Category Archives: Korea

Korea impressions

Last year was unique for me for several reasons, one of which being that it was the first time in my life I stayed, well lived more like,  in a foreign country for more than an ordinary vacation-taker’s 14 days. 5 weeks spent in Korea are certainly worth a lot more than a handful of posts about the classes I visited (those were precious and invaluable in every single way!).

 

I lived a life and that life did not remind me of a life of a tourist. There was no rushing in the mornings to make it to a breakfast in a hotel. There was no hotel, in fact. I had my pet. There were no excursion buses to hop on/off for cookie-cutter excursions “to get the best of the city”. There was me and the whole of Seoul to explore, at my own pace, at my own time, with my spontaneous choices oftentimes made right there at an exit of a station I’d picked to go to, on the spur of the moment.

 

There were things I wanted to do – walk up and down the hills, wander around neighbourhoods, take turns left and right without knowing where I’d end up. I stared at people who almost never looked up to meet the eyes of a stranger. I stopped in front of tiny workshops with doors ever open and businesses being done right there on the pavement. I bought several bags of tangerines from an elderly man in the street, because it was a discount but I didn’t quite realize what he was saying to me and actually only needed one of those bags (also never learnt the numbers and counting in Korean). I learnt to pick, taste and like street food. I enjoyed fresh pastry and I hunted for tea only to find that “tea” in a coffeeshop can be anything BUT tea, for what I know tea to be. I struggled with metal chopsticks when eating noodles. I loved, loved my Korean meals.

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I learnt so many things about the places and the people that it’d take tens of thousands words to write about them. All the notes you’ll now see below were made in Korea and have now just been elaborated with extra commentary. Somehow it’s all still painfully fresh in the mind. “Painfully” because I took to Korea in a very special way which I’ll only be able to analyze and comprehend fully after a longer while. For the moment, it feels like this experience was grand, different, spicy, probably life-changing, certainly unforgettable. I’m running out of adjectives that would do their job well, so here are the notes and some pictures. Enjoy.

Warning: if you’re based in Korea, you’re likely not going to be taken aback by any of these notes. They were taken by a tourist, even if an observant one with plenty of time on her hands, after all.

 

***** Notes and opinions about Korea, in no particular order, on all areas at once *****

1. Seoul subway cars have a colour marking on the floor, a wide stripe of the same colour as is the metro line itself. Clearly, such a simple thing to do and so nice for passengers. The cars themselves are also much wider, let alone cleaner, than in Moscow.

2. In the metro, as the train approaches, people do not rush closer to the glass doors preparing to get in. But as soon as the doors open, people at the station and those getting out of the car *imo very rudely* ignore one another and simply push their respective ways in and out. Moreover, if you are inside the car and need to get off at the next station, it’s your problem how you’re going to manage that. People won’t make way for you. It’s not common practice to ask people in front of you if they’re going to get off (like it is in Moscow). Fight your way through to the doors all by yourself, you and your elbows, I’m afraid, you’ll have to. The doors, by the way,  can be quite entertaining. There’s also music announcing the approaching train, and melodies in different cities are different.

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3. In many cases public restrooms are not to be found inside cafes or restaurants but for the whole of a building, which could, naturally, house several various places on its floors. You’ll have to ask staff – and hope they will explain it in English.

4. There was something that completely blew my mind, and please don’t make the trite comment that Russians shouldn’t be afraid of cold weather. Girls in Korea in the chilly, sometimes windy weather of the second half of October were not noticed to be wearing tights while strolling around in super mini skirts and shorts. Similar thing was noted in November (!) in Japan. My granny would tell them all off right there in the street when she spotted one.

5. Square shaped leather bags of a rucksack style are popular for both girls and boys. I won’t mention couple clothing, as it was already mentioned here.

6. In your local neighbourhoods, just off the noisy, busy main street, there would be a man in a van. He would be slowly driving around the area in his van full of vegetables. He would have a megaphone. He would offer cabbages, potatoes and what not in a monotonous mullah-like voice, stopping here and there. I’d never seen anything like it, or felt like wishing to buy a sack of carrots in a street.

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7. Koreans don’t care (or don’t show they care or notice) you are different. Let’s face it, I am plenty different by my looks. Maybe it is Seoul but in fact I never felt “alien”, or weird, or stared at, let alone treated badly (with a few minor exceptions, which might actually prove the general trend and were more funny than unpleasant)).

8. I spent a lot of time commuting around the city on the subway, so that’s where I made a great deal of my notes, watching people. Koreans on the subway sometimes seemed pretty much like Russians by behavior to me – pushing, not saying sorry for stepping on your feet, or for anything, for that matter. And yet they somehow didn’t leave a strong impression of being rude. They might not have looked or made a recognizable impression of being friendly either… but they did get nice. =) Like once two old ladies invited me to take a seat near them (those reserved for the elderly). It was a sudden and pleasant gesture, even if I refused.

9. As I’ve already mentioned it above, it struck me to see the life of small businesses out there in the street. Tailor shops, car repairs, toy makers, sellers of all possible useful and useless things, old ladies’ eating places – in tiny, not necessarily clean rooms, with doors wide open, these were always tempting me to sneak a look inside. The city life is out. That’s such a different Seoul than that of Gangnam, and the feel it has is warm and welcoming.

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10. What feels so unmistakenly mine in Korea is the combination of green mountains, pine trees of their sprawling shape, and Asian architecture forms and colours. The simplicity of wood and stone and gravel wrapped up in the green of those pines blew my mind, no less. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that a few times I actually caught myself holding my breath. The nature aesthetics of Korea brought peace to my mind even when I was not feeling exactly peaceful.

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11. Korean girls use lipstick (a lot) and apply it in a special style which is called “gradient lips”.

12. Despite expectations, I didn’t notice Koreans to be emotionally reserved. On the contrary, I saw people (younger ones, to be fair and precise) expressing their feelings affectionately in public.

