Monday, July 2, 2012

Busy as a Bee

Sorry for the hiatus but things have been pretty crazy around here. The past few weeks have literally flown by. In fact, today marks the second to last Monday at my school. Isn't that insane?! Where has the time gone? One year ago from today, I stepped down in Korea with my heart full of joy and anticipation, unsure of what to expect. Today, I feel torn over the prospect of leaving this place. My students are starting to say their heartfelt goodbyes, and I'm doing my best not to burst out crying. That being said, I have two weeks left at my school and I plan to make them count.

For now, let me fill you in on the last couple weeks. Following the Korean Students Speak lesson, I administered speaking tests to every first grade student. On prior speaking tests, students were asked to choose one sentence from a group of 30 and translate it on the spot. Since students were given these sentences in advance, this assessment merely tested their rote memorization skills. This semester, my school wanted to try something new and actually test the students' ability to respond to questions - a valiant cause but one that undoubtedly put a lot of pressure on the school's only native English speaker.

I had to come up with 15 test questions, sit through 650 interviews, and single-handedly score students on a scale of 1-10. All the questions were derived from their textbook and categorized into three difficulty levels: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. For the actual test, students had two minutes to answer three questions, one chosen from each group. I was glad to have the ability to hold students accountable, but felt quite worried, knowing that the students' ever-important grades were at stake. Being that there are nearly 45 students in every class and each class period is 50 minutes long, we planned to finish the test over a span of two weeks.

However, there were so many holidays and random days off during the spring semester. Monday, May 28th was Buddha's birthday; Wednesday, May 30th was a school trip; Wednesday, June 6th was Memorial Day; Thursday, June 7th was a practice college entrance exam; and Tuesday, June 12th was the school's anniversary. Due to this crazy schedule, the speaking test actually ended up spilling into an entire third week. It was physically and mentally draining to sit through all of those interviews. After a while, all their answers began to sound the same. Teaching regular lessons is definitely preferable to this torturous monotony... (>_<) I did, however, enjoy the frequent respite from school life. I used the extra time to study for the LSAT/GRE, lesson plan, and travel around the peninsula.

My time in Korea is winding down but there's still a lot to prepare for. Next week, a group of 10-12 new Fulbright teachers will be coming to my school for a site visit to tour the facilities and observe two of my classes. For most of the new Fulbrights, this will be their first experience in a Korean school, so I'm determined to make the best impression that I can. I might have mentioned it before. But after I finish teaching at my school, I'll be heading back to Jungwon Unversity, the place where it all started. If you can remember back to my earliest posts, all incoming Fulbright teachers had the opportunity to practice teaching three classes at Camp Fulbright, an intensive English language immersion camp, and receive feedback from veteran teachers. This time, the roles will be reversed. I have been hired to serve as a full-time instructor for camp and assist the incoming Fulbrights with their lessons.

While I am used to teaching a 50 minute lesson every week, planning for Camp Fulbright has been an entirely different experience. During camp, I will be teaching 2 hour lessons in the morning, evaluating two new teachers in the early afternoon, coordinating speaking and visual final presentations with my class, leading an extracurricular dance club in the late afternoon, supervising homework time, and assisting with nightly activities for two weeks straight. I know that it's going to be an incredibly fulfilling experience. But right now, it feels like I'm drowning in lesson plans and administrative work. Needless to say, I spent most of my days off, planning and prepping for camp.

In addition, I will be heading to Orientation to lead a large group workshop on teaching club classes, and participate in Panel Day, where the new Fulbrights will have a chance to ask questions and learn about our diverse experiences in Korea. It's a little overwhelming to think about all the stuff I have to get done before I leave. But I'm thrilled that I'll be able to meet the new class of Fulbrights and have a tangible impact on their grant year.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Korean Students Speak

From a young age, Korean students are trained to memorize mountains of information with the hope of attending a prestigious university one day. In this strict, regimented education system, there is little room for creative thought or personal expression. Last fall, some of my peers sought to address this very issue by creating an online project called Korean Students Speak. The premise of this project is simple. With a marker and blank piece of paper, students can creatively voice their opinion to the world.

Fulbright teachers all across Korea have united under this cause by launching the project in their own classrooms. The results have been overwhelming positive. The website now has over 1000 followers, and there are scores of powerful messages being shared and reblogged all over the Internet.

I did this project with my students during the week of May 21-24th and I was blown away by what my students had to say. The themes of their messages varied anywhere from hilarious to hopeful to  heart-wrenching, but each was powerful in its own way.

