Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Day 1 of Korean Elementary Teacher Winter Camp

This morning I woke up to do an uber-cleaning of myself and then chose my best looking shirt and tie because it's the first day of a winter in-service training camp for Korean elementary teachers.

There are days when I wish I could just dress the way I saw Canadian profs dress during my time in university--business casual to just plain casual, and nobody thinks anything negative about them whereas in Korea it's considered 'scandalous' to a large degree if you aren't at the very least wearing a tie, let alone a suit. Some of the profs in Canadian universities wear suits, but it certainly isn't the 'norm'--at least not in English literature departments . . . lol.

Most, if not all, foreign English instructors in Korea have experienced the first day/first class scrutiny under the electron microscope of Korean teachers and students curiosity. It doesn't bother me very much anymore but I remember when I first arrived in Korea and began teaching that some of the questions I was asked were surprising.

For example, "What's your kilogram?" or "What's your blood type?" (A popular culture myth here, and in Japan, connects blood type and personality upon which you are then supposed to find the best romantic match), and "Why aren't you married?" . . . now I just shrug it off, make a joke, and in some instances explain that asking a foreign person some of these questions is considered very rude--which usually shocks the Korean person.

Today I chose to explain that Koreans generally don't need to ask foreign people from Canada and America if they're married because of the culture of wearing wedding rings 24/7 (which is not the norm here, something that makes me go "Hmmm ..." lol). I then added to this that asking a foreign person who says, "No, I'm not married." -- Why aren't you married?"-- is not a polite question and tends to be seen as an invasion of privacy . . . I got the usual reactions of surprise from the class . . .

Anyways, I felt totally prepared and things went well in the first class (the winter session 'course' is 2 hours a day over five days). I think 10 hours is a little bit too small . . . but I just salute and make it work--it's not my choice. The course I came up with is called,

Title: Elementary Teaching English Through English: Website Resources and North American Holiday Culture

Course Description: In this course we will learn how to do research for English elementary teaching materials using Google.com and meta-search engines. A teaching resource workshop will follow where we will share how to find good quality teaching resources that supplement the elementary textbook curriculum. Trainees will attend lectures about Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Halloween culture. In addition to the lectures, we will also learn some songs and do some activities related to the holiday culture lectures.

In the first hour the trainees really liked doing Bernard Pivot/Proust's questionnaire that is used on Inside the Actor's Studio TV show. Here's Robin Williams . . .



And just for fun, and because he's funny (students, please note the difference in usage of fun vs. funny--if you're an English teacher in Korea you'll get this, lol) , Hugh Laurie,



I drilled pronunciation for each of the questions, and then explained key words and concepts in each question. The most popular requests for more information involved the question, "What is your favorite curse word?" Very few trainees understood what "curse word" means, and then came additional requests for me to explain in detail how the F-word is the most versatile word in the English language . . . this was 'fun' in the sense of buttering up the bottoms of my feet and then walking the razor's edge of what is 'appropriate' to discuss in a classroom . . . though I think that what is taboo in a western cultural classroom doesn't always translate into the Korean language classroom, so there is a degree of 'freedom' to discuss some things as long as one is extremely careful.

I suggested the trainees look at youtube for more information about the F-word.



The video is fantastic for giving an explanation of the different forms with examples--and it saved me from having to explain the different forms with examples (think about it, what examples would you use? Yikes, lol).

In the second hour I explained the basics of how to use Google in ENGLISH to search for teaching resources. Things seemed to be going well at this point . . .

The research project goal is for each trainee to find 3 teaching resource websites that can be used with the elementary English curriculum. The trainees will then present what they found to each other in a workshop, and submit the info to be put into one master file. Then each trainee will be able to take away from the course a list of teaching resources (120 websites) that can be used to support how they teach the elementary textbook lessons . . .

After seeing how difficult it is for trainees I worked with last summer to do research on the Net in English I designed a handout with a chart on it. There are columns in the chart and under each column are different keywords that you need to know in English when doing a search for teaching resources and websites on the Net. I briefly explained what the handout was for, how to use it as an aid, and that they could refer to it when doing their research project.

I then gave instructions for the trainees to get into groups of four. I explained that I wanted them to think about the elementary textbook English curriculum and how they teach it in their classrooms at their home schools. I told them to think about what kinds of teaching aids and resources they use in addition to the textbook (songs on CD was by far the most common answer), and what they don't use but might want to try using in the future if they had access to new resources (hence the research project) . . . this is where things began to fall apart a little.