13. People do not interact with strangers either verbally or with eye contact. It was so unusual for me especially, since I was constantly staring at everything around me, including people. I wonder if that behaviour came across as impolite or embarrassing.

14. Koreans love hats. And cats.

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15. It’s fine or a cultural habit (norm?) to brush teeth in public places (restrooms, naturally). I’d never seen anything like it.

16. Sooo many Koreans wear trainers! I realize it’s the trendy thing to do now but I found it almost obsessive. In this way, I can’t help drawing another comparison with young people here in Moscow – so many of them look the same, from season to season, in similar outfits “inspired” by all similar glossy mag pictures. It was far more exciting to watch people in Tokyo =)

 

 

That’s about all for now. I wish I could sum it all up in a beautiful paragraph. Is it really possible to piece together these fragments of culture and impressions they made on me? I won’t even start doing that. The bits and pieces of scattered observations are part of my Korea, the first country I got to look at from within and took to pieces so scrupulously.

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My time in Korea would’ve been completely different had it not been for the amazing people there who took care of me in so many ways. I owe my discoveries to the time I spent and conversations I had with Josette LeBlanc and her husband, Anne Hendler, Michael Griffin, Michael Chesnut, Nina Iscovitz, Ran Kim, David Harbinson, dozens of students and teachers I had the pleasure and luck to meet. You all made a big, big difference, bigger than you realize for sure. More on that maybe in future posts. Thank you!

And thanks for reading.

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In Mike Griffin’s class.

One of my personal professional goals to achieve during my Korea time was, as you might have read in some posts before, visiting classrooms and processing the experience. I think I started with a lot of zest. As a result, this post came out a very detailed one, took about 5 hours of my time, a lot of concentration, meticulous note-taking of anything I was seeing (and the thoughts those scenes and moments spawned), and then brain effort to structure and write it up in the way it could be readable and telling the points.

Next class I visited was of a very different type and I eventually decided to blog about it in an idle way which would require little analysis on my part but would leave a special feeling of other people being part of this emerging space of a blog. There were voices to be heard, I sensed, and I think that was a good choice on my part to eliminate the thorough scrutiny.

I’m going to go similar way now writing about another class I visited in Korea about a month ago, that meaning I will cut the dissection part. Because it’s too hard and I’m not sure it’s worth it. Besides, I feel like the main interest in that class for you the reader of my blog could be the contents of the class, at least that’s what it was for me.

 

Welcome to Michael Griffin’s English class at Chung Ang University, Seoul. Fasten your seatbelts, or any other belts, I hope it can be an interesting cultural ride.

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 *****

I’ll set the scene for you. Imagine a rainy but warm day in Seoul. That was the kind of day. Mike invited me to one of his classes and I was even going to be more than just a guest taking notes. That is exciting, if you ask me, and exactly the type of experience I’d long been thinking of having.

It’s a rough estimate, but it felt like 2 minutes of class passed after I felt a pang of jealousy. I saw Mike being relaxed but obviously confident and in control of the flow of his lesson, joking around while being on track and giving clear instructions. That was, in fact, pretty much the same Mike Griffin you’d see if you attend a presentation of his (and next chance to do so is in Japan in just 5 days). What was the pang about anyway? Well it struck me like it hadn’t in the months before that I miss teaching. I wanted to teach a/my university class and it was while being in that particular room that the feeling got so intense. I was almost aching to interrupt, interfere, comment, play a teacher, or get involved in any other way.

Which I only had to wait for. The plan for the class was the students (4 Korean ladies) doing the task assigned by Mike for one hour, and then the next hour would be divided into 15-minute “interview” sections, the interviewers being both Mike and me. This was in itself a new and unusual class format for me, and now that I’ve tested it and seen it in action, I’ll certainly try it out with some students in Russia, as soon as I get a chance.

 

So the four students split into two groups of two. There was “a Korean” and “a non-Korean” in each pair. The non-Korean Koreans were to read the questions, the questions that non-Koreans might wish to ask Koreans about their culture. The Korean Koreans, in their turn, were to give their Korean replies and explanations and provide any necessary comments on any further interrogation by pesky non-Korean Koreans.

Some of the questions from Mike were the following:

? Why do so many Koreans wear masks?
? Why are there so many Kims and Parks and Lees in Korea?
? Why do Koreans like Samsung and want to work for it?
? Why do Koreans hate Japan?
? Why do Koreans use metal chopsticks?

 

There were all in all 24 questions, all of them equally interesting or some even more. As you might imagine, I stopped taking notes of the things I could observe about the lesson very soon, for the simple reason of getting too curious about what the students had to say explaining their culture! By that time I’d been in Korea for three weeks and collected a fair amount of questions like that myself, so I couldn’t wait till the interview part of the class.

 

And while I learnt a lot in that interview part of the class and satisfied some part of my curiosity, I’m led to believe the students had a chance to learn from me, too. One of the best examples of the kind of cultural learning that happened that day and happened both ways was talking about the image of Russia. In that hour I heard 3 things which the students  shared with me as their instant associations with my country: (1) Moscow is a dangerous place to go to as there are skinheads who roam about the streets attacking, hitting and killing foreigners; (2) Russian food is greasy; (3) What do you think about Putin? … I don’t believe I need to go into much detail here about how passionate I was dealing with (1) since it’s just not true *anymore?*, and it was shocking news to me that such information travels around. Russian food is certainly different from Korean and it’s common knowledge that tastes differ. I’d heard taxi drivers here in Seoul blurt out “Putin?” first thing after they found out I was actually a Russian, not an American.

