Better Learning Through Collaboration, Pedagogical Rollercoastery

Wolf and Pig

Yours truly, with highly venerable Scottish ladywolf colleague

The full-body pig suit was incredibly hot.

Pink and gelatinous and topped with a great cardboard-and-felt monstrous head measuring a half-metre in diameter, the costumes were pretty magnificent. I had planned ahead and thought to wear only gym shorts and a t-shirt, and thus my wretched porcine swaddling was not quite so torturous as it might have been. Even still, as we waddled down the hall, unable to walk astride because of the width of our encasements, the bulk and claustrophobia started to feel like a sauna buried deep below the earth.

We wandered into the library, where our children had been deposited minutes before. The librarian had read them the 3 Little Pigs, and we were those pigs, having recently fallen out of our storybook, concussed and bewildered and unsure of our connection to one another. Shrieks of joy assaulted us as we approached. Some tried desperately to figure out who was trapped within each piggy of lupine disguise, while others were just willing to go with it and accept the magic.

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The Reporting Fugue

The studied among you may have gleaned that my writing is sparse, laboured, and frighteningly irregular lately. Alas I have faltered in my daily writing goals, those regulated flows of verbiage that I feel help to calm the raging flatulence and oh-look-a-pretty-sparkly-thing distractions of my weary being. I often feel like these words are my steam valve, the coal exhaust of keeping the engine of my heart working each day.

But sometimes even the exhaust gets exhausted, most particularly when real life intervenes. Some of you may recall that I am now a gainfully employed person. Thought my demeanour and usual writing topics may imply that I am shiftless bon-vivant surviving on nothing but smiles and summer wine, I do actually work for a living, and we are rapidly approaching the end of the year.

The end of year: a time of tumult and assessment and grading. A time when the students get used to the phrase “please be independent” as I call over this or that child to add or count or read or tell me their thoughts on inventions. A time of murky, sticky hot summer days that stretch out into forever. A time for dreaming of an ice cream truck. A time of goodbye, a time of preparation, a time of reflection. A time when the children shake like unbound electrons, barely contained within four walls, so prepared are they for Grade 2, for summer, for all the sunshine and freedom they can possibly imagine.

It’s also a time for report cards.

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Urination is for the Weak: Incidental Teaching Skills

As a teacher, you develop a lot of useful abilities and habits. You know how to run a room full of children, you know how to scaffold learning, you know how to lead a herd of horses to water and how to cajole them, carefully and fitfully, to drink the damn water.  You gain responsibility, a sense of reciprocity and generativity with the next generation, and a deep investment in the future of society through your work with the tiny people who will make that future. You learn how to seem bigger and more powerful and more mature and more sensible than you really are, and you learn how to be something that is somewhere nebulously between parent, textbook, coach, and judge.

You also pick up a few weird other things along the way.

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The World is Your Safari II: The First Journey

"Welcome to the world: it's weird!"

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.

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Nuggets of Pedagogy: Fluency

I was sitting quietly at my desk when a co-teacher approached from around the corner. “Can you do me a favour?” she asked plaintively. I am used to requests, usually of the “Edit this raging sea of grammatical errors and wrangle it into an English paragraph,” and so I prepared myself. A post-it was placed in front of me. “This boy has lived in America the last seven or 8 years,” she said. He was a third grader, and thus was probably born there, but the lives of kids abroad are always sort of talked about like weird wild-goose vacations. “He just moved here. He wants to speak to native speakers more… would it be okay?”

When something is brought to me in this way, as though I am really helping the other party out, I don’t want to rob them of the illusion. Korean schools are economies of debt, of repaying favours and oddjobs and kindnesses. Of course I’ll talk with the boy! Of course, underneath, she didn’t realize that this was basically a favour to me.

Every day I speak a kind of alterna-English, in order to get my meaning across and to actually communicate. If I spoke anything approaching how I usually talk, there would be chaos in my wake, as my coworkers and students would flee from the mighty and horrific sound. Fast English is scary, and I know that, so I generally refrain from wielding it.

But some of my kids are fluent. Scary fluent. Some were born in the States, or lived in the Philippines, or attend a frightening number of hagwons. One of my grade fours simply has an amazing aptitude for language, apparently fuelled mostly by watching aa lot of Hannah Montana videos.

They don’t always identify themselves to me. One or two have stumbled up one day and basically reported, “So, I speak English.” But the rest have been ferreted out via investigation or suspicion, or tidbits discussed amongst other teachers. One day I passed through the halls and a third grader said hello to me, and when I responded, he chirped a happy, “Have a nice day!” I cautiously threw back a “You too,” and when he was able to respond again almost instantly, I knew there was something up. None of my regular students are capable of regular pacing of conversation, and that’s okay, because they just started. But when a kid is suddenly capable of speedy back-and-forth, I know something is up.