I know that Korean English language learner styles, (especially for older language learners who have had a lifetime of learning in one particular way--and for that matter, teaching in a particular way that only supports a limited range of learning styles) and expectations, have a very powerful influence over what is possible and what degree of success can be achieved depending on the learning goal/s involved . . . and I thought I had addressed this when planning what I was asking the trainees to do . . .

The fundamental flaw in my idea to let the trainees brainstorm a list of teaching resources and supplemental aids that could be used in tandem with the elementary textbook curriculum is that it was too open-ended . . . but I wanted it to be open-ended and flexible to allow for a wide range of possible ideas and possible research criteria to be formed by the trainees---boy am I an idiot for thinking this could work . . . sigh. (Re-reading this paragraph I also wonder if another problem in my prep/assessment is that I was ASSUMING that the trainees use teaching aids and resources other than the textbook and a CD when teaching--I'll have to look further into that and talk about it with the other Korean profs).

The trainees began talking in small groups and I started wandering around to monitor their progress . . . and quickly realized that at least half or more didn't understand what I wanted them to do, how to do it, and why . . . I had given the instructions 3 times, with a large amount of gestures, using the whiteboard for key words, etc etc etc. But I didn't ask if the trainees understood what I wanted them to do because getting a student, let alone a teacher trainee, to admit that they don't know something, or the answer to a question, is almost impossible to do in the first class (of a semester or a course) and when you've had no time to teach them new learning routines, and model for them how to learn using a communicative style, and then reward them for trying to do this after their anxiety levels about being around some strange foreign teacher have died down, and a positive teacher-student rapport has been built . . . none of these things were in play or at my disposal because it was the first day of contact with the trainees . . .

Anyways, I thought that asking them to brainstorm a list of teaching aids and resources in their L1 (Korean, first language) would not have been too difficult, or confusing, for them . . . but it was . . . I think about half of the class finally got what I wanted them to do by the end of the 2nd hour, but the other half is still lost . . . not exactly the best situation, but I know exactly what needs to be done to bring everybody back into focus.

Later on, just as I was about to go into my office I saw the 'godfather'-professor (my nickname for him because he's the guy you don't cross or you get to wear a pair of concrete boots home on the plane after being given your pink slip, lol) and decided to see if he could help me get some insight into what was going on--I have some of my own theories, but I was curious to hear what he might say.

After describing what had happened, one of the things he said was, "They think they're on vacation." I totally get that after finishing up the second semester of teaching in public school that it must really suck to have to go to a university during the winter break for in-service training courses--but I don't think this translates into not making any efforts in class or thinking that the courses will be a joke . . . and don't misunderstand what I'm saying here, I think that fatigue and teacher burnout are legitimate reasons for lower levels of learner performance, and that I should adjust my expectations and what I prepare accordingly--the problem is I thought that I had considered these things when designing the course . . .

I guess what all of this rambling post comes down to is that I am still shocked by the degree to which Korean learners struggle to do things like brainstorming (especially if it's connected to anything new in terms of topic or material) . . . and how difficult it is doing learning tasks that lack highly structured and specific step by step instructions with a very limited and focused task with a very VERY specific goal they must achieve which also needs to have only one correct result/answer/end product . . . I knew this BEFORE going into the class today, and I knew this while I was doing my prep . . .

It's interesting to consider how many different skills and experiences a learner has to be exposed to, instructed in, have time to practice and master as a child, teen, and adult . . . and how these things can be so specific to the socio-cultural region in which you grow up and attend school in. I think I have a pretty good idea, at least as good a foreign person living and teaching in Korea can have, of what the Korean language learner skill set is (see "Teaching English to Koreans," Edited by Susan Oak and Virginia S. Martin, published by Hollym, 2003) . . . I try to push the envelope and today it didn't work as well as I had hoped for.

I'm going to give the trainees more time in the next class to try one more time to brainstorm a list in groups of four, and then listen to what they come up with and make a master list on the whiteboard from which each trainee can then choose what they want to do their research project on . . . but as a backup I'm going to make a handout list for them and give that out as a supplement to help widen the scope of the research project and what it can produce.

I did something very similar this past summer and the results were pretty good--I'm optimistic that the winter session class will be able to do the same, if not better, than the summer class.

