Saturday, December 11, 2010

I get questions

From the moment I thought about teaching as a career, I imagined a classroom full of students riveted by my every word, not just my explanations of World War I, but also my off-topic explanations of the Greek origins of certain words, or the difference between 'e.g.' and 'i.e.'. In reality, of course, it's nothing like that, not in the least because I teach motivated students that couldn't understand my inanities even if they really, really wanted to.

I've by large settled for defining abstract English nouns in Korean and trying to make them relevant by giving concrete examples, only to realize the gap between tourist plaques and the typical socio-historical knowledge of a 12-year-old.

At any rate, with about 20-25 kids disinterested in yet another class in their long day, this time in English, my dream isn't realized as often as I would like. On the other hand, when I volunteer with a small group of three kids on Wednesdays, I find that I command much better attention, even though these students speak English in words here and there rather than sentences.

This week, after I finished teaching the past tenses of irregular verbs including read/read, one 11-year-old looked up from her book and asked, "who invented English anyway? Americans?" I explained the relationship between the 'Eng' in English and England, as well as Britain's settler colonies around the world, which obviously is not something that many Koreans (or English speakers) give much thought to.

We spent the next 20-30 minutes looking at middle school final exams (one student had a stack of them), while I marveled at some of the math that's done in grade 8 here. As an aside, while I used to think that these kids were far better-behaved than the students I'm paid to teach, I think it probably points to the fact that I'm too uptight in class. Some of the things I said which stunned these kids:

  • Many Americans can't speak English, or rather, don't speak it fluently. I estimated that 15% of Americans, or about 50 million people, don't speak English at a native level due to immigration. The relationship between America and English was tautological to them. "Wow! Fifty million people are Americans but can't speak English! Amazing!"

  • "I heard that in America, if teachers hit students, they go to jail."
    "No way! Really?"
    "Yeah! You have to go to the police office."

    Corporal punishment is also not very popular here.

  • If you speak English in America, it's not a one-way ticket to a cushy life the way it is here. In fact, there's a premium for Americans to learn foreign Korean.

  • English is an absurdly hard language to learn. French, which seems to be characterized as a series of gargling noises (not all that far off the mark), is probably easier.

  • In Canada, I finished high school at 3 pm and was free to go home. In middle school, there were no final exams. Come to think of it, in middle school we put a premium on expressing complex historical ideas through drama. This would explain, later on, why students were unable to write a paragraph: the time to learn how to write had been spent avoid writing in favour of skits.
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