Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Drim School English Camp

Teachers and volunteers for the Drim School's first English camp! Left to right: Debbie, Hannah, Carolyn, Leslie, Min, me, Alanna, Dianna, and Nikki.
Hello from Cheonan! I have spent the past two days teaching at an English camp for the Drim School (드림학교). This school is a 대안학교 (alternative school) for teenagers and young adults who are North Korean defectors (탈북청소년). They study in order to catch up on years of lost or insufficient education, become more adjusted to life in South Korea, and eventually take Korean primary and secondary school exit exams so that they can apply to university.

The Drim School, founded in 2003, is affiliated with the Korea Theological Seminary (고려신학대학원) in Cheonan and has been working with Fulbright Korea for about five years. Fulbright ETAs teach volunteer English classes there weekly. This English camp, however, was the first of its kind at the school. The volunteers wanted to provide something similar to the summer camps that the Drim School students can't normally afford. We prepared a program with English classes, cultural activities, games, and lots of time to make new friends and build strong relationships.

I was assigned to teach the lowest-level English students, which means lessons on recognizing letters and the basics of English phonics. This was surprising for me at first, since I teach fairly high-level students at my regular school. However, I learned that the reason I was given the low-level students was that I can speak and understand at least some Mandarin Chinese. The students who cannot speak English are mostly those who have only very recently arrived in South Korea, usually from China. Since they have spent years living in China (and may even consider themselves Chinese rather than Korean), they are completely fluent in Mandarin but have little to no grasp of English. A handful are not even conversational in Korean, so even the regular Drim School teachers have some trouble communicating or connecting with them.

Me with some "star"* students during the scavenger hunt!
One such student was OH. He arrived in South Korea no more than one month ago and speaks only Mandarin and very basic Korean. It wasn't hard to figure out why he looked so lost and lonely all the time; while he could talk to most of the other students in Mandarin, every other exchange in his life was conducted in rapid Korean. Even though he is Korean, he was just as confused as any non-Korean is when they first get here.

OH was in my class, and at our first meeting I told all my students straight off the bat, in Mandarin, that if they ever had any questions or problems and wanted to ask me, they could do so in whatever language they felt most comfortable with. Since I was the only volunteer in the camp who could speak it, many students chose to chat with me in Mandarin (or in a mix of Mandarin and Korean). Even though I'm well out of practice, not having studied it for three years, I welcomed the opportunity to practice and, more importantly, to connect with kids who may have gone months or even years without a teacher who can understand them in what they consider their native language. It was so wonderful to see how OH opened up, not just to me, but to his peers as well, over the course of the camp. I don't really know what his performance was like during the past semester, but he certainly proved to be a diligent student, taking notes in my class and asking me questions, volunteering for every game, and putting in a genuine effort to memorize the numbers from one to twenty.

Besides English classes, I also co-led an extracurricular class on guitar and songwriting with my friend Alanna. At first, we had no sign-ups, but eventually we had too many students in the classroom to keep the class under control! It was very loud and very fun; we just taught two simple chords and a strumming pattern and wrote a simple song about love. (It tastes like sweet chocolate and feels like the warm sun.) I think that more than anything, the students learned that learning how to play the guitar isn't easy! I'd forgotten how much it hurts your fingers when you first start out. But I think they all enjoyed it, anyway.

Hannah and me with the 동그라미 (circle) group!
There were other cultural activities, like t-shirt tie-dyeing, baking, and a Konglish photo scavenger hunt, that were quite enjoyable. I'm really impressed with how much effort the other volunteers put into their classes and activities. I myself was scrambling to throw together my lessons right up until the start of camp, because I literally moved out of my apartment the day before it opened and had been very busy and just a bit frazzled. Though like any camp, it had its hectic moments, unexpected snafus, and last-minute schedule changes, overall, I think it went splendidly. It was only two days, but that was enough for me to get close with my students and show them some love.


The vice principal of the school mentioned in her closing ceremony speech tonight that she was grateful that through our camp, the kids could experience some of God's love. And it hadn't occurred to me before, but I guess it's true. The Drim School, along with the majority of non-governmental South Korean-led initiatives to help North Korean defectors and achieve peninsular reunification, is an evangelical Christian mission. I have to admit I rather admire the passion that the Korean church has for reunification (this is despite my personal misgivings about its actual possibility in the near future), and I am grateful for the way their devotion to God has translated into tangible good works for those in need.

My father, who just finished a missionary English camp of his own in Taiwan, asked me recently if I had used my time in South Korea to share the Gospel with my students or others in my community. The simple answer is no, unfortunately, but now I wonder if there can be such a thing as "passive witnessing," wherein my students know that I am a Christian and can observe how I live and act in light of this information, or else I volunteer with the Drim School and reinforce the school's teaching that all good things are a blessing from God, including fun foreign teachers who speak Chinese.

I also admitted to a friend a while back that I'd sort of marked the last two years in South Korea as a spiritual lost cause -- this was mostly in reference to my frustration with church before I started attending Redeemer -- but on the other hand, I might be looking at things overly pessimistically. No one is a lost cause to God. He isn't in the habit of giving up on people, so I won't give up, either.

Okay, sorry for the tangent. Anyway, I am very happy and grateful to have had the opportunity to help with the Drim School's very first English camp, and I wish my students all the best in the years to come. I'll surely visit them when I return to Korea in the future.

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* I'm covering my North Korean defector students' faces with stickers in my photos, because I am not allowed to show them anywhere online for security reasons.

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