Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A blogging break

Clearly I have lost my blogging thunder. Fear not! A plan is in the works for a road/train trip across Eastern Canada at the end of April. I'll be sure to post travel related plans, stories, and pictures when the time is right.

Thursday, March 01, 2007


The following is a kind of lame mid-term assignment for this kind of lame course I'm taking outside my department. I'm posting it here beause it's a story about Korea. Thecourse is called Language, Culture, and Education and assignment was to "explore concretely some phenomenon which illustrates or raises questions about what we are talking about in class." For you concerned readers out there, fear not! It was not to be an academic paper.

There are currently upwards of 11,000 native English speakers living and working as English teachers in South Korea. In a population of almost fifty million, that is nothing. These teachers come to this very homogenous country and are expected to share their language skills and, sometimes, their culture. Other times, however, their cultural contributions are not welcome. Drawing from my own experience as an English teacher of very young Korean children, I will discuss the struggle that ensues when two cultures come together, particularly when a minority group teacher meets a classroom full of majority group children who have their majority group parents behind them. To begin with I will describe the setting I found myself in, before elaborating on three distinct circumstances that best demonstrate these issues. The social, cultural, and linguistic differences between these two groups resulted in often interesting, sometimes frustrating, and always enlightening experiences for all those involved.

I was working in a private kindergarten which catered to upper middle class children in a relatively small suburb of Seoul. These schools are a dime a dozen; the business of owning a school in Korea is much like owning a restaurant, a bar, or, absurdly, a church. Competition is fierce and reputation is of great importance to parents who are spending lots of money to provide their children with an early start to learning the English language and presumably living a happy and successful life. Children arrive in these English schools as young as three years old and they quickly begin learning not only to read, write, and speak, but to handle themselves in school.

We know that the goal of kindergarten in the West is ultimately to prepare children for their future lives as students and citizens. Children are taught to share, to line up, to raise their hand, to be kind to others, and to respect their teacher. It is a process of socialization. When I arrived in class on my first day, a jet-lagged and inexperienced new graduate (of a BA in Sociology, I might add), I was met with ten wide-eyed four year olds who had never stepped foot in a classroom before. Most had never even heard the English language spoken. My task was to socialize these kids to behave properly in school, to balance the expectations (both cultural and educational) of parents and employer, while maintaining my sanity and attempting to keep my own sense of morality in tact.

The first example is one of social differences that resulted in the most difficult hurdle that I had to face while teaching in South Korea. The different conceptions of age and stage appropriate learning between North America and South Korea are striking. Ten four year olds in a 20 by 12 foot room with no carpet, toys, or real downtime or outside time over the course of a four hour day would be unheard of in North America. The expectation of these little ones to sit in chairs and listen for forty minutes at a time is unfathomable to early childhood educators in Canada. This is what I was expected to do, and if I rebelled I would lose my job.

As the teacher I had some creative power over the flow of my class but essentially the structure was set up and my authority over the learning of the students was limited. The collision of social differences led sometimes to problems for me, sometimes to problems for the parents and administrators, and sometimes to a positive feeling for both. I was sure the students were not experiencing a satisfactory education and would excel much better in an environment where they had room and freedom to explore and be kids. The parents were dissatisfied if I gave the children too much free reign; they expected English only in the classroom, rigid teaching, and speedy learning from their children. I reacted by allowing the four year olds to speak Korean in the classroom for four months (longer than desired), at which point I conceded to the social norms demanded and enforced an English only ruling. Much to my surprise the children took to it easily and were speaking English, or at least some understandable form of it, soon after. Eight months after arriving in school with no English knowledge, these four year olds were reading simple sentences.

This story demonstrates the compromise between two cultures resulting when they come together. Though as the sole foreigner I probably had to bend more than they, in the end I was impressed that the system actually worked. I still feel like the environment was not ideal for children of this age, but I can see that different systems with different goals can work. Had they been able to train me to use the same behaviour management techniques that are acceptable in South Korean schools I may have had an even easier time there.

The second example is a more subtle cultural one that involves ideas of individuality and creativity. As a teacher in Korea I was often perplexed and frustrated by my students’ unwillingness to participate in spontaneously creative activities like dramatic improvisation, or simply using their imaginations in the same way that children are often expected to in North America. Much like Philips’ piece on native Warm Springs children who, when mixed into classes of white majority children, demonstrated obvious differences in communication styles, so too did the children in my classroom. As both the teacher and the minority I did my best to choose culturally appropriate activities for the children upon realizing that my original plans fell short. I also found that despite these attempts, my culture inevitably came through and the children learned to adjust in some way to my style as well.

Both Philips’ Warm Springs paper and Ogbu’s piece on Ebonics genuinely peaked my interest in the inclusion of all types of learners, particularly when the teacher shares the cultural norms of some students and not others. It is so very easy to forget the differences your students have and evaluate them according to your own rubric. With a class full of students from the majority culture, I was less able to impose my culture on them though undoubtedly I did, likely causing discomfort for both the students and myself time and time again. The Canadian context, with often much more than only one or two represented cultures with varying cultural norms, presents the challenge of treating each student in a way that best encourages learning must be an intensely difficult task.

Finally, the third example that I wish to examine is one that focuses on linguistic differences, and with so many to choose from, I will select a rather humorous anecdote that depicts the sad frustration that occurs when one simple word goes undefined. When the kindergarten students went home, elementary aged students filed in for afternoon English class after their regular Korean school let out. I was given the beginner level students (how lucky I was!) and struggled to get them started with reading, speaking, and listening. This is a particularly difficult task when students are tired, disinterested, and would rather be playing video games. Often they would misbehave in some way; speak Korean, stand up, or talk to their friends which would likely elicit a verbal response from me. “Bola”, they would respond with blank eyes. Other times I would be going through a lesson and would expect participation. “Bola”, they would say. Weeks went by. Eventually my frustrations got the best of me. I asked the Korean teacher what this mysterious “bola” means; only to find out it means “I don’t know”.

For weeks I had been frustrated, the students had been frustrated, and neither party knew what the other one was talking about. Had I, as the teacher, had the patience and initiative to find out the meaning of this simple word, my entire understanding of the students and their position in my class would have been altered. This moment clarified for me their feelings of bewilderment, for they could not even convey their lack of understanding sufficiently to me.

These three examples demonstrate the social, cultural, and linguistic differences that led to some sort of conflict during my time as an English teacher in South Korea. The position was a precarious one; to impart some of my knowledge but not all to students who were essentially teaching me in a similar fashion. Despite the examples of conflict, the experience of adjusting to cultural differences and learning to operate cohesively together was a positive one, both for my young charges and me.