Saturday, June 26, 2010

Toy Story 3 Comes to Korea

Last Monday morning (Sunday night, San Antonio time), I called my brother Jason to wish him his first happy Father's Day. Among other things, he mentioned that his three-year-old daughter Cami had gone almost a month without wetting the bed. "Anyway," he said, "we were real proud of her so we took her to see Toy Story 3 with Dad and Mom. She said it was scary. It has some scary parts for anyone under five."

The whole movie series holds a special place in my heart. When I was 12 years old, my brothers, my dad, and I went to see the original Toy Story in theaters. We liked it so much that as soon as it came out on VHS (in the time before DVDs, Blue Ray, and Youtube), we bought it and watched it incessantly for the next six years. It became part of our family's micro-culture: Dad and I reveled in quoting different scenes from the movie to each other, line-by-line.

If anyone came up with a solution, my dad would shout, "Out.. the... win-dow--Buzz, you're a genius!" Another of our favorites surfaced whenever somebody around us had a good idea. "I like your thinkin,' Woody," one of us would say with a twinkle in our eye. Quoting the movie was a way of expressing deep thought for my dad and me. It brought a sense of togetherness and like-mindedness. It was almost a form of non-verbal communication between us. All he had to do was say a few lines and I knew just what he meant. It communicated emotion that we could find no other way to show.

As we used their words to communicate, the characters themselves became symbolic of our own lives. I thought of this symbolism as Jason continued his description of Toy Story 3. "I'm not gonna ruin the movie for you," he said, "but there's a scene in there where the toys are--they're in a junk yard and they're heading straight for an incinerator. There's no escape. They all look at each other and hold hands and it's like, 'Well, at least we're all in this together.' That was powerful for me, given Grandpa's situation."

The week I was back in the States, my grandpa was admitted to the hospital and had to miss the wedding. The first time I called home after returning to Korea, Dad told me news about him. "I'm glad you called," Dad had said somberly. "I have something important to tell you." He said Grandpa had been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer, but Dad was quick to point out that we don't know exactly what that entails. Grandpa was released from the hospital after two weeks, but without a hopeful prognosis. He and my grandma are seeking treatment and remain hopeful throughout this new season, but his condition remains the same. My family and I are currently facing what the toys in the movie did: what looks like a certainty without a means of escape.

When my dad first told me about Grandpa, I was reminded of a truth found in Scripture that has given me peace. "Whether we live or we die, we are the LORD's," it says. I know who my grandfather belongs to--and I know who my family belongs to: They belong to the LORD. My grandfather is a servant of Christ, not a servant of mine. The LORD alone is the One who controls the outcome of these new events. The LORD will uphold my grandfather and fight for him. And if it comes to it, the LORD will bring him home. Jesus alone is the One will see him through this.

"[Toy Story 3] was a great movie to wrap up this set of characters," Jason said. I couldn't help but think of the end of our own story as he said it. It almost feels as if the LORD is closing a season for our family with this illness, "wrapping up the characters," so to speak. But just like the beloved gang on the screen, we still have each other. At least we're all in this together.

Monday, June 14, 2010

My GA 1 Class

Last Friday, I taught my GA1 class how to set up an account with Blogger. Starting today, they will have three entries a week of varying topics to fill their blogs with, one being whatever topic they choose themselves. I hope that this encourages them to write more in English. These are four of the students who are most proficient in English at my language school and I know they are up for the challenge. Thanks to the ease of today's technology, it will now almost be effortless to keep track of my students' writing.

I was supposed to have been handing out journal topics to my students each time we met, which was three days a week. Frankly, however, I was out of ideas for them. This was the class that was always pushed to the back-burner during preparation times at work (which are often inadequate allotments) because it was the last class of the day. If I had no time to really think through the day's classwork, I had even less time to think of a writint prompt. With an uneasy groan, I would glance at the lesson plan and remember that I had once again forgotten a journal topic. Though I was sick of always running into class without one, I didn't know how to fix it.
In vain, I viewed the class as what lay between me and the time to go home. Inevitably, the kids saw it the same way.

The idea for this ongoing assignment suddenly materialized as I was finalizing one of my own blog entries late last week. As I sat at the computer editing, I thought about how fun my GA1 students, all 'tweens, might think this was. What if I simply turned their journal assignments into blog entries? I bounced the idea off Jack, my American co-worker, and he thought it might be good for the kids. I began to get more and more enthusiastic about the prospect of teaching my students something new, all while helping them to practice their English. As excitement and anticipation began to build, I decisively commented to myself that "it's happening" and I introduced the concept to my students that day.

I feel this decision will infuse life and energy back into what was once a stale class. I have felt so much like a paper-pusher as of late, just having students fill out worksheets so that they can complete a workbook without having learned the knowledge contained within it. What's the fun or engagement in that? GA1's Writer's Workbook, still part of the plethera of workbooks from the old curriculum, had "Write and Plan a Journal" on the agenda for last Friday's class. My plan to get my students blogging solidified when I discovered that. The Apostle Paul tells us to honor "the spirit of the law and not the letter." Who's to say that showing students how to journal online isn't still "writing and planning a journal," even though all the worksheet pages for the day might not have been used?

