Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Middle Ground, Where Are You?

The atmosphere  here in Korea continues to be a somber one, in the wake of the sunken ferry Sewol. Our camp has been affected by the government's decision to tell schools to cancel all field trips for the rest of the semester. Within a week of the accident 80% of the school groups had cancelled, rendering the corridors, classrooms and open spaces here eerily quiet. The impact of this is that some Korean staff are not having their contracts renewed, and all the hourly paid workers-maintenance, catering, shop assistants, counsellors- are out of a job until things pick up again.
On the one hand it's an extreme measure, on the other I can't blame the government, schools or parents for wanting to safeguard their children after such a tragedy.
Out of the 325 students who went on the trip from the school in Ansan, only 75 survived. Most of the survivors are still in hospital with many students receiving psychiatric treatment. It's hard to even begin to imagine what survivors, family and friends are going through right now.
There's been a lot of discussion and anger about the failure of adults both on and off the boat to respond to the disaster as it was happening. The image I keep getting in my head is of all these obedient children waiting in their cabins whilst the adults failed to rescue them. There have been some arguments blaming the Confucianist values of Korean society, the values that mean young people respect their elders and do what they're told. I don't think it's fair to say the children would've escaped on their own had they not been Korean, but I still can't shake the feeling that the questionless conformity that exists here may have played a part. Funny really that this was the subject of my last blog before the disaster.

In more tragic news, last night I read about the horrific incident in a Leeds secondary school in which a teacher has been stabbed to death by a student, in front of her entire class. I can't even begin to process the implications of this, our first teacher to be murdered inside a British school. I just don't understand how a fifteen year old with a grudge could feel justified or indeed have the guts to take a kitchen knife to school, walk up to his teacher in the middle of class and stab her repeatedly in the neck as she tried to get away. It blows my mind.

Apologies for being full of the joys of spring today. What strikes me about these two awful incidents is that in a way they represent polar opposites. The first shows a failure of adults to help students who trusted them, the other shows a teenager's complete lack of regard for a teacher's life.
I would like to live in a society somewhere in between Korean and English cultures, but I honestly don't think it exists. Here we have babies sent to the orphanage if their mothers are unwed; at home we have a welfare state that encourages young mothers to pretend they are single so they can get maximum benefits. More and more I am realising there is no middle ground.     

To end on a (much needed) lighter note, last week I taught a magic class, in which I wowed and amazed a class of 11. One of the high points was a trick in which I put a paper woman into an envelope, cut her in half and then put her back together again. Sometimes I have these out of body experiences where I look at what I'm doing in class at this school and think- huh, is this really my life? Am I really 'teaching'? 
Then there was mind reading trick. The English level in my class was pretty low so I carefully selected the kid I thought could handle it. I told him a few times (with elaborate actions)  to write his favourite animal on a piece of paper. When he finally understood, he slowly and meticulously wrote a word that I swear must have been at least ten characters long. I then asked him to show it to the other students... this also took what seemed like a lifetime. Then I told him to write five other animals on the other pieces of paper. He said, Ney? (Korean for 'Yes' but often also means 'what the heck are you talking about?'). I repeated the command several times in as many ways as I could and as simply as I could until finally he said 'Ah!' and nodding his head enthusiasticly, he got to work on writing down the other five animals. As you can imagine this process was also a long one. Eventually, I heard those magic words- teacher finished! I took the papers off him, ready to perform my magic. The audience waited with bated breath.
I looked at the first piece paper. PIG.  
This was going to be fun, I just hoped I could pull it off.
Then the second one- PIG.
Oh no.
Abracadabrah- so I guess your favourite animal's a pig then?

And that, my friends, is what we call an ESL teaching fail.

 P.S If you feel like looking at the first chapter of my dissertation story, you can read it here. Any thoughts, comments or criticisms would be greatly appreciated!


Friday, 18 April 2014

As Tragedy Unfolds

I felt today that I needed to write about the thing that's been at the forefront of my mind for the last couple of days. It's not a happy topic by any means, but right now a necessary one.
As the families of the passengers on board the now sunk ferry wait to find out if there are any more survivors, I feel like I am waiting with them. 
The story has made international news at home and in the US, but in case you don't know, a ferry carrying 459 passengers, travelling from Seoul to Jeju Island in South Korea, sank on Wednesday. The majority of the people on board the Sewol were high school students on a field trip. Reports are inconclusive right now as to what happened exactly but they think either the boat hit a rock, or turned too quickly causing cargo to shift to one side. Either way, the boat fell on its side and then later capsized. As of this moment 25 are confirmed dead and 280 are missing.