 

Among all other things we talked about it might be interesting for English language teachers in Russia to read that I heard this line: “My Russian groupmates struggle with their English”. I realize that it’s just one student sharing her personal opinion and it doesn’t lead us into making this unpleasant conclusion about the state of English language education in Russia, its standards and the levels students get finishing school.. There’s one thing that is certain as it’s a fact: Russian students don’t have to take an obligatory English exam as they finish school education, unlike Korean kids. For the latter English is mandatory for entering any university whatever major they choose, and English scores are in a way crucial (yes, they are a big deal). As I explained what the situation for Russian school children is like, my Korean interviewee said “I think your system is better” (stress related + not all students really need English in the future). Whichever system is better, her Russian groupmates struggle with their English.

 

I’ll share with you my questions about Korea and things Korean I’d been noticing in my time here. I got responses to some of these but still wonder about others. In any case, it’s useful to have them here as a memory of what I had in my mind in October 2014, and it’d be more than great to have some of your replies in the comments to this post.

  • Is it bad manners to tip?
  • Is it bad manners to not finish your meal/ leave food on your plate, if you don’t like it (some parts of pork, for example)?
  • What about dairy products and Koreans?
  • Has anyone here ever tried a dish called “kuksi”?
  • Why do Koreans invent English names for themselves and introduce themselves to me as Suzie, Robert or Jenny?? (note: I got an excellent answer to this question from one student but I’d like to read what your perspectives are as well, teachers who are based in SK)
  • Why are people in the metro or in the street never saying sorry after pushing you, stepping on your feet?
  • Why are people not looking at other people in the street? Or is it just for me?
  • How are people from Seoul different from Koreans from other places?
  • Where does Japan stand in the list of tourism preferences for Koreans? How’s the general *hostile* attitude reflected in daily life – do Koreans use Japanese products? Do Koreans have Japanese friends?
  • Why are you asked to scribble whatever on a special thing if you’re paying with your card? It’s not even supposed to be a signature. Apparently, there are no security reasons involved as there would be with PIN-codes, what then?
  • Names for dishes! That’s just amazing to me. In order to feed myself in a restaurant I need to know the name of a dish (and what that dish is, of course). It’s not as easy as it is to order a steak or pasta marinara, you know.
  • What’s one thing a Korean would never eat?
  • How about going to places, such a coffee shops, alone? It seemed to me it’s not quite typical/ natural for Koreans to hang out on their own.
  • Is there no Korean version of Google?

 

It was a very informative class for me, and even insightful in certain ways. Cultural gaps were filled, for me and maybe for those students as well. In the end I did feel I was a good part of the lesson, and I thank Mike for organizing the time in the way that allowed for that! Thanks a lot, Mike! =)

 

*****

Random analysis points that I couldn’t resist:

 

1)  I enjoyed Mike’s teaching style: very smooth and natural, with interesting and timely commenting and language work. The whole first part of the lesson revolved around one and only task, and that felt right and “light”. There was no hurry to proceed to some next stages and that opened up space for fruiful work on the task there was to be done.

2) I personally learnt a new word (peoplewatch (v)).

3) Several times Mike referred to Korean in his comments on the use of some phrases in English. I’m sure making connection with L1 is useful for students at any level of language proficiency. That is my humble assurance.

4) Here is a post to read to learn something more or less up-to-date about Russia (Moscow?).

5) I asked one student to share 3 important things my students in Russia should know about Korea. Here are her replies:

– Korean parents have high expectations of their children. They want them to study hard and get best scores.

– Wifi connection is excellent in Korea.

– Delivery service is just as excellent in Korea. Your order will arrive at your door within 10-15 mins from your call.

6) I paid special attention to Mike’s phrazing of “non-Koreans” instead of “foreigners”. I’m determined to stick to “non-Russians” from now on, whenever that comes in handy.

 

*****

This post is the forth (! already) in the #livebloggingparty series. This time Mike himself and I got together and blogged. We also ate this kimchi pizza. I hope you enjoy his post that you’ll find here. And with this post the blogging party moves on to another country! Expect to be continued soon-ish.

Big thanks to Josette, Anne and Mike for agreeing to go through this with me. I’m going to leave Korea with exceptional memories.

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Thanks for reading!

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What happened to my Korean in Korea, and a little more.

I’m in Thailand now, with my face freshly burnt red and with my mind both relaxed and agitated just the right amount for catching up on my multiple drafts from Korea. Let’s see what comes out of it. This post will be the updated and seriously revised version of a thing I almost published two weeks ago. But what does it matter, here it goes.

 

 

 

Roughly n weeks ago I wrote the following paragraph for the “Teachers as Students” issue of iTDi Blog:

“On October 1st I’ll arrive in South Korea and will be staying there for over a month. In  view of that, I thought it respectful, good manners, and actually practically useful to study Korean. I don’t set objectives for myself higher than merely being able to read hangul, the Korean script. Ideally, I’d also learn to say a few touristy basics, realizing all the time that saying something in a foreign language is just part of a communication situation, and not even half of it.” (all 15 paragraphs I wrote can be found here).

 

So that was a scene set. It’s been 2 weeks I’m in South Korea (UPD: I’ve left Korea now). One of the most amazing and useful (for me) features of blogging, or writing of any form, for that matter, is that it allows you to read into your own mind of weeks ago. Moreover, it prompts asking yourself questions, such as:

– Can you read hangul?

– Was/ is it useful?

– Have you learnt a few touristy basics? How many is “a few”? What are they?

– Do your few touristy basics help you in your touristy communicative situations?

 

These are the questions you can ask me. In this post I want to speculate about my hangul’s worth, describe my encounters with the language, and in general share my thoughts about the languages that surround(ed) me in Korea..

 

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My prep for visiting Korea did include attempts to learn the script, and I can say that I diligently and enthusiastically managed about 2 weeks of self-study using apps and videos (which have been very helpful and I still aim to continue watching the lessons, mostly for the nerdy fun of it). As a result, I am not frightened of the look of most street signs. I am, though, feeling quite insecure when I see this:

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I consider myself very lucky to have rarely needed to face this on my own. When on my own, though, I resorted to choose places with pictures and/or English menus.

