What I did over my summer vacation
Tuesday, August 28, 2018
If we have not struggled
as hard as we can
at our strongest
how will we sense
the shape of our losses
or know what sustains
us longest or name
what change costs us
saying how strange
it is that one sector
of the self can step in
for another in trouble
how loss activates
a latent double how
we can feed
as upon nectar
— "Why We Must Struggle," by Kay Ryan, U.S. Poet Laureate, 2008-10
For two hours, she writes on the board. We sit and dutifully copy. Occasionally, she turns and points at one of us, says something in Korean, and we are supposed to repeat what she has said.
If she has asked a question, we are supposed to answer it. Sometimes, after the board is full, she recognizes a mistake, erases it, and begins again. It is this way three nights each week for two hours each night for a month.
Many Koreans have told me that the teacher’s approach is the Korean approach to education, despite what the school’s website promises.
Indeed, among many, Dailey and Jeon examine the entrenched challenges — impediments, really — to anything that vaguely resembles communicative or progressive language instruction even though it has been 23 years since the Korean government developed the Sixth National Curriculum, which "focused on fluency and communicative competence in English."
The research demonstrates that, regardless of what language is being taught, there is at best a vague hint of communicative or progressive instruction.
In class, there is the bilingual Spaniard, the trilingual Frenchman, two other Americans whose mastery in languages other than English I do not know, and me, who is proficient in American Sign Language, on hiatus from an English-ASL interpreting program, and whose command of Spanish matches how often I use it and whether I’m immersed in a Spanish-speaking environment.
Both my ASL and my Spanish can return quickly. I often think and dream in ASL and often sign to myself. When I have the chance to use Spanish, I do.
When the trilingual Frenchman asks the teacher for clarification, she — who has minimal English language skills ("My English is no good," she tells us) and no pedagogical skills — becomes frustrated and begins yelling.
"You don’t remember? You don’t remember? OMG! OMG! OMG!" she yells again and again while flipping pages in one of the textbooks to find the pages she’s looking for. As she flips, the pages snap a nasty rhythm.
To assess our understanding, the teacher asks, "You understand?" To insure that we remember what we’ve been studying, she commands, "Please remember."
As students leave class when it ends that evening, we talk about our humiliation and frustration, both of which have been growing. Although I know that language learning does not have to be this way — in a word, miserable — it doesn’t take an experienced language educator to make that observation.
At home, I spend between four and five hours each day slogging through the homework: I consult online translators, videos, and websites, none of which have been recommended by the teacher. The trilingual Frenchman and I have a Skype study session, and his explanations help greatly, equally if not more as our venting.
Two days later, as I am on my way to another class, one of the other Americans — a young woman who came to Korea to work in a hagwon for children because she "got tired of being a waitress" to pay for her graduate program in biology — texts me, "I didn’t know if you would want to meet up to study after class tonight. Even for just an hour at a café. I’m really falling behind on studying."
I assume, of course, that she is being kind, reaching out to me because she knows my annoyance has turned to anger and now to disgust. She is, by my estimation, the class all-star. I doubt she has fallen behind.
I thank her and let her know that I have a 75-minute commute home, an article overdue to my publisher, and two projects I must work on for presentation in less than two weeks. "I’ll see how I feel after class. Even an hour after class means I don’t get home until midnight." And then, “What frustrates and infuriates me is how bad the ‘teaching’ is.’ "Yea," she texts, "I think everyone is frustrated." Yea.
As it turns out, the class all-star really didn’t do her homework.
In nearly 100-degree heat with humidity that comes only from a megacity of 25 million people, I head home after class, the teacher’s rebuke clanging in my head with my heart keeping beat, "YOU DON’T REMEMBER? YOU DON’T REMEMBER? OMG! OMG! OMG!" The refrain becomes a dangerous mantra, "YOU DON’T REMEMBER? YOU DON’T REMEMBER? OMG! OMG! OMG!"
My gut. Something is sticking in my gut. I can’t pull it out. I walk with it to the subway station. I stand with it on the subway car. I sit with it on the subway car when a seat opens.