Many other teachers had difficulty convincing their students to agree to take a picture. But I had the opposite problem. My students jumped at the chance to advertise their face and message to the world.  Their eager participation might have something to do with the fact that their speaking tests were the following week. They knew that yours truly would be the sole person grading them, so they probably wanted to suck up to me. But as far as I'm concerned, there's nothing wrong with that.  ;)

One of the biggest surprises was seeing my lowest level students maximize the English that they do know to write meaningful statements. I expected that my high level students would write profound messages. But my low level students also impressed me with their thoughtful words. Just goes to show you that language is only a barrier if you allow it to be.

By the end of the week, I had amassed over 300 photos. I wish I could share all of them with you, but due to space limitations, I chose about 30 from my collection to post on my blog. I hope you enjoy them, as much as my students did making and posing for them. I am so proud of my students!

And lastly, I leave you with my KSS message. I think it very much speaks for itself. Whenever I'm not in the studying mood and just want to go to bed after a long day at school, I think about my poor students who are tolling away in preparation for the big exam, which is over TWO YEARS away. Sigh, in comparison to my students, I feel like an ultimate slacker.

Although I am the one with the distinguished title, my students have taught me so many important life lessons. I truly admire their determination, courage, and strength. Every day, I try to live up to their example and inch closer to my personal goals, one flashcard at a time.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Hwacheon Peace Forum

On the weekend of May 19-20, I, along with 15 other Fulbright teachers, participated at the 7th Annual Hwacheon Peace Forum. Hwacheon is located 90 kilometers northeast of Seoul and is one of closest cities to North Korea. Admittedly, it was difficult to get to this small town. There's no direct bus or train route, so I had to first head to Seoul and then get on the commuter train line to Chuncheon. There, we met the organizers of the event, and they bused us over to Hwacheon. Then again, I shouldn't complain because some of my friends came from as far as Mokpo or Busan.

The purpose of this event was to facilitate discussion amongst foreign English teachers and Korean high school students about issues of inter-cultural peace, diplomacy, and North/South Korea relations. For the weekend, each of us was paired up with one of the top students from the local high school. Once we arrived in Hwacheon, they brought us to the Folk Museum, where our "partners" were eagerly waiting for us and holding the name tag of their respective foreigner. As soon as I stepped off the bus, I was ambushed by a short, enthusiastic student with thick glasses, named Chae-yeon. Her excitement was undeniable. She proceeded to grab my hands, and jump up and down. Talk about a warm welcome!

Then we wandered around the Folk Museum with our partners, while they translated some signs for us and told us about the historical significance of Hwacheon. The city was a source of conflict during the Korean War due to its strategic value as a power plant and potential weapon; that is, the intentionally flooding of downstream areas (more on this later). Next, we got to try on really lavish and colorful hanboks. Right off the bat, it became clear to me that I really lucked out with my partner. Though her English wasn't the best, she was perhaps the most outspoken and energetic student on the trip. Needless to say, we bonded right away.

After that, we got on the bus and headed to a not-so touristy part of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). During Orientation, we went to the DMZ but this time it was a much more intimate and poignant experience because we were literally able to see some of North Korea's military features. Only 1.5 km away from North Korea, Chilseong Observatory is one of the closest South Korean bases to North Korea. You can visit here only with the permission of the military unit, which safeguards the area. At the observatory, we watched a video about the DMZ and then got to go outside onto the observation deck. Before heading outside, we were warned not to make any sudden movements or "do anything suspicious that would cause them to shoot you." Something tells me that they weren't kidding.

Past the 3 layers of barbed wire fence and a field of landmines, we saw several North Korean guard houses, training facilities, and farming pastures. Looking through the binoculars at the observatory, we were able to see some North Korean people actually farming the fields. The South Korean guards at the observatory were super helpful and shared many personal stories with us. They later mentioned that the people we saw farming were actually North Korean soldiers in disguise, attempting to give off the impression that civilians have a decent life in the North.

We also asked the guards about the craziest thing they've ever seen on duty. One guard stated that every once in a while a cow on the North Korean side will step on a landmine and blow up. When that happens, North Korean civilians will appear out of no where, run toward the cow, and attempt to scoop up pieces of the carcass with their bare hands before scurrying away. That haunting image exemplifies how serious the issues of hunger and poverty are in North Korea. We weren't allowed to take pictures in the observatory but we got a group shot outside right before we left.

After the DMZ, we headed to a hanok village - our lodging for the evening. Staying overnight in a hanok was on my Korean bucket list, so I'm glad that I got to cross it off my list on this trip. Before dinner, we watched an observation on how to make 떡 (ddeok, a.k.a. rice cake) the traditional way by vigorously pounding sticky rice with a mallet and liberally rubbing water on it. Then some of us got to try our hand at pounding the sticky rice.