What’s wrong with this one if you claim to be able to read the script? – I ask myself. Here’s when I’ll get to write about skills and competences and the mess they make.

 

On reading.

So yes, with the exception of uncomfortable vowel combinations, 4-letter blocks (닭), numerous (luckily not endless) pronunciation rules when sounds of separate letters blend together to make something totally different from what I’m seeing – with the exception of those, I can read hangul, the Korean script. In practice, that means I can try to give the sticks and circles a sound equivalent. If that word happens to be of an English origin, I’ve nailed it. I can figure out that 커피 is “keopi” (coffee) and 오렌지 is “oraenji” (orange). At this point I start feeling masterful and very linguistically talented. In this fashion, I can read = pronounce metro stations, names of attractions, separate words on product labels, anything Korean which makes it no more than a line of lexical items at a time. How useful that is without knowing what the words actually mean, I have little clue. In that menu above, once I regain confidence after first-minute shock of looking at the paper, I might recognize rice rolls, ramen and soup, because I know those words. Otherwise I’m lost and being able to pronounce the stuff doesn’t guarantee ordering the stuff I’ll feel like eating.

Bottomline on reading: it feels very nice to be able to associate symbols with sounds. Reading practice itself is hard when we’re talking beyond  word/ collocation level.

 

On writing.

I was not at all surprised to find that the skill I’m so fervently preaching to be particularly effective in learning a language (as it’s proven to be that to me in my own experiences) is actually worth all the fuss in Korean, too. If I don’t write it, or type it, odds are high I’ll forget it the next minute. So that’s what I’ve been doing:

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For a little while I also played with writing hashtags for my Instagram pics in hangul. That’s one of those little, seemingly unimportant and unimpressive things that, in my opinion, assist quite a bit in getting your confidence when dealing with a foreign language. Tiny steps made up of no more than words, repetition, playful use and no rules – it works for me.

Bottomline on writing: it is key for me, be it English, Japanese, Korean or other. I suppose there must be scientific evidence (and published papers) that language produced by/ registered with the help of fingertips has better retention. The little data I have speaks in the favour of this statement.

 

On speaking.

As it happens, I can only say (1) what I’ve previously written down; (2) what I’ve written down and read to myself and aloud several times; (3) what I’ve written down, read aloud and practised saying to myself. The saying-it-to-myself part is as necessary to me as it’d look ridiculous: I must feel at ease with myself pronouncing the foreign sounds, hearing myself uttering them, first shyly and quitely, then possibly louder. In the end, I might finally feel brave enough to try sound the “goodbye” out at an appropriate moment. I’ve noticed, though, as there’s hardly ever any reaction following my “goodbye”(since I’m saying it when going or almost gone), I’m not motivated to keep saying it. I suppose if I were to stay in Korea for a while longer, I’d have braced myself for learning more meaningful vocabulary and actual expressions I could use in a variety of situations. Otherwise, it’s just words alone, and even then I’m not sure how well I’m managing. Last week at a bus station in Gangneung I tried to ask for tea at a cafe. I thought the Korean for tea is “cha”, which it is. I tried both “cha” and “tea” and gesticulation. The lady’s face was blank on all occasions and I felt quite dumb for a second there.

Bottomline on speaking: it’s thrilling to find yourself able to express yourself, however limited the way is, in a foreign language. It’s painful, too. I believe I’m very forceful as a teacher.

 

On listening.

Well, this paragraph will be really short. It’s just terrible.

It’s just terrible. It’s impossible for me to break down the Korean I hear into any intelligible parts, something I would be able to write down. As soon as I arrived, I had this idea in mind to ask every person I talk to to teach me a word/ phrase in Korean that’d be interesting, useful for me. Not even once could I catch what they were saying from merely listening to these good people! Not even when I asked them to repeat, not when I stared into their mouths trying to grasp the sounds from the movements of their lips and identify the corresponding letters to spell the things out. In the end, it was always the same – I asked the person to type it for me in my phone notes (which you can see above).

Bottomline on listening: it is a sad realization that my ear is so unresponsive to the language I hear around me for whole 30 days. It made me think about the ways I teach listening and also promise to myself to do more (and regular!) listening for my Japanese.

 

*****

These are my thoughts on my *progress in* Korean this past month. I’m going to be back to Seoul for a week soon, but frankly speaking I don’t expect myself to learn much more in that time. Besides, I really miss studying and focusing on Japanese, which I’ve neglected for 2 months. I enjoyed tackling Korean as I love the look of it and I still believe my decision was right, however little the progress. I had fun and I’m happy to officially announce my viewpoint that learning languages is exciting, and could be an especially great experience if in your learning you open up to people speaking the language in question.

 

As usual, I’ve got some random notes to share at the end of my post plus a little treat at the very bottom.

1) During my visit to one of Seoul palaces, the following conversation happened:

– Hello!

– Hello!

(silence, hiding behind the statue of a dragon)

– Here Korean king (pointing to the palace).

– Oh! Korean king lived here?! (smiling and overly enthusiastic about the fact shared)

– Goodbye.

– Goodbye.

 

My conversation partner hiding behind the statue of a dragon, then staring at me  and taking the time to formulate his 3-word *almost* sentence, was a five/six-year-old boy. I found this interaction beyond cute, and especially so when I tried to imagine a Russian kid of the same age approach a foreigner with a travel guide type comment in English. I just don’t see it happen.

 

2) Nobody I asked to teach me some Korean found it an easy task. Nobody ever taught me how to say YES or NO.))) I would still like to know how to say “I like it”.

 

3) ㅋㅋㅋ (“k k k”) standing for “hahaha” is fantastic and weird. From the little Korean laughter I heard here and there, their real laughing is pretty normal.

 

***** The Treat *****

Thanks for reading my post. Now I invite you to lean back in whatever furniture item it is you’re sitting on and enjoy the hilarious linguistic landscapes of Korea. I’d heard of them before I came to Seoul but I could hardly have imagined the immensity of the scale. They’re one of a kind, if you ask me. I don’t offer any analysis (though I’m very much interested in that and I have formed some opinion on that) or ideas how to use that in class. You can check the links shared at the very very bottom of this post to learn more about linguistic landscapes, which seem to have grown to be a thing in online ELT world. Otherwise, just enjoy the hilarity.

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(there’s some school bag..)

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I hope that was somewhat enjoyable. You can read more about linguistic landscapes here, here, here, and also here. You can rummage twitter for #LinguisticLandscapes. You can join this Facebook group. You can look around and see how the linguistic landscape in your country cannot compare compares to the one in Korea. Russian certainly does not!

 

Thank you for reading.

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My unique Daegu time: with @JosetteLB and 16 Korean teachers.

On Friday October 17th I visited Josette LeBlanc‘s class at Keimyung University. The class situation is pretty unique to me: 16 school teachers have taken a 6-month break off their jobs to go through a full-time teacher training program, which involves various types of language and teaching practice classes.

In fact, there was no class that Friday, as in there was no class that Josette would teach and I would observe. What happened was a discussion, about English language education, Russia, Korea, me, them, students, geography, and my granny. I think I was too verbose, as I usually am as soon as I get emotional. I’d never been in a similar situation and I wish we’d had more time to share our experiences, especially theirs.

My original *big as always* plan had been to write a detailed and thoughtful analysis-type post based on all my many notes (somewhat like this one). Now I think there’s a different way to do it, and also probably a better one – let the teachers of that class speak about our time spent together in their own words.

We asked the teachers to answer one question: “What was significant to you about this discussion?” The teachers were free to put a check on the paper if they didn’t mind their response being shared in this post. Some also wrote down their names. (I thank all of you, teachers of Josette’s class, for being willing to talk, listen, reflect and connect with me!)

So here are their/ your thoughts. My thoughts and comments will follow at the bottom of this post.

 

***** What was significant to you about this discussion? *****

 

… Your personal story about studying English… Taking a glimpse of Russian culture and education system. (Jeong, Hyekyong)

 

You are jealous of our supportive Korean education system and I envy the huge country of yours. Thank you for your advice. Reading and writing are good for fluent speaking. (Kim Yoomi)

 

It was interesting to compare the university education for major of English in Russia and in Korea. We have native professors here. And also your hard work for keeping and improving your English was very impressive and helpful for me. The reason why I attended this course was only that I wanted to improve my English that I started slowly losing. I wanted to tell you this.

 

I checked that there is no royal road in learning English. Practice, practice, practice! Hard work and intensive studying is the only way to improve English. (Choi Jungsook)

 

I think there’s a big difference between Korean English education and Russian’s. The attitude to English is different. It seems like Russia doesn’t think English is so important. That’s why you don’t have teacher training courses like us. Our government treat English as a VIP language, more important than our own language. I hate this but it is true. That’s why we should compete with each other and develop our ability continuously. It’s a too big responsibility. (Geum Eun Ju)

 

It’s good to meet and hear from Anna, stories from a Russian English teacher is quite new and interesting. I was surprised that her English was bad when she started university studies because I didn’t know English classes in Russian secondary school were focused on grammar, reading, and receptive skills. That happened in Korea, too. I admire her courage to quit her job and chase her freedom.

 

 

I also felt I wanted to teach adults, not kids, because I wanted to communicate with students as well as teach. After hearing your words, I have empathy with you. I’m interested in your experience and your process of thinking. I was impressed with your decision and action.

 

I’ve learnt that studying English as a foreign language is difficult for everyone. We need to make some effort to speak it fluently. I remember your sentence: “Expressing your thought in English will help improve your English skill.” I will do the same thing from now on. (Sujin)

 

I considered all circumstances of learning English in Korea as some pressure, but comparing to your situation in Russia, I realized that those are such amazing opportunities to learn a language. We, Koreans, are blessed. Thank your for your insight. 🙂

 

The most interesting thing to me is in Russia people who want to be teachers have one whole year training course in their last fifth year. In Korea, we usually just have one month training course in our last fourth year.

 

It was good to know the different style of English education in Russia. “Hard work helps, always..” I need to keep that in my mind to improve my English. It’s amazing again how important English is in Korea.

 

The most impressive thing that you said is “Writing in English is helpful for improving English”. I’ll try to follow your advice. Have a good time in Korea. 🙂 (Choi Sukhee)

 

Thank you for sharing your story. I truly felt your heart. Good luck. (Kwon Jihyun)

 

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***** My thoughts and comments *****

 

So, there’s no big need for me to go through the nitty-gritty of our discussion as most interesting points can be seen through the teachers’ lines above. I did talk a lot (which I’m not very happy about because I wish I’d listened more), answering questions and oftentimes being carried away. The topics that were touched upon include:

– Scattered bits of info and a really rough overview of English learning and teaching in a Russian school (based on my experience, so obviously it should not be taken for granted as the only existing way)
– How Russian students get into university (exams before and now)
– Importance of English in Russia vs Korea
– My preparatory year for entering university, curriculum and the basic description of what my 5 years at a teacher training university in Moscow were like
– Native speaker professors at a university level *that we didn’t/ don’t have in Russia*
– Co-teaching practice *that we don’t have in Russia*
– My personal interest in Asia, why and such (that was a tough one!)
– Geography lesson and working with the map to find some Russian cities on it))
– Many specific personal stories/ situations from my life that came to my mind on the spot as I was talking about something
– My experience learning English

I guess the comments the teachers shared with me on those sheets of paper are saying more than I could have said analyzing the discussion. If I am to answer the same question as they were answering, I’d say that it was significant for me to feel these teachers’ willingness to learn from whatever that was that I had to say, reflect through the lenses of their context and experience, compare but not necessarily bear judgement of either of the sides. Some things are similar, some are different.

