Saturday, April 13, 2013

Fulbright Spring Conference 2013

This entire past week, I have barely had the time to process all the information thrown at us during Spring Conference. It was a lot to digest, and there was such a huge variety of lectures, workshops, and presentations, that it was hard to keep track of it all. Fortunately, I took notes! They started off as doodles, but as soon as I started jotting down points and ideas that interested me, I must confess I reverted straight back into student mode and started mad scribbling. Before I knew it, I had a page of fascinating information, provocative questions, and great new ideas for my classroom. I'll share just some tidbits:

Why is Korea "Real Life"?
Program Director Anthony Cho encouraged all of us teachers, especially the first-year grantees, to rid ourselves of the notion that our grant year was just a "break" between college and so-called real life (i.e. grad school or a job back in the US). Even if our stint in Korea is just a gap year, we shouldn't treat it as if it doesn't matter in the long run. Why not? Because our impact on our students is real and will have real consequences. Because we are discovering and will discover new and important things about ourselves while we're here that we will surely bring home with us, even if we don't pursue careers in education. Because, unfortunately, we're only young for so long, and to discount twelve months of our lives as merely "some time I spent dicking around in Korea" would be simply absurd. It may not seem like it, but what we as teachers are spending one year doing is real -- just as real as the lives of our friends who are already in med school or climbing up the corporate ladder -- and very, very important.

What are some strengths of the Fulbright ETA Program?
During a segment of the conference that was meant both to pat us teachers on the back and to prod us into reevaluating our successes as teachers and cultural ambassadors, the program director and executive assistant revealed that they had sent an assessment survey to our schools. The results of this survey were shared, albeit only in anonymous statistics, to our collective amusement and a bit of surprise. Fortunately, we ETAs earned fairly good grades all around: 85% of us received A's in class preparedness, and 86% received A's in "observing Korean courtesies". It seemed like the biggest strengths were that Fulbright teachers actively engaged their students, were well-prepared, taught quality lessons that catered to student needs, and were very polite and well-mannered. On the other hand, weaknesses included insufficient classroom management, insufficient cooperation with our co-teachers, and insufficient hours spent at school (which, factoring in our contract, is not actually our fault at all; but if a school doesn't like that Fulbrighters get three full months of vacation a year, they can take it to Mrs. Shim).

What are some new things I'd like to incorporate into my classroom?
Great teachers steal. I caught and held on to dozens of great ideas tossed around during conference, including, but not limited, to: encouraging art in my students, but not limiting this to drawing on scrap paper (make a video! write poetry!); playing games that emphasize speaking with emotion, not just speaking correctly; having students encourage one another in the classroom, as in applauding correct answers and learning encouraging phrases ("Good idea!", "Great job!"); and allowing more time for any activity, since it always feels longer for the teacher than it does for the students. I was also very charmed by the idea of considering one's fellow classmates as "learning allies", instead of as competitors, obstacles, or nameless, faceless Others. During the small group session for LGBTQ folk and allies, one common grievance aired was the inability to bring up queer issues in class in a constructive and educational manner. On the bright side, we shared some ideas on how to incorporate respect for sexual diversity in lessons such as family, dating culture, or current events.

How can US education and Korean English education learn from each other and improve?
These notes were taken from a long and thorough workshop session on education. Now, I have never taken a course in Education, and the only experience I can claim is a month of job training and six months of teaching, but I'd like to offer what I can.

Korea has the lowest illiteracy rate in the world, and its overall educational quality, according to the Pearson index, is ranked second in the world, after Finland. 98% of Korean students graduate high school, supported (or pushed) by their families and societal pressure. A huge proportion of the adult population holds a bachelor's degree -- 98% of those in the 25-34 age bracket, according to a 2010 OECD report -- although many people are underemployed in an economy that can't support the ever-rising number of college graduates. Generally speaking, the stats are good, right? But Koreans students are among the world's unhappiest, and they have an alarmingly high suicide rate. Suicide is the leading cause of death of Koreans aged 10-19 (in fact, it's the leading cause of death of all Koreans up to age 40), and the infamously stressful academic environment does not help this.

With regard to this, I believe that the Korean education system needs to step up its game in mental health support and treatment at schools. If mental illness becomes less stigmatized, students with suicide potential will be able to freely get help. Also, there are lots of ways to keep students succeeding without being locked into a rigorous, constant-testing method of education. Especially for EFL education, the absolute dependency on test scores instead of any sort of holistic evaluation is misguided. To get into college or obtain any government job, you need to pass some sort of English aptitude test -- even if you won't use English at all in the post. Those who test well in English will often find more success than those who don't (even if their speaking skill is really quite good). I feel like the stakes are too high for arbitrary numbers to have so much sway over one's future!

While I love teaching English and I love my job, I feel like I could be more effective as a teacher if I taught leveled classes. That is to say, instead of teaching homeroom classes in which a handful of students are conversationally fluent, another handful don't understand me when I say, "How was your weekend?", and the rest are scattered somewhere in between, I would prefer a smaller class for the most advanced students, another class specifically for those who are behind, etc. Foreign language education in the US is leveled in this way with no exceptions; it helps every student learn at their own pace instead of being swept along beyond their ability to understand or feeling trapped and bored in a class that's too easy.

Another change I might implement to the classroom is to simply make classes smaller and meet them more often. Most of us Fulbright teachers only see one class once a week; sometimes only once every other week. This doesn't add up to enough opportunities to actually use English! I use every minute I can outside of class to chat with my students in English so that they can practice, but it would be awesome if I could just have more class time with them.

On the other hand, we have the mess that is the American education system, which I think could also take a few pointers from its Korean counterpart. One thing's for sure: American students and parents need to respect teachers and schools much more. While helicopter parents -- those who not only hover over their children but also descend upon schools to (verbally) attack teachers for failing them -- are on the rise in Korea, it's nothing compared to the levels of crazy you can find in the States. And students in Korea treat even their classrooms and hallways with respect, cleaning them weekly. They contribute so much to their own educational environment. I can't imagine American students keeping their campus clean unless it provided them with service learning hours.

Also, I believe that the US should implement higher standards for its teachers, as well as a better environment for them. Teachers are very highly regarded in Korea, and this is due in part to the difficult and intense process of becoming one. Education programs in the US don't always give fledgling teachers enough classroom experience before throwing them out of the nest, so to speak. Then, when they arrive at their schools, they find paltry institutional support, ridiculous demands from the administration, and not enough resources to invest properly in their students. (This op-ed by Randy Turner in the Huffpost illustrates expresses appropriate frustration at the current situation.) This is all to say nothing of the thousands of simply crappy teachers out there. I think teaching should be elevated in the US. Teachers ought to have the same respect and reputation of all those doctors and lawyers and entrepreneurs, and in turn the quality of the teachers our education programs churn out must also improve. It'll take a while to get there from our current situation, but it can happen.
Doodle-notes from Spring Conference! (Click to enlarge)
Whew. That was a lot to write. If you're interested in more, I've posted a scan of my doodle-notes from the ETA portion of the conference. I have another whole page for the Fulbright researchers' portion of the conference, which I will post tomorrow. And, of course, I'd love to continue discussing any of these ideas. Feel free to leave a comment!

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