Friday, June 29, 2012

Why did the chicken cross the road?

The last few days I have asked students upon entering the class to tell me something funny, a story, or give me something to brighten the day. Yesterday I had a girl, after much cheering and encouragement from her peers, stand up and sing into a plastic banana. She was very good. She got up, giggled, and covered her mouth while she sang. When she got especially shy she turned around and sang to the door. Towards the end of the song she was facing forward with her mouth uncovered. The girls in the back of the room sang back up and clapped their hands. It was beautiful. I am blessed to be surrounded by such a supportive group.

Today I asked one of my classes for a joke. One girl only knew half a joke so she wouldn't tell it. I decided to give an example. I remembered telling "Why did the chicken cross the road?" to a teacher who did not understand it. I decided to try that one again, just to see if the reaction was the same. I wrote the question on the board. No one understood. I wrote the answer on the board. Still, nothing. I tried the variation about the duck crossing the road because it was the chicken's day off. Still, no response.

Of course, too, this was after a great amount anticipation and build up. I explained to them that this is an essential joke in English, that you would be hard pressed to find a single native speaker that does not know this joke. It is so ubiquitous in English speaking, especially American, culture that there is an entire genre of joke that depends purely on the assumption that everyone knows the original chicken joke. It is taken as a given that you know this joke. I don't even remember learning it. 

Part of me wanted to defend the joke, to stand there and lecture out an explanation for why it was funny, but I knew that would be pointless. Instead, I began to second guess myself. Maybe the chicken joke isn't actually funny. I do laugh occasionally at it, but I also laugh at a lot of stupid things. Still, after thinking about it, I suppose the reason this joke is supposed to be funny is that it preys on our tendency as humans to make things more complicated than they actually are. The chicken joke is a joke that has instead been subjected to Occam's razor: the simplest, least phenomenal answer is probably the closest to the correct one. We are given no evidence about the chicken, and so we can only give a limited answer. There, my explanation makes it funny, right? Haha!

I told the joke later to a group of teachers while we ate ice cream. Most thought it was funny, one openly laughed.

I told a few other classes. They didn't get it.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Under Pressure

Note: I am beginning to realize that my blogs are long-winded and have a pattern of meandering from topic to topic and then back again just as my speech does. I apologize in advance. I hope to learn to be more concise in the future.

It is after midnight. I just got back from a long night of grading. All week has been preparing tests and grading previous tests. During the day I worked with Helen to create the test for Animal Farm. Because Korean schools are very high stakes, there is tremendous pressure for the tests to be perfect. If they are not, if there is any wiggle room at all, the students will cry foul. Tests are made to be difficult, not unfair, but challenging. If everyone does well on the test, then the school looks bad. Students have to do poorly in order for the school to keep their prestige. Otherwise, it looks to colleges like they are puffing up grades. We were told several times to make the questions very hard.

Most Korean English teachers teach to the test. Imagine if all the English you learned involved ACT English practice questions and you will begin to approach the common Korean philosophy. Just like American teachers, I get the impression this is not what teachers want to do but it is what they are encouraged to do or even feel forced to do. There is such a pressure to succeed that even a small error can seem (or actually be) life or death for a student's future.

I spent the entire day after school working on grading chart reading exams. Each student had a graph they had to read and then they had to describe it in five or more sentences. I had over eighty of these tests to grade. I got through the first question today, and I will do the other question Sunday. It was easily the most boring grading job I have ever done. Every answer was nearly identical. Not only that, but I am sure I wasn't completely balanced. It would have taken three times longer to be completely objective and I have already invested four hours in these tests as it is. The first graph is internalized now. The irony is that it shows that after 24 hours, retention of learning drops to 10% with lecture style teaching, while having students teach each other the information allows them to retain 90% of their learning the next day. It is funny that such a stilted exam style should have such a revolutionary message.

While I was working on this exam, Helen was proofreading her final exam. I was in the room to help her with any problems. She wanted me to stay, and I didn't mind because I had so much to do anyway and honestly if I had went home I would have gotten distracted almost immediately. I helped her with the English on it, and we talked about common grammar errors in Korea versus America. Naturally, we spent a lot of time talking about pedagogy.