I've been reading all the updates and the tale that is unravelling just seems to be getting worse and worse. Of course it gets worse by the minute in that the likelihood of finding survivors is becoming less and less likely. But there are so many other things too. The weather and sea currents are so bad that the rescue mission is almost impossible. In fact three divers went missing at one point but thankfully were later found. In the official statement released by the parents, they say that they were at first informed that all the passengers had gotten off the ferry and that they should go to pick them up. When they got there, of course they found the reality to be entirely different. Some parents apparently went out in their own boat with private divers to try and help, but had to turn back due to several of them fainting from distress. I can only begin to imagine how distraught they all must be.
Police are now requesting an arrest warrant for the captain who abandoned ship rather than trying to help his passengers. Aside from the fact that it's against sea law for a captain to do that, it's difficult to get your head round how he could've left all those children and saved himself. I can't pretend to know I would be brave in that situation, but I like to think I would try and do what I could to help. There are reports coming out now about adults who died doing just that, and I hope they will be remembered forever by those people who were saved. The captain has released a short statement saying he's 'deeply ashamed and so sorry.' I think it would be easy to blame him for what happened and to condemn him for what he didn't do, but at the same time I have no idea if I would be able to act in a different or better way if I were in the same situation. The vice principal of the school was rescued but has now been found to have hung himself, near the gym where all the parents are waiting. I think this shows the extent of guilt any adults survivors must be feeling at this time. Whether we believe what they did was right or wrong, it's definitely fair to say they've been through something terrible.

What really gets to me is that unlike a plane crash, there was a window of opportunity in which many more people could have been saved. They ferry was only 25km off the coast of Korea, and there were fishing boats nearby that quickly picked up people in the water. Reports have said that passengers were told to 'stay where they were' and then never actually instructed on how or when to try and escape. And then it was too late.  It's so angering. I know it's generally not advised to jump into freezing cold water, but I think a lot more people would've had more of a chance than they do now. 

Anyway, apologies for such a depressing post, I just wanted to say something about it. And now all I can do- along with the families, the people of Korea and the rest of the world- is put my trust in the rescuers, wait and hope for a miracle. 

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

Questionless Conformity

The trouble with working in Korea is that it lulls you into a false sense of security in terms of your classroom management skills. The students are generally so well behaved it borders on scary. They are also easily controlled due to their love of doing things en-mass. For example, if you say "be!" to a group of Korean kids they will respond with "quiet!" before shutting up completely.
We often have over 100 students together, and so we adopt this simple crowd control technique to get them to stop talking and listen. It goes a little something like this:

Teacher: "clap 1 time!"

Students clap once.

Teacher: "clap two times!"

Students clap twice.

Teacher: "clap 3 times!"

Students clap three times and then (as if adhering to an unwritten code) put their hands on their heads and are quiet. 

They all do it, everyone one of them. To not do it would to be not Korean.

Last week I was in a group activity and the kids were being pretty loud. My colleague decided to make them clap once, clap twice, clap three times. Then they sat there in silence, hands on their heads until she-like a drill sergeant- shouted "3!" again. They clapped three times in absolute unison before putting their hands back on their heads. My colleague sternly surveyed the obedient crowd before once again demanding loudly "3!" 
This went on for a while, the students sitting their with their hands on their heads, waiting to be commanded to repeat the procedure. It was weird. Sure, it's nice to have such obedient children, but the likeness to robots is sometimes a bit much.

When I left Korea the first time I took 'clap three times' with me, and remember being a bit put out by my European and Saudi students' reaction to it. As in "teacher, what they hell are you doing?" My seven year old Saudi boys would just look confused and then shrug at each other. The concept was even lost on the Japanese students we taught here a few weeks ago. Interesting as they share many similar 'passive and obedient' traits to their far eastern neighbours, but not this one.

I'm aware that the film Frozen has become something of a worldwide phenomenon. I like it. I get it. I've even been practicing some of the piano music. But to like it is not enough here in Korea. Much like their obsession with soju (they've single-handedly made it the worlds most purchased alcoholic drink), the nation has been struck with Frozen mania. Actually, it's more pinpointed than that: it's "Let it Go" mania. The kids sing it in the corridors, they sing it in the classroom, they sing it on their own or as a class choir. In our fashion show they insist on dressing the girl as Elsa, and the boy as Anna (to which he never objects) before parading down the catwalk to the song. 
And on top of all this, I've heard it in so many bars I've lost count.
I sometimes feel like a switch on the motherboard was at some point flicked to "you will love this song with your very being."

Sorry Korea, you know I love you but sometimes you are too creepy!

In the spirit of things, I'll leave you with an excellent rendition of "Let it Go," sung by an impressionist as various different Disney characters.