Monday, October 20, 2008

they call me mr. sean-teacher.

On my first day in the classroom 2 weeks ago, I made a promise to both myself and my ESL students: I will do absolutely everything in my power to be the best damn teacher these Korean kids have ever had. Period. Now, I want you to take a second to understand the ambition behind this pledge. Screw good. I want to be the best. I want to be the love-child of Robin Williams in 'Dead Poets Society', Richard Dreyfuss in 'Mr. Holland's Opus', and Denzel Washington in everything he has ever done. I want to inspire, educate, entertain, and if time permits, shrink the school bus to the size of an atom and explore the human body or outer space. The best.

Take a moment to think about the teachers who most affected your life. What did they all have in common? For starters, they more than likely spoke the same language as you. To the outside observer, this plain fact would appear to confound my dream entirely, but I insist that it is every other common element that made that teacher special: passion, hard work, and resilience. These qualities transcend language, or at least are transferable through the non-verbal cues (read: miming and sound effects) that I use daily to survive. It's an uphill battle, but a manageable one.

Here are the facts. I teach Middle School in Korea, which would be considered grades 7 and 8 back in Canada. As a part of a conservative society that obsessively prioritizes education, my pre-teen students are in class from the moment they wake until deep into the night, missing out on what most of us would consider "childhood." They are happy kids but relatively immature, as books don't do much to develop social prowess. Boys will barely look girls in the eye, and girls' only form of communication between the genders is through hard slapping. They are also a tremendously shy and self-conscious bunch, but this is a complete reflection of the country as a whole. Kids are raised with perfectionism expected of them, so it is quite ordinary for a student to be openly laughed at by both teachers and fellow classmates if they stand up and get a math equation incorrect. Combine this with the fact that speaking Korean and speaking English require entirely different l

anguage flows and sound development and you have a recipe for kids who are terrified of speaking English. Check-mate.

My solution is stubborn and masochistic, and I call it Guerrilla English. We begin with institutionalized failure and allow for no comfort zones; we are all going to make mistakes and take risks together, and while it may not be pretty, we are going to shake the stigmas, have fun, and ultimately learn together. The teacher is the class clown in my lessons, and I like to use the full space, inject a ton of energy, and make myself look far dumber than the students ever could. I let the class teach me what an English word is in Korean and then unintentionally butcher it (see? even I fail...), or we play competitive games that require English speaking and writing and transform the winner into an idol. I make boy/girl pairings a rule, and if they refuse to interact, I come right at them and mediate a 3-way introduction complete with handshake. We sing, we clap, and we stand on desks. There is a lot of positive interaction, and my hope is that they are learning throu

gh osmosis and embracing the activities. Worst case scenario - they get a break from endless tests and laugh for 45 minutes a week.

Today my classes played 'Never Have I Ever,' which came out of a recommendation from a fellow UWO grad whom I hold in high regard. Just in case the adults reading aren't up to date on their inappropriate University drinking games, this is an 18A game that should be kept as far away from G-rated situations as possible. I worked on it this morning, and with a wave of a magic wand and some clever wordplay, this game is a classroom gem that has kids competing to see who has experienced the most 14-year-old friendly activities. A rowdy edition of "Sean Says" was also in order, as students struggle to keep up with my direction until I get tired and decide to just decieve the rest of the group and win the game. I am like Adam Sandler playing basketball in Billy Madison; I will let the kid get a jumpshot off, but don't be surprised if I slap it right back.

As an aside, here is how you can win any game of 'Simon Says' without ever breaking a sweat. You get the group warmed up and feeling confident, then proclaim "Simon Says Jump!" only to shout "Now Land!" while they hang in midair. Unless that kid is Luigi from Super Mario 2, he's toast. Does anyone know why Luigi was able to jump so high in that game? And I am supposed to believe that Peach's dress can allow her to sit stationary in freakin' mid-air for a prolonged period? The physics are bass-ackwards, but I digress. The second way to win Simon Says is even more devious, and it requires the students to literally walk into a trap. Use conventional means to whittle down the group, and when only 8 or 10 remain, declare that you are stepping up to the next level, and you would like all of the students remaining to join you at the front of the room to face-off in front of the rest of the class. When they properly line-up, take an appropriate pause and then inform them that you neglected to say "Simon Says" before inviting them to the front, and they all lose. As always, the most clever takes the cake.


To summarize, I am trying my best here but the circumstances don't make it easy. My classes are full of good kids and I truly believe that they will learn if they commit themselves to giving their best. Every day is a learning experience for me as well, as I realize that some methods work better than others, and the students constantly teach me about themselves, their language, and their culture. I came to Korea with a choice; either view this expeirence as a paid vacation or view teaching as a noble calling that deserves my full commitment. I will let the students tell me which one they think I chose 11 months from now.

1 comment:

miny said...

i wish there were more teachers like
u, srsly.

너는 너무 멋있다~ㅅㅅ;