Thursday, June 24, 2010

Privates and civilians

As I walk to work every morning, I negotiate the narrow roads, the wide cars and the cross-flow of our students walking to school and kids walking through our schoolyard to get to the school down the street from mine. I make a sharp distinction between my students, who wear white and navy uniforms in varying degrees of crispness, and those of the public school down the street, who I call civilians.

The civilians look so casual that I don't realize how strange my students look otherwise. I generally don't recognize them I happen to see them not wearing their uniforms, which has happened every now and then. They look burdened and give at least the pretense of being disciplined because they all look the same. The civilians, by contrast, look like they're on a permanent vacation. Sometimes I ask myself, "shouldn't these kids be going to school?" before I catch myself and realize that they are.

So much of my school takes me back to the first school I ever went to, the Nobel Grammar School in Lahore. We (or maybe just me?) not-so-cleverly called it the "no-bell" school. In retrospect, a surprising number of our business was conducted in English, repeated repetitions of repetitions that I didn't understand at all. The order, the regiment and the ceremony all have neat correlations in the South Korean education system.

We wore navy blue uniforms, elastic ties and white shirts that picked up an astonishing amount of dirt on the back of the neck thanks to the fact that it was about 40 degrees outside and we were kids. That helps me understand why my students are perpetually dirty, with sometimes disturbing combinations of dirt, blood and food stains comingling with late afternoon sweat.

The burden on my students is immense. I'm aware of the constant tests: today I handed back last week's tests to my grade 5 students the period after they took their final exam for the semester, which is the day after they took separate, government-mandated standard tests. I'm also aware of the workload, the never-ending private tutoring in a variety of subjects and so on. At least two of my students took an early summer vacation to go study English in America and the Philippines respectively.

One thing that I've only recently come to appreciate is the degree of parental involvement that is required to succeed in some of the more advanced classes. Korea is somewhat lacking in after-school sports, but makes up for it with after-school classes of all sorts. I teach, unsurprisingly, an after-school English class. Success in the class can roughly be correlated with your parents' English ability and their ability to make you memorize words.

As a result, a student that tends to struggle in the class is one whose grandmother is responsible for helping her with her homework. I've heard her protest that she couldn't finish homework because her grandmother doesn't speak English well enough. Other students have explained shortcomings by admitting that their parents (almost invariably their mother) didn't understand the task at hand. One of my favourite answers to a daily writing assignment was a simple 엄마도 몰겠어요 ("mom also doesn't know").

Another burden is the memorizing. High school memorize what would be the equivalent of memorizing as many acts of Hamlet as possible, adults memorize words and their meanings, and my students memorize sentences that show them how to use key words. I personally preferred teaching kids the meaning of the word and letting them use it in a sentence on their own, but then that leads to all sorts of grammatical nightmares.

As much as I would love to instill in my students an Aristotelian disposition for using words in the right way in sentences, it's probably more practical to teach them to memorize correct sentences. If nothing else, the sentences will get stuck in their heads. When making sentences in the future, having a correct structure in mind will pay off. Here is a lengthy but fascinating defense of memorization from a Korean who learned English.

No comments: