Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Korean High School Life as Seen by Elaine

As I am coming to the end of my 3rd semester teaching in Korea, I have decided it is time to reflect and report on what it’s like to teach here.  I teach at the all-girls high school in Jecheon, a small city of about 120,000 people that is located 2 hours south of Seoul.  My school is the only all-girls high school in the city and it is where girls from Jecheon, and its surrounding towns and villages, hope to attend if they want to go to university.

Like most of the school systems back home, the Korean school system is divided into three levels: elementary, middle and high school.  Elementary lasts for six years while middle and high school last for three years each.  Grade levels here are different, however, in that they start back at grade 1 in each school level.  So, students are 1st graders three times.  As you are reading, when I mention 1st, 2nd, or 3rd grade, you can equate these to 10th, 11th and 12th grade in the USA. 

About 1,000 girls attend Jecheon Girls High School.  Each grade is divided into 10 classes with about 35 students in each class.  The official school day is 9:00 am-6:00 pm, however, all students arrive for the 8:00 am ‘zero’ period and most students stay after dinner to attend classes and study until 10:00 pm, when the school building closes.  Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in the school cafeteria and most students stay for lunch and dinner.

Jecheon Girls High School
(Picture taken last January)
Since my school is the most prestigious for girls in Jecheon, it has a dormitory on campus where about 200 students live during the week.  Most of the students who stay in the dorm live outside of the city (maybe 30-40 minutes away) but others live nearby (maybe 5 minutes).  Dormitory rules mandate that dorm students stay awake studying in study rooms until 11:30 pm.  If they are caught sleeping, they are written up; an accumulation of write-ups gets you kicked out of the dorm.   Students are woken up by a speaker system at 6:30 every morning and go to breakfast at 7:00.

When the school building closes at 10:00 pm, many of the students who do not stay in the dormitory head to a doksoshil to study for a few more hours.  Doksoshils are rented study rooms.  One large room is separated into 8-12 cubicles that are rented out monthly to middle and high school students as well as university students and adults that need a place to work or study.  Students will stay until 1:00 or 2:00 am on weeknights and return on weekends for half or full days of studying (depending on how close exams are).

Some students do not stay at school after 6:00 pm; however, it’s not because they are going home to relax and hang out with their family.  No, they are heading to after school academies called hagwons.  In elementary and middle school, students might attend hagwons for art, music, sport, or traditional school subjects like math, English and Korean.  But, by the time students reach high school, they only seem to attend math, English or Korean hagwons.  These students are popping around to different hagwons until 10:00 pm (on days they don’t have hagwon, they remain at school with everyone else until 10:00 pm).  Most students also attend hagwons on Saturday and Sunday, usually from 9:00 am-12:00 or 1:00 pm. 
Studying during the week before finals.
When I tell them good luck, they just groan.
All of my students report an average of 4-5 hours of sleep a night.  Some get a chance to play catch-up (but can they really catch up on all that lack of sleep?) on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.

At the end of each semester, students take final exams.  During the 3-4 weeks preceding finals, students start studying even more intensely.  How do you get more intense than the usual 16 hours a day of lessons and studying during the week?  You go to school on Saturdays and Sundays from 9:00 am-5:00 pm to study more.  Followed by doksoshil, of course.  Final exams take place next week and I am sure there are students who have come to school every single day for the last 3+ weeks.   It gets even more intense one week before finals.  Again, you should wonder how that’s possible.  Well, during the week leading up to finals (which is right now), teachers allow the students time to study; all I do as a teacher is go to the classroom and hangout at the podium while the students do what they do best: study.  Lucky me.

While you are reading this, you are probably wondering, “what are they studying?” I still wonder what exactly they are studying beyond knowing it’s a school subject.  While I know they sometimes write papers for history, science or Korean, homework is not regularly assigned; so, all those hours really are spent studying.  Though, I think a better word than studying might be practicing, because, I think they simply do loads and loads of exercises. 

