I suppose I should give a description of my weekend job. You see, during the week I teach high school English, but once a month on the weekends the English teachers teach a middle school gifted program. This program is full of very bright students. Many of these students may even be on par or above the level of student I am used to teaching. Before last week I had taught two of these special weekend sessions. The class that I teach is called “Literature and Social Issues.” Since another teacher does the same class, we usually share ideas and plan together. My first lesson was titled “Langston Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance.” We focused on the poem “Harlem” also known as “A Dream Deferred” by Langston Hughes. It is a powerful poem with a strong message expressed in fairly simple language, a perfect poem for my first class. Of course, in order to teach the “social issues” part of the course, I felt it necessary to give a brief overview of the entire history of slavery and civil rights in the United States. Imagine cramming that heavy of a topic into under 30 minutes. I moved fast, but I got mad too. It's hard not to get passionate when you loaded up a presentation full of heartbreaking pictures of inequality. Overall, good lesson, but not enough interactivity.
The second lesson focused on “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost. This one was meant as a review of some of the basic poetic devices and how to interpret a poem. Much more active and interesting for the students. However, at the same time, the poem is depressing. Beauty fades. Everything dies. Be happy in the moment because youth is fleeting. I mean, I am the kind of guy that usually digs this type of writing, but teaching it three times in a row begins to wear on your zeal.
Now, all of these lessons for the middle school gifted program have been building up to a four day summer camp. For the summer camp, I was told to do more content based lessons. This means instead of teaching straight English, we should teach a subject we know and incorporate English learning into the classes. Since I have a Biology degree too, I decided I would focus on that. Immediately an excellent lesson came to mind from the NSTA conference: Strawberry DNA extraction. It was a fun, easy, and fascinating experiment that you could adapt to any skill level or age group. After some suggestions from other teachers, I settled on a nature scavenger hunt lesson and a lesson on camp sing-along songs.
As English teachers, we were required to stay on campus during the four days. Truthfully, we never had time to leave, so it was not such a bad thing. The camp actually turned out to be quite a bit of fun, but a lot of work. My first lessons were in DNA Extraction. I used a .ppt that I found online and only slightly modified to reflect the Korean use of the metric system. For instance, do you know we eat an estimated 150,000 km of DNA in one meal? I borrowed a lot of lab equipment like graduated cylinders, test tubes, and stirring rods. Unfortunately, the students that were prepared to volunteer in my classroom did not show up, or when they did, were only there for ten minutes. Most sessions I was all alone to set the whole class up with materials as well as teach the content behind the experiment. It was intense. However, each class was an improvement. Every class tried extracting DNA from strawberries, but depending on availability we also did peaches, watermelon, cherries, plums, and tomatoes. Each class was different, but I improved in my delivery over six periods. By the time I hit the last session, all of my corny jokes were fully formed and times out (What would I look like if I had strawberry DNA instead of human DNA? A strawberry!) The kids loved it. One student told me the only time she had ever used lab equipment was for examinations. She had never done anything fun with it before. My favorite class asked me if they could play with their DNA after they were done. They started mixing their concoctions together and creating a rainbow of DNA mixtures floating one on top of another. This was a highlight for me because it meant they were curious about what would happen if you mixed them together. Playing is one of the best ways to learn.
The next class, the scavenger hunt, was almost canceled due to Korea's rainy weather. I was quite worried because I had put a lot of thought into this lesson and built it completely from scratch and tailored it exactly to what the school had. The idea to have a scavenger hunt sprang from my belief that at a summer camp you should be allowed to go outside. I am not an athlete and I don't relish sports, but I see the need to and appreciate the power of keeping active. I felt it was my obligation to give these kids some sort of physical outlet. In America, all the glory goes to the athletes. In Korea, it is reversed. I guess wherever I go I am a contrarian, so I felt the need for these kids to have their time to shine too. We went outside to the only “nature” available, the pond behind the school. It is a nice man-made construction with fences, flowers, and trees planted. The beginning of the scavenger hunt began with a race around the pond. Most students participated but it was not required. Instead they could get a head start on earning other points for things like writing or drawing. I tried to include many different learning styles so everyone could have the chance to excel at something. They could even earn points for picking up trash or skipping stones. The best artwork or writing got more points at the end. Some of the classes were really close in competition. The stories written about the pond were usually fairly creative too. A lot of kids complained about the heat or being exhausted from running around the pond, but overall the feedback was positive. One boy said this was the best class because “he got to use his body.” I don't think that is commonplace in the Korean classroom.