I’m very glad I’ve joined their group in BAND app and can keep in touch. I’m going to write a letter to these teachers, say what I wanted to say but didn’t have time or the right moment, share the link to this post, invite them to leave a comment.

There is one crucial point I never managed to mention in our too short conversation, though, and I want to have it out here.

Hard work is important. Enjoying English is kind of key, though. I sometimes might forget to say it out loud to my students and just focus on hard work (which I do believe is what moves mountains and brings progress) but… You’ve got to love it. I might be naive but I strongly believe that loving what you do (in this case, learning English) is the right way to eventually becoming good at it.

Thank you, Josette and the 16 teachers of this KIETT course. I feel lucky to have shared time in class with you, and I’m still jealous. 🙂

 

*** Random but nonetheless very important facts related to this post ***

 

1. This post was typed using my right hand only. As have been and likely will be all of my posts.

2. This weekend I found out I’m not the only person in the world lacking the wonderful skill of typing using both hands. I’m glad Josette is that other person. If there are more of you, Right Hand Only type writers out there, please let us know in the comments below. Thank you.

3. This post is part 2 of the #livebloggingparty series. The glorious idea and plan I want to try and follow through is to meet a teacher-blogger offline, sit down in some place and blog together. Hitting “Publish” simultaneously is part of the deal. Part 1 of the series can be found here (blogging with @KateSpringcait). This post (part 2 of the series) was written sitting next to Josette on the couch in her home in Korean countryside, listening to the chirping of birds and looking at a praying mantis moving around on the window glass in what I take to be its Kung- fu fashion, scheming an attack. I am forever grateful to Josette for this chance. You can read her *excellent* post entitled Turning Points here.
Part 3 of the series might be coming very soon 🙂

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Final note, added here in order to be very honest with you readers: the post was finished in and published from A Twosome Place cafe area at Dongdaegu Station, Daegu, South Korea. Thanks for reading!

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Let’s discuss how to discuss this (c) in @MichaelChesnut2 class

So here I am was on the campus of Hankuk University of Foreign Studies, finally taking this first step to start one of my self-imposed projects for my time in Asia. Weird as it may seem to some or many, I want to see English classrooms here and write about them. I’m ever so grateful to my friends and colleagues who agreed to welcome me in their class with no hesitation, or even invited me in by their own free will. This observation experience has nothing to do with research and I feel the need to emphasize this fact: I don’t pursue any aims other than to learn more about how other teachers hold their classes, enrich my own understanding of teaching, record my impressions in this blog, and in this way “train” myself to be more disciplined about writing. Purely selfish reasons, and here’s the exciting First Time.

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Hankuk University of Foreign Studies,  Seoul. Mike Chesnut’s discussion classes.

Before I even begin, I’d like to say a mammoth thanks to Mike for inviting me, being eager to talk it through, agreeing to expose his class like this, through my eyes in this open online space. It takes courage, trust, and certain character, to my mind. So, thanks =)

*****

As we enter the classroom, there are already quite a few students sitting in there, maybe around 10, scattered mostly in the back seats. I pay attention that upon entering the class there’s no real greeting, on either of the parts. This strikes me as somewhat unusual to what I’m used to – and I’m sorry that I’ll keep making references and comparisons with my class as it’s about the only teaching situation I’m an “expert” of. In my practice no matter who comes into a classroom, there’d always be a “hello” and a couple of social niceties, always. This maybe is the way we recognize our presence in the shared classroom space, whether the lesson has already started or not.

In any case, as soon as it’s 1 pm sharp – you can’t be mistaken, you know you’re in class. (Side note: the precision about times for class and breaks is one of the features of Mike’s teaching style I was impressed with.) I pay attention to this several times while observing: Mike is very confident, loud, clear and effective in getting his students’ attention. It’s never a compromise (like it so often is in my case), it’s the teacher’s decision and the class follows it.

I’m now thinking that what I saw, picked, jotted down and labelled as interesting in the lesson flow and proceedings, in the teacher’s ways and students’ behaviour – these could be habits acquired in this certain class, for this certain class. Originally, I had a plan to turn the sketchy and often disconnected notes I was making into a similar kind of a sketchy blog post. Now that the idea of habits has emerged, I’m going to shift the focus that way. Let’s see what happens, and I know you’re kind, forgiving readers = ) I would also like to invite Mike to argue if these points are actual habits and routines or something I totally made up to qualify as such for a smoother text structure here.

 

*possibly* Students’ Habit 1 – speaking English non-stop  

So this being a discussion class, there’s a discussion based on the reading they’ve done at home. The article examines a current problematic issue (Ebola). I realize my perception of this class is bound to be influenced by my own experience seeing students work – and, well, I’m impressed to say the least. The 20 students here in this room are actually discussing the article and following the given tasks – and speaking English all the way. This is impressive. I know now these students are English majors and nearing graduation, and still I’m in deep appreciation of their language command, willingless to communicate solely in a foreign language. Apparently, the majority of them have interesting backgrounds which would account for their competence, and to know more about those wold be exciting, too.

If you’ve read my posts before, you might know I get bored too fast and too easily, so I always need to change activity types, whether I’m learning or teaching. In this class, the discussion of the first 2 paragraphs of the article lasts for almost 25 mins,  and when I look at my watch and note this time, it is still going on actively. To me personally, this is spectacular and deserves praise. Throughout the whole 2 hours I notice only one pair of students who seem to be sort of left out of the conversation, uninterested or having trouble with language/ ideas, I can’t know the reason, but otherwise I don’t see anyone visibly lagging behind.

Anyway, most surprising to me was the total lack of Korean in class among students. Even when I heard they got sidetracked from the task in their conversation, they still continued the “social” chat in English. But was it really non-stop? In fact, as soon as Mike told them to make groups for brainstorming topics for their midterm exam, all students automatically switched into Korean. I walked around and peeked into their list of topics and notes – many of those were in Korean, too.