There are standing desks at the back of all classrooms for
students to use when they are feeling sleepy.
You might also be wondering why so much studying.  There are a couple of reasons.  One, Korean school is an extremely competitive environment.  One cannot simply choose to forgo all of those hours studying because they will fall behind everyone else, or so it’s assumed.  Secondly, all three years of high school are seen as a giant period of studying for Sooneung.  Sooneung is the Korean national exam taken every November by all 3rd grade high school students across the nation.  It is the test that determines which universities students will be able to attend; or as they see it, it’s the test that determines the rest of their lives.  The test is taken so seriously that 3rd graders do not participate in any extracurricular activities, they do not have gym, music or art classes, and they are not taught by me.  Not a moment of their 3rd school year is ‘wasted’ on subjects not included in Sooneung.  (While English is included in Sooneung, as there is no speaking test, I am of no help.  3rd graders only have time to learn and practice grammar and vocabulary with their Korean English teachers)

Happy 3rd graders.  They finished sooneung in November and only
come until noon everyday.  I think that all they do is hang out.
As I alluded above, I only teach 1st and 2nd grades, seeing each class once a week.  That comes to 20 classes and 700 students every week.  My biggest obstacle is to actually get my students to speak in class.  Korean high school students are used to being passive learners in the classroom because Korean teachers generally stand at the front of the classroom lecturing from the book, never leaving the podium to walk amongst the students.  Students are often allowed to sleep or work on other subjects while the teacher lectures.  As this is what students are used to, it has been and continues to be a struggle to get my students focused on actually speaking English.  When I ask questions, students just stare.  I know they understand every word I say but they refuse to answer.  I have actually never had a student raise their hand to answer a question.  Never.  This doesn’t stop me from pointing to a student to illicit a response, however.  (Side note: many classes have one or two students that answer my questions quietly but willingly, however, I can’t and don’t let them answer every question every day).  Students’ unwillingness to engage in conversation has led to lots of role-play, much to their dismay (they hate having to move).

Teaching is also made more difficult by the fact that students stay in the same classroom all day, with teachers moving to them.  I feel that this gives me less authority because I am like a visitor in their classroom rather than the other way around.  While I don’t generally have behavior problems, I do have students who constantly try to sleep (can you blame them?).  Moreover, classrooms are a wreck!  Seeing as students spend the better part of their daily lives inside that same room, classrooms are like a home.  Being a home to 35 teenage girls means they are jam-packed with crap!  Classrooms are chock-full of haphazardly stacked books, pillows, bags, blankets, toothbrushes, cups, empty milk cartons, mirrors, candy wrappers, and anything else you can imagine would be in a teen’s bedroom.  Most students keep a blanket and small pillow at school to catch some Zs during breaks (or as I have already mentioned, during class) and every student keeps a toothbrush to use after every meal (teachers also have toothbrushes at school—it’s a Korean thing).  The state of the classrooms makes it difficult to walk around the desks or move the desks for group work (not to mention the distraction the mess creates).  I do the best I can but often trip over stacks of books on the floor as I roam around the students.

The students just moved classrooms so they are actually clean.
I am disappointed I couldn't show what they usually look like.
Two evenings a week, I teach conversation classes from 7:00-9:00 pm.  These are my favorite classes to teach because the small class size (less than 10) makes students more comfortable with speaking and students choose to sign up for them which means they are actually eager to learn English.  Much of the information I have learned and written about above is in large part thanks to these conversation classes.  My conversation students act like cultural informants because I make them practice speaking by answering my curiosities.  They also get to ask me what it’s like in American high school, so it’s a win-win situation.

One of my conversation classes.
Finally, there are two school holidays, one in winter and one in summer, each lasting about a month.  Calling it a holiday is misleading, however, as the students continue to go to school for most of each break.  There is only one week during each holiday that students actually stay at home (My guess is that they aren’t actually at home, but studying at doksoshils or attending hagwons).  The only differences that I have surmised, between regular school and holiday school, is that there is a change of schedule during the 3 weeks of holiday and students don’t have class before 9:00 am.

I sure have painted a pretty banal image of Korean high school life.  However, I want to point out that while many of my students wish they could sleep more, have more free time or have the ability to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities, they still appear to be pretty happy.  Everyday during lunch and dinner, each of which last an hour, I watch my students fool around and laugh with each other just like any other teenager.  I think it helps that they are all in it together and can look forward to finishing Sooneung and going to university.  It’s not entirely dismal for them.

Students playing during lunch.

If you are interested to see more about what life is like during the final year of high school, you should check out this 20 minute documentary.  It follows a 3rd grader during the months leading up to Sooneung.

