Saturday, April 5, 2014

Badger Blogging Blitz Daily Questions Collection

Here is a collection of the "Daily Questions" from the 2014 Badger Blogging Blitz, where five fellow University of Wisconsin - Madison alums and myself blogged for a week about our lives living and teaching in South Korea. I've updated the "Day Four" answers, and here is a preview of the questions.

1. What has been your most surreal experience in Korea so far?
2. What would you have told yourself before you got on the plane in Chicago, given what you know now? 
3. How does your school experience at the age of your students compare to that of your Korean students?
4. If you had the opportunity to change 5 things at your school, what would they be and why?
5. What teaching methods have you found to be the most effective with your students (What do they respond to?)?
6. Do you think you're making an impact on your student's English ability? 
7. What have you learned about yourself through this experience?
8. What has been the most difficult aspect of Korean life to get used to?
9. What's your favorite part of Korean culture/society? 
10. Have you been able or wanted to keep up on current events in the U.S. - new movies, your favorite TV shows, news, etc.? Also, how do those things differ in Korea? What topics are covered in the news? Are people there as interested in TV/movies? 
11. Do you always try all the foods offered? Have you made an effort to try a variety of new foods or do you tend to stick to the things you've found and like?
12. What plans do you have when the yearlong contract is up? Will you renew? Why or why not?

Day One:

1. What has been your most surreal experience in Korea so far?

Last month at the goodbye dinner for the Doam teachers moving on to different schools, I had a conversation with the first grade teacher that hit me hard as my most surreal experience so far in Korea. I was feeling kind of badly because we were situated at the end of the table and I was separating her from the rest of the group. So it was the end of table, the first grade teacher, me, and then the rest of the staff. I could sense a bit of panic in her eyes. But she speaks English well and she eventually told me that her daughter was thinking of going to UW-Madison! I was thrilled. 

We continued talking, and I asked her about her daughter's major - Art History - and then I mentioned that I studied art and film in college. She got really excited and said that her younger daughter also studies art and that she has an art opening coming up in Insadong, an artsy section of Seoul I adore. I asked how old her daughter was - 25 years old. My age. 

That was my most surreal moment because for a split second I thought that her daughter could be me. It's one of the few moments in Korea where I've felt my heritage boil up. It's strange, but in a foreign country with literally every aspect of life turn upside down, the found things in common are important. And all the things her daughters and I had in common just made me feel like I could have grown up here, that Korea could have been my home, and I would have still been me. This is odd maybe to say, but I think the first grade teacher thought the same thing. 

2. What would you have told yourself before you got on the plane in Chicago, given what you know now? 

Honestly, I feel like I had a good head on my shoulders when I stepped onto that plane. There's ton of information  and knowledge I attained once I got here, but that's part of the experience. Knowing beforehand could have been theoretically helpful I suppose. It's not realistic though. And truly, knowing about something - such as the ever-changing school schedules - didn't prevent frustration, challenge, or low points for me. My researched knowledge did make some Korean customs and habits recognizable but not necessarily easier or less awkward. Living and learning, priceless. 

Day Two:

1. How does your school experience at the age of your students compare to that of your Korean students?

The students at Doam have chores. They sweep, swifter, and vacuum the classrooms and hallways. Two of the 5th graders are assigned the English classroom and they come in every day after lunch. Now, the school isn't getting terribly clean having a bunch of elementary kids running along with brooms and company, but it's a nice thought - the responsibility - and it's fun to witness. 

I was the only one in my first grade class to have glasses. At Doam, roughly half of the kids in a given grade sport some of the coolest spectacles I've ever seen. Also, pencil cases. Holy cow, do my students have the most elaborate pencil cases. If they aren't a cute, huggable stuffed animal with a zipper, they're in the shape of a plush milk carton. If they don't have four pull out drawers, a magnetic lid, and attached mirror, they have a chalkboard top, the cutest little erasers, and mini pieces of chalk. These pencil cases are intense. 

