“We’re going to do something completely different today,” I announced excitedly to my class of three drowsy-eyed Korean high schoolers. One glanced up at me skeptically, one smiled hesitantly, and the other kept her eyes averted, her face hidden behind her long black hair. A bit warm and rather stuffy, the room remained sat still with an uncomfortable silence.
“Alright! Everyone up!” I broke the tension. “Everyone stand up.” The lethargic young adults slowly uncurled themselves into a standing position. “Ralph. Catch,” I said as I tossed the smirking young man a shuttlecock I had found in an old badminton set in the office. When he reached the standing position, I commanded, “I want an English word. The first word that comes to your mind.”
“Stupid,” he responded with a laughing timidity.
“Alright. Pass it off. Alex, I want a word.”
“Ugly,” Alex retorted to match Ralph’s indignant reply.
“Alright. Keep passing it. Hannah, what’s our next word?”
After a long, deliberating silence, “English,” she said with an almost inaudible softness juxtaposed by the forcefulness with which she rid herself of the responsibility-bearing shuttlecock that she hurled back at Ralph.
This was the beginning of class this Monday. Although I had planned on working with them on argumentation and debate, I have realized that trying to cram more banal knowledge into their brains at that hour of the day is folly. For the rest of the half hour, we came up with random words and sentences, saying them aloud and writing them on the board. Even though Hannah refused to participate in our last activity, I got more engagement out of her that day than I did over the past month.
If there is anything that I have learned, it is that these kids are tired. They hardly get a chance to rest, and they are in school or at athletic practice nearly all of their waking hours. My middle-schoolers are under less pressure, but they still spend several hours at one or more academies after their regular schooling. At school, they spend the day memorizing facts and drilling math problems. When they get to their academies, they practice more and memorize English words and phrases. I have thrown quite a few big words at my high school students, and I rarely stump them for lack of vocabulary. However, when they speak, it is as if they had just started learning. They may know all the rules and have the dictionary memorized, but they struggle to use that knowledge.
I am still trying to understand this educational culture, and I will continue to provide updates of my experiences in the classroom. However, I have not made near enough inroads in understanding these people or their schools to make any truly educated assessments or provide a reasonably complete history. I have reblogged a post from a writer who apparently spent a lot of time in Korea and did a great deal of research on its culture. I will leave you with this. For the next several weeks, I will be focusing on gathering information about education in Korea. I will keep you posted if I find anything of particular interest along the way, but expect most of my updates over on Cast Off, Set Sail in the near future.
Goodbye for now.