I walk with it from the subway station to my apartment. I can’t get rid of it. Something is sticking in my gut. And then, from the stick in my gut, a decades-old memory returns, like a film negative revealing an image during processing.
For 50 minutes, he writes on the board. We sit and dutifully copy. Occasionally, he turns and points at one of us, says something in algebra, and we are supposed to respond.
Sometimes, after one of the three boards is full, he recognizes a mistake, erases it, and begins again. It is this way each and every day, five days a week, for a year. I am a high school freshman in algebra class.
After that class, and class after class after class, I ask for help, but he is too busy coaching the boys’ basketball team and too inarticulate to take the time or have the ability to explain what I do not understand.
He hurriedly speaks gibberish, assuring me I’m doing fine. I know I am not. My parents hire an algebra tutor for me. Xs and Ns and Ys swarm provocatively around me, taunting me, keeping me awake and dripping in cold sweat when I should be sleeping peacefully.
The school year ends, the teacher gives me a passing final grade that I do not earn, nor do I deserve, and I do not understand anything about algebra. But I want to.
I register for summer school algebra class. Mr. Haack, a math teacher turned guidance counselor, is the teacher. He is A TEACHER. He is not a basketball coach who is teaching math so he can coach basketball. He is a TEACHER.
I can’t wait to get home and do homework. I can’t wait for the next class. By summer’s end, I earn an A in algebra, but moreover, I love algebra, and I have learned I can do it. I need a Korean Mr. Haack right now.
With five Korean classes left, I decide I’ve had enough. I email the school director and ask for a meeting. We meet about 20 minutes before the next class. Because it’s important that she know that I have credibility, I provide a brief professional biography.
Then, I explain the teacher’s pedagogic problems and offer suggestions for improvement. She thanks me profusely and assures me she will address the issues.
When class begins that night, it is the director who teaches us, explaining that she wants to see how we are doing. Unfortunately, our assigned teacher is not there. It would be wise for her to observe what the director does.
Still, class is only minimally better: She gives us a bit of an opportunity for communicative practice. A bit. Students encourage her by telling her we appreciate the communicative practice.
I longingly remember my ASL classes. ASL, the native language of the American d/Deaf community and much of the Canadian d/Deaf community, is not a written language. Teachers do not voice when they teach, nor do they write on the board in English (or in any language) though they certainly could.
To convey ASL concepts, grammar, vocabulary — everything about the codified language — ASL teachers are masters of creative pedagogy: They do not use any language other than ASL. And students use no language other than ASL or, if we lack the vocabulary and grammar, teachers encourage us to become creative in order to convey what we mean, and from our creativity, the masters demonstrate the correct ASL, and we learn.
We are immersed in practice every millisecond of every class. It is not until weeks into one course when I first hear a classmate’s voice. Startled, I realize his English is Spanish-accented, and I learn he is from Mexico.
I have come to recognize his signing because I have seen it daily, but I didn’t recognize his voice because I had never heard it. I yearn for Korean teachers like my ASL teachers because they are proof that teachers do not have to use English to teach another language.
Some time ago, during some research I was conducting, I found a two-week U.S.-based Korean language immersion camp, so it’s no surprise that I remembered it as I considered solutions to my Korean class problems. I excitedly went to the website, imagining myself returning to the States next summer and participating, but my exuberance quickly crashed when I learned that Korean was offered for “youth” only.
Should adults want to learn Chinese, Finnish, French, German, Italian, Norwegian, Japanese, Spanish, or Swedish, they’re in luck. If they want to learn Korean, it’s snake eyes, despite the fact that South Korea is home to, among others, mega-corporations Hyundai, Samsung, Kia, LG, and SK Hynix, a Forbes listed, multi-billion dollar memory chipmaker. This is also despite the fact that South Korea is home to the third-largest American military presence in the world, with nearly 24,000 military personnel at 83 sites.
In 2015, the Korea Times reported that the number of Americans living in South Korea rose 30 percent between 2005 and 2015, "As of December , there were 136,663 American citizens living in South Korea. The increase in foreign residents (of all kinds, is due to Korea’s) growth as a major international business player and to the influence of Hallyu." (Hallyu means "Korean wave" or "Korean fever" and refers to the rapid worldwide spread of Korean culture in the last decade.)