I vaguely remember taking a special Spanish class when I was in fourth grade. But my elementary school experience definitely did not involve the kind of foreign language instruction my students are getting. My elementary school didn't have dual language posters in the hallways or dual language classroom signs. For example, the 5-2 classroom is the "Forgiving Class." The main entrance to Doam was just remodeled and hanging above the trophy cases and plaques are the words, "History of Doam," in English. The principal checked with me to make sure the English was correct. Both my current co-teachers spoke about communication and the fact that the world is a big place on the first day of class -- my elementary school days weren't as submerged into another language as my students' days are. 

2. If you had the opportunity to change 5 things at your school, what would they be and why?

I will refer to my primary school Doam Elementary for these questions! I've only worked four days at my second school Doji Elementary -- a bit too new to make even theoretical changes there. 

1. Bulletin boards in the English classroom -- I want to hang up student artwork and projects we complete in my classes! Taping art directly to the walls pains me because it goes against my whole being, so I sometimes have the kids do it. They love this; competitions to see who can tape their's the highest commence (which sort of defeats my qualms about "respecting the artwork" but you know). The other classrooms have a whole wall of bulletin boards; green goblin face.

2. Printer and laminator for the English classroom -- Printer and laminator, oh the things I would do to you. We have to print things off in the teacher's room this semester, which is whatever fine. The other teachers told my co-teacher SK that she should ask the principal for a printer. When she translated for me, I said, "Good luck!" She and I and the teachers chuckled. It's not likely to happen even if SK should ask. So, might as well throw an English room laminator onto the list. 

3. School clubs -- Before I came to Korea, I heard that school clubs would be a good opportunity to get to know the other teachers and students, but my school doesn't have any. I think I would like the more informal setting with a theme, which would possibly make casual conversation easier because there'd be a given topic at hand.

4. Another "Sports Days" -- Most of my students will say that their favorite class is P.E., and as far as I know, Doam doesn't have scheduled recesses. Lunchtime is designated free time to play outside if they choose (which is why they eat so quickly), and some of the best interactions I have with my students happen during this time, along with run-ins in the hallways and between classes. Sports Day was an entire school day spent outside having running races with odd Korean twists, playing kooky, competitive games, and hanging out with the students and staff. Needless to say, it was just a lot of fun. 

5. Talent show -- I so want Doam to have a talent show. I have found that my students, in general, love to perform. They love getting up in front of the class and acting out goofy English role plays. They love serenading each other with "Do You Want To Build A Snowman?"  and dancing along with their favorite k-pop music videos. The school orchestra/band wields some of the best elementary school musicians I've ever heard and known. The Doam kids have some serious, raw talent and an eagerness and enthusiasm unmatched for performing. I am dying to know what kind of acts they would put together.

Day Three:

1. What teaching methods have you found to be the most effective with your students (What do they respond to?)?

My students respond the best to achievable challenges. I had an idea about this last year when my classes went ballistic for hidden picture, memory, and scrambled sentence games, all of which practice phrases from the lessons with an added element. Crossword puzzles and word searches work along similar lines of sneaking in spelling and letter practice into a greater joy of crossing things off a list. My students get especially excited if the puzzles happen to be enclosed in the bicep of a buff Santa Claus. Having individual, choice opportunities to speak in English is hugely effective. For example, my Doam co-teacher has encouraged students to pop up out of their seats with their answer to the daily question, "How  are you today?" They don't have to wait for one of us to call on them; if they feel like answering, they can, and more of them do than ever before. 

Physical movement is a huge learning tool. From having the students clap every time they hear a certain word in a story (the "Bingo Was His Name-O" song is another simple example), to the Evolution Game that has them moving around the classroom acting as a different animals while practicing a dialogue, to the Touch and Go game that has two teams racing to say each vocab word from opposite ends of a line, physical movement motivates them to use English because it becomes the key to being able to move on to win. They love moving and they love winning.

*Please let me know if you any questions about the mentioned games -- I know I was brief!

