Thursday, November 28, 2013

What I'm Thankful For

It's Thanksgiving once again! Last year, I was thankful for friends, family, Fulbright, food, faith, and a lot of other things, not all of which begin with the letter F.

This year, I didn't think about Thanksgiving very much, in part due to being so busy these past few weeks. I don't get to work this little tidbit of American culture into any of my lessons, since most of my students are doing their speech tests now, and I spend every extra minute of every day correcting drafts or journals.

But it's only appropriate that I take some time now and list at least a few of the very many things for which I am grateful this year.

1. A healthy and active body. I'm thankful that I'm surviving (so far) a winter in Korea without unlimited heating. (On that note, it snowed in Changwon today! But it didn't stick.) I'm happy to be doing taekgyeon to keep myself fit even though I bake cookies and eat them all by myself every weekend... Here's a photo of my taekgyeon performance in Seoul during Fulbright Thanksgiving the weekend before last.
I'm performing with 장봉, but it's moving too fast for you to really see ;) Photo taken by Vinnie Flores.
2. I'm thankful for all of my friends, new and old. I love Skyping home to chat with people after going months or even years without seeing them. I'm also lucky that folks in Changwon are really friendly, so even though I'm basically a hermit, I have friends here in my city. Last Sunday, I ran into Nadia, a friend I met at church but hadn't seen in a few months. Ever the hospitable host, Nadia promptly invited me to dinner at her place that night, where she and some of her friends were celebrating an early Thanksgiving. She had gone to the army base in Jinhae to get all the proper food: an enormous turkey, stuffing, pumpkin pie, mashed potatoes and gravy, cranberry sauce, and even candied yams with marshmallows, roasted in a 된장찌개 pot! My second Thanksgiving this year was very spontaneous and simply fantastic.
Romi and part of our Thanksgiving feast, prepared by Nadia. Look at that turkey! I helped carve it. :)
New friends who live in Jangyu/Gimhae, which means I don't know how often I'll get to see them, but they're awesome all the same!
3. I'm thankful for my family, even though I haven't seen them for a while and won't for an even longer while. My parents went on a vacation to New Zealand recently, so that put them in the same hemisphere as me, but they were actually 600 miles farther away from Seoul than the Bay Area is. Also, my cousin Johanna got engaged last weekend! Congratulations, Johanna! I know you're reading this. I love my family and I love that it keeps getting bigger literally every year.

As many of you know, my grandfather passed away a few months ago. I miss him, but I'm also thankful that this event was able to bring my large family and my even larger church family together in September. I could clearly see how God used him to bless hundreds, of not thousands, of people in his long and well-lived life.
My grandparents, with A-kong sporting some killer snorkel gear, in a video hangout last year.
4. I'm thankful for my job and for the excellent Fulbright community. I'm lucky to be a part of it! My fellow teachers inspire me; they make me laugh; they keep me sane; they take my money to fund amazing progressive educational initiatives. I would be a lost and lonely 외국인 in Korea if it weren't for them.
Fulbright at the 2013 Thanksgiving dinner with the US Embassy in Seoul. I'm the one in the shirt. Taken by Vinnie Flores.
5. Last, but not least (maybe even most), I'm thankful for my students. I love 'em, and though sometimes they bring me grief, most of the time they make my life complete. I don't spend twelve hours at school every day because I like my desk, folks.

And sometimes, I find out that my students are thankful for me, too, and that just makes me melt.
A student's answer to the last journal question of the semester: What have you learned in my class?
So, Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! Enjoy your turducken and your parade, while I enjoy an endless feast of blessings from above. 추수감사절 축하합니다!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Surprise Party (깜짝 파티)

Nothing could cause me to love my students more than I do tonight. I really don't deserve to teach kids as thoughtful and caring as they are. This evening, my third-year students threw me a surprise party for no reason whatsoever! They made me a cute video and bought a cake with candles (it's not even my birthday), and then we took pictures together. Why? I have no idea! Well, actually, I do: it's because they're angels. No, but really.