No Korean class for adults despite the fact that in May 2018, a K-Pop group topped the American music charts for the first time, and it’s not just teens who are enthralled by them. And despite the fact that not a small number of foreign residents have married South Korean nationals.
Half of the faculty with whom I work is married to Korean nationals, and five of them have children. Perhaps Swedish, Finnish, and Norwegian are in much greater demand, at least at that camp.
While there are other U.S.-based Korean immersion courses, they are long-term, prohibitively expensive for my bank account, and designed for using the language professionally.
Looking to make yuja cha out of yuja, I began to reflect on what I’ve gleaned from my Korean course: A little about Korean. A lot about how not to teach, an outstanding reminder. Even more about the angst, the misery students too often feel.
Donald Graves, writer and beloved master writing teacher, advised that the one thing that writing teachers should do when teaching writing is to "write yourself…You can't ask someone to sing a duet with you until you know the tune yourself."
For years, in order to learn the tune myself — to always empathize with my students no matter how many times I answer the same question or teach the same concept — I take courses in subjects in which I have no background. They often turn out to be bewildering, discouraging, and exasperating, no matter how curious I am or how eager I am to learn.
Haetae painting: Errors and all by Debra Josephson Abrams.
Not long after I moved to Seoul, I took what was billed as a Korean painting class but what was really little more than a paint-by-number activity. An outline of a figure was imprinted on a 6-by-6 canvas.
Participants’ were to follow the instructor’s lead and paint the figure with the colors she mixed for us and with the brush she chose for us. The instructor gave no instructions, she didn’t speak English, I didn’t speak Korean, and there was no translator.
Participants were painting automatons. So instead of asking, I was left to wonder: How would the paints react with the canvas? How deep into the paint should we dip the brush? When should we clean the brush? Should we switch brushes, and if so, when and to what? What if we make a mistake? And make mistakes I did.
"How can I fix it?" I asked the instructor of the first one. She didn’t understand my words, but she understood what she saw. She laughed, took her brush, did something, and left to help someone else.
I tried to fix the problem myself; it didn’t look bad…until I saw it under another light. The goof glared. And I was frustrated. All I had wanted was a cultural experience with a meaningful memento I could hang on my apartment wall to decorate my new home.
Instead, I got a marred painting, another great lesson on how not to teach, and another lesson on how it feels to be a discouraged student.
But being the discouraged novice and not the skilled expert is valuable, as Francesco Gino notes, "It’s a good reminder that, expertise, while wonderful, creates potential problems if we use it as a way of saying ‘I know the answer, I’m the expert.’ You look at the problem too narrowly, usually only from one perspective, and it’s our own perspective."
About teachers who include writing in their courses, whether or not those courses are explicitly writing focused, Tim Gillespie observed, "When teachers write, we learn empathy for our students. Writing can be a struggle, and this fact is easy to forget if we don't wrestle regularly with it ourselves."
Because struggling and reflecting upon the struggle is key to self-development and even success, I’ve created "Prompting Self-Reflection for Self-Development," using Dr. Stephen Brookfield’s Learning Audit questions and questions I adapted from Simpson College to which I added my own. You and your students can respond to them when you wrestle with the unfamiliar and problematic, whether they be language’s or life’s labyrinth.
Perhaps as I, you and your students can take heart in the wisdom of writer and filmmaker Desiree Akhavan, who reflects upon a significant challenge she confronted, “It was a great experience and a really painful, difficult one.”
I struggled over my summer vacation. It was a great, sometimes painful, often difficult struggle, but I am grateful. How else would I know what sustains me? How will you?
*Hagwons are private, for-profit language academies or institutes, also known as “cram” schools, that are pervasive in South Korea. There are hagwons for every age and nearly every subject — academic and non-academic — with English and math being popular. Largely designed for older students to improve their standardized test scores in order to achieve a high ranking and thereby position students to enter prestigious Korean universities, hagwons are often the bane of Korean teenagers’ lives because students attend them for many hours after the school day ends. As a result, many teenagers spend at least 16 hours/day in rote memorization "education."
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