Thursday, March 27, 2014

Spring Air

After months of bundling up during winter, there's nothing quite like the first day you can walk around without a coat on.  It's a day that comes gradually--at first you stop wearing so many layers, then you trade your winter coat for something lighter.  Then, finally, the day comes where you are FREE.  No coat necessary. It's the point when it's finally completely comfortable to walk around.  You're not too warm, and you're not too cold.  Although these days are few in number as the oppressively hot summer days are never far behind, for a short period of time the weather is absolutely PERFECT.

Yesterday was the first "no coat needed" day for me, and today was even more beautiful.   Flowers are starting to bloom, and as I walk by trees I see the buds growing each day.  It won't be long until everything is green and full of life again.  I'm anxiously awaiting the arrival of the infamous cherry blossoms, which I've been told will be the most beautiful 1-2 weeks in Korea.

This spring air is enough to make me happy, but to make things better I had an awesome day with all of my classes today.  I typically dread Thursdays because it's my busiest day of the week.  I have to teach 6 classes, which means I'm rather tired by 5:00.  However, I'm learning that Thursdays aren't so bad.  

The groups of kids I see on Thursdays are proving to be quite entertaining.  I start the morning with my 2-3 second grade boys.  I think just about every energetic boy form the second grade ended up in the same class  this year because despite the fact that I see them at 9:30 AM, they are always my craziest class of the day.  I actually get a kick out this class because these boys love to joke around.  It's sometimes hard to joke around with my students in Korea because of the language barrier, but these boys are a different story.  It's the first class I teach, but I'm always fully awake within the first 5 minutes I spend with them. 

From there, I see a few of my first grade girl classes, who are always adorable.  After lunch I move to the second grade girls in 2-5.  This is also my most energetic class of second graders on the girl's side.  They always give me a warm welcome when I enter their classroom (and by warm I mean most times they clap when I walk in the door....seriously!)

After that it's two more classes with my first grade girls.  Today I had my 1-4 class right after gym class, and let me just say that I think those endorphins had them feeling pretty great.   I've never seen them in such a silly mood, but it made the class quite entertaining because they were presenting dialogues and they were so into it--I couldn't stop laughing at some of the things they said/did.

After that I ended with a writing class with 1-5.  These girls were all really tired (they just had math class...I can't blame them), but they all put in so much effort into their writing assignment.  I know how much writing in another language sucks, especially when you're tired, so I was amazed at the effort they put into my assignment.  They are just so awesome.

Also, one of my students gave me this.

This is a picture she made in her art class in middle school.  She got a 100% on it, but wanted to give it to me.  JUST TOO CUTE.  My friends who are elementary teachers are used to getting presents, but it's not as common with the high school students.  Have I mentioned how much I adore my girls classes this semester?

As I was walking home in the warm spring air I couldn't help but think: life sure is good. It's a shame I won't be able to work with these students again next year, but do I ever feel lucky to at least have a chance to spend this year with them.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

It's my birthday! Let me give you a present.

It's hard to complain about my job when my students are always doing cute things.  Like this for example.

That's right, it's her birthday, so she decided to give me a present (they were cookies, by the way).

I have such a rough life.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Only in Korea: Drink Fast, Die Sexy

This is another gem from our trip to Busan last month.  We were walking around when we saw these signs.  We almost didn't notice them, but man we were glad we did! My favorite was the last one that said "Drink fast, die sexy!"  Korea certainly loves its alcohol.

Not just any drink, serious drink! 
Mmmm vodca!

It's the Korean way!

Only in Korea: Coffee Shop or Pro-Choice Slogan?

Last month when we were walking around Busan we were walking by one of Korea's millions of coffee shops when we saw this sign. 

Apparently Korea takes coffee very seriously.  

Brilliant Korea: Park Cameras and Photo Ops

Way back in January I was in Seoul visiting my friend Jackie.  We didn't really have any plans, so we decided to go to Lotte World, which contains a huge shopping complex and an amusement park. We didn't really go into the amusement park area, but we did walk around the adjacent park.  As we were walking around, we came upon some contraptions and Jackie told me they were for taking pictures.  I knew Koreans were fans of photo opportunities, but I had never seen anything like this before.  Basically, there's a camera and you can not only take your picture, but then have it sent to yourself by entering in your e-mail.  Now, I was expecting to have to pay for this, but it was FREE!

Although the quality of the photos isn't the best, I still think it's a great idea nonetheless. I'm a photo-lover, so I appreciate anything that makes capturing memories a little easier.

Our first picture

Take 2! The quality's not that great, but hey, it's free!

After you snap the picture you just enter your e-mail and it gets sent to you!
Lotte World...look familiar?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Some days teaching in Korea goes a little like this...

Today I was reviewing how to give advice and suggestions with my first grade girls.  I gave them different scenarios and they had to practice giving advice for each situation.  One of the situations I gave them was "My boyfriend doesn't love me anymore."  The overwhelming solution I got from my students?

"You must get plastic surgery!"

Just imagine a room full of 15 year old girls telling you that if a boy doesn't love you, you need to get plastic surgery.  Pretty much a dagger through my heart.

In a later class I gave them the problem "A boy likes me, but I don't like him."  One of the solutions was "You should tell him to get plastic surgery."  At which point I tried to explain that the problem actually the way he looked, but the way he ACTED.

And yes, I threw in a lot of relationship problems because hey, it gets their attention EVERY single time.  Seriously, if I ever need to wake up those sleeping students, all I have to do is make some sort of scenario about a boyfriend.

Anyway, I blew my students' minds the other day when I asked them some "would you rather" questions.  One of the questions was "Would you rather be rich and ugly or poor and beautiful?"  I told them if they chose rich they couldn't get plastic surgery to become beautiful.  The overwhelming choice for this question was that they would rather be poor and beautiful.

I told them that I would definitely rather be rich and ugly--they couldn't believe it.  They said it was because I was "already beautiful", at which point I told them I would much rather be ugly and rich because I could travel, see the world, and help countless people with my money. At that point they were all staring at me with looks that were partly confused and partly in agreement.  I think I caused some major cognitive dissonance.  Score!

I know I've written plenty about both the importance of appearance here, and the way in which students talk so nonchalantly about plastic surgery, but after 7 months here, it still blows me away.

My first students are smart and beautiful young women.  It really breaks my heart that they only see all of their "imperfections", which I'm sure have been pointed out to them from a young age.

When we were practicing giving advice today I gave groups slips of paper with problems written on them, then they had to give people suggestions one by one.  For one of the problems one girl was told by her group she needed plastic surgery to change her face.  I was walking by as I heard that suggestion, at which point I exclaimed "No! Your face is beautiful!"

She looked at me in disbelief and proceeded to tell me over and over how touched she was.

I hope my students improve their English while they're in my class, but I think I'll be even happier if they at least re-examine some of their beliefs about what's important in life--if they at least know that there are different perspectives out there.  I love Korea, but man, this is a tough country to grow up in.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

School, St. Patrick's Day, and K-Pop Dance Class

Hello all!

I feel like it's been a while since I've written anything.  I suppose that's mostly due to the fact that school is back in session so there hasn't been all that much going on.  I have to say though, it feels quite nice to be back in the routine of classes.  All is still going well with my new students.  Even on the days I don't feel like going in to school, I'm greeted by smiles and "hellos" from some completely adorable girls that it's hard to stay in any sort of a sour mood for too long.  

This past weekend I went to Seoul with another one of my friends from Jeomchon.  She asked me last month if I wanted to go on an Adventure Korea St. Patrick's Day booze cruise with her, and since I didn't have any plans, I figured why not go and see what it was like.  

We went to Seoul on Saturday morning, then got picked up on a bus with the other cruisers and headed to the port where we got on the boat.  I pretty much knew instantly that we were in some unique company.  And by unique I mean I kind of felt like I was surrounded by frat guys.  Seriously, why would a guy ever think it's going to help him win a girl over by bragging about having not read a book in 6 years?!  The sad part is that this was the second time a guy has said something like that to me since I've been in Korea. Pick up line?  Definitely not.  I don't get it.    

Anywho, despite the frat boys, we had a good time on the cruise.  We actually made friends with a group of girls from Europe (Finland, Belgium, Germany, and Denmark), who are studying abroad in Korea.  It was really cool to hang out with them, and hopefully they will come visit us in Jeomchon one of these weekends.
Beautiful sunset while we were on the boat. 

After the cruise finished the bus dropped us off at Hongdae.  At that point the subway had closed (it closes around 11:30 on the weekend) we had to either find a place to stay for the night or stay up until the subway opened again.  Of course we wanted to hang out with some of the people we met on the cruise, so we ended up staying up until the subway opened again at 5:30 AM.  From there we took the 7 AM bus back to Jeomchon.  Needless to say we were asleep the moment we got on the bus. 

My sleep cycle has been messed up these past few nights (gee, I wonder why!)  Consequently, it's been a little bit of a rough start to the week.  Darn you Seoul, why can't the subway stay open later than 11:30?!