The third-years will be done with school in about a month. They wanted to say goodbye -- a little early, I guess -- and show their appreciation for my having taught them for the past year and a half. I was so touched, and I kept saying, "Wow, guys, 감동해요!" and "사랑해요!" Look, I'm not an emotional person, and I rarely say "I love you" to anyone besides my parents. Yet as I looked around the classroom and saw my students' faces, I couldn't say anything else. It was a Tuesday evening and all thirty-three of them were skipping study hall just to say an elaborate thank you (and eat cake)!
Some of my students and me. YJ, in the brown jacket and holding up cuckold horns, planned the party.
Apparently, YJ, SH, and EJ planned the little party, and everyone worked very hard all day to keep it a secret from me. I suspect my co-teachers were aware of it, but they all left after dinner. By 8pm, it was just me and my stack of student journals to correct. SH and another student came into the office and pretended that my co-teacher had asked them to do some grading on his behalf, but while I thought that was strange, I didn't realize that they were just keeping an eye on me while everyone else blew up balloons and prepared the classroom just next door.

Even earlier that afternoon, I recall having seen YJ in the classroom alone, blowing up balloons. As soon as she saw me peek in the classroom, she hurried to cover something she had been writing, and I saw a video camera, so I assumed that she was working on her class' film project.

But when I went to the bathroom just prior to the "surprise", I started to piece things together. There was a quiet commotion coming from my classroom, which was pitch-dark, but I saw silhouettes inside. A bunch of students were also milling around the hallway and bathroom, when they were supposed to be in their study room. Lastly, I outright asked a student, "Hey, MC, what are you all planning?" And he said, "Oh, Teacher... surprise." Welp.

Then JM said, "Teacher, we finished what Teacher Lee wanted us to do. What should we do next?"

I said, "Um... I have no idea. What did he ask you to do when you were finished?"

That was evidently not he reply JM was expecting. "Oh, well... we're done now, and we will go. But first, you need to come."
Some of my students and me. JM, in the hat, pretended to work in the office. MC, on my left, "spoiled" the surprise.
And so I went, and there was the surprise, and it was amazing and touching and I really, really, really felt like the luckiest teacher ever. Again, I don't deserve in my life such wonderful people as my students. They have such big hearts. My co-teacher says that the third-years in particular have a much more positive and grateful attitude overall than the other class years, and I can definitely see where that comes from. But I love all of my students, and I think that after tonight, I've realized that I should let them know that more often.

Honestly, if I am rejected from every grad school I apply to, I will have no qualms about staying at my school for a third year. Already the prospect of going back to the US next July makes me anxious; I don't want to leave. With students like mine, how could I?

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Sanghyung Lee

A Konglish joke:

I've never met a man named Sanghyung Lee. But if I do, I hope he's my type.

Get it? ;)

Okay, let me explain. Korean people like romance, and they like talking about their Mr. or Mrs. Right. Or your Mr. or Mrs. Right. I get asked all the time if I have a girlfriend. When I reply in the negative, the next question is always either, "So are you going to get a Korean girlfriend?" or the ever-so-slightly subtler, "So who's your ideal type?" And the word in Korean for "ideal type" (not the Weberian term) is 이상형 (理想型), pronounced ee-sahng-hyoung.
Google Images search of "이상형" returns lots of beautiful women, followed closely by lots of beautiful men. Also, blended portraits of celebrities (remember Average Faces?) to project onto one's 미래의 여친 (future girlfriend).
My Korean teacher once jokingly reminded our class that we were learning how to describe the perfect partner, not a weird older brother (異常兄), which is pronounced the same way. But when I hear the word, rather than thinking of Tim or Dan, I keep thinking that it sounds like one of my students, who is named Sanghyun (without the 'g'). There are definitely Korean men named Sanghyung (상형), although the hanja is probably different. Some people might think the name means "hieroglyphs", since that's all I get from an image search of it.
Google Images search of "상형" (象形), which is the "hiero-" part of "hieroglyphs", returns lots of ancient Chinese characters and stones with Mayan and Egyptian hieroglyphs. My future love (愛) is going to have yellow, heart-shaped hair.
And since Lee (이) is the second most common surname among Koreans, there's got to be a real 이상형 out there. I haven't met one yet. But if I do...

I'll ask him if he's tired of the joke yet.

