When it works


This week I played the youtube video of Daniel Johnson’s Story of an Artist. There were several classes that clapped afterwards.

Korean students are surprisingly demonstrative over things they really like, and you will often hear clapping from the classrooms in the hallways, which really is something you’re NOT likely to hear in American schools.  They’re also more likely to murmer in unison and ooh and ahh

I explained again the ethic of d.i.y. and stressed again the importance of creativity over looks or money.

Today’s class of free-talking produced the following:

One group of girls were discussing beauty.  I asked them what they were talking about, and one of the girls told me her mother thought she needed to be prettier and was forcing her to have the eyelid operation.  “How do you feel about that?” I asked.  She said she was scared.  I tell her I would be a little scared too and that I probably would never do that myself.  (however, I wonder if I’m a hypocrite, since I have pierced ears and that’s totally a cultural thing)  I told them how I was on the subway in Idae (the neighborhood around Ewha Women’s University) the night before, and how 80% of the women on the train had obviously had plastic surgery done on their eyes.  There was a slight gasp from the girls, since I think the figure is more like 50% normally.  Then I told them how in America most people like natural beauty more and that only Hollywood and very superficial people get surgery to be more beautiful.  The girls were all nodding in agreement, but at the same time it seemed like several of them had already gotten the operation.  These girls are only 16…

Across the room, some other girls were talking about skin care and girl A was telling girl B she needed to wash her face more.  To which girl B told me that actually, girl A’s skin wasn’t as great as it looked, and then she lifted up her bangs to reveal a forehead full of acne.  Maybe this is why sooooo many of the girls have heavy bangs.  A kind of self-perpetuating problem, since the bangs probably do as much to promote more acne as they cover the acne up.   Seriously, it seems like over 50% of the Korean girls have heavy bangs.  And it has a widening squashing effect by cutting their faces in half, when everyone here values small thin faces…so more length of face would help achieve that.  Oh well.

In the back of the room, another pair of girls were talking about skin.  Instead of asking each other questions, getting to know each other, and reporting the results to me, they chose to volly put-downs at each other.  Girl D told me that girl E looked like tweety bird because she was so yellow.  Girl E told me at least she wasn’t red like Girl D.  Girl D volleyed back that she was red naturally, and that maybe if Girl E didn’t use so much white cream (bleaching cream) maybe she wouldn’t look so yellow!  “It’s okay,” they reassured me “we’re friends.”

In one of the boy’s classes, four boys couldn’t bear asking about one another, so instead they took to fabricating stories about each other when I asked them what they’d learned.  Boy A told me that he couldn’t ask Boy B about his family, because really boy B doesn’t have any father or mother.  Boy B lives with his aunt, is very poor, and must get money from the government to eat.  Boy A, C, and D howled with laughter.  Boy B told me Boy A has to get an operation on his brain because he is too stupid.  And so it goes…I laugh and tell them they need to use their creativity to create better questions and to keep talking.  All around me is a cacophony of voices having similar conversations, most of them starting with the program I’d laid out but then deviating as above.

Once or twice during the class I must either yell to tone it down because my ears are going to bleed, or I turn off the lights to momentarily lower the decibels.  (I’ve been doing this all week, and I seriously wonder what this is going to do to my hearing)  Words can not begin to describe what 40+ students talking out loud at the same time is like.  And it’s not just talking, because the sound has to escalate so everyone can hear each other above the noise.  The kids are also kind of elated that they’re not being forced to listen to a dry lecture, so that also increases their volume.  Then, if they’re enjoying themselves a lot and end up telling jokes, then the laughter (especially with the girls) can turn into shrieking.  It’s seriously deafening.  Wah!  and I have a head cold so my ears are extra sensitive this week…

I asked Y where I can buy an old-fashioned counter bell, and she is having the office look into it.  She told me most teachers take the beating stick and beat the teacher’s desk with it – but to me, even that is an act of hostility, aggression, and a sign of near loss of self control, so I told her no – I can’t do that.  She said this will probably be the first time ever anyone used a bell or musical instrument to control the class.  I told her all I really wanted was a sound to signal attention

I almost always have at least one student in every class manage get the entire class to shut up if I am speaking.  I have gone from a lesson plan that has taken hours and hours to prepare, to taking only minutes to prepare.  I have gone from creating handouts to giving samples and guidelines to totally eliminating any paper.  I have gone from writing copious quantities on the board to writing only one sentence and then erasing it.  It’s working.  It’s making me deaf, but the kids are talking.  In fact, I can’t get them to shut up.  If they revert to Korean, I just come up to them and say something like, “what you’re talking about is fine – but now say it in English.”  I think this approach is helping me seem reasonable instead of frazzled.

Just like teachers for elementary kids get down to the kid’s eye levels, I make sure to get down to their eye level when they are sitting at their desks.  And to encourage them doing “good” talking, I lean in close to replicate a huddle.  (besides, that’s the only way to hear them because the din is so great)  I wish I was a little more skilled in conversation myself, or that I was more personable, but maybe my skills match their skills okay.  When they report back to me, I will step in and make the report wander and turn it into a dialogue.  And I will try and always ask a question about them that shows I’m really interested in their lives.  Then I will point out to them what exactly it was that interested me, and how I turned it into a question.  I also point out how some of their answers can kill dialogue and encourage them to give some interesting detail in their answer.  The taking turns thing is slower coming, and I believe somewhat dependent on their basic English comprehension levels.  But I think that will come too.  I bought a couple of books on free talking last week, but I have found that it is good for topical ideas only, as again there is too much reading going on.  And the sample questions become a crutch which keep the children from digging deep to come up with their own unique questions and answers.

The challenge is going to be making this topical every week and not letting it devolve into merely social hour.  Social hour would be okay as well, as long as it was in English, but not challenging enough for them.  I WISH I could count on my co-teachers to be there, as I have to neglect half the students during the feedback portion of the class – I just can’t cover the entire room of forty.  So this tide turning thing is new, but I have only been able to make real connections with about a quarter of the students, and it’s frustrating to know more connections could be made but have been lost due to an absent co-teacher (who’s English is really bad anyway)  And I can’t wait until there is an English zone remodel of a classroom for me.  I have asked for a skinny bar with stools in a u-shape.

Unlike most of the other foreign English teachers, I think there’s no need for writing, that they write enough, and that writing kills their conversing.  In fact, I believe it is the inability to freely express themselves through talking which probably limits their writing…I have instituted a new rule in my classroom that there must be NOTHING on their desks to write in or on.  Not only because it’s too tempting to use my class as study hour for other classes, but also because they have been programmed to employ methods of rote for learning, which detracts from their speaking consciousness.

and if the kids can easily and quickly transition to rotating partners without getting hung up on chairs and desk legs, then I can really get maximum exposure to all of the kids of all levels.

Tomorrow I’m going to hunt down the co-teacher and see how we can rectify this situation.  But Yayy!!!  I think I have the kids coming around…

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3 thoughts on “When it works

  1. ha ha! do you feel like a drill seargent?

    I plan to use this thing every lesson several times, so it needs to be something a little less shocking…

    but I’d like to have been there when you were using the whistle – priceless!

  2. hey my co-teacher uses a counter bell and it works well. if you tap it five times they will probably all automatically clap five times. i think they are already wired to do so from elementary school. it seems to work fine after a couple times. oh the horse-shoe how i miss thee

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