Another time, in class. A flight attendant appears in the video. We ask the students what her job is, and most of the students brightly suggest that she is a “studious.” One boy quietly raises his hand from the back. “Her job is to navigate people to their seats and help them in emergencies and bring them food and water.” I narrowed my eyes, and handed over the reins of the comprehension questions to the co, before rushing to this boy. “Where did you live?” I asked, almost accusingly. Because that kind of English was not grown locally.

It is with these few kids that I can speak quickly. That I can use complex grammar constructions, generate sentences longer than 6 words, and never concentrate on slowing down my speech (beyond how I would naturally slow down a little for kids). I invite them to come and talk to me at any time (which I do for all of my students, although these are the only ones likely to ever take me up on the offer). I sneak over to them in class and drill them with additional comprehension questions, differentiated writing tasks, and anything that will cause them to break out their otherwise dormant English language skills. Anything that will allow me to break out my otherwise dormant language skills.

I also can actually know these kids in a deeper way. Because I have so many students, and because so many think of English as at most pragmatic and at worst something emerging from the depths of a Lovecraftian nightmare, I can only know so much about my kids. Where at home where I worked with single classrooms and knew the kids backwards and forwards, here so much is guesswork. And I miss actually knowing the students I teach, and knowing them is difficult when you can’t really ask them anything. All of their personalities and strengths and weaknesses I cobble together from inference, snatches of Korean conversation I pick up, and the few times when they un-self consciously and freely speak to me, in either language.

Nuggets of Pedagogy: The Open-Class

All pictures from that day lost. Thankfully, my archive provides countless of identity obscuring teaching stock photos.

Seemingly the greatest, most horrific event in the life of the Korean public school teacher is the open class. Here, the doors of the classroom are thrown open for spectators to come in and squint, criticize, and hand down judgment upon the teachers. In some cases, parents (who, in Korea, are like grand arbiters with great deals of clout should they want to complain) attend, in others, principals and big-wigs sit in. Blood pressure rises, teachers begin to develop tics, and everyone worries about how they will come off in the reviews.

 

The open class day for the English department was much ballyhooed. My co-teachers began to scramble, asking me for any particularly flashy or interesting ideas. I would pass by and hear them whispering in English, trying desperately to perfect their tones, their inflections, their word choices. Every aspect was rehearsed and trained. They were like dancers going over their steps, making sure every swoop was crisp, every leap articulate and emotional. This is what they were training for. They would be ready.

Open classes are generally meant to be a little artificial and over-the-top. You dress up extra, you pull out the big guns. At some schools, some people even pre-teach the lesson to the kids so that the kids know the steps, making the entire thing a group secret, like a well-rehearsed educational flash mob. A former co-teacher came to borrow a bunch of English department electronics for her open class, to make things seem more smooth and hitchless. As English teachers, we were even allowed to futz with the schedule, to pick which class of kids would prove most benign, quiet, and angelic for a viewing audience. Essentially, we were gods, picking and choosing which kids were the least kidlike, to make the parents believe us such masters of classroom management that the children were awed into quiet, mind-expanding quiet.

The other teachers wondered why I carried myself with such nonchalance. On the day, 13 parents came to watch our lesson with the calmest, most gentle grade 4 class. When asked for quiet, the children suddenly grew mute and attentive, as though I’d personally removed all of their vocal cords. When asked to speak, a sea of trembling hands rose into the air and swayed as though washed by a gentle breeze. Every kid could participate, and almost all of them wanted to, even while being watched by all of their friends’ moms. I could leave them for 40 minutes and be relatively confident they will have sat quietly, books open to an appropriate page, waiting for my return.

The other major boon: most of the parents don’t speak a lick of English. Thus, whatever I’m jabbering on about most of the time is largely ignored. Am I getting the kids to say some things? Yup. Am I also speaking in English? Sure am. Do I look like maybe I am planning on shooting some heroin or abducting the children? No. A + Michael Teacher. Keep on keeping on!

Jumping the Line, or, Let’s Not Get Arrested

School: it's where teacher lives.

In teaching, there are boundaries. Severe, strict, uncrossable boundaries: those who trespass the border will be summarily isolated, flogged, and cordoned off from society and the teaching community. There are reasons for these boundaries, and I willingly allowed myself to install these rules and regulations like metal plating into my own skull. No matter what your connection to your students, you are not a parent, or a friend, or any of that, and it’s kind of okay if they think you’re a cyborg.

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