Uncharted Waters: Teaching

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Saturday, November 17th. 2:05 PM. I’m sitting in the fifth floor lobby of the CGV movie theatre in downtown Daegu, waiting to see Skyfall, the new Bond movie. Entirely by myself after following a stubborn impulse to have a solo adventure only a week after my arrival and not knowing a word of Korean (I’m being hyperbolic here….I knew two words of Korean! 1. hello= anyong ha se yo 2. thank you= kahm sa ham ni da), I felt a tinge of self-consciousness. Okay, more than a tinge. The creeping suspicion that everyone was staring at the only non-Korean in a forty-foot radius gets even worse courtesy of the man sitting next to me on the bench. After shooting me a few furtive glances, he turns directly towards me and has a staring contest with the left side of my face. I give a subtle bow, flash him a smile and mumble out a quick “anyong ha se yo”  (butchering the pronunciation most likely) before getting ready to go into the theatre. As I’m standing up, he taps me on the shoulder. I look over and the guy is positively beaming, offering an outstretched hand with a puffed rice square. “Eat! Very good snack!” Reacting instinctively, I trade him and his wife some popcorn for the puffed rice as we talk in stilted, staccato English and have an endearingly genuine cultural exchange. Shaking his hand before we march into the theatre, his wife reminds me insistently, “Enjoy Korea, Okay??” I’ve been doing my best!

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 My first solo trip to downtown Daegu was a totally empowering experience. I went shopping for some stickers for my students (seriously, these kids love stickers almost as much as they love hi-fives…and they love hi-fives more than a bro at a frat party), had octopus and chicken cooked in a wok in front of me after smiling and pointing at a totally random item on the menu, saw a movie and successfully took a cab back to campus. Apart from sporadic bursts of adventure in Daegu and Chilgok, classes have dominated the majority of the past two weeks. Operating on a spectrum from demonic to angelic, the kids here will spit out an exhausted (and, admittedly, slightly relieved) husk of a human being at 5:30. Some highlights from my first week of teaching 5th graders:

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The Good:

-Playing hangman during break time with a group of adorably persuasive students

-Hearing cries of “Alex teacher!” and being bombarded with hugs and requests for hi-fives as I walk through the halls

-Having students who remember me poke their heads into my classroom, occasionally demanding a sticker for their efforts

-Hearing sighs of “Oh wow” with the awe and reverence of an archeologist finding the Ark of the Covenant when I reward groups with 10 points (the maximum they can achieve during a 45 minute lesson)

-Giving 5th year olds the opportunity to hit pictures on the wall with flyswatters is rewarding as hell, so long as you can suppress any fighting or outbreaks of chaos

-Realizing that your lesson has at least a little educational content, and catching glimpses of your students remembering certain words and phrases

-Improving each day as a teacher

The Bad:

-Students staring at you with the engagement and vivacity of a cow chewing cud after you give them an assignment or instructions

-Having your attempts to maintain order and control fail miserably (I’m getting better at this each day!)

-Trying not to show or vocalize your frustration when Satan manifests himself in the body of an 11 year old determined to make your next half hour a living hell

-Hearing enough whining and complaining (“Teacher! This so hard!”) to convince yourself that you demanded your students to scale Mount Everest rather than asking them to repeat their name and favorite color

-Miming clumsily and drawing stick figures on the board when your students don’t know enough English to process directions

The Ugly:

-Consoling a crying student whose classmate decided it would be a delight to kick him in the shins while you’re bombarded with frivolous questions and requests for more stickers

-Fighting, name-calling and poor sportsmanship (I’m frequently oblivious to the specifics of these…another incentive to keep learning Korean!)

Phew. I’m tired just typing all that out. All things considered, this week was pretty damn awesome and I learned a ton despite the occasional moments of self-doubt and frustration that manage to bubble to the surface. Most of the kids are sweet, sincere and eager to learn, and I’m excited to get a whole new batch on Monday (tempered by the naïve hope that I won’t have to suppress any revolts or call in an exorcist).

Some more fun stuff! Last week I went out with a bunch of co-workers to an awesome little Korean coffee shop; I challenge anybody with some remnants of a soul to look at the pictures below and not say “D’aaaaaaaaaaw” at all the cuteness.

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At the moment I’m preparing a lesson plan for my first “academic” course, a 45-minute lesson covering any topic imaginable (at least one that teaches vocabulary and involves activities or games).  My current lesson is a presentation on The Hobbit! My students will get to read an excerpt from the story, watch clips from the cartoon, solve riddles and have a race around the room trying to go “there and back again” (holy shit I am the biggest dork). At least it’s topical with the movie coming out soon!

