Sunday, October 31, 2010

Kindie love

The Bear Necessities, originally uploaded by shelbs1988.

I spend the first four hours of every workday with K-blue class, a kindergarten class of 12 highly energetic, extraordinarily affectionate, over-eager, and often-exhausting Korean 6-year-olds. Every morning, I arrive at work at 10:00am after walking the two minutes from my apartment. I walk down the hall to the same scene every day: Jean peers around the door and yells back into the classroom, “Shelby Teacher is come!” while Lily skips out into the hall and Joseph jumps up and down. As I walk into the classroom, I am doggie-piled from all sides by kindergarteners as six or seven little bodies slam into me screaming, “SHELBY TEACHAAAAAARRRRRRRRR!!” “How is everyone today?” I ask, prying my kids off me. “HAPPY!” they respond. And so, my day starts.

Yes, at work I’m “Shelby Teacher,” give or take some mispronunciations. Shell Teacher or Shel-buh Teacher are about as close as some of my little ones get. Although, because my kids are six and because Korean has a slightly whiney lilt to it already, it’s usually less “teacher” and more of a warbling “teachaaar.” From the beginning, though, I’ve been very happy to be Shelby Teacher and not Miss Fields, or some other title that feels far too adult and proper, the amount of respect I am given simply for being a teacher is alarming enough. (I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to parents nearly twice my age bowing to me.) But I digress…

I know I’m not supposed to have favorites but kindergarten is hands down my favorite class to teach. In kindergarten, the smiles abound. Not only am I given the leeway to be creative and teach what and how I wish, but my kindies are the sweetest, most affectionate, unconditionally loving group of children. Everyday I receive a year’s worth of hugs, love, and admiration. Joseph will shamelessly interrupt me with “Shelby Teachaar…I love you,” as I explain how question marks are used or quiz the class on their dictation words and Lily will always find ways to show her adoration, offering compliments like “Shelby Teacher is vaary pretty today, I think,” or “Shelby Teacher veeehry veehry smell good.” Not to mention the gifts. To date I have received numerous drawings, home-made cards and crafts, a cactus, an instant coffee gift-set, a whole pizza (unfortunately smothered in none other than mayonnaise), and a blueberry cake, all from eager six year-olds absolutely quivering with the excitement of giving their teacher tokens of their love.

Kindergarten logic has not failed to amuse me. For example, they figure that if North America and South America are separate continents, then Africa and South Africa are surely separate continents since hosting the world cup clearly is an honor great enough to earn a country continental status. (I’ve quickly learned that Koreans are born and bred soccer fanatics. There’s rarely a day that passes without the mention of the World Cup, Park Ji-Seong, or Manchester United.) All silliness aside, their innocence six-year-old wisdom is always heart-warming. The week that we learned about great people of the world, Heidi very anxiously asked, "Teacher, if we no take care of world it is ouch?" We proceeded to put big words and concepts into kindie-speak; in all of their innocence, they remembered protest as “say NO!” and freedom as "people catch and no more catch, they go."

As for their curiosity, my class has made a point of finding out everything about me, every detail of which they remember and recite with pride when the opportunity arises. Joseph likes to interrogate me on my soccer knowledge (which is pitiful say the least), and while he’s reciting which player from which country is playing for what club in what other country, the other kids will passionately remind him “Joseeeph...Shelby Teacher no like soccer! Shelby Teacher like basketbaaaalllll!!"
The girls all like to remind me that they know I’m a dancer right before they demand to see videos of me dancing on YouTube (of which there are none). They also not only know who Jerry is and that he’s from Romania, but have dubbed him “King Jerry,” can find Romania on a map, and are practically counting down to December when they will finally get to meet him.

Then there are the everyday comments that are nothing but hilarious. Just the other day I was teasing my kids for wearing their down parkas when it was nearly 60 degrees outside (Koreans have a very low cold tolerance). Lara and Sarah just laughed and said “Teacher, we look like Antarctica!” But Claire wasn’t having it. In her most serious 6 year old voice, hands on hips she said “Teacher. We are children.” I got told. A different day during lunch, one of the tables erupted in squeals when Hannah dislodged a whole baby octopus from her spaghetti. “Teachaaarrr! Why octopus no move!!???” Hannah shrieked. (In Korea, live octopus is a delicacy.) “Hannaaaah. Octopus no move because it sleeping!” Jean rightly informed her.