I shared with her my concerns about high stakes testing. She agreed. We talked about how students are afraid to fail in front of native teachers. They do not want to speak up because they are afraid we will judge them. Education is all about failure. In America, we are more comfortable with failing. We are comfortable with stupid too. This is both a blessing and a curse. Because we are comfortable, Americans are able to take more risks. We are also gifted with a much higher confidence level. We believe we are special, whereas my students are reminded daily that they are just one of countless others competing for the same jobs on the global market and they feel they will not get anywhere in life if they can't even recognize that the main idea of passage number five in the textbook is about World Water Day and not about how water is sacred to most world religions.

The pressure is so much higher outside America. Even when I talk to my colleagues from the UK and Canada, it sounds like high school actually has a numerical significance on where you will end up. In Canada, they have the same philosophy about making tests difficult as Korea does. Don't get me wrong, by the way, I don't think hard tests are a bad thing. Plenty of teachers in America do make challenging tests, but then most then cover everything on the test at some point too. In other countries, some questions aren't covered and are only there to separate the men from the boys. In the UK, your scores in early high school affect whether you get on the college track or the vocational track. Once you are on the college track, you have to begin taking classes for you major right away. The way I understand it, my one year of sophomore biology in high school would have rendered me ineligible for a biology degree because I did not start soon enough on my education. Major life decisions are made in high school.

Helen told me about her hatred of the professors who go to America to study, pick up one or two teaching methods, then come back to Korea preaching them as if they were the one true path to enlightenment. I let her know that the same thing was happening in America, that we were studying Korea's methods and missing the point completely. She was surprised. I told her I thought it was funny how many students (and professors apparently) think America is the greatest thing on the planet. I told her most Americans are embarrassed about their education system for a variety of reasons.

She also told me she refuses to teach to the test. She has the students journal about class experiences. They edit and polish their work. She has been teaching lots of poetry recently. A few students even recently commented that they are finally seeing the beauty in the English language. She does not focus on bubbling in answers or fill-in-the-blanks. It is exciting to work with her on test making, despite the communication barrier, because I can tell she loves and understands the literature. For Helen, I think making test questions was a strange game of telephone. We both mentally paraphrase and interpret the poem into our own native languages. We both come up with question and answer ideas. Helen thinks of her idea in Korean, translates it to English in her head, types it out, then I read it, and translate it into proper English.

Helen told me that she is concerned that so many students have solidified their dreams. They all have something in mind, but some of them you can tell have been coached into a dream. I told her that I remember an old Korean man when I worked at Meijer who would come in and tell me at least once a week that teaching is a horrible idea, that I will never make any money, and that I should go to a school with a more recognizable name. His children are all doctors from MSU. I asked Helen if she knew MSU. She did. She did not know Grand Valley. I told her that given my experience with this expatriate, I can only imagine what Korean what pressure Korean parents must exert.

She asked me what my dream was. I didn't really have one to give her. I told her I honestly didn't even know where I would be living a year from now. Instead, I started describing my life philosophy and what guides me. I will not get into that as it is really a post or perhaps even a blog unto itself, but she found it inspiring and recommended that I share it with the students. She wanted me to show them that here I am, 24-years old, and I still don't have a dream. I am happy and productive and I have no idea where I am going. I mean, I do, but I really don't. One of the test questions that Helen had been tweaking for the last several hours was over the poem “A Road Not Taken.” I told her that I still wonder how my life would be different if I stayed in America. As the poem goes, “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” I don't know what kind of difference it will make and I never will. I am learning to be comfortable with these kinds of high-stakes choices.

Helen opened up a lot to me. She talked about how she has been teaching for twenty-five years at middle school level and this is why her English is so poor. She decided to move up to such a high level school in order to increase her own English skill. She was afraid her skill would continue to stagnate as it did when she was teaching low level middle-schoolers. She told me about how she had a low opinion of foreign teachers for a very long time because of bad past experiences, but now she really looks up to some of them. I love how the later the night gets the more open people become with each other, regardless of age or birthplace.

Should get to bed, I have an early morning Skype date in about five hours and then I am taking the train to Daejeon for the weekend. Before I finish I would like to tack on one last line that sums up my very American opinion on the grading situation: Grades mean very little to me. Grades are about as accurate of a measure of competency as amount of pizza eaten is a measure of life experience.  