In the evening, the Korean students' parents prepared a magnificent barbeque feast for us. The meat never stopped coming and everything was really delicious. It was clear that the parents were so gracious and thankful to have us there, interacting with their children. After dinner, we played a bunch of games outside with the students. When it got dark, we moved inside and continued playing more games. It was fun to share our cultures, by teaching each other American and Korean backyard games.

The next morning, we went to see the World Peace Bell and Peace Dam. On top of the bell, there are 4 dove statues facing the cardinal directions. Notably, the one looking north is missing part of its wing. This symbolizes the fact that South Korea is still at war with its northern brother. If and when the two countries reunite, the broken wing will be reattached.

The bell weighs around 35 tons and was cast in traditional Korean bell design out of recycled shells and casings collected from wars that had been fought all over the world. The bell is one of the largest in the world that visitors are still allowed to ring. It was very symbolic that all of us, Koreans and American together, got to ring the bell as a sign of international peace and understanding.

When rung, the bell makes a deep, resonating sound that can probably be heard a mile away. It was cool to put our backs against the bell and feel the strong vibrations. We also got to shake hands with statues of the former Nobel Peace Prize winners. Right adjacent to the World Peace Bell is the Peace Dam, which was built stave off possible catastrophic flooding should the upstream Imnam Dam in North Korea collapse, either intentionally or by accident. While construction of the dam began in 1987, it took twenty-five years to complete, as the project was halted several times, among allegations that the threat had been grossly exaggerated.

Today, the dam has no reservoir and merely serves as a symbolic and precautionary measure. Here's a really cool article about the Peace Dam: "Once peace finally comes to Korea, the Peace Dam will function like a normal dam," said a public relations video being played at a Peace Dam museum. "Until then, the Peace Dam stands here, silently suffering the burden of national division."

After that, we went to a conference room and had our official "peace talk." There, we sat down together and got to candidly share our observations from the weekend, our personal opinions about peace, and thoughts about the possibility for unification between North and South Korea. It was a very moving and poignant discussion, and I appreciated the chance to hear directly from young native Koreans. During this discussion, I shared that visiting the observatory was a very bittersweet and meaningful experience for me because of my Korean-American identity. Three out of my four grandparents were born in the North and were fortunately able to escape before the war broke out. In doing so, my relatives left everything behind, including their worldly possessions, childhood memories, other family members, and friends.

This tragic war literally split families apart and forced people fight against their brothers. Standing at the observatory, I was struck by the realization that it was likely the closest that I will ever get to seeing the place where my relatives came from. While I do believe that the two Koreas will unite in the future, it is highly unlikely that this will occur in my lifetime. Just reflecting on this experience and the sacrifices of the Korean people made me and others in the room become quite emotional. I was so touched by everyone's heartfelt stories and I felt honored to be a part of this incredible opportunity for cultural exchange.

Following the talk, we made our way down to the Bukhan River and took the ferry back to Hwacheon. The view from the river was beautiful and it was nice to spend the afternoon on a boat. There's something about being on the water that always makes me feel so happy and at peace. It was also a great chance to pose for some epic Titantic-inspired photos!

The ride was a little over an hour long and gave us an opportunity to enjoy our last afternoon together. While this event spanned a mere 36 hours, I became very attached to the sweet students, especially my partner. For the rest of the boat ride, we took a ton of pictures to commemorate this awesome event.

On Saturday morning, I woke up before the crack of dawn to embark upon the long journey to Hwacheon. I honestly wasn't sure if the trip would be worth all the hassle to trek all the way there and back. I even thought about calling in sick. But in the end, I went and had an amazing time. It's these kind of experiences that Senator Fulbright must've been speaking about when he envisioned an educational and cultural exchange program that would connect people together from all over the world.

I believe that there is a great need for programs that promote these kind of cross-cultural discussions. In my opinion, true peace cannot be achieved without "people to people" exchanges and efforts for mutual understanding. Through the 16 Korean students on this trip, I learned a lot about how young people in Korea feel about the issue of reunification. Nearly all Koreans that I've interacted with seem to support the overall idea of reunification and are hoping that it will happen someday.

That being said, they are realistic and know that there are many complicated economic factors to consider. I am interested to see how the South Korean government and international community continue to address this issue and what measures, if any, they take to move in the direction of reunification. Until then, I will remain hopeful. My dream is that one day, the arbitrary demarcation that separates people of one blood will be taken down and replaced by a free flowing pathway of unity and brotherhood.