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!


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