I stayed for half of Mike’s second class that afternoon, and that group were speaking tangibly less English among themselves and significantly more Korean, logically.

 

*possibly* Students’ Habit 2 – self-discipline

I don’t want to jump ahead and make conclusions about students I don’t know and connect it with their culture, but it could be seen quite distinctly that that particular group were very well aware of the class proceedings, of its requirements and routines. Getting them arrange themselves in groups, assigning the tasks was done in passing, very quickly and casually but nonetheless causing no fuss about it. Hence is my thinking that this is the typical organization of classtime – getting into small groups, comparing summaries of the article, working through the paragraphs in detail. Meanwhile, Mike moved around and helped the groups with more questions or comments related to the points students were talking about, or sometimes with any language issues that arose (like helping them to shape their English into academic discourse type by providing better, more suitable vocabulary).

Mike mentioned that groups of 2 students are best, of 3 – ok and of 4 – getting a bit too much. Among about 20 students present in that class only 6 students arranged their group work space in such a way so that they were facing each other, by moving their desks. I found this interesting. I’m not sure how/if this fact impacted the quality of their discussion, but in my personal opinion (1) groups of 3 are potentially more productive; (2) talking to people as you’re facing them and can use the space around you freely is more natural. When I go to a cafe to talk with a friend, 100% of time we’ll take seats opposite each other.

 

*possibly* Teacher’s Habit 1 – gesticulation  

Being a stiff and rigid Russian that I am, I pay more and more attention these days to how other teachers/ presenters use their body language and facial expressions to help drive their message home. Mike uses interesting gestures to make the point sink in. It gets especially clear when he’s trying to draw attention, for example to their upcoming (very easy!) vocabulary quiz. His gestures mimic and reinforce the intonation pattern of his speech, and it was really exciting to watch how his sentence stress pattern is reflected in gesticulation (especially the “hand hammering” type when the moment gets emotionally intense and important).

I’m making a note here for myself to keep it in mind for watching other teachers in their classes. When I get a chance to see a Russian teacher “in action”, that’d certainly be even more exciting to see if there’s any similarity re this aspect at all. I’d guess not, but that’s an assumption tied to a stereotype and/or based on my own experience.

 

*possibly* Teacher’s Habit 2 – instructing (quite a habit to have for a teacher, I know, sorry for the lame wording)

The reason this caught my eye is solely related to the way I teach my classes. What Mike is doing is mostly bringing students’ attention to language issues and inviting them to “look up, play with the words and phrases”, and then be ready to use those in their exam. With full realization that a discussion class is not exactly the same thing as a language class, I still wonder. I wonder what’s with the students who will keep making mistakes (say, using “even though” incorrectly) in their discussion groups. I wonder if a teacher in a discussion class would know OR needs to know, let alone do something about it. I’m again reminded of self-discipline and general tendency towards self-organization of studies here in this particular teaching situation.

At the same time, it’s my perception that the teacher does a lot of work for the students. Finding the language and putting it in the slides, coming up with discussion questions, then uploading all those into their e-class system – everything’s ready for students to use. We don’t know, or don’t care to know, what’s in their personal notes, unless they ask – and they so rarely did! In fact, the open class interaction took place about 3 times in 2 hours, within the space of 7-10 minutes. There was one language-related question to Mike from a girl (seeking clarity in the difference between “pandemic” and “endemic”), followed by a subsequent comment from another girl, and one more question from a boy looking for an antonym. That was pretty much it, no eliciting or checking back. All the speaking/ interaction the students did was in their groups, talking over the issues they were instructed to discuss in the slides.

When the time alloted for a task was over, Mike brought the class’ attention to himself with a loud clap – and he just started saying what he needed to say. It is/ was amazing for me, as I struggle with interrupting people a lot, in my class and in my life. So the teacher went through the questions himself, giving answers, supplying comments, all very quick and clear. He ran through the language he’d picked out from those paragraphs, giving his own examples of how to use this or that phrase. The language focus (?) never took more than 5 minutes, there was a lot of nodding from the students, but otherwise it’s always Mike talking and instructing…. As opposed to my class that I teach at university. Again, mine is surely different by definition, being more of a genuinely language class, but there’s massive “nursing” I’m doing all the time.

 

Overall impression about the class is this: brisk teaching manner, energetic, always to the point, very smooth and even in pace. There’s no wasting time. The teacher is clearly in control of time and tasks ahead. You might know that one of my regular curiosities and doubts is just how much of the teacher should there be in a lesson. Well, I had a feeling that there’s just the right amount of Mike in his class, even with his unusual (for me) interaction style. Somehow he divides the time into portions when he organically blends with the class, joining groups and their discussions, and then comes to the front and becomes the Instructor. The former portions are significantly prevailing time-wise!

 

***** Random notes *****

1) As I’m not using PowerPoints to teach my class (basically for the reason of having no technology to demonstrate it)), I pay attention to how it’s used. The task is typed on the slide, and I find it both useful (for the teacher and students – saving time, handy for reviewing the material) and also possibly stripping the class of teacher-student interaction. This feeling is haunting me through the whole of classtime – just how much do the Instructor and the Instructed actually get into contact? Another thing regarding PowerPoint is the way Mike types “Ask your instructor” in there – it’s not “me” or “Michael” or any other suitable but more personalized address.

2) One of the main objectives of this course seems to be teaching students the power of rhetorics and making them use the different principles of it in their own speech. Well, this time it is rhetoric for being persuasive by using the principle of narrative (provoking emotions with a personal story). Mike gives the class a task to come up with a “wow really?!”-worthy narrative in response to a comment that students’ life nowadays is exceptionally easy. I joined one group in this task, I can’t say we were particularly successful…but, as I’ve already mentioned above, there was no eliciting the actual “wow” stories. I wondered how students feel about it. Personally, I was very curious to hear some of their speeches))

3) No “Bless you!” for the person sneezing. This is the second time I’ve noticed it, the first being in one of the workshops at KOTESOL. Is it a thing to not say “Bless you”?