Friday, November 22, 2013

What Teachers Make by Taylor Mali and Zen Pencils

Zen Pencils plus Taylor Mali! An excellent combination. Taylor Mali is a slam poet whose amazing spoken word piece "What Teachers Make" I first heard last year. Then, this past summer, Zen Pencils, a webcomic that illustrates great quotes, turned it into this. Neat, isn't it?

I don't always consider myself a "real" teacher (no certification and only a year of experience, I mean, come on), but I honestly find this relatable and inspirational. Education degree or no, I've been given a classroom and two hundred students to educate. I respect them and I expect them to respect me, so that leaves everyone else...

Do you respect your teachers?

Thursday, November 21, 2013


Okay, not gonna lie, it's been a tough week. The good news is that I'm not sick anymore, and my body is getting used to the cold that's settled in for this early winter. On the other hand, taekgyeon has been kind of a drag, because an ahjussi who is in my class turns into this vicious beast whenever we spar, and I'm close to losing my temper at him. I've been too busy to get groceries or work on my grad school apps since Sunday, because school. My schedule was changed (for hopefully the last time!) on Monday, and my class load increased so that I would see the third-years four times a week instead of zero. I was excited about this, until I (foolishly? brilliantly?) decided to create a documentary film project out of thin air to keep them occupied for the last four weeks of school. That took some time.

The real 고민 (trouble), though, is coming from my first-years. Next week, they have their speech tests, so this week and last, they've had to turn in drafts of their work. It's now the time of the semester when I normally post funny tidbits and excerpts from my students' writing, because it's comedy gold. This week I'm posting nothing funny, only something that made me angry and upset.
Two students' second drafts. The pink sentences are the same in both papers. There is some delicious irony here, given the subject of these students' research project.
Cheating. 컨닝. 기만. These two students are in the same research group, so their speech topics are the same. Yet what makes them think they can submit drafts that are over 50% identical? Last night, I went through the first student's draft in its entirety and made notes. Later, when I read the second student's draft, I was shocked to find myself reading the exact same sentences. I highlighted every one that was the same.

Today, I handed back edited second drafts and gave my students time to work on their final drafts. But I took these two students aside, showed them their papers just as you see them, and said, "Can you explain this?" The first student immediately went into a stammering ramble of an explanation. First, it was that they were in the same project group. Second, they had the same information. "We have the same chart," she kept saying, but I didn't understand what she meant. The second student didn't say a word. I told them that it was not and never okay to copy homework, that I wanted them to rewrite their drafts, that I would take away ten points (wildly lenient, but that's my department's policy), and that their main English teacher already knew what they had done. The first student began to try to explain that it was her fault, that she had asked him for help translating hers. The second student was still completely silent; it was actually unnerving.

(Another student in the class was eavesdropping, but when I saw him, I said, "DH. You did not even give me an outline. You did not give me a Draft 1. You did not give me a Draft 2. You must turn around and work. NOW.")

This wasn't the first time I caught students cheating, and it also wasn't even the last time today. Last week, one of my highest-level students wrote the first draft for a lower-level student. I knew it couldn't have been his, since it was written in impeccable English with a neat blue pen. He always uses a pencil; he confessed right away, but she tried to excuse her way out of it.

"Did you write this?"
"... I helped him write it, but I didn't write it!"
"This isn't even his handwriting."

When I realized that a student had just lied to me -- directly to my face, and with complete conviction -- I was floored. Both of those students also got ten points taken away and a severe scolding from my co-teacher. She made them write apology letters.

The policy is that I take away ten points (out of one hundred) from a student if I catch them cheating. So far, I have taken away over 100 points from the first-year students collectively. I have 82 first-year students. That means over 10% of my students have cheated on their homework! For the only assignment I give them that counts toward their grade! What the heck is the problem?

Seven students copied each other's work. Three swiped entire paragraphs from articles online (one of them used an image-to-text program to copy text from a PDF, but the result was dozens of computer-generated typos that she didn't even bother to fix). After I called these three students into my office today, lectured them, and sent them away, I slumped down in my chair and nearly felt like crying. I honestly never expected to have a cheating problem this insidious. Has anyone ever told these students that plagiarism is a serious offense? Especially for students who are going to go to prestigious research universities -- many of them will become scientists. If they think they can get away with copying other people's work now, they need to be taught otherwise, and taught in a way they won't forget.

