Thursday, September 27, 2012

Tyler's School

When I first heard that the name of my school was "Busan Energy Science High School," I thought it sounded pretty intelligent - which was welcoming to be sure. Like most Hollywood films, however, the best parts of the film are in the previews. What the impressive sounding name is code for in Korean is "vocational" school, or rather the school that accepted the lowest performing middle school students. I was warned many times by my three co-teachers how difficult and "naughty" the students are. Apparently, many of the students have quite a bit of problems at home.
I have loved my school, however. If the students perform poorly in general, its because they have given up hope already. As one student from a "normal" high school approached me and said, "your students are bad." True, some do sleep in class and some do secretly smoke in the halls during lunch and some are rude in class. But when given just a little bit of confidence in a fun environment the kids are great.

Here is a picture of my classroom during 7th period - the last class of the day. As you can see, the students are ready to go home. This classroom is on the 5th floor of the 5 story school building. It is tucked up into a ravine of one of Busan's many mountains. Thus the school is surrounded by trees and, at 500 feet above the flatland offers a spectacular view of the city and the mountains across the flat lands.

A view of the city and the distance mountains surrounding Busan. It a great view but hiking up from the bottom has provided me with many sweaty mornings.

The deciduous and needle bearing trees on the mountain surrounding my school. Beyond this smaller mountain is a much larger set of mountains. One can actually hike from my school to my house in a beautiful 3-4 hour journey.
Below my room on the second floor is the staff office. When I am not teaching, this is where I spend my time. My desk is the one under the arrow. My best friend at the school, Park (the head of my department) sits to the left. One of my co-teachers sits directly in front of me.

My school office is pictured above. 

Park with his new perm, of which he "has had many."

My co-teacher Aimie has been indispensable in helping me with anything that I need (i.e. Internet set up, bank account, online banking, school ambassador for me, etc), and who has been very honest in answering all of my questions about Korean life and Korean people.
Park plays the saxophone and paints. He teaches painting and drawing at the school. He is well traveled, speaks decent English, and is full of knowledge. Sometimes we spend quite a bit of time talking when neither of us have class. Every day he and I eat lunch together.

After eating, it is customary for the men, but not usually women, to take one metal cup full of water, drink it in one gulp, and then put the cup away. After lunch we usually stroll out by the parking lot which overlooks the city, and talk about whatever. Usually another teacher or two will join us.
A very nice benefit to teaching at a vocational school is that a vast majority of the students will not go to a University, which basically means the pressure is off. So to say the least, the environment at my school is very relaxed. So much so that the previous English teacher spent his time watching movies up in the English room when he did not have class. While I find that to be slightly indecent, I do play table tennis everyday either 6th or 7th period, or sometimes both, when a group of fellow teachers.\

The ping pong room is pictured above. The woman in the picture is the Jang Ran who I first started playing with and continue to play with everyday. The man, Mr. Song, is one of my three co-teachers, and he has taken to joining us recently.

This is who I now call my Table Tennis Sensei, because he has taken a particular interest in helping me improve my ping pong playing - a relationship I think we both enjoy very much.
In fact, before I came the ping pong room was rarely used. It seems that Jang Ran and I have started a trend, for there are now 6 other teachers who have taken to playing ping pong everyday. And usually now a very large group of students come in and play as well.
After ping pong I pack up things, walk down the hill, and catch my bus. Depending on which route I choose to take, my trip home can either be 45 minutes of reading, relaxing, and little walking, or on nicer days I take a 20  minute ride and walk a couple of miles back home. In the morning time I always opt for the longer walk now b/c it takes so much less time to get to school.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Natalie's School

The day before we arrived in Busan, the head of the Busan education office handed me an envelope with my contract and the name of my new school. I opened the thick manila envelope and read: Congratulations! You will be teaching at Choup Middle. Roughly 30 hours later, I was in front of forty 15-year-olds showing them a PowerPoint about my life.
I've been teaching at Choup Middle School for three weeks already, and I can't believe how time flies! However, I already feel like I've been here for a long time. The staff members smile and nod at me in the halls, the students forcefully shout, "Hi, Natalie Teacher!" when we cross paths, and I can properly serve myself a Korean lunch on my lunch tray.

I take two busses to school every day. First I take the 179, then I transfer to the 33, 44, or 63. The busses get ridiculously crowded, but I'm lucky as I get picked up at the beginning of the driver's loop. This means I can listen to my iPod in peace in a bus seat instead of getting shoved and stepped on by pushy Korean passengers. And boy, can they get pushy. The bus drivers pilot like madmen as well. If you're not standing practically in the middle of the road near your bus stop, you won't get picked up. Also, you have to book it to get off of the bus. If you don't have one foot out the door at your stop, you won't make it out. It's an adventure getting to school in the morning to say the least! Below is a picture of what a Korean bus looks like. 

The first thing I do when I get to school is put on my inside slippers. Teachers use their own personal little cubbies to trade their outside shoes for their inside shoes. They make the swap again at the end of the day. I love having comfortable feet all day long! No more heels at work! 

Each week, I have 20 classes of 45 minutes each. I work a normal 40-hour week. You know what that means? I have 15 hours of class time and 25 hours of plan/break time each week. Show these numbers to any American teacher and I promise you they'll keel over in disbelief. Last year, I taught third grade in a high needs elementary school. I had roughly one hour of plan time each day, which was significantly cut down due to long-awaited bathroom stops and meetings. By comparison, this year is and will continue to be a dream. No wonder Korea's teachers are amongst the happiest teachers in the world!

My classroom is wonderful. Given that I was confined to a portable last year, this room is incredible. I utilize the front half of the room every day for class. The back half is used for "English Cafe," a zone where students can come during lunch time speak English only and watch American music videos on a big screen TV. The back half also has an extensive English library to my disposal. I'm in teacher heaven! 

I manage my classroom by putting my students in teams of 4-5. Each table group has a color, and that color is their team name. Students earn points for their teams by paying attention (not doodling on the desks), speaking English (except for English swear words), and answering questions correctly (instead of shouting Korean phrases at me that I do not understand). 

Below is a picture of the answer to all teaching problems. It's a bucket full of candy. 

Students also have letters taped to their assigned desks. These letters allow me to assign partners quickly and make sure that students aren't choosing the same partners for every dialogue. Also, I can get answers from table groups speedily after teams have been working together. For example, I can say, "All As stand up and share what your group talked about." This method saves me so much time and keeps the kids accountable for their work.

Students who misbehave once get their name written under this sign on the whiteboard in class. If they misbehave again, they are responsible for coming in at lunch time to clean my classroom. Only two boys have come in to clean so far, so I think this system is working! 

My first big project was to assign all 700 middle schoolers English names. This took a long time, but I'm so glad I did it! It would have been impossible for me to remember hundreds of Kims, Lees, and Parks. Some of the students already had English names from Hagwons, but most did not. I wrote the students' new English names on the backs of nametags they created on the first day of class. The boy who made the nametag below tried to name himself first Abraham (after Lincoln), then Cristiano, then Obama, and finally Jicksso. I don't know what Jicksso means, but it sounds like a really bad word. I decided to call him George. 

Let me just say that I love my students. They keep me laughing every day. At first, I was really intimidated by the "zeal" of middle school boys, to put it nicely, but now that the students know what to expect in class, they are so much better behaved! Most of them really try their best to speak and participate in classroom activities. They're all a lot of fun and bring me a serious amount of joy. 

Last, I'll show you two of my favorite faces that I see every day at school. The first photo is of my main co-teacher. Her name is Soo, and she's been such a lifesaver for Ty and I during our first weeks here. She picked me up, helped me get my Alien Registration Card, saved us tons of money on our cell phones, and set up my bank account. Even though this is also her first year at Choup, she always goes out of her way every day to make sure that I'm taken care of. She is so sweet and wonderful to work with. 

Jung, the staff worker at our school, let Tyler and I into our apartment on our first day in Busan. He came to me during my first week and told me that his English wasn't good, but he really wanted to learn. Since then, he's been coming to my classroom bearing gifts of delicious coffee and sitting down with me to chat. He often talks about his love for autumn, hiking, and flowers. Lately, he's been picking me up at my second bus stop in the mornings and giving me a ride to school. He saves me a giant walk up a big hill and we get to practice more English! He is such a lovely person and is planning on taking Tyler and I for a hike in two weeks. 