Besides that not too much has been going on here.  Last night I took my first dance class since coming to Korea.  There's a dance studio in Jeomchon, and I checked it out with one of my other friends here, who also used to dance.  Although we would both prefer ballet, the only option we had was "K-Pop".  Yes, K-Pop dance class.  It's essentially hip-hop to K-Pop music.  It was fun....although not nearly as satisfying as ballet, but I need to exercise and the gym just isn't for me.  

That's about all the news here.  The weather is really warming up--in fact, I'm currently writing this with my windows wide open.  It's been in the 60s the past few days, and although temperatures will drop a bit back to the 50s over the next few days, next week it's showing it in the 60s all week.  I can't complain, especially since I know all of my friends and family back home are still enduring bitter cold weather.  

That's all for now... XO

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Grocery shopping

Grocery shopping has never been one of my favorite chores.  Even in America, I always put off going grocery shopping.  I've always hated navigating the crowded aisles with huge carts everywhere.  Then there's the whole spending money part which I also don't particularly care for.

Although grocery shopping is no long the daunting task it was when I first moved to Korea, largely on account of the fact where I know where everything I need is now, it is still a chore I simply detest.

Don't get me wrong, I love Homeplus.  It's no Target, but it's definitely the best substitute for it.  However, just about every time I go into Homeplus on a Sunday afternoon I end up getting incredibly frustrated.  One of the differences between America and Korea is the whole concept of personal space.  That is, it just doesn't really exist in Korea.  I guess it makes sense for a country with such a high population density, but when you're shopping it means that people have no problem bumping into you, or just leaving you with no breathing room whatsoever.

This couldn't be more evident than at checkout time.  In America, we of course have baggers at grocery stores who nicely put all of our things into bags for us.  Once all your things are put into your bags and back into your cart, the next person gets his or her turn.

Now, in my mind, this is a great system.  No one is rushed and your things usually end up in a somewhat logical position in your bags.

Of course, this is NOT how it works in Korea.  In Korea, there is no person to bag your groceries.  Ok, that's fine. I can totally live with bagging my own things.  However, the part that drives me absolutely crazy is how as you put your things in your bags there is already someone standing right next to you.  It's like they push you out of the way before you even pay.  And once you have paid--well, you better watch out.  You better bet that the next person's items will be scanned regardless of whether or not you've put all your things into your bags.  And that person who has been standing next to you the whole time will REALLY be pushing you out of the way now.

I should mention that the Korean people don't think they are being rude by doing this.  It's just the way things are in Korea.  Likewise, when someone bumps into you they won't say sorry.  Although we consider that rude, that custom just doesn't exist in Korea.

This may seem like a small thing, but it is something that has bothered me literally every week I have gone grocery shopping.  Sometimes it really is the small, mundane things that remind you that you're actually living in another country with a very different culture.

Thursday, March 6, 2014


Today I made my students do an assignment where they had to write me a letter telling me more about themselves.  Since I'll be doing a bi-weekly writing class with them, I wanted to get a sense of what their writing is currently like. I figured this would be a good way to learn more about them while getting a better idea of what we should be working on during class.

Well, sure enough the letters were a bit of an emotional roller coaster.  They were hilarious at times, but mostly they made me feel sad.

My students are around 15/16 years old.  Since most of them aren't from Mungyeong, the vast majority are currently living in dorms at school.  In their letters, most of the girls wrote about how they miss home, and how they really just want to leave school and go back with their families.

They also wrote about how they are tired.  In their first week of school, many girls said they are already studying until 1 AM.  It's just INSANE.  I don't care how long I have been here, the never-ending studying will never become normal to me.

Living away from home is hard enough at such a young age, but the added enormous pressure makes the situation that much harder.

It really broke my heart to read some of the letters, but I think knowing that these girls are all away from home for the first time is making me bond with them that much more.  Sometimes I just can't turn off those maternal instincts (even though I'm not old enough to be the mother of any of these kids...)

So, when you hear people talking about those amazing Asian schools that America needs to compete with, please keep in mind the price that is paid for those high test scores.  This is not the life I would want for my children by any means whatsoever.  Never mind the TYPE of learning they do, but that's a whole different can of worms.

But really, when you hear those stories about the amazing students in Asia, remember high test scores come at a high price.  For my students the price is happiness, their intrinsic desire to learn, and their relationships with their families to name a few.  These are real consequences, and ones that I really hope people here will eventually begin to talk about and take seriously.

New classes, new enthusiasm

I'm now in my third year of teaching.  I've been at a different school for each of those years, but still, this is my sixth time beginning a new semester. By this point I know that there is always a honeymoon stage that comes with new classes.  Teachers and students alike begin a semester putting in their very best.

I think most of us have experienced this honeymoon stage, even (especially?) as students. For example, take the beginning of a new semester during college.  It's the point when you don't hit your snooze button, but instead wake up early and eat breakfast before arriving to your 9:10 AM class at 8:55.  It's the point where you come to class with your reading assignment completed with important sections highlighted and ready for discussion.

It's not until later, when everyone gets comfortable, that you figure out what the semester will actually be like.  It's not until later in the semester when you decide sleeping in is way more important than eating breakfast.  It's not until later that you begin to push your snooze button more and more each morning.  It's not until later that you begin to crawl out of bed to run to your class, only to arrive around 9:08--only moments before your professor begins class. 

This week I've definitely found myself jumping in with full force into the "new school year" mentality.  Yes, the one where I make thorough lesson plans complete with agendas and written objectives. It's this"new school year" mentality that allowed me to map out all my units for the writing class I'm teaching. It's this mentality that has allowed me to feel like I might actually be able to learn all of my students' names.   And yes, it's this "new school year" mentality that has made me incredibly optimistic about this semester.

Oh, and even though I don't have to be at school until 9:00, I've been arriving around 8:45.

Ok, so some of this enthusiasm is natural with a new semester, but there are other changes that I feel particularly good about.  As I mentioned last time, this semester I am primarily teaching the first year girls.  It's not even Friday yet, but I don't think I can adequately convey just how absolutely adorable these girls are.  Since students travel from all around Korea to go to my school, I really have some stellar pupils filling the seats in my classes.  Since I've started teaching them this week, I've been greeted and pulled aside for many conversations in the hallways. It's pretty easy to tell when you have a good group of students (even during the honeymoon stage), and I just feel really great about these groups of girls. In turn, it's motivating me to be a better teacher for them.  I don't know if I'm ever going to get a group of students like this ever again.

I'm also liking seeing all of my first graders from last year, who are now second graders.  It's been comforting to see some familiar faces. And of course it doesn't hurt that they keep clapping when I enter the classroom  Clearly their winter classes must have been really boring to make them that happy to see me!

It's been an all-around completely exhausting week (teaching 6 classes in one day?! Really?!), but I'm feeling re-energized by new faces and my new schedule.  Even though I know my energy will drop eventually, I'm really going to do my best to keep this motivation and productivity in line.  I'm fully aware that this could be the last semester I really get to teach for quite a while.  Since I can't stay at a high school next year, I could very well end up at an elementary school next year if I decide to stay in Korea.  And then who knows how long it will be before I get back into a teaching job back home in America. So, I'm ready to make this semester the best it can be because I honestly couldn't have less of a clue what is going to come next, or when I am going to have an opportunity to really teach again.

Another reason I am feeling good about this semester is that I feel much more prepared than I did last semester. When I came into my job last semester I was really thrown into everything at once--I didn't have a clue how things worked, what I was supposed to be teaching, or how I should even teach English as a foreign language.  Ok, I still don't know the answers to many of these things, but at least I have experiences to work with now.  I think my uncertainty about what I was supposed to do last semester made me a little lazy, or at least I don't think I was the best teacher I could be.  Well, it's a new semester and I'm ready to change that this time around.  I have no idea what lies at the end of this semester, so I'm ready to make each day the best it can.


Monday, March 3, 2014

A New School Year

It's true, it's somehow the beginning of March. The days are getting longer and warmer, and there's no doubt that spring is in the air here in Korea.  Although the arrival of spring back in the States means that summer is around the corner, bringing the end of the school year with it, in Korea it means something quite different--the beginning of a new school year.  

The school year technically ended back in January...or maybe it technically ended with graduation last month?  I really don't understand the schedule here at all.  But here's what I do know: final exams were in the beginning of December and students haven't had a regular class schedule since the end of December (minus that random week last month).  Basically, these past  few months students have been in school taking supplementary classes, but I've pretty much been deskwarming, not going to school at all, or teaching a whopping one class a day.  It's been a nice break, but it got a little ridiculous, and by last week I was honestly looking forward to getting back into a routine. 

Of course, I felt a little differently when my alarm clock went off bright and early this morning.  Ok, it's not even THAT early, especially compared to the disgusting time I had to wake up for school last year.  But still, I will NEVER be a morning person.  