Indeed, I'll admit I was sorely tempted to advocate automatic zeroes to my co-teacher. But this speech test is worth 10% of their grade, and it's the only grade I give each semester. 10% zilched would be a serious blow. But 10% of 10%? It's a slap on the wrist and a lukewarm, I'm-trying-to-sound-tough-but-really-I'm-just-severely-disappointed lecture that they'll forget when the door closes behind them.

Although I still smile and fist-bump my students when I pass them in the halls, I feel like they've broken my trust. The very fact that I broke my rule against taking work home yesterday and stayed up past midnight to check all eighty drafts for evidence of cheating says something. I still have two classes' worth of drafts to actually edit, but I don't even want to look at them right now. A lot of it is shoddy work; even the students who didn't cheat seem not to have worked much on improving their initial rough drafts. "Advanced students", right...

I'm going to sleep, and I'll get to the drafts tomorrow before my afternoon classes. Lest I go to bed angry, though, I think it's important that I try to look at the other side of the story. My students have been extremely busy the past few weeks in preparation for the annual science fair. In fact, they had to present their research projects (in Korean) in front of their peers, teachers, and some judges, so it's reasonable that their little English test got pushed to the side. I stopped by the science fair briefly yesterday, and it was just as impressive as last year. Word is that the first-years' projects are less "successful" overall (whatever that means) than last year's, but who cares? I was content just to see their posters and awesome displays.
JH explains his project on testing a plant's resistance to various pollutants.
YM explains the algorithm he worked out that can solve any 2x2 or 3x3 Korean "Hexagonal Tortoise Puzzle".
And besides simply making up excuses for my students, I should also remember that everyone makes mistakes. Maybe a lot of students happened to make their mistakes at the same unfortunate time this semester, but that doesn't actually make it worse (or better). So, just as I would quickly forgive one student for a misstep, I can forgive ten, twenty, maybe even more. How many times in my life have I been forgiven for doing terrible things and trying to get away with them? More than I care to remember.

Here's to my first-years, wishing them the best of luck on their speech tests next week! 화이팅!

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Thanksgiving Weekend

Busan Fireworks Festival. Note the smartphone screens...
Highlights (and a lowlight) from an all-around great weekend:
  • Thanksgiving Dinner with Fulbright and the US Embassy was quite nice. I ate lots of turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes with marshmallow, and pumpkin pie, and I caught up with friends and colleagues. I also performed a short demonstration of taekgyeon (right in front of the American ambassador!) and only endangered the life of an audience member one time. I'll post a video of my performance soon.
  • Celebrated a friend's birthday with cake and beer while a legit thunderstorm raged outside.
  • Caught up with a Swattie friend and talked extensively about books for our students. I love books, and last Friday I submitted an order for a few dozen more for my school's English library. Also, I baked snickerdoodles and the aforementioned friend got to try one for the very first time.
  • Walking around Seoul with my 장봉 felt only slightly incongruous. A lady mistook my stick for a handgrip and used it to steady herself as she took a seat on the subway.
  • Transportation fail: having left my wallet in a hostel, I had to borrow cash from a friend to take a taxi across the city, and I accidentally took a yellow cab, whose rates are twice as expensive as the normal taxis. I gave the driver all the money I had, apologizing profusely. Miraculously, I was only one dollar short of the fare.
  • Transportation win: I never book bus tickets in advance (I don't even know if it's possible), so sometimes earlier buses sell out. I arrived at the terminal at 5:30 and the next available ticket was for 8:15. I bought it but then went straight to the gate to see if I could snag an empty seat on an earlier bus. Just before the 6:00 bus left, I asked if there were any seats still available, and voila, I got right on.
  • I obtained the position of photography editor for Fulbright's literary magazine, Infusion! Our staff had its first meeting today at a cozy cafe in Hongdae. I'm very excited to work on the magazine this year.
Picture is unrelated: I took that at the Busan Fireworks Festival, which was a few weekends ago. I absolutely loved it. Despite the frighteningly large crowds, the beautiful, mesmerizing show really made my whole weekend.

Thursday, November 14, 2013


SY: Teacher, hi!
Me: What's up?
SY: Nothing much! I got 94 on my English test!
Me: Wow, that's awesome! High five!
SY: Yeah! ...
Me: ...
SY: Uh...
Me: ...
SY: Uh... 선생님 덕 분이에요!
Me: Ah! That's, "Thanks to you!"
SY: Thanks to you! Teacher's class!
Me: Really? But I haven't taught you all semester.
SY: Last semester -- good!
Me: Well, I think you put in a lot of hard work, too, so good job! I'm very proud of you.
SY: Thank you! Bye, Teacher!

That warmed the cockles of my heart. Good for a cold, rainy day.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Fulbright Youth Diplomacy and Activism Conference (YDAC) (& two random holidays)

Dear friends, happy Pepero Day! I got a large chocolate pepero (called "pocky" in Japan and the US) from an anonymous student, and today's lunch included a packet of almond pepero, but otherwise, nothing special yet.

Pepero Day is a day to show a little love... and a lot of consumerist tendencies. The holiday was completely manufactured by snack food companies. What better day than 11/11 to buy your friends and lovers (literally) tons of the sweet stick-shaped crackers and spend money that you could otherwise be donating to...

YDAC! The Youth Diplomacy and Activism Conference, run completely independently by Fulbright teachers in Korea, is held once each semester. Teams of bright and hardworking high school students compete in a day-long series of debates about everything from foreign policy to social issues in their own country. There are four conferences throughout the country, including one in my province. My students do not participate, but my colleagues' students do, and they need your help!

Without warning, YDAC lost its funding for its upcoming fall conference, and its organizers are scrambling to come up with enough money to secure transportation, food, and the venue for the conference, all of which have been completely free for students in the past. Will you help us meet their fundraising goal? About $300 more is needed! There are only 5 days left!

You can contribute to their fundraiser here: click on this link.

That's all for my shameless plug. 안녕!

[edit] I found out from a student today that there's a traditional Korean holiday that also falls on 11/11 but which has been around for quite a bit longer. That holiday is 농업인의 날, or Farmers' Day. Farmer's Day apparently started in the mid 1960s, a few decades earlier than the earliest recorded Pepero Day observance, when livestock and agriculture cooperatives in the northern province of Gangwon-do (a very rural part of the country) got together and... did stuff? They chose the 11th day of the 11th month because in hanja, or Chinese characters, "11" is written as 十一 (shibil/shi2yi1), which can be combined to form 土 (to/tu2), the character for earth or soil.

About a decade ago, when Pepero Day was really taking off, people either 1) didn't like the cultural competition, 2) were concerned about the amount of sugar and empty calories kids were consuming on the day, or 3) both, and launched a campaign to distribute 가래떡 (garaetteok), a kind of long sticky rice cake which, when paired, is also shaped like the number 11, instead of the chocolaty 과자. Hence, 가래떡 데이 vs. 빼빼로 데이. Today, after taekgyeon practice, I received two cute packages of 가래떡, bringing my own 11/11 full circle. Well, tteok is certainly healthier than pepero, but honestly, it's not as good a treat. ;)
가래떡 (garaetteok), squishy cylindrical rice cakes, shaped like the number 11. Happy Garaetteok Day!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Korean Words I Don't Know Why I Know

Simon from Omniglot Blog recently posted about unusual words or phrases one might learn in a foreign language. In his case, he said, "I forgot the elephant!" and realized upon later reflection that it was a somewhat odd combination of words. Yet the words were perfect for the situation.

I think it's both fun and useful to learn odd vocabulary words in a target language, even when you're first studying it. When I tutor my taekgyeon teacher in English, I often have to come up with lists of words with similar spellings for pronunciation practice. Once, I found myself dictating: "Each, teach, teacher, read, lead, meat, heat, beat... beaver." Now, I don't think 관장님 will ever encounter the word "beaver" in his Master's course, but who knows when it will come in handy for him?

In the same way, I have accumulated a few dozen truly random vocabulary words over the past two years of studying Korean. I don't always remember them, but I keep them in my Anki flashcard deck just for the heck of it. And you know what? Sometimes I find myself in a situation where I need them, and then, if I can get the timing right, the result is a Korean giving me the "Where the heck did you learn that?" look. I love it.