4) 9 people in that discussion class were wearing glasses (10 with Mike). I just thought I’d count something, as Scott Thornbury suggested during his presentation at KOTESOL (read a nice review of it here on David Harbinson’s blog or here on Tim Hampson’s blog that I’ve just found myself).

5) One student, quite casually (without even looking at me!), said “Добрый день” (dobry den’ – good afternoon in Russian) to me when passing by on the stairs. I am so obviously Russian-looking, and Hankuk University of Foreign Studies is indeed about languages.

6) “Mammoth” used above in this post is the language I decided to borrow from Mike’s class. I hope his students will also steal it and use in their exam. =)

 

***** Final comment *****

During our great time chatting after the classes Mike asked me what was one thing I would change in his class. I failed to give an articulate answer then and said I hadn’t been focused on looking out for such a thing during classtime – I was simply doing the noticing and trying to be descriptive of what I was seeing. But then later I thought of something. The classroom looked rather spacious to me, with desks and chairs light enough to be carried around and arranged in a different manner. I’m wondering now if making students stand up and move around as part of their discussion tasks could be seen fit. It might reflect my personal issue of having trouble sitting in the same position for a long time, no matter how interesting the conversation is… I would probably make them do part of task standing, or find another way to “fill” the unoccupied classroom space. In fairness, it’s my personal resolution for every single new term to encourage more moving around in class, for various reasons. And for the only reason of being too set and rigid in my teaching ways, I fail it every single new term.

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The very final comment

It’s my first experience dissecting anyone’s class. I almost feel guilty, and certainly uncomfortable. Please let me know which other ways I could approach my future observations, given that my ELT friends will still agree to let me in their class after reading this)))

Big thanks to Michael Chesnut for his trust and hospitality!

Thanks for reading, as ever, and please stay tuned for another post related to this day very soon. =)

 

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In Asia. Part I, Korean. Episode 1, Fragmentary.

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The small white window you're now looking at in that house is mine.
The bird's hole in the wall is right there next to it.

Here I am, sitting in my apartment in Seoul, quite unexpectedly with my pet bird flapping its wings feverishly IN the wall above my bed. It’s been a week already, and this is crazy, as in how crazy fast the time’s passing, how crazy cool my time here has been, how  comfortable and home I’m feeling here. But maybe I need to start from the start.

This October I’m staying in South Korea. Seoul for the most part, but also visiting friends and ELT people I know in other places around the country. Such is the plan and what will emerge of it we’ll have to see. I’m not promising regular blogging (as I’ll surely end up breaking the promise) but writing a lot during this month, in this or that form, is one of my major objectives/ cravings/ aspirations, etc. That said, I want to make it clear upcoming posts might turn out to be a weird mishmash: ELT, travelling, culture, questions, observations, pictures, people, classrooms and such. Markedly personal and at times somewhat professional. That’s my current feeling, and here’s the first entry from Korea.

 

***** written in Dubai (lol) *****

This should have been written earlier and for a different space but I think this way it is maybe even better.

It’s October 1st 0:15 Moscow time. I’m sitting perched up in a lame version of a lotus pose on a seat identical to thousands of similar seats located at the many gates of Dubai international airport. Like quite a few fellow passengers trapped in this airport for the night hours, I’ve taken my sneakers off. Like fewer of them, I’m looking around instead of dozing off.
I’m not much of a traveller in the sense the word carries for me. But from the number of times I’ve done flying around I’ve gathered that this layover time waiting for your connection in an airport of a totally random country you’ve not put on your travel list this time is just the time when I personally feel being part of this world (I know this is a lenthy sentence). Any airport in Moscow is owned by Russians and bears this unmistakable feel of everything Russian. European airports I’ve seen are all alike and are … Well, European. There’s no face that would distinguish such airport for me.
In any case and in odd wording, my idea is that connection time gives a chance to meet the variety of the globe population without necessarily going to all those parts represented. I’m not talking skin colours, languages and looks. I mean, not just them.

I was chatting with my mom in DME some 8 hours ago preparing to leave my home for 70 days. Several times she said something that I couldn’t help but breathe through with (!!) judgement and a bit of a suppressed scorn. Then I soon recovered my spirits because I can understand where she was coming from, what her reasoning had been influenced by. This whole touristy business interferes with opportunities to see a more genuine and real view of the world.
People do live in places other than where we do. They have meals in those places, go shopping, complain about work, chat about the same problems, have relationships, live.
It is not, or should not be, about “ours” as opposed to “theirs”.

(and then I dozed off…))))

 

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It is not, or should not be, about “ours” as opposed to “theirs”.

I thought about it again sitting in Mike Griffin’s workshop Cultural Explorations for Teachers: Beyond Confucianism and Excuses at KOTESOL last Friday. The audience in the room was comprised, as I later found out, 90% of Americans.  Participation was very active, and even frighteningly active to my taste, since my workshop came next and it was going to be so NOT about Koreans, or Americans, or Americans in Korea. I couldn’t help noticing the we and they slipping off the tongues, even if the context and implications meant no harm or gave out no opposition as an intended bad thing. Maybe that’s only human and natural to think in we vs they terms, especially when you’re an expat living and teaching in a foreign country. I have no such experience and I’m neither judging nor offering any form of analysis right now. Just an observation, which will be many on my blog from this post on.

There’s a lot and too much of we vs they talk back in Moscow.

 

I’m not sure if there’s anything to discuss here in this first entry from Korea. I feel like I haven’t even started telling you about this week of my life in Asia yet.

I’ll continue then, tomorrow. Ideally, some exciting ELT-related things are going to be blogged about here very soon, alongside with the maybe less exciting personal observations of the place I’ve planted myself in for 70 days, a move I have zero regrets about. =)

 

Thanks for reading.