The last class also sprang from my obligation to hold a proper camp. In order to have a real camp, you need campfire songs. Partly because I was running out of planning time, I designed a very basic lesson where we learn some standard camp songs and sing them together. My first draft was sent back because it wasn't academic enough, so I altered the content to reflect some more cultural and historical heritage by using old American songs like “Yankee Doodle”, “Oh Susanna!”, “Home on the Range”, and so on. Then I used these as a vehicle to introduce a little bit of history. We also sang “Down by the Bay”, a classic by Raffi. I chose this song because you can make up your own verse at the end. This would give them some writing and rhyming practice. Students struggle to rhyme in a foreign language, especially English, because the sound isn't reflected on paper. I had a few practice runs with the high school kids the week previous and they were far too shy and it was too difficult to make up a verse on their own. For the middle school kids, I made five teams and each team was able to make a verse. I don't think this class was as well received, but I also think they were tired since it was the last day.
In addition to classes, at night the students worked on their performances. They had all read a novel and were required to adapt it to the stage using their own script and interpretation. The ninth graders read “Matilda” and the eighth graders read “Island of the Blue Dolphins.” Lucky for me, I had read “Island of the Blue Dolphins” and could assist my eighth grade home room. That being said, I did not do a lot. Generally, I was tired and either relaxed or prepared for the next day during this time. Occasionally my guilt would get the best of me and I would go check on their progress. I would give them my thoughts on how things were going, throw out a few suggestions here and there, but I largely left it up to them. I did not expect us to have much of a chance at winning the prize for best performance. My co-teacher, Ms. Kwon, was concerned that the students were deviating too much from the novel. What had started as a survival novel akin to “Hatchet” had morphed into a romantic parody. The protagonist's little brother was now her love interest who she tragically loses to a wild dog that shoots him out of jealousy instead of mauling him out of hunger as the book goes. I tried to tell them this was going too far, but I wasn't sure it was. I found they were largely ignoring my concerns anyway. I backed off. One suggestion they did honor was to make it obvious. Make it obvious who each character is so the audience can focus on the story they wanted to tell. They made large signs with names for each of the characters; not exactly subtle, but it got the job done.
When it came time for the performances, it turned out my group was the last. I watched three Matilda plays, some telling the back stories of characters in the book, others deviating very little. The other “Blue Dolphin” groups deviated only slightly from the book in order to inject joke here or there. Every play was well done and seemed so much more polished than what I had seen from my group. By the time my group was ready to perform, the audience knew the story of the novel. They were primed and ready for something different, and fortunately my home room was able to deliver. Everyone was in stitches. Somehow, the dog shooting the little-brother-turned-love-interest worked marvelously. Later, the flashback to them meeting on the beach with the Titanic music in the background was cheesy enough to work. The protagonist's turbulent love life played perfectly because our belief was already suspended. They were dramatic and they were overly dramatic, never betraying a smile like I had seen in rehearsal. They laid it on so thick. The judges loved it. There was no dispute. Class 8-3 had stolen the show.
One of the other teachers told me he was sure I was going to get the Distinguished Teacher Award. I asked what he meant. He said, “Didn't you know? The teacher in charge of the winning team gets the Distinguished Teacher Award. Looks like your guys nailed it.” My heart raced. I didn't deserve an award. I did close to nothing. They did all the work. If they had taken my suggestions, it would not have been nearly as funny! What if I had to make a speech? Sure enough, my class did win, and luckily I did not have to confess the truth to the audience. We went back to the home room and the eighth graders opened their prize box: notebooks, notebooks for all! Plenty to go around! They appeared excited, but maybe it was more about what the notebooks represented. Meanwhile, I couldn't help but think there had to be a less arbitrary way to pick the best teacher for the summer camp. I said my thank yous and goodbyes to the students, and headed off.
That night, we went out for Italian food. Teacher Helen ordered us each an entree and then three pizzas for us to share. One had black crust made from squid ink. It was nice to be out of the school building and celebrating the beginning of my summer vacation.