So here's a list of a few oddball words I've picked up in Korean. I do, of course, encourage you to add them to your flash card decks. ;)

배신자 - traitor
I first encountered the word in 광장시장 in Seoul last winter, where overwhelmed shoppers are courted by four or five intensely enthusiastic shopkeepers simultaneously, making it hard to actually buy anything. I spent a while browsing clothes in one man's stall, but eventually bought a shirt someplace else. The guy jokingly called me a 배신자, which I looked up and then stored in my back pocket for months. Last Friday at taekgyeon class, we were playing indoor soccer, and one of my teammates accidentally scored an own goal. I called him a 배신자, everyone laughed, and my inner nerd rejoiced!

쌍거풀 - double eyelids
So many of my non-Asian friends have no idea what double eyelids are. Since I grew up in a largely Asian-American community, I'm well aware that some people have single eyelids and others have double eyelids. Unfortunately, there's a pretty strongly-held standard of beauty that favors double over single. You can't be in Korea for very long without seeing advertisements for a quick and cheap plastic surgery procedure that turns a single eyelid into a double one, thus this word isn't really all that esoteric.

단풍 - leaves' changing colors in autumn
My host mother taught me this word last year, highlighting it when we went on a trip to a temple to see the beautiful foliage. I rarely encounter it nine months out of the year, but now that it's autumn once more, I'm reminded of 단풍 every day.

시루떡 - steamed rice cake
A word I learned from my taekgyeon master. He used it as a metaphor for being exhausted: "난 시구떡 됬어요!" He meant to express that his muscles had turned into jelly, or something like that. It was pretty memorable, and I stored it in my flashcards. But when I tried to use the expression in a journal entry on lang-8, another Korean remarked that he'd never heard it before and that it sounded really creative, albeit original.

초딩 - adult who behaves like a child
Another gem from my host mother; too bad I can't remember to whom she was referring when she taught me this. I haven't yet found any reason to call someone else a 초딩, but I really can't wait to do so!

외모지상주의 - lookism
I hadn't encountered the term "lookism" before seeing it as the provided translation for this phrase, but it makes sense. Like classism or racism, lookism is discrimination based on one's appearance, and it is rampant (or should I just say "standard"?) in both Korea and the US. In Korea, it is customary to attach your photo to job and university applications, which is mostly unheard of in the US; I'm afraid it gives Koreans just one more reason to worry about their appearance. Why can't skill alone be the deciding factor for hireability? I talked with my students about this in class once. We were brainstorming "problems in Korean society", and one student was trying to describe the over-emphasis on appearance. I dropped 외모지상주의 to make sure I was on the same page as him, and his reaction was, "Yeah! ... Wait, how did you know that?"

가부장제 - patriarchy
I like to throw this into conversation with my female students, who are outnumbered by the males at my school by a 3:1 ratio. Down with gender stereotypes and male domination in Korean society!, I tell them. But I think the most productive opportunity I took to put this random word to use was when I was arguing with a Korean friend about, well, "reverse sexism". He was complaining that it was really hard to be a Korean male these days, since they were all expected to make enough money to buy a house before proposing, and Korean women didn't have to worry about climbing the corporate ladder since they could just hop off and marry some rich dude whenever they wanted, and how come military service wasn't required for women, etc. I tried to summarize my counter-argument with one word: It's the 가부장제! But I ended up having to further explain how rigid gender roles aren't good for any gender, but patriarchy is inherently oppressive toward women, and, well, you should just stop complaining, dude.

비린내 - fishy smell
Picked up from my host father, either when we went fishing together or maybe when he was cooking some sort of seafood once. I really dislike 비린내, and it was unfortunate that last week's Bike Party route took us behind the famous Masan Fish Market. We rode past the docks and through a cloud of 비린내 that almost had me gagging.

등나무 - wisteria
I also learned this from my host father when we went on a walk to visit his childhood elementary school in Daegu. Months later, I identified some wisteria by the Provincial Education Office building, and my co-worker who was with me was nearly struck dumb with amazement, as if knowing the name of a somewhat obscure plant made me a linguistic genius or something. Well, I'll just admit that the wisteria is one of my favorite flowers, so it's not too surprising that I'd remember it, right?