No matter how exhausting teaching and taking care of twelve six year-olds can be, mornings with my kindergarten always warm my heart with lots of glowing kindie love.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

So...what exactly is it I'm doing all the way over here?

I’ve been here for over two months, so I figure it’s about time I introduce my class and my job at Global Kids International Language School (GKI). I teach at Global Kids International Language School (GKI), a private institute - better known in Korea as a Hagwon (학원) – alongside twenty other native teachers from the US and Canada. As far as hagwons go, GKI is one of the biggest; most other hagwons max out around ten foreign teachers, while others even have as few as one foreigner. (Part of this may be because GKI, with only one other campus in Seoul, is not part of a franchise like many of the hagwons such as LCI or Avalon that have as many as 60 campuses throughout Korea.) Hagwons vary in many other ways as well. I have one friend who only has 4 kids at a time, while I teach an average of 12 students per class. Another friend teaches only elementary and middle school students from 2:30 to 9:30, while I teach both kindergarten and elementary from 10:00 to 7:00 Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, and from 10:00 to 3:30 on Tuesdays and Thursdays with a planning period for kindergarten from 4:50 to 6:20.

All that being said, from what I’ve heard most English hagwons serve the same purpose: to jump-start kids’ English learning at the kindergarten level, or to supplement their Korean-school education with afterschool English classes at the elementary and middle school level. My job here is to aid in both. In the mornings I teach kindergarten and in the afternoon I teach elementary. My mornings are dedicated to phonics, arithmetic, story time, arts and crafts, and silly songs. I’m a “main teacher,” which means I plan lessons and activities around a weekly theme ranging from Atlas of the Earth to Great People of the World, Time and Measuring to Movies and Cartoons, Our Country to Halloween, as well as teach bookwork that is laid out by my supervisor.

On the other hand, in the afternoons on the days that I don’t have kindergarten planning I teach first semester 7 year-olds phonics and vocabulary and fourth semester 10-13 year-olds reading and essay writing. These classes have a completely different feel. For one, unlike kindergarten I spend minimal time with these classes - the 7 year-olds one hour a day, and the 10-13 year-olds 40 minutes 3 days a week – so I haven’t been able to make the same connection with my elementary students as I have my kindies. I also don’t do much planning for these classes. Other than picking out words for spelling tests and grading, I am provided all of my lesson plans. Everything that I teach in the first semester class is handed to me in a minute-by-minute format, more or less outlining what questions I should ask about what page at what time. The fourth semester class is slightly less rigid, but I am still given the worksheets I have to complete with the classes every day, even though I often go beyond what I’m instructed to teach by giving extra essay-writing instruction and extrapolating on the reading topics. Though I don’t do any planning for them, the fourth semester classes require a bit more work outside of school because I have 36 essays to grade 3 times a week…but more on that later.

So, that’s my job in a nutshell. More interesting anecdotes and rants will come with time, but at least for now you get the general idea.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

I am a Lunch Lady (don't worry, no hairnet)

I serve my kids lunch everyday. It’s never too much of an ordeal: the food is set outside my classroom everyday right before the lunch bell rings and after we push together the desks and cover them in table cloths, the kids get out their trays and line up to be served. The meals consist of a similar spread everyday: there is always a rice, a soup, a meat, a kimchi, and some kind of vegetable or tofu. To Koreans, this is pretty basic, but as far as I’m concerned, my Korean kids have stomachs (and taste buds) of steel in comparison to their American counterparts.

Just like in the States, a cafeteria lunch is never deserving of culinary awards, but every day reveals new entrees that would put to shame the rubbery mac ‘n’ cheese and over-processed meats that I remember complaining about as an elementary-schooler. I can’t imagine any American child gobbling down a plate of seaweed and fried squid rings, not to mention octopus spaghetti and dried fish salad, but my kindies eat the tofu and spicy kimchi like champs.