Monday, 17 June 2013

Warming Up Korea

As the weather has warmed up in Korea, I have found myself warming up to Korea.  For the past 3 months, I have been able to get out on my bicycle, with increasing frequency since May.  Blessing and I have also gotten out on more day excursions and have had more cultural experiences.  I’m also exploring the art of rooftop gardening!

Being out on my bicycle has allowed me to see a part of Korea that has been hidden since my arrival last August.  My rides take me through windy backcountry roads and along lush rice fields.  I pedal to the top of hills and enjoy long sloping rides down the other side.  I cannot express enough how much I enjoy my almost daily bicycle rides through the country.  There is one road that I particularly enjoy.  It lies in a mini valley, with rice paddies and green hills on either side.  I first have to climb a long gently sloping hill and as I approach the top, the early evening sun pokes up from behind the hill.  I fly down the backside enjoying the air whipping past my face, the glowing soon-to-set sun, and the winding road.  I love it!  About three weeks ago, we bought a bicycle for Blessing so now I can enjoy rides in the country with him!

June 6th was a public holiday and Blessing and I took the day to go traditional Korean river fishing.  Our two Korean friends from Seoul invited us; we met them while we were in Georgia when they stayed at our house on their cycling tour (they are some of my inspiration to go on my own cycling tour).  We met them at a train stop just 20 minutes from our city and headed to a very popular park that is (apparently) good for fishing.  The main difference between fishing as you know it and Korean fishing is the pole.  There is no reel, rather, there is a basket looking thing on the end of the pole around which you wind the fishing line.  To fish, you stand in the river, bait the hook and toss the line downstream.  You slowly swing your arm back and forth with the flow of the water and when you feel a bite, you wind the line until you get your catch.  I caught one fish after only fishing for 10 minutes.  Blessing spent many hours fishing and caught himself a few.  Apparently the fish we caught are not very delicious so we let them go at the end of the day.  It was refreshing to spend the day with Koreans.  Experiences where I get to be a part of Korean culture are few and far between (so far) and I really enjoy them when they come.


View of the river

Blessing's first fish!  You can see what the pole looks like from this photo.

Me and my fish

Lunch time!

Our whole group
Blessing and I had another really great cultural experience when we returned to the same park to camp on the following Saturday night.  As I have expressed in pervious posts, camping in Korea is not like any camping I have done before.  It’s crowded and completely lacks wilderness…never have I ever camped someplace where I can hear freight and commuter trains running all day and night.  On this trip, however, I realized that this is the Korean experience: camping with 300 other people who pack up their entire kitchen for a weekend outdoors (rice cookers, people had rice cookers).  Despite the lack of true wilderness, it was nice to spend the night outdoors and swim in the river.  What we had for dinner, however, is what made the experience truly cultural.

Since coming to Korea, I have known that when the opportunity arose, I would eat dog; I was presented with the opportunity that night we were camping.  There was a group of men playing soccer and Blessing joined them, this led to the two of us being invited to join them for dinner.  Dog was on the menu.  It had been cooked in a stew but was served on its own.  We dipped it in a spicy sauce and had typical Korean side dishes alongside it.  To me, it tasted like goat.  While it wasn’t disgusting to me, it wasn’t delicious either, so I will not be seeking it out again; however, I am happy to have had the opportunity to broaden my food horizons.  Now I just have to find a situation that brings live octopus to my plate.
Yes, that is a dog's tail

The stew

The meal

I planted my first garden ever at the end of April.  Blessing and I bought large plastic tubs and asked the handy shop on our block to drill holes in the bottoms.  We found a shop that sold large quantities of dirt and seeds then started our garden.  The dirt we bought smelled funny, seemed to have a lot of wood chunks, and when I watered it, a strange residue came out.  I suspected we bought the wrong thing and asked a Korean-American friend to translate the label for me.  Manure.  Animal manure.  Our first garden attempt: fail.  We had to dispose of the manure on the street and then go back to the store and buy actual soil and replant.  Over the past month, the garden has grown tremendously.  It is overcrowded and I have learned that next year I will need more tubs.  No vegetables yet but I look forward to my first bite of my first home grown veggies!

Tomatos, cabbage, lettuce, herbs, broccoli, cucumber,  carrots

Squash and zucchini
All in all, it has been a pleasurable few months and I am looking forward to continuing my bike rides and traveling in this warm weather.  Life is good.  Life is happy.