That's all for now. These days, I have my students write daily journals, and sometimes they'll throw in a Korean word or two that they don't know how to translate. I've been adding all of these random words to my vocabulary as well, and I think I can make a part 2 for this post once I have enough! The sad part is that my Korean self-study has been going rather poorly overall since October. I blame grad school applications, which are taking up all my spare time. The first is due in just three weeks, so I'm getting kind of nervous! I'll redouble my language study efforts in January.

Thursday, November 7, 2013


It's that time of the year again... the Korean quasi-national holiday when schools close, streets are shut down, police escorts are on the ready, and 650,000 high school students take the college entrance exam that may determine the course of the rest of their lives. The 수능 (sooneung), or Korean SAT, was today, and this whole past week, my fellow teachers on Facebook have posted optimistic notes for their students and photos of various 수능 "celebrations": underclassmen gathering to cheer on their 선배 (seonbae), school cafeterias serving cake at lunch decorated with words of encouragement, and the like.

The phrase that seems to have become this holiday's standard greeting is, "수능대박!" (sooneung taebak) It is short for 수능 대박나세요!", which translates roughly to "Good luck/Succeed on the KSAT!", although "대박" alone can also mean "to hit the jackpot" or, in slang, "awesome".

Only a handful of my science high school students took the 수능 today: one third-year and around seven second-years. Most of them don't bother with the 수능 because they take individual entrance exams for the science universities to which they're applying. In fact, about half of them have already finished the university application process and are currently in the throes of Senioritis. In any case, I ran into one of my third-years before leaving school yesterday and, knowing that she had the fateful nine-hour exam looming ahead of her, cheered her up with a quick, "수능대박!"

So I've mostly missed the fervor that envelops most Korean high schools around this time. However, I haven't been oblivious to the way advertising has taken advantage of 수능 season. Pretty much every bakery in Korea has advertised 떡, Korean rice cakes, which are a traditional gift to test-takers because the stickiness symbolizes information sticking to their brains.
수능대박! Bakeries use the Korean SAT to advertise.
I snapped a photo of this bakery window this morning. The cute handmade poster on the left says: 다양한 합격선물로 마음을 전하세요... 수험생여러분 수능대박 나세요~! Translation: "Say how you feel with various exam-passing gifts... Dear exam-taking students, good luck on the KSAT!"

The glossy professional one on the right says: 힘내라, 힘! 11월 7일 2013 수능시험. Translation: You got this! November 7th, 2013 KSAT. It's sponsored by some association whose name at the bottom I can't decipher, but look: delicious rice cakes for your stressed-out student! Must be a dessert company.
Another, more blatant, advertisement...

 And here's one more. It reads: 젊은 그대! 한산인. D-20 수능막판스퍼트! 행사기간: 2013년 10월 17일 ~ 11월 7일. 지금은 집중력 강화와 컨디션조절이 중요한 때입니다. 한삼인이 수험생 여러분을 응원합니다... 수험생 여러분 수능 대박나세요!!

Translation: You young people! Hansamin (which I think is a brand of red ginseng drink, used as an energy supplement). D-20 (twenty-days before D-Day, the day of the exam) KSAT last-minute spurt! Promotional period: 10/17-11/7/2013. Now is the important time to reinforce your focus and regulate your condition. Hansamin is cheering on exam-taking students.

Then... blah blah blah advertising "A+ red ginseng" as a KSAT gift set, 20% off (is still 100 bucks for a box of thirty), etc. There's also a gift for your mother, to thank her for being the most supportive of (read: tyrannical regarding) your education.

The cheering way-too-old-to-be-a-high-school-student is giving the popular refrain: "Dear exam-taking students, good luck on the KSAT!"

Well, that's that. The 2013 수능 is over and now second-year students all throughout the country are going to begin their year-long prison sentence of studying 24/7 until the 2014 수능. Someone buy these poor stressed-out kids some red ginseng...

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Guy Fox Day

Teachers of English writing to Korean students:

First drafts of my students' scientific abstracts are due next Wednesday.

And I am going to receive ninety papers to correct.

Many of them are going to be formatted like this.

Because nobody has ever taught them about paragraphs.

It will drive me nuts.

Fortunately, it will inevitably also become a teaching opportunity.