2. Do you think you're making an impact on your student's English ability? 

Yes, I do think I'm making an impact on my students' English ability. At lunch last week, my Doji co-teacher mentioned something about feeling depressed about his English because he couldn't express his thoughts to me. I was surprised and asked him what he meant. He told me that English was always his best subject in school but that he didn't know why he had bothered spending money on English academies because when he had traveled to America with his friends, he couldn't even buy food at a convenience store. I immediately told him I thought he was being too hard on himself -- a second language is more than books and role plays, and he told our students in the first week that language isn't about perfect grammar. It's about being able to communicate and connect with other people. So I know that his goals for language aren't perfection, but real world experience can have a nasty taste at first failure.  

That's how I feel I'm helping my students. They have to speak English with me and are going to have to be creative when the words aren't there. Sometimes, we're successful at getting across the message we want to convey, other times not so much. But it's okay, and that's what is most important to me --  that I'm available and approachable for my students so that they may feel the success and frustrations of second language communication in a safe environment.

Day Four (Updated 05 April 2014):

1. What have you learned about yourself through this experience?

"Through my experience in Korea, I have learned that it is important for me to stop thinking about what "I should" do.

"You should take advantage of the time you have here and see as much as you can." No, no. I'm going to see the things I see because I want to see them. I'm going to do these lesson plans because I want to be prepared for class because I love seeing my students engaged and excited."

A lot of people have a lot of advice about how to live life. There seems to be even more things I should do when living abroad. I had a conversation with another foreigner teacher who had been two weeks in Korea. She was preaching that "we" should be doing something all the time, taking advantage of the time being in a foreign country -- a weekend not traveling is wasted time. I almost wish I could be there to see that crash and burn, which I say only with slight disdain. I didn't like her but every one is entitled to think what they think, live life how they think life should be lived, and have the goals they want when living in a foreign country. I told her that in so many words. 

It is in my nature to accommodate other people's feelings. It's not necessarily a rejection of my own thoughts but this accommodation, what makes me a good friend, also becomes tricky as I'm trying to figure things out. Korea gave me a blank stare of sorts -- still tons of opinionated people but removed from the familiar, I have been able to walk alone. I have accomplished so much, living and working full time in Korea. It has been a major step into adulthood. The level of comfort with myself and my decisions is a feeling that has helped me get rid of the little black rain cloud of "should," freeing me from the expectations I put on myself from the advice and the wants of others. 

Through this experience, I have learned that I have good instincts to trust. 

2. What has been the most difficult aspect of Korean life to get used to?

The language barrier has been the most difficult aspect of Korean life to get used to. I often think that I talk just as much in Korea as I do back home. That the language barrier covers up my social awkwardness and packages it up as a foreigner quirk. The logistic challenges of a language barrier tilt toward likable when I don't have to feel badly about zoning out at lunch and focusing on the food. I get mad when loud English conversation overpowers the pleasant background Korean I've grown accustomed to on the subway or bus ride home. 

But what I've realized, and what I've found to be the hardest and saddest part about not speaking Korean, isn't always the misunderstanding or the pure inability to verbally communicate. The hardest part about the language barrier is an absence of awareness. 

I miss things in my classroom. For the most part, I know what's going on but these kids are little people. They have a unique perspective and complex thoughts. I always feel a little bit sad when my co-teachers tell me something about a class - either a collective thought or something one student said during the lesson - because I so wish that I could have been right there with that moment of commentary or outside thought. I miss things, important things, about how the students are feeling. 

The same absence of awareness prevents me from getting to know my co-workers. What do they talk about, what does their voice really sound like? The vice principal of Doam is one of the most interesting people I have ever met. He is dedicated to plant life and I'm sure is the reason Doam is as creatively inclined as it is. His desk in the teachers' room and the room itself is brimming with ceramics, potted plants, bonsai trees, and running fountains. A whole week of construction before the new school year -- shelves and little benches for plants around the school. He was right there talking and helping the workers, arranging the plants on the shelves. I don't have anything in particular I want to say to him and my quiet observations have taught me a lot about the people around me, but there is something missing. A piece of every day is missing because of the language barrier. 