So far, the response has been positive. "So I am fun and happy," one of my students commented in her first blog entry of the project. "We can write English journal!!!" She put all of those exclamation points at the end--I didn't edit them in there. "I like my class," she went on. "I write my blogger everyday~I love my class and blogger."

The blessing in this for me personally is that I feel I can finally start using the writing knowledge I have to teach my kids here in Korea the conventions of writing in English. I almost feel like a full-grown editor as I comment on my students' work: Yes, your topic was good but the way you say this in English is--. I suppose the first order of business for them is to say it right and then work on larger concerns like structure and, oh, a thesis. It's quite the opposite of what I would be doing as a writing editor to native speakers. One step at a time, though, one step at a time.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Surpise! You Now Work at Apple Tree!

More than three weeks ago now, one of my Korean co-teachers casually mentioned that "from next month" we would only have one workbook and one main book from which to teach. As the system then stood, each level of English proficiency at ILS had several things one might call workbooks, each book on different topics ranging from grammar to cross-curricular science and social studies. Each level had one central textbook, nicknamed the "main book," around which the others were organized. I enjoyed the curriculum as it was, because I noted the solid pedogogical practices embedded within the system; however, I could see the desire to simplify stdents' study needs. I thought that the aim of this new push was to hone in on one of the skill sets from one of the children's workbooks--grammar, for instance--and just use it. What my co-teacher failed to also mention was that we would, most assuredly, be getting brand new books. This was my first wiff of the change that was soon to come.

By the time word had gotten to me about the new book situation, I had already heard of the new schedule change. Starting in June, the school calendar would go from a four-week lesson plan to one six weeks long. This had fairly weighty consequences in itself: The monthly test--the only grade I ever give my students and the Koreans' method of assessing accumulated knowledge--would be pushed back by two weeks. Report cards, too, would aso be pushed back; parents would now have to wait until the beginning of the 7th week in a row to check their students' progress. The decision didn't affect me too greatly, as I was never the one to put my lesson plans together. But I was unsure what the need was for so many changes all at once--and en medius res, in the middle of everything, to boot!

Three Fridays ago, the 28th of May, I discovered the impotus behind these recent developements. A part-time Korean teacher informed me off-hand that day that our director was thinking about changing the name of the school. "I think she's going to change [it] because the ILS curriculum is too old," he said, nodding his head regally.

Jack, my American co-teacher, was sitting next to me at that moment and heard the teacher's announcement. Instantly, his countenance "fell to the floor," as I wrote in a recent e-mail. He didn't buy the reason for a split second. "The only reason they would change the name," he said, his face still downcast, "is if they owe a certain teacher seven million won. If they change their name, when people call up looking for ILS, they can say that ILS doesn't exist, that this is a different company. It's a way of cancelling their debts. I can tell you the money is one hundred percent the reason. The curriculum is not too old--none of it's topical. It's not current event stuff."

So. The truth was out. It remained only hearsay, however, until the following Monday. I could tell something was up as the halls of ILS fell eerily silent that morning the thirty minutes before the students' arrival, when normally teachers' chatter would fill the emptiness. Jack remarked on it as he came in that day. "What? Did somebody die?" he asked, tongue-in-cheek. As did everyone else, he sensed the collassal change brewing in our director's office. We all stood on the edge of something new, something tht felt like standing all too close to the edge of a precipice. It reminded of my life a year ago when I was expected to move from my home within three days of being told that the possibility might exist. Somehow over one weekend the situation went from "She's thinking of changing the name" to "It's already been changed and you'll have a meeting at lunchtime to explain everything."

As it was described to me as "a meeting with the native speakers," I fully expected to have Jack and James, my two other foreign co-workers, present with me in the meeting with my hagwon director that afternoon. But as the lunch hour slowly eroded and I had not yet been summoned to see Michelle, I started to doubt. "Jennifer, you haven't gone yet?" I was asked. "Go!"

"But the door is shut," I managed. "Someone must be in there."

Heads nodded in understanding. "Ah, Jack Teacher," they murmurred.

"She will meet with you one-by-one," Lena explained slowly, "because the schedules don't match."

I thought for a moment before I was called into the meeting. Was it really true that our meetings were different due to scheduling problems? Didn't we all have the same lunch break? I began to think that seperating the foreigners prevented us from both leaning on each others' expertise in the meeting and being able to hear answers to one's questions that must surely affect us all. Whas this separation strategic?

Michelle called me in at present, catching me in my reverie. She dutifully tried to explain the reason for all the recent changes. "ILS [Headquarters] won't let us use any other book," she began, indicating the pile of Open Court Reading resources resting on the couch beside her. "You know the kindergarten needs EFL Phonics and Give Me Five. But ILS wants this book. We've been fighting the headquarters for six months. Our [franchise] contract ends on the fifth of June, so we gonna... change the name."