And not a single paper will look like this by the time I get their final drafts.

Yay, teaching!

[edit] Unrelated: Do you know Ylvis' song "The Fox"? It's a dance-y Europop song with an inane video that came out two months ago and has become a viral hit. As of now, nearly 195 million views on YouTube. Of course, I had to show it to my students. Not one to waste an opportunity, though, I incorporated the song and video into a lesson on animal onomatopoeia! Now that was one fun class. But "Fox" fever hasn't died down yet. No, sir. It may be November already, but remember, remember, what comes in November? Yeah, there's one day / that no one knows...
Happy They-Didn't-Blow-Up-Parliament Day!

Monday, November 4, 2013


A few things happened today that would have astounded me when I first began teaching, but after a year and a half of experience with the Korean school system, I hardly batted an eyelash.

First, my schedule changed. This was completely expected; my class schedule is adjusted several times in the beginning of the semester, and then once more towards the end of the year once most of the second-year students have been admitted to various universities. Instead of teaching each of the four second-year homeroom classes once a week, I will be teaching one section of the early-admitted students five times a week. I did the same thing last year, and it was actually quite fun. Being able to see my students every day and to build lessons upon other lessons (the way I was taught English and French in high school) was a positive change that yielded some good results. What's different this time around, though, is that there are more students who have been accepted to university, so although my section is currently about twenty-five students, it's going to continue to grow as more admissions decisions are announced. Eventually, my class will either become too large to hold in a classroom and we will move into the small auditorium, or I will have to take over two sections, which will mean five more classes per week. We'll see how that turns out.

The second thing that happened was unprecedented and slightly unwelcome, but not at all surprising. I was looking forward to teaching the third-years again after the schedule change, but it looks like I won't be doing that. Instead, however, I was informed right after lunch today that the head teacher of the third grade wanted all his students to be administered speaking tests (sort of like a short oral exam) by tomorrow. Again: he wanted all the students to take a speaking test in twenty-four hours. I haven't even been teaching the third-years all semester! What the heck was I supposed to test them on? I argued a bit with the co-teacher who relayed this message to me, protesting that the idea was absolutely ridiculous and that there was no way for me to make this fair for my students. Apparently, though, there was some deadline for grade submissions that the head teacher had to meet (and had probably forgotten about until today), so the tests had to be this week at the latest. I managed to push it back to Thursday -- the day of the 수능, by the way, which a few of my students are taking -- and then threw together an assignment and rubric to guide the students as they prepared for what I hope will be the easiest 3-minute conversation with Andrew ever. I'm so sorry to drop such a load of bricks on my students' heads, especially because I really like my third-years and it's completely unfair to do this to them... but what else can I do?

Lastly, a funny story: every student was called to the auditorium today for a hastily-announced assembly on school violence during fifth and sixth periods. Consequently, my afternoon classes were canceled. I found out, however, that there was an ulterior motive to the assembly. As our vice principal lectured for two hours about nothing, essentially, the homeroom teachers and class captains went through every student's locker and dorm room to look for prohibited items (like snacks, electronic devices, pets, etc.). The second- and third-year students totally saw it coming, but my first-years were in for an unpleasant surprise. My co-teacher confiscated a few granola bars and brought them back to his desk. I thought the whole thing was hilarious, but also just a bit unethical. What about students' rights? I suppose they're waived when they decide to enter a school with a reputation for being like a prison. (I mean that in jest!)

Ah, the vagaries of Korean education. It's funny how lightly I can take all of this when the hyper-task-oriented and inflexibly organized me from one year ago would have taken the collapse of his meticulously-planned curriculum, the delivery of one shiny new pile of extra work, and the flagrant disregard for privacy with utter alarm. On the contrary, teaching here has never ceased to entertain. This is just one of the many reasons why I love my school and my job.

P.S. The title of this post comes from class today, when I played the "Six Degrees of Separation" game with my students. They had to link two random words using semantic associations with other words, like: Roy Kim/music/iPod/Apple/fruit/Jamba Juice, connecting the singer to the smoothie. I challenged my students to come up with the most difficult words they knew, and long story short, one poor student ended up having to connect "Marxism" with "anthocyanin". Those nerds. I love them.