, aside from a couple commonalities like straight black hair and eyes that are right up on the surface and remind you a little of a frog if you’re used to the more sunken eyes of white people, the students all look pretty different, more so than I was expecting. I’ve got some gangly kids; some scrawny short kids; some plump kids; one kid, Gicheol, who reminds me distinctly of a penguin; and one kid who’s wheelchair-bound. I’ve even gotten to where I know several of their names, though not that many. I’d know more, but the only times I hear them, they’re embedded in Korean sentences that I can’t understand, and also, Korean names do in fact all sound the same.
(I’ll digress about that for a moment. They’re formed on very rigid rules. Each one is three syllables long; I only know of one Korean with a name of a different length, of at least a hundred I’ve met. First comes the family name, one syllable long. There are only about thirty family names in Korea, and the top three most common—Lee, Park, and Kim—account for nearly half the population. Then comes the given name, which is made of two somewhat random syllables that are derived from old Chinese characters and combined by a sort of mix-and-match that’s at the whims of the parents. Here are the given names of the kids in my after-school class: Jinseon, Jiwon, Jinmin, Minuk, Hyorin, Hyeyeong, Yun-gyeong, Dongnyeong. I long for something distinctive like a good old “Max” or “Alicia”.)
But aside from their looks, they’re also wildly different in how they learn, and even, it sometimes seems, whether they learn. In all my classes, there are a few standouts who answer the questions most of the time. Jiwon and Jinseon tend to dominate their respective classes, especially Jiwon since she’s at the front. And the same way, there are some students who just don’t get it. I’ve been amazed at the depth to which some of them don’t get it, actually, especially considering that they’ve been learning English since age 4, supposedly at least. Some of them have to be coached through every single word if they’re going to read aloud, and given half a chance they’ll furtively write down the pronunciation in hangeul even though hangeul can only vaguely approximate a lot of sounds in English. (“The rabbit is faster than the turtle” would become something like “Duh rebbiteu iseu peseutuh den duh tudder.”) Even my co-teacher, who once preached to me about not letting any kid fall behind, has given up on the worst kid, Jaemin, who clearly doesn’t even know the alphabet. Asked to read any word, even a simple one like “must”, he’ll just stare at it, or (equally effectively) off into space, and if you’re lucky he’ll make a guess like, ” ‘Can’?” He tore up his English book a few weeks ago and now he reads comics in class.
Between those two ends of the spectrum, there are kids with every level of ability in between. Most of them seem to be most comfortable when we do listen and repeat exercises, which are probably the most prominent thing in the classes. Which is discouraging, because it’s not an effective way for the kids to learn anything but pronunciation, and maybe not even that, since I can’t tell if all 27 kids who are chorusing out “Jinho thought about asking Santa for the presents” pronounces each word correctly, or even at all. The much more effective way for them to learn would be for them to talk to each other in English in pairs or in small groups. But whenever we do anything like that, such as pair games, at least 80% of what I hear spoken is Korean, verging up to 100% depending on the kind of game or activity. English comes out of their mouths only with a great effort of extraction, is what I’m saying.
That about describes them academically. But they also have personalities, lots of them. I don’t know everything about this matter, since I can’t understand most of what they say to each other, but I get the gist. My after-school class, eight kids, is especially good for observing this.
The girls are very cliquey. Typically they all come in at the same time, since they were just hanging out outside or downstairs together, and all five of them sit at the same four-person table. Unless I’m doing something unusually fascinating, which I have to keep on my toes and try to do every class, they mostly lean in close and gossip among themselves. I have no idea what stories they’re telling, but I imagine fashion and love are heavily involved. Maybe next time I’ll ask them if they can say it in English, though they’ll probably just say, “I don’t know, teacher.” Sometimes, when the discussion gets heated enough, they whack each other with stuff, or chase each other around the room. Jiwon and Yun-gyeong seem to be especially good gossipers, but the other three, Hyeyeong, Jinmin, and Hyorin, seem to be pretty well involved too. Jiwon is definitely the loudest. If I split the class up into teams, the girls will insist on being their own team even if the numbers are uneven; I’ve had them ask for a girls’ team even when all five of them were there and the boys were represented by just poor Minuk.
The boys are more loners. They come in one at a time. Jinseon shows up ten minutes before class, Minuk comes in ten minutes after it starts (as do most of the girls), and Dongnyeong shows up at random times every few days (when he doesn’t have Japanese lessons, I think). They sit together, but it’d be kind of ridiculous not to, since there are just three of them and the desks are in clusters of four. They also don’t talk much until I call on them, which is nice. However, they’re usually the ones responsible for getting on the computer and opening up webpages about knives or video games or K-Pop. Jinseon is bookish and in the minutes before class he sits and reads about something or other. Dongnyeong likes to call people stupid and probably makes lots of fart jokes when I’m not around. Minuk is quiet in English class and I get the impression that he’s probably quiet all the time. It seems like they’re a more diverse bunch than the girls, although I could be totally stereotyping just because I can’t understand them. But they’re definitely different from the girls, I can tell that for a fact. In Korea the men are meant to act manly and the women are meant to act womanly, and I can see it starting in this bunch. (That’s not to say anything of their looks; Korean men are pretty androgynous and fashionable, as I mentioned last time.)
They’re mostly fun people to be around, very energetic and apparently getting a kick out of lots of things, but occasionally they’re disappointing. I decided I was going to start a big thing with the after-school kids, since I don’t have to follow any particular curriculum for them. I started writing a story. I decided to base it off of Daniel Pinkwater’s The Snarkout Boys and the Avocado of Death—I can’t decide whether this or Pinkwater’s other book Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars is the best children’s book ever. I wrote the beginning in simple English and brought it in to class to have them read it and decide what the next plot development in the story would be. In this story the protagonist, a Korean kid, has to move to Chicago, but finds some friends there. At the end of the first installment, the characters have just strolled by a movie theater that advertises that it’s open 24 hours and tickets are $2. One of the protagonist’s friends says they should come watch a movie in the middle of the night, because that’d be a great adventure. All the other characters say that sounds pretty cool. Will Jeonghyeon come to the movie? The kids voted no. Why? “I must do my homework.” Or, “I must sleep.” Apparently there’s no such thing as a sense of adventure in Korea. I’ve since had to scrap the story because they weren’t paying any attention to it. Maybe it was my writing or my pacing, but I think they just have a total lack of curiosity about anything that’s a little strange or offbeat. It’s popular culture, love, and video games for them. All the rest is for deviants.
But they’re still all great to me. In some of my bigger classes it’s hard to keep them on task, but even when my co-teacher’s not around, I still manage to get most of them to do what they’re supposed to be doing. They’re polite to me and they generally listen when I tell them to stop tearing around the room hitting each other. And they even sing the stupid songs that the textbook’s companion CD foists on them. Maybe they won’t all speak English fluently, but for the most part they’re trying. So I suppose I could have it worse.