World culture: what’s up with that? My students certainly wonder this from time to time, as I storm about the halls, as they see foreign people and lands on their televisions and ponder as to what they might do with themselves. What bizarre, quivering, gelatinous delights they might suck down into their mouths (if they even have mouths, because, I mean, who knows)? What strange, guttural base noises might issue forth from their vocal cords with which they might communicate? What obscene, confusing, alien activities might they engage in for “fun”? Well, gather your sun hat, your SLR, and maybe a can of mace to keep the weirdoes at bay: we’re going on a safari to find out!
As Korean school children start grade three, they begin their government mandated English education. And with it, their first exposure to a few truths: people are different. People from different countries especially so. They speak wacky, they eat wacky, and they do wacky. But how can we best bring them to this realization? How can we show them different countries from the comfort of a classroom nestled safely in Korea? How can we make the little tots cultured and worldly without actually having to go to all those icky places? Let’s explore together.
A co-teacher once compared teaching English to a class that contained any fluent speakers to being naked in front of a crowd. I understand, certainly: speaking to a group when someone in the audience has more experience or natural ability can be embarrassing, as you know every flaw that you express, the stuff that is thankfully usually never noticed, gets picked up and scrutinized.
All the same, I’m so thankful these little embarrassment-makers exist. Sometimes, they can hop over the tricky language barrier far more nimbly than either my co-teacher or myself, both people understandably losing some nuance with a later-learned second language.
In grade four, we taught a lesson on “Don’t ______” imperatives. We set the kids a brainstormin’, trying to come up with various rules for a theoretical English class. To allow them to freely come up with ideas, Korean talking was a-okay, and my co-teacher and I (though mostly her) would translate it into English.
One child suggested something in Korean which the other kids agreed with, and my co-teacher turned towards me and squinted. “Don’t… be big?” I was confused. Was this kid saying students weren’t allowed to be fat? Or tall? Famous? “Don’t… make yourself big?” Like, when bears are attacking? I thought the opposite was true.
In the back, one of my fluent students, YS, flew into heights of apoplexy. Constrained by my fastidious adherence to the rules, he did not want to call out, and thus was flapping his hand vigorously and shaking as though there was a bathroom emergency. He wanted nothing more than to settle this, and knew that he was the only boy for the job. Noticing him finally, I called on him, and he breathed with enormous relief, “He means ‘Don’t brag.’” Suddenly, all made sense.
(Later in same class: during writing, the same student wrote the following, “Don’t kick somebody’s butt.”)
In another class, my students suggested, “Don’t… 똥침!” (a common and horrific Korean prank where one shoves one’s extended forefingers into another’s prone butthole through their pants). The students asked me for a translation, but the literal version, “Poop needle” sounds too bizarre, and I really didn’t want my kids using it as a verb. One student, who I later discovered lived in Boston for two years, had his own offering: “Don’t butt killing.” This is good advice for us all.
The first weeks of any school year are a bitter, silent power-struggle between teacher and the teeming hordes of students set before them. The victor will come to reign supreme for the following year, and unless dominance is established clearly and brutally from the onset, unless you claim yourself as an unfeeling Terminator willing to destroy the lives of your students should the need arise, all is lost. It takes very little environmental circumstance for children to get all Battle Royale on one another, and unless they feel the looming, spectral presence of authority nearby, they embrace their animal nature in an instant. If there is any hope of solace, of control, of a day that does not require Xanax, these early classes must set the tone. This is a war. There’s no tears in war, and there’s none in teaching.
The idea of having my own class, of someone finally trusting a group of children into my hands, seems both invigorating and disembowelingly terrifying. Sure, it’s what I signed up for with the whole, you know, teaching career thing. But the long teacher training process, and the various ways in which I have stumbled into teaching gigs has usually left me with a partner or hovering supervisor. It is strange that teaching a voluntary, ice-cold, interest based English camp half-way around the world would afford me my first chance to teach alone.
As I was shocked to discover, the Korean government did not fly me to Asia for a year-long vacation on their dime. They actually want me to work! And educate! And thus, I was introduced to YeonHwa Elementary, my school for the year and possibly beyond. Unlike nearly every school board in Ontario, this place actually wanted to hire me, and continues to pay me actual, real money to pass knowledge (or at least language) to its charges. What’s your day like at this Korean elementary school, I infer that you ask?