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Just finished some soondae and tuna kimbop for dinner that I got bought from a couple take out places near my apartment. Soondae is Korean blood sausage. Kimbop is a seaweed roll with rice, ham, radish, tuna, egg, carrot, and some other things I am sure I am forgetting. It is delicious, cheap, and you can find it anywhere. It is like the Korean version of deli food. In fact, I would choose tuna kimbop over any tuna sandwich any day. The soondae came from a place I have been frequenting in the past week that serves traditional Korean street food. It is fast, greasy, and delicious. I still have to memorize the Korean word for delicious. My students told me Friday that it was “ma-dee-saw-yo.” I am washing it down with some kind of milky, fruity alcohol. Someone at the ex-pat bar told me about it but I can't remember the name. Good stuff. I have been thinking a lot lately, probably ever since I got off the plane in fact, about two things: the sense of community here and the way that cultures adapt to their setting. I will try to cover these thoughts the best I can but I sense that I will be returning to them often throughout my time here.

One thing I truly love about Korea and especially the school where I work so far is their understanding of community. In the United States, we have a great sense of rugged individualism and independence. We want to be our own people. Our country is adapted to personalization. In America, you can “have it your way.” In Korea, they emphasize the importance of doing things as a group. They have a very explicit understanding of human bonding.

Where I work, you do not simply go to lunch, grab food, and eat at your desk like so many teachers in the United States. Instead, you announce to everyone in the office that you are going to lunch. They either offer to join you or decide to stay a few minutes and go later with another group. No one goes alone. If someone looks like they might go alone, usually another teacher will offer to stay behind so that they will not eat alone. The rules extend throughout the meal. You must wait for everyone in your party to finish eating before you get up and leave, unless you have something very pressing to do and you excuse yourself. In America, we do understand that eating together is important, but we do not voice it as often or make it a rule. I have been invited to eat with the vice principal at a nice restaurant as well as one of my co-teachers. Coworkers learn to get along with each other outside of work. This is not as common in America, but I sense it is more common at the smaller, perhaps charter, schools. You are strange if you eat alone here. I absolutely love this part of Korean culture because I love people. I hate eating alone and always made it a point to try to eat with others when I was at the duplex in Michigan. Mankind's history with cooking begins around a campfire. This means that eating has been a communal thing for a very, very, very, long time. Instead of shrugging off something so fundamental to who we are, Korean culture chooses to embrace it.

Koreans also have a deep understanding of why we do, or perhaps why we should, drink. Granted, I haven't been out drinking with any Koreans yet so my opinion on this matter is still very fresh, but I have gained some sense of their ideals from where and the way beer is served. I also gained some insight from one of my students. I asked her what the drinking age was in Korea and she did not know. Either she was blindingly ignorant or it just did not matter. Regardless, she told me drinking usually begins in college for Koreans, but then she followed up with something that I found illuminating. She said that Koreans begin drinking in college because “they need to make friends and become familiar with others and that is the way that you can get to know each other.” I found this to be a very mature opinion on why we drink coming from a girl that is probably far too burdened with studying to even consider drinking. Not only that, but I have noticed my English students tend to use familiar in a different way than we would. When we say familiar, we mean to get acquainted, but when Koreans say familiar, it seems to me that they mean they become like family. Drinking cements us together.

On the other hand, I had a class create a bucket list on Friday and one of my better English speakers raised her hand and told me that before she dies she would like “to drink until she has no memory.” I told her our word for that was “blackout drunk,” which I wrote on the board. She got red and said she only wanted to do it once. We all laughed and I told her it was an awful idea. This scenario would have gone very differently in the States. Here, I have the sense of maturity about drinking and while I cannot speak for all Korean students, mine are too busy, tired, and scared of expulsion to drink. Americans kids will drink and keep it hushed. Korean kids will verbally fantasize about drinking and then not.

I suppose tonight I will stop with community, then tackle some of the adaptations in the next post. One final thought on community for now: I have not yet described my apartment. I sleep on a floor futon to the side of my living room/kitchen. Other than this one room I have a bathroom and a laundry room. It is essentially designed for one person only. Today I realized how ironic this may be. The first time I have ever lived alone is in a country that puts a high value on togetherness. I wonder how common it is for Koreans to live alone?