Day 5:

1. What's your favorite part of Korean culture/society? 

The food and the stationary. I wish I had prepped this question because I have so many things to say about the food - kimchi, pajeon, mandu, sam gyeop sal, meat sticks, fish pastries, odang, bibimbap.... it all feeds a deeply hungry part of my soul. And the stationary which brings out the best of the English language, "One of the keys to happiness is a bad memory," has also flipped on my need-for-cutesy switch. When I'd normally go for blue or grey, I now choose winking cats and baseball cap wearing teddy bears. There's not a week that goes by that I don't stop in my favorite stationary shop juuust to look. To be continued --

*Check out Ashley's blog post about stationary in Korea

2. Have you been able or wanted to keep up on current events in the U.S. - new movies, your favorite TV shows, news, etc.? Also, how do those things differ in Korea? What topics are covered in the news? Are people there as interested in TV/movies? 

Absolutely, I have been keeping tabs on current events  back home in the U.S. NPR's hourly newscast and NPR in general has been a life source for me. Listening to the NPR braodcast is like hearing the voices of my friends (looking at you, Steve Inskeep). I'm obsessed with Buzzfeed and I look to my Facebook and Twitter feeds for headlines and links to interesting and often times, humorous articles. I watch The Daily Show and The Colbert Report (Comedy Central app) on my iPad mini, which miraculously work without having to adjust the DNS code in Settings. Instagram and Snapchat have been invaluable ways to keep up with the daily, snapable happenings in my friends' and family's lives. Netflix worked for while on my iPhone but for the past couple of weeks it hasn't been able to connect (help!). 

As far as pop culture and film go, I listen to a lot of podcasts that discuss the events and films I'm not able to see (and let's face it, most likely wouldn't get around to seeing even if I was back in the States). I've found that increasingly I prefer ingesting pop culture and film this way - by hearing panel talk or reading reviews and opinion articles from people with the skills and abilities to do so well. It's almost enough for me until I sit down and experience the book or TV show or film for myself; for TV shows and movies, this almost always happens in the Netflix or On Demand phase [insert that discussion here]. I am a film student that probably doesn't watch as many TV shows and films as I should, but I am read up on a fair number. Tumblr is also a great place to get a glance at what's going on in the TV series world. Gotta love gifs.

I hear that Korean news is very sugar coated with the occasional, sensationalized murder story. Beyond that, I'm not sure. Koreans are as if not more interested in TV and movies. Part of that I think stems from the fact that they are socially obligated to work incredibly hard, a work ethic expected from a very young age. After school, most of my students study at hagwons, which are private schools that specialize in, for example, English or math. I have friends who work in middle and high schools who tell me their students are in school, studying, literally from 8:30 in the morning to 10:30 at night. These students don't see their parents until the weekend. Koreans crave the escape that TV, film, and other such media provide. This can be seen in the number of PC bangs (24-hour computer gaming rooms), in the number of decadently comfortable DVD bangs (private movie viewing rooms), and in the number of screens playing Korean dramas on the Seoul subway. 

Day 6 & 7:

1. Do you always try all the foods offered? Have you made an effort to try a variety of new foods or do you tend to stick to the things you've found and like?

Food has been really good to me in Korea. It's so fresh and so healthy -- we were talking yesterday about school lunches and how incredible it is, the quality. Anne was saying that they had duck the other day at her middle school, which would be hard pressed to find in the U.S. And would the kids eat it? If you walk into a grocery, most of that grocery store will be fresh produce, another observation Anne pointed out. There is junk food in Korea, but it doesn't have as dominant a place as it does back home. So yes, I eat as much Korean food as I am offered.

Staple foods have a reputation for being family recipes; so, even my favorite foods, like kimchi, not only come in many different varieties (cabbage, white radish, and cucumber), but also are particular by family, and one batch is never the same. There is kimchi-making season when my then co-teacher got together with her mother and her husband's mother and her brother's wife to make a year supply of kimchi. Over three hundred cabbages they chopped up that weekend. Kimchi flavor also depends on the crop and how long it's kept fermenting... Even should I choose just one Korean food to live by, there are so many factors that add enough variety that I think would keep me satisfied. Of course, I do have my favorite food stands and my favorite mandu place.

