Be Nice, Listen, Speak English, No Sleeping: Teaching English to Korean Children

12065617_907615582642412_6275626084768841933_nTomorrow morning, the start of my third week teaching Korean elementary and middle school students, the children will arrive in semi-straight lines, boys keeping each other in friendly choke holds and girls hanging on each other’s elbows. “Hello! Welcome!” we call out, standing on either side of them as they walk to the gym, dragging their suitcases along. They wave back, sometimes with both hands, and abandon “Anyang-haseyo” for “Hello” for the next five days.

The students give us gentle high fives and some teachers tease them by stealing their hats or greeting them in a high-pitched, falsetto voice. Every Monday morning the same jokes, different kids.

When I’m told that my group is ready, I go to the gym, taking with me the students’ passports (an imitation passport that they use to take notes and record their English nickname) and a folder that teachers use for learning background on the group (names, what school they’re from, etc.) and making comments. I then lead my group to a classroom for a quick pretest. I ask them, “Where are you from?” Most often they reply with “Korea,” sometimes adding their city name. Other times they just blink at me, look back at their friends who are watching, and laugh nervously. Sometimes, if the student is more advanced, we can ask things like “What’s your favorite animal?” And they’ll say, “My favorite animal is a cat.” We’ll ask, “Why do you like cats?” They’ll reply, “Because they are cute.” That amount of dialogue is not very common, though. This is why it’s a challenge teaching kids when they only understand a small percentage of what we’re saying.

People asked me when I was preparing to leave for Korea, “How are you going to teach kids if you don’t know Korean?” The answer to this is something I’m still learning. First, I’ve had to accept that they just aren’t going to understand most of what I say. Because that’s not the point. The benefit of immersing students fully in a foreign language is that they’re obligated to really pay attention or be completely lost, which does, unfortunately, happen. But even if they don’t understand everything, they learn to pick up on signals, like tone of voice and gestures. We use a lot of gestures. I’m probably going to come back to the U.S. and open and close my hand anytime I use the word “talk” or “speak.” I also use a lot of thumbs up, because the sound we make when we say “good” is similar to the word that means “finished” for Korean speakers. Basically, speaking slowly and simply, using gestures, and employing lots of repetition is what guides these kids through our classes.

Orientation is their next class and follows a short opening ceremony in the gym where the kids get pumped up and discuss general rules for the week–Do your best! Speak English! Ask questions! Orientation is where we get to pick the students’ names if they don’t already have a name in mind, which is often the case.

Me: We’re going to pick your English nickname. English nickname. *pointing at the words “English nickname” in their passport* You can pick one of these. *Circling motion around a list of English names* English nickname. Do you know which one you want? Do you want me to pick one? *Pointing to myself* What English name? Like, “Sally”, “Kathryn”, “Jessica”…Nickname? I will pick one for you?
Korean child: ???????

As difficult as it is for the student to understand what’s going on, especially on the first day, it’s fun to pick their names for them. There’s a certain power in coming up with these names if the student can’t decide. If I want to name the kids after my family and friends, I can do that. If I want to name them after all the characters on Arrested Development or Firefly, I can, and will, do that. The administration has had to remind teachers in the past, though, to stick to the names on the list because it can get out of hand sometimes. I was told that one student insisted on being called “Lucifer” (presumably after a video game he liked) and when asked where he was headed in the airport situational, he replied, “TO HELL!” Funny, but not so funny to his parents when they found out we called him Lucifer all week.

Also, we’re never supposed to call them “Johnson” or “Daisy”, because the kids are aware (even though I wasn’t???) that “Johnson” means “dick” and “Daisy” sounds like “dwae-ji”, Korean for “pig.” But it really doesn’t matter how normal of a name you give them because they will probably laugh at it, anyway, just like they laugh at the way you mispronounce their Korean names. You know you effed something up when they repeat the way you said their friend’s Korean name and giggle. A teacher I observed my first week gave a kid the name “Clive” and he dropped his jaw dramatically to pronounce the “ive” like the word was too big for his mouth. The kids busted up from how hilarious that word sounded to them.

At some point, you have to reign the kids back in so that you can set expectations. At the beginning of each class, we’re supposed to go over the rules.

  1. Be nice [Because the kids wail on each other as a part of their friendship. The boys will tackle or choke each other and the girls will slap the boys with all their strength–but, most of the time, they’re not doing it maliciously. I’m still trying to figure out the difference between “play” fighting and bullying…mostly I just intervene when it becomes a distraction or someone starts crying. *Teacher of the Year!*]
  2. Listen carefully [Even though you don’t understand almost everything I’m saying.]
  3. Speak English [This is America. We speak English here…wait…?]
  4. No sleeping [Because the kids stay up late talking to their friends and about mid-week start sprawling on benches and openly napping in the middle of class. They’re all set for college.]

The classes I’ve taught at this point are Video Store and my academic class, Music Genres. It takes a lot of lesson plan-adjusting as I learn more about what works and what doesn’t work for students of different English levels. For instance, when we played musical chairs in the first few Music Genres classes I taught, it went pretty well overall. And then I got a class that didn’t understood half my instructions, so when I played the music they just stood next to their chairs and kind of danced around to “Sugar” by Maroon 5, which they love here. (I can’t escape it. I just can’t.) No matter how many times I made a circle motion with my arm and tried to show them how to walk in a circle, they just ignored me and it became a matter of who was too into their dancing at the time the music stopped that they didn’t grab a seat. It was chaos, but I was laughing really hard at them when the DGEV photographer came in and wanted an action shot. So I’m pretty sure those pictures were of me dying of laughter while the kids formed a mosh pit to music that had out of control volume. *Quality education brought to you by Sarah Teacher*

Anyways, I might need to pick a different game for the kids who are more clueless and the middle schoolers who think they’re too cool for musical chairs and basically fought over who was free to stop playing the game and who was forced to march in a circle.

The kids craziness and unpredictability is what makes teaching fun here, though. They have a sweetly naive way of making sense of us foreigners, too. I’ve had many a Korean student stare into my heterochromatic eyes and ask, “Teacher, contact lens?” I’ve been asked a few times if I was married to the teachers I was observing the first week, and then asked if I was the teacher’s younger sister because of our age difference. The children ask “Same same?” and point at YouTube videos with white girls in them and then point at us, because, yes, all white girls look the same. Any female teacher with blonde hair and a braid will be called “Elsa” and there’s always a boy who stops the class at some point to sing, “Teacher…Do you wanna build a snowmaaaaaaaan?” Thanks, Frozen.

When class ends, I shout above the throng, “Sign passports! Sign passports!” And suddenly there are fifteen suspiciously-stained passports thrusted into my face and I circle how many points each student earned for participation and content and sign my initials. And then I release them to their Village Guide and wait for the next group to appear, waving “Hello, Teacher!”

So this is my life now.

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