Anywho, I walked into school this morning not having any idea of what my schedule was, what classes I was teaching, or even who my co-teachers would be this year. TIK.  I wouldn't expect anything else at this point.

Despite my having no idea of what was going on, today definitely had "the first day of school" feel in the air, mostly because of the number of new teachers in the building.  In Korea, teachers can only stay at a school for a few years (I think it's 5 years)....after that, they have to move to a new school.  I think this is meant to prevent all the best teachers from going to the "best" schools and staying there for life--it's meant to be more equitable (which it very well may be), but it is obviously quite different from the system we have in the US.  For better or worse, the result of this policy is that at the beginning of every school year there are a lot of new teachers--we also have a new vice-principal, which makes me a little sad because the former one was always really nice to me (and frequently told me to go home early... so you know, that didn't hurt!)  

I was actually a little sad because I didn't realize some of the teachers from last year were leaving. I was especially sad to see that the music teacher has been replaced.  The music teacher from last year was super friendly and loved trying to speak English.  It's pretty rare for any of the other teachers to be brave enough to speak to me, so I was disappointed to lose one of my few allies on the staff.  But I suppose I shouldn't write off all these new teachers so quickly--they could surprise me.

The day began with a faculty meeting in the morning, like every other Monday.  Then at 10:00 we had a school ceremony where a bunch of the new first grade students looked like they were getting awards, but I'm not really sure what they could have been getting awards for on their first day of school?  This is what happens when you sit in an assembly where you don't understand the language.  You literally spend the entire hour making guesses about what is happening. ((And trying not to fall asleep....but I like to pretend I'm stronger than that)) 

Anyway, my personal favorite part of the ceremony was when the administration introduced the teachers.  Teachers had to stand on stage in groups and bow when their names were called.  Naturally I didn't know when I was supposed to go which resulted in me awkward only standing up after my name had been called.  First day of school...nailed it!  

But actually I wasn't being sarcastic-this was my favorite part of the ceremony because the students SCREAMED for their favorite teachers (or for the new teachers they thought were attractive).  It was really just completely entertaining.  The girls especially screamed their little hearts out.  You would have thought we had some K-pop stars in the house the way they went crazy.  I have to say, I appreciate the enthusiasm.  I somehow don't think I ever would get that kind of reaction from my students in America.  

After the ceremony was over it was back to the office for me, where I finally got my new schedule.  The good news is that this semester I have only 18 classes per week compared to the 21 I had last semester. So, my days aren't too busy, with the exception of Thursdays when I have 6 classes....which is kind of ridiculous because I hated the days I had 5 classes last semester. So I have that to look forward to.
Another thing that's different about this semester is that I'll be seeing the first grade girls four times a week instead of the boys.  I guess it always goes this way, girls first semester, then boys second semester.  Although in my opinion now the boys are missing out because there will be no native teacher for the second semester, so I'm not sure how they are going to deal with that when the time comes?  But I guess it's not my problem, so I'll just let it be.  

I have to admit, I loved having so much time with my boys last semester, but I'm excited to have more girl time this semester.  Girls classes are always easier, and I'm secretly (but I guess not really secretly since I'm writing it on here) hoping that they'll be as awesome as my second grade girls were last year.  I sadly won't be seeing them anymore, as they're now third graders who will disappear into the abyss of the third floor as they cram for their college entrance exam in November.  Tear!

I will fortunately still see my first graders from last year though, just now they are second graders.  The major difference is I'll only be seeing them once a week.  

I'm really excited to meet all of my new classes, and a little bummed that I don't even have any classes with the new first grade boys. They just looked so cute and wide-eyed at today's ceremony.  I guess you can't win them all.  

It's going to take a little while to get adjusted.  Especially since today one of my CTs told me I had to decide what I was doing in the class--how I would split up the days with conversation/writing, what their major assignments would be, and how I would grade them.  UMMM hello! Things I don't think are really supposed to be left to me alone considering I don't understand the Korean learning expectations or grading system at all. But now I'm basically supposed to design the course all on my own.  Oh hey, I've been here six months and I'm still not really sure what they want me to be doing in the classroom.  Sooooooo, I suggested two days of conversation and two days of writing per for the first graders.  So far it looks like I have the thumbs up, but we'll see.  

I really hate the process of getting settled in, but I'm feeling overall optimistic about this new year.  It's strange knowing that I can't renew my contract, so I'm definitely in my last 6 months with these kids.  Better make them some good ones because the scary reality is that it will be time to say goodbye before I know it.