Like all kids, my kindies have their own preferences. As they hand over their trays they will inform me: “Shelby Teacher…delicious!” or “Shelby Teacher… liiiiittle bit,” so it’s always pretty evident what they like or don’t like. The kids know that they will get a little bit of each dish, and because they have to finish everything on their trays before coming back for seconds, they’ve figured out all the tricks to swallow down whatever they don’t like. They roll kimchi in balls of rice if it is too spicy, chase down mussels with water or tea, or plug their noses to choke down the acorn tofu that they all despise.

Of course, there are always battles to fight. Eric finds clever ways to spit his kimchi in the trash, so he now has mandatory mouth, hand, and pocket checks every time he wants a tissue or needs to leave the room. Joseph likes to fake stomachaches and pretend he’s full to get out of eating most soups and tofu. Jean needs to be reminded every day to eat her soup and rice before she can come back for her second, third, and fourth helpings of meat. And for the ones who just can’t finish in time, they spend their playtime in the library glaring at their chilled food until the Korean teachers force-feed it to them (not my rule.)

I usually feel bad for enforcing the “eat everything on your plate rule” because I don’t do a good job of leading by example. Even though I’m always provided with a tray, spoon, and chopsticks in case I feel like a free meal, I rarely indulge. Don’t get me wrong, I generally love Korean cuisine, but the foul-smelling, oddly textured, poorly prepared meals I serve to my kids leave much to be desired. (Much like in the States, cafeteria food hardly resembles the real thing in taste, smell, or consistency.) On more than one occasion my kids have asked, “Shelby Teacher, why you no eat?” I’ve managed to find excuses that are acceptable to them, while hiding the truth that their lunches often trigger my gag reflex. But, I guess that’s the way it goes in the teacher-student hierarchy.

The situating situation

Home sweet home
Originally uploaded by shelbs1988
I moved into my apartment three days after I arrived and I quickly re-acclimated to living in a closet-sized living space, similar to my dorm-days in Turck and Bigelow doubles at Macalester. After four years of cohabitating, I was happy to be living solo, for once not having to worry about another’s shower schedule, mess tolerance, or personal space preferences.

The first week was full of technical difficulties. Not sure how to use the sink-to-shower apparatus (and unaware of the location of the on-button for the hot water heater) I took cold showers for the first several days. Unable to read Korean and daunted by the Hangeul-covered, many-buttoned contraption that is my washing machine, my laundry sat soaked in fabric softener for several days until I could find someone to translate for me. (Yes, I said fabric softener. Just because a bottle looks like detergent and smells like detergent doesn’t mean it is detergent. No wonder my first several loads of laundry were soft but not clean.) The real kicker was when I had to use my best handy-man skills to fix the toilet so that it would flush reliably using only my bare hands and a very strategically twisted paperclip….welcome home, right?

Of course, figuring out my apartment wasn’t the only matter of business to attend to. First, I needed to get my ARC – the Alien Registration Card that is necessary to open a bank account, start phone plan, get into clubs, and of course, to live and work in the country. All this required was a hospital check up. Pretty standard, yet one of the strangest doctor’s visits I’ve ever had. There’s nothing quite like being shunted from one room to another in an assembly line of medical tests: height and weight, blood pressure and fluids, eyes and ears, lungs and heart, guided by only grunts and a few pushes in the right direction. Though slightly humiliated (I gained a new appreciation for what refugees go through), I was no worse for the ware and had the go-ahead to become legal.

When all that was said and done there was still the matter of getting oriented – physically and culturally. I needed everything from groceries and a subway card, to a cell phone and a gym membership, just to name a few. Luckily, several veteran Seoullites from my school took me under their wing and helped me get set up with all the basics. They showed me where to find an ATM that accepted foreign cards and had an English option. They recommended a cheap yoga studio and gym and helped me set up a pay-as-you-go cellphone. I was taken to the nearest Emart and Costco for major grocery needs and the local supermarket to restock the fridge with eggs and milk. Finally I was pointed to the nearest pharmacy with an English-speaking pharmacist and shown the ins and outs of the subway system (including the handy T-Money cards).

Finally, even though I was not entirely settled, I had the basics down. And although am still a foreigner to Korea, Korea was quickly becoming less foreign to me.