I'll write more about how things go next Monday afternoon--yep, no classes tomorrow for me on the schedule . . . don't know why, and didn't ask, lol.

J

4 comments:

samedi said...

Having someone ask if I'm married (or if I have a girlfriend) has yet to be annoying, although I'm still undecided on how I feel about the follow-up "why not?". At least it's not as forward as the Mongolian guy who asked 1. Are you married? (No) 2. What's wrong with you? (!!)

I was going to suggest a similar video (same audio track but different images) for the many uses of the "f-word" until I saw that you had one posted already.

I can relate to your experience with open-ended tasks in class. I usually get mixed results when I try it myself, but I dislike narrowing things down too far for the students. A very explicit set of directions feels more like I'm telling everyone that I want a specific answer - similar to what you mentioned - which means no one does any real brainstorming of their own. On the other hand, there are certainly times when it seems like my (elementary school) students are otherwise overwhelmed by what they've been asked to do.

I am still shocked by the degree to which Korean learners struggle to do things like brainstorming

I wonder if there's a perceived relationship between brainstorming and going outside traditional mores. Something like, "brainstorming implies the current state of affairs isn't good enough", which I could see being problematic in some (many?) instances. In the United States (and presumably the other "E-2 nations") there seems to be less social stigma attached to being an outsider and going against the grain - an identity that pretty much requires brainstorming in order to differentiate oneself from everyone else - and more emphasis placed on being an individual. I suppose it also goes along with the emphasis on critical thinking and essay-writing that takes place in secondary schools in western nations that doesn't seem to take place here. This is just, euhh, brainstorming on my part though.

I hope everything works out so that they other half of the class catches up with their peers quickly. I'm interested in seeing how that goes!

Jason said...

Something I just realized when reading your comment is that if I think about the word "brainSTORM" and just think about the meanings of the word "storm" (a disturbance of the *normal condition* of the atmosphere, manifesting itself by winds of *unusual force* or direction, often accompanied by rain, snow, hail, thunder, and lightning, or flying sand or dust) and how Korean culture has, as a friend presented at KOTESOL, a major 'uncertainty avoidance' paradigm in how thoughts, feelings, and actions are produced and regulated in order to pre-empt any kind of uncertainty . . . well, it begins to crystallize more in my mind, in combo with all the other factors in play, as to why things didn't work the way I was hoping they would . . .

Add to the mix that I just finished teaching a course called "Group Discussion" and a major unit in the book I was using had content about the 4 basic kinds of brainstorming, and the student-teachers (4th year English education majors) struggled to brainstorm using the western cultural method of not judging any idea in terms of value, and just getting ideas out in the air quickly and as many as are possible.

They really struggled with the idea of not judging, and pre-discussing each and every idea an individual produced as a group, they just kept approving and disapproving each idea (essentially having the discussion in the brainstorming stage, and then they looked at me in confusion as if to say, "Okay, we're done the brainstorming stage AND we already finished the discussion too--so much for learning the PROCESS of group discussion where brainstorming takes place BEFORE having the group discussion), before moving on to the next tentative suggestion/idea . . .

something else at play here is probably 'gibun' . . . if my idea is 'smarter' or 'better' than your idea I lose face or you lose face, and each of us has our emotional center disturbed as well as damaging the harmony and peace of the group as a whole . . .

Thanks for your comment. I'd like to write more but I'm tired . . .

Take care,
J

Kelsey said...

Interesting that you have to dress up so much. Here in Jindo, in the summer I wear polo shirts and capris, and my co-teacher has been wearing patched jeans for awhile now.

Jason said...

I didn't write this blog in a clear enough way, I think. I CHOOSE to dress up because the other professors do, but I think I'd be okay with wearing a collar shirt without a tie and and some kind of slacks or something nice . . . but after four years here I choose to go the more formal route (if I'd had a suit jacket to wear I would've worn it, but don't right now). First impressions are very powerful here, and the expectations for what a university professor should LOOK LIKE are a great example.

Even in public school I'd wear a shirt and tie the first week of classes and then bring it down a notch and lose the tie. I did this on the island, and later in Incheon too.

Another part of the image issue is that I have to battle the stereotyped thinking that men with shaved heads can only be monks or gangsters/criminals/rebels . . . so I try to counter this with a formal dress appearance . . .

I think I should also say that there have been days where I wore jeans and a sweatshirt to teach when I was teaching public school . . . I just didn't include all this info in the story . . . oh well.

J