Being in Korea is an effort to try new foods. Even familiar foods like pizza have Korean flair -- unless it's a piece of fruit, there's not a whole of "home tastes" available, or it's going to take an expedition to find. I'm not the type of person to go out to seek a "new and exciting food" but if I see something intriguing or something I've read about, I'll eat it. Eating out with my co-workers has been my main source of exposure to new foods, along with school lunches (which still serve foods I've never seen before six months in!). I am very thankful for that, and I get a much more educated sense about what the food is and how to eat it.

I haven't had a whole lot of things I didn't care for. There are days where the rice cakes get to be a bit much. They are so dense and thick and chewy. My co-workers eat them like they're saltines. I just get full and tired of chewing. At the ceramics festival, we ate sundae (순대), which is either congealed beef's blood or pig intestine mixed with rice noodles and vegetables packaged into a sausage. They had ordered kimchi pajeon, or kimchi pancakes, which were fantastic but I was craving some meat. My stomach grumbled when I saw the plate of "sausage." I ate probably a good half a dozen of the sausage-shaped pieces, which were satisfying my protein craving but in an odd way. I later discovered what I had been eating, reading a list of top Korean foods to try. Ah, that's why it wasn't quite hitting the mark for me. I'm not a huge fan of the internal organs or congealed body liquids but I guess I stomach them fine. 

2. What plans do you have when the yearlong contract is up? Will you renew? Why or why not?

I will not be renewing my contract with my school, which I do say with a heavy heart. I was open to the idea of staying and teaching for two years before I came, but this Korea isn't a good fit for me. I think under different circumstances, working a different, more creative type of job, I could stay. But as much as I love my students and consider Doam Elementary to be my spirit animal (all the plants and charming windmill gardens), teaching is hard in a way that won't ever get better for me. You know, there are teachers and then there are teachers. I'm just not cut from that stone. 

The time frame my school gave me for deciding to stay another year also factored into not renewing. It was during winter break, I had only been here three months, and my first co-teacher shows up out of the blue (she was on maternity leave) and tells me I have until the end of the day to decide if I want to renew or not. It wasn't an intentional disregard for my feelings, but that lack of insight (maybe I want to talk to my family about this because maybe this is a huge life-choice) bothered me. I remember saying, "Oh. Well, can I let you know by tomorrow?" And my co-teacher said, "Yes, let me know by the end of the day." 

It's small things like that, that Korea doesn't grasp onto because the system is so based on obligation rather than discussion. It's irrelevant for them to think about me, as an individual. I found out about Doji Elementary a few weeks later, which really hit the point home. Had I renewed, it would have been based on my experiences up to that point which is in no way an indication of what my second year could look like. I don't like that mix -- complete lack of control with contracted time. 

I also need more freedom. The timing worked really well for coming to Korea, and I was happy to sign the contract and dedicate myself to a year of teaching. After this, no more contracts. Living in Korea has given me the time I needed to think, and now I'm ready to take a stab at my creative inclinations -- moving to California or down south to get a film production job was the original plan. I really have discovered that I like writing. I've been reading Rebe's blog about freelance opportunities in writing and about all the online work she's been completing to make her own creative goals possible. I am an artist. I need to work with my hands and make things. I've looked to the companies whose work I admire -- NPR, Portenzo, Patagonia, Pixar, Buzzfeed, Disney Animation, Tremendous! Entertainment... It's a long road. But here, I'm making it known. I want to write. I want to make books. I want to edit films. I want to draw. I want travel more. I want to live and work in a new place. 

Badger Blogging Blitz (BBB) 2014:
Ashley Wendorf: ...meanwhile in Korea...
Vicky Lee: Outside the Pyxis
Maggie Flamingo: The Traveling Flamingo
Drew Binsky: The Hungry Partier
Rebecca Thering: Rebe with a Clause

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