Thanks for reading and sorry for the gap between the last post and this one. Hopefully as the clusterfuck of the past few weeks simmers to a low boil and I get more in the swing of a daily routine, you can expect more frequent (and less tediously lengthy) entries. Drop me a line on email (Aorlando@mail.smcvt.edu) or Skype (aorlando123) if you feel compelled… I miss everyone and hope you’re all living easy!! 

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“Trust, and Enjoy”

A mere 72 hours after my arrival, I found myself barreling down a windy mountain path on the way back to the Daegu Gyengbuk English Village, clutching my armrest with the ferocity of a Vulcan death grip. Just having completed an emotionally exhausting trip to the medical facilities in Chilgok (the town closest to our campus), where the new arrivals (myself and five other fellow teachers) were poked and prodded as we were ushered through various stations to assess our health and vitality, I was oddly disconnected from my surroundings. All of us seemed to be in a state of delirious euphoria, certainly enhanced by jetlag and exhaustion, laughing madly as we jostled around inside the cramped van.  It was surreal. Our guide for the day, a Korean college student who adopted the English name Messi (after soccer player Lionel Messi), looked back at us quizzically from his vantage point in the front seat. In response to our nervous laughing, Messi tried to reassure us that a fiery crash wasn’t looming in our future. “Trust, and enjoy!” As I sit here trying to process the past six days, that sounds like damn good advice.

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My first, “We’re not in Kansas anymore,” moment hit me when I boarded my flight from Chicago that would take us on a fourteen-hour odyssey to Seoul. Dragging my carry on behind me as I made my way to my seat, I stopped for a second to let an older man put his luggage away. During my momentary pause, I found myself pummeled by a barrage of tiny, yet furiously insistent, punches: a much older Korean woman was clearly not happy with my efforts at social delicacy. In Korea, respect comes with age, and in terms of status, both are the name of the game. Older woman are very high on the totem pole. Whether it’s the last seat on the subway or a fleeting, almost illusory gap in a supermarket line demanding to be filled, many older woman women will adopt selective tunnel vision and force their way through any unfortunate bystanders; either you get run over or you get the hell out of their way.

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Okay, enough anecdotes. Let’s talk about where I’m living and working! I was hired at the Daegu Gyeongbuk English Village, right outside of Chilgok-goon and 30 minutes from Daegu, the third largest city in South Korea. If any of you lovely people feel like sending me something over the next year, you can mail me at:

744, Yeonhwa-ri, Jichun-meon, Chilgok-goon,

Gyeongbuk Province, 718-821, South Korea

So here’s how the village works: from Monday through Friday our campus is teeming with masses of kids, mostly 4th, 5th, and 6th graders who comprise what is known as our 5 day/4 night program. Completely separate from their normal private or public school education, these kids take a week off to immerse themselves in both academic courses and interactive situational classes. The atmosphere radiates “sleep-away camp” more than anything, and the kids treat it as an English language-themed vacation. Apart from being allowed to create and teach academic courses in anything from percussion to cooking (I’m considering an intro-to-film type course), the main focus is the situational classes, which include Restaurant, Post-Office, Police Station, and Video Store, along with a bunch of others.

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The majority of the week consisted of staving off jet lag and yawning through new teacher orientation, where we got a tour of the campus, some quick-and-dirty teacher training, and the opportunity to observe different kinds of classes. There were a few bureaucratic hoops that we had to jump through, such as the previously mentioned medical examination at the hospital (being ordered around a hospital room in a foreign language is just as intimidating as it sounds) and a trip to the immigration office, which made for a very tiring week. Even with how awesome and exciting this whole experience has been so far (the campus tour, for instance, left me with a feeling of whimsy and utter contentedness at how gorgeous the village is), there’s definitely some uneasiness and anxiety that comes from culture shock hitting you in the face with the delicacy and grace of a cinder block.

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That being said, this weekend was absolutely incredible and provided a taste of the kind of adventures that I can expect over the next twelve months. In the past 48 hours, I’ve:

-Eaten wings and beer with our Korean driver after his adorably persistent invitation (“Chicken? Beer? Possibly?” repeat five times in the course of an hour)

-Gotten to know a bunch of my fellow teachers over drinks and pool at an ex-pat bar in Daegu

-Had shabu shabu in downtown Daegu (a Japanese hot-pot where you cook meat and vegetables at your own table)

-Walked through the controlled chaos of downtown Daegu while reveling in the experience of sensory overload

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-Had vegetable bibimbap (a signature Korean dish of rice, meat and assorted vegetables) at an authentic Korean restaurant, sitting cross legged on the floor

-Navigated the campus shuttle, subway system and ridden a train

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Needless to say, I’m absolutely wiped but am so so stoked to be here. Tomorrow is my first day of teaching (in the Police Situational classroom), a challenge I’m meeting with a excitement and a dash of nervousness, but I can’t wait to get in the swing of things. More to come!

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