Friday, March 21, 2014

Reflect, don't expect

Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.
- Macklemore, Vipassana

When it comes to completely new experiences, my general rule of thumb is to go in with no expectations. That way, I can never be disappointed or surprised. However, when something is expected of me, I can't assume the same for the opposite party, and I'm sure not going to allow myself to disappoint or surprise anyone.

In this case, the expectation was that I would begin a semester of volunteering with the Changwon Hana Center by teaching a weekly after-school English class to a small group of North Korean defector children. I was given very little additional information: there would be six students of low English ability, and I would be given a classroom of my own.

That's what I had to work with when coming up with a first-day lesson plan. I took a quick look at ways to teach phonics and basic reading. I assumed that the students would be some of the adorable children I'd met at the opening ceremony a few weeks ago, and to be honest, I was excited at the prospect of seeing them again.

Well, there you go: that was an expectation, and it was quickly shattered. First, the students' carpool was nearly forty-five minutes late in getting to the center. Even though I arrived just past five, I still had a long time to get my bearings in the classroom, obtain some supplies, and think things through, because of another twist: the students were to be mostly middle schoolers, the Hana Center employee told me, and they already knew their alphabet. I went through my brain, trying to remember the faces of the middle school-aged children I'd met, but none came up. And when the students finally arrived, I realized that none of them had been at the opening ceremony, so they were all new to me.

I wasn't expecting that.

As it turns out, I had five students come today, and they are in five different grade levels, from third-year in middle school to first grade in elementary school. The youngest two could not read, and the eldest was a model student. The middle two had rudimentary reading skills but definitely did not evince any enthusiasm for being there. It was nearly 6pm when we began, and for an hour they kept telling me in Korean that they were hungry. So, the Hana Center employee brought a tray of convenience store cookies and soda along with the pens and markers I requested.

I wasn't expecting that.

Obviously, I knew (or expected) that the class would be different from my usual high-achieving angels at CSHS, but the realization that I would have to deal with 1) tweens 2) on a sugar rush 3) taking photos of me with their smartphones 4) or staring blankly at the board because they couldn't read anything I'd written 5) and actually teach them all something useful was...

Well, I was determined not to disappoint.

We went over self-introductions and I did some flashcard activities to gauge their reading and speaking levels. Though there was mild chaos in the beginning, eventually my students realized that there was value in what they were doing and focused for a good ten minutes. We ended with a free-for-all game of Pictionary, during which they were clearly more engaged. (Note to self: gamification)

And when class was over, the students had gone home, and I did a teaching reflection, I realized that these North Korean teenagers seemed no different whatsoever from your typical South Korean teenagers. Phones, fried chicken, fighting, fretting about boyfriends (the older students were all girls). I was only reminded of the reality twice: the eldest girl would burst out in Mandarin from time to time, but then quickly correct herself and repeat what she had wanted to say in Korean. (Speaking of which, none of them had any difficulties with speaking Korean.)

The second was when a student asked me, "Teacher, how [long] you come here?" I quickly taught the class how to ask, "How long have you been in Korea?" and told them that I'd been here for two years. The students crowed and one-upped me: "I have been in Korea for four years!" said the seventeen-year old. "Two and a half years," said her friend. "Five," whispered the quiet fourteen-year old in the back.

I had been advised against asking too many personal questions to my North Korean defector students, which is why I had left out "Where are you from?" from my list of introductory questions. But the eldest student had no qualms about sharing where she had lived before coming to South Korea four years ago. "I'm from China!" she said proudly.

I wasn't expecting that.

In conclusion, it's a good thing I only planned one lesson (and ended up deviating far from it anyway), because it would have been a colossal waste of time to work out an entire curriculum that would be useless for half the class. I had one hour to familiarize myself with my students and now have one week to tailor lesson two to their varying levels. Although I was flying by the seat of my pants today, next week should be smoother and much more fun, and I'm looking forward to it.

(Or is that another expectation?)

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