My first few weeks teaching have been a challenge, but I know now that I'll love teaching middle school this year. Middle schoolers are so much more independent than elementary students. Also, I can be sarcastic with them and be more relaxed in the classroom. Teaching is always a double-edged sword of the good and the bad, but I think the bad edge of my blade will be quite dull this year. I've already been so rewarded. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

First Weeks in South Korea

안녕하세요 from Busan, South Korea! We are immersed in an entirely new culture and way of life. We arrived at the Seoul/Incheon Airport on August 20, but it feels like we've been here for months! I'll provide you with a drastically condensed version of the first couple of weeks in our new home. 

First, we boarded the EPIK bus with other EPIK (English Program in Korea) teachers. EPIK is an education program run by the Korean government that hires native English speaking teachers into public school positions all over South Korea. After a 3 hour bus ride, we arrived in Daejeon, the fifth largest city in South Korea. This is where our 10-day orientation would be held. 

Overall, the EPIK orientation was long, but extremely worthwhile and rewarding. We couldn't believe how well-organized everything was! This is just another example of South Korean efficiency. Below is a photo of our opening ceremony on the first day of orientation. The South Korean Aura Chamber Orchestra performed several beautiful pieces for us. An incredible traditional singer and a tap dancer made the performance exceptionally memorable! 

The orientation was mainly composed of different lectures and classes. The topics of these classes ranged from teaching strategies to life in Korea. Below, we are in a class discussing how to successfully engage English language learners in the classroom. We learned lots of different strategies about how to approach ELL teaching. Since neither of us have ever taught ELL students before, we got a lot of useful ideas. 

One of our favorite days of orientation was the field trip day. The theme of the field trip was Baekje history. Baekje was one of three Korean kingdoms that existed between 18 BC and 660 CE. We traveled to Gongju in busses and visited a national museum where we saw the exterior of the tomb of King Muryeong (462-523). Even though the rain plagued our day, we still had fun and learned a lot about Korean history. Don't we look so awake in the picture below? 

Also during the field trip, we got to see another Korean music performance and eat bibimbap at a traditional Korean restaurant. My favorite part of the day was when we got to paint pottery at a pottery studio. Tyler and I also got the opportunity to try shaping clay on a pottery wheel! Trying pottery again is definitely on my to-do list. 

One of Tyler's favorite orientation experiences was learning introductory Taekwondo. A well-known Korean Taekwondo instructor taught us basic Taekwondo moves on one of the last days of orientation. Tyler, of course, took to it right away and is interested in looking into taking more classes in the future. The Taekwondo masters were so talented and amazing to watch! 

Despite the 10:00 PM curfew and the rule to stay on campus, we ventured off of orientation grounds to explore the surrounding areas of Daejeon. On the last night, we celebrated the end of orientation with friends at a local bar with several bottles of Soju (the most popular alcoholic drink in Korea closely resembling watered down vodka). 

On the last day of orientation, we all loaded busses according to what city or province we were headed to. Luckily, our journey from Daejeon to Busan went smoothly despite the worried warnings of an approaching typhoon from our director. We arrived in Busan in the afternoon, said goodbye to the friends we'd made at orientation, at met with our co-teachers from our schools. Tyler and I were taken to our new place, located in the Danggam Jugong apartments in the Busanjin district. The picture below is the first image I saw approaching our new home. The staff member from my school who let us into our apartment asked me, "This your name?" 

Our apartment is quite dirty and not in the condition we'd hoped it would be in. On the bright side, it's very spacious with two small bedrooms and a nice kitchen area. FYI to friends and family, this means that we have free boarding for you when you want to come and visit us! Our goal is to have the place cleaned up and decorated shortly after we receive our first paycheck at the end of the month. Once we refurbish our apartment, we'll post a video tour and more photos for your viewing pleasure. 

Although our apartment is poor condition and the first few days of teaching have been overwhelming, we've had amazing times with our wonderful friends here in Busan. Lucky for us, our friends from Kirkland, Bobby and Jestine, came to Busan two months ago. They are being extremely helpful showing us around and offering their assistance! Last night, they took us to a local beach where we had more Soju and played games and sang songs. 

We are missing home already, but looking forward to a couple of years of new opportunities. Our experience in South Korea will be life-changing, most definitely, and full of crazy adventures.