"This book," she continued, holding up a shiny new hardcover student edition, "we can have for three months. This book--" she said as she held up one of the thin paperbacks from Open Court--"we have to change every month."

Her argument for the need to change the school name centered entirely on curriculum, it seemed. "But what will the name be?" I interrupted.

"Apple Tree. There's a famous... uh, hagwon... in Seoul area that's called Apple Tree--very good school."

"But can you take the name?"

"That hagwon didn't file the paper with the government." Ah. A loophole.

"Many, many hagwons do this," she went on. "After they finish the contract... they just... change the name." This was meant, I suppose, to make me feel better about the situation. But how can I feel good about infringing on another school's name just so we can piggy-back on their success?

In truth, I feel that the decision to change our name will backfire. I don't feel that they're being honest about matters and their efforts to make it legitimate feel only like free-spinning wheels. If the concern is really a quality education for students, the new curriculum choice misses the mark. Lack of educational quality is not simply a book's fault, but the fault of poor methodology. Simply changing a book without changing the mindset to teach it fixes nothing and instead perpetuates a problem. Changing a quality curriculum to something lower only exasperates it. "If, as a teacher, I present the same lessons in the same manner than I used to in the past," a handout from my days at BA reads, "[and] I seek no feedback from my students... then I have absolutely no way to become better as a teacher." I could adapt the quote for my hagwon: If as a hagwon, I change the curriculum and seek no feedback from my foreign teachers, then I have absolutely no way to become better as a school.

The problem wasn't the curriculum, I feel. Though I had my issues with it, I knew it was solid, based as it was on American education theory and convention. In the Teacher's Edditions, I could see where the whole program fit together. It was full of challenging texts for my students, especially for my EX1 class, whose little seven-year-old minds are ready to soak up more knowledge. This new set of books is touted by my director to be exactly what our hagwon needs--and yet, it's levels below my students, all of them. One of the reasons for the new curriculum's inadequacy is that we've ordered first grade books for students in third and fourth grade. But it's even too low for my ESL first-graders. The first story for them from the new book took three minutes, when it was planned to take forty. In the simplest language possible, the story was three pages of "Let's play Tug-of -War with an elephant." What more can you do with that than "Do you understand? Yes."?! It was completely disengaging for my students. My school has exchanged a solid reading program, which if wholly implemented would help students grow in their knowledge of English, for baby's milk.

My director clings to the new books vehemently, the reason being that, according to her, they will last longer. The books themselves are a series of different units from one elementary grade level. Meant as part of a longer anthology, each unit is sectioned out and published as a different book. Some of the units are combined with the next one into a slightly larger book of two units. An American first-grader, for example, might read five of these books in a year, if his teacher paced the class acoording to the curriculum's design. Director Michelle, however, suggests that a book with only one unit should last for three months and a book with two should last for six. That's at least double what they were meant for! She thinks that a book one-inch thick should be enough for a three-month timespan, yet she forgets to ask about content. How much is actually in said book and how much of what's in it can stretch twelve weeks? In our previous curriculum, a flimsy ten-inch-by-ten-inch paperback less than half an inch thick covered one unit of stories for my students and it lasted four weeks. How can one unit, even exhaustive, last for three times that? It's all in the size of the book! I feel like my director can't see the big picture of how these units work together. She forgets that they are just one part of a complete whole. She advocates for snippets of a program rather than the entire thing.

It seems that the decision to change books was hastily made. Even during the first week of using them, I started to see the reprecussions of such an ill-thought-out-decision. In one of my classes, my co-teacher burst in at the beginning of class to stop me from distributing the new book because the Korean teachers had run into a problem: One of the students had previously completed the new book and two years ago, surpassed its level. I couldn't teach from it, I was told, until this unforseen problem was fixed. What do we do with a class of new books we suddenly cannot use?

"I think the Korean teachers are all confused as well," James assured me as we walked to our apartments that evening. "We should just try to work together with them."

I winced as I took in his words.

"I don't want to complain," he continued. "I take Jack Teacher as my model. He's been here longer than us and if he can work that long together with them, it's okay."

I appreciated his honesty and knew that in that moment he was a better man than I. No matter my own reaction to this new work environment, I do have an obligation--not just from my contract, but through Christ--to work together with my co-teachers without complaint. We are all in the middle of this confusion together and complaining about it will only make matters worse.

"It will get better," my co-teacher Vicky told me last week before I left. It was a side of her that until that day, I had never seen before. And I know she's right. I have found one positive in the midst of the chaos so far: Because of the mishap about which book to use, I might get a chance to be in the conversation to decide what book is studied in my class.

In the end, I suppose the name works: In our foyer, we do have a formidable artificial tree under which I must duck whenever I go for a restroom break. But nothing else in the entire school speaks of apples. There is one other thing that might connect us to trees and apples, now that I think about it. In the students' library are several copies of a Scholastic book called The Apple Pie Tree. In it, children gleefully suggest that there's nothing better than an apple pie you've grown yourself. Perhaps the solution to our nameless hagwon is to call ourselves "Apple Pie Tree School" instead. It might save copyright headaches, at any rate.