And, we're back! Sorry for the delay, my old friend Elliott was visiting for a week and we had our hands full with carrying passed out Korean business men out of the street. Seriously. So, after last week's opus of a post, this one is going to be a bit more short and sweet. And sour. 2 weekends ago I had the chance to go to the Hi Seoul festival, along the Han river, and boy was it something... (foreshadowing!)
For 9 days a year, the Han river explodes with millions and millions of Koreans, all excited to soak in everything the festival has to offer. This year, the theme was "nonverbal performances" so there were tons of dance, music, acrobatic, and other styles of wordless performance. The festival is also home to the world's largest international fireworks competition which this year involved... 3 teams!
Here is the website's interpretation of the festival, "We'd like to inspire the fever of festival into the hearts of citizens who are tired from daily routines through Hi Seoul Festival. We want to make Hi Seoul Festival as a chapter that inspires pride and vitality to leap into the future and spread the charms of Seoul." (http://english.hiseoulfest.org)
And spread their charms they did! Unfortunately, we only had one afternoon to experience all the wonders of the festival. Fortunately, everything we saw was awesome. We started with a walk down the river to get the lay of the land and to watch newbie Koreans try to ride a tandem bicycle and inevitably end up crashing into each other. The entire 2-3 mile stretch was completely packed. Every store along the river had a 30 minute line outside just to get in to get some fried squid.
Next up, we found our first (and only...) performance of the festival. Luckily, it was more amazing than anything I could have possibly imagined. Aliens dancing with a drumline! Not only that, they marched down the river and the drumline jumped into these crazy fish/xylophone/bike/car things and the show continued! OK, really a video is going to show this better than me mincing words can:
Awesome, right? So after that we headed over to this bridge to watch the fireworks (that we technically weren't supposed to be on). Police would come and ask people to leave, and they'd be like, "yeah, we're just getting in our cars and going officer." And then the police would head down the bridge to talk to more people, and eventually come back and be like, "hey, I thought you were leaving!" And the person would go, "Oh yeah, right, right officer, we'll be on our way now" But no one would actually even leave, it just got more and more crowded.
For the fireworks show, 3 countries competed: China, Canada, and Korea. China was completely terrible. You'd think as the maker of most of the world's fireworks they'd pull out the big guns, but it was like watching your neighborhood 4th of July show, if your neighborhood only had one house shooting off fireworks and all they got were a few lame mortars. Canada came next and rocked it pretty hard. Although fireworks set to Celine Dion somehow ruin the mood a little bit...
And then Korea stole the show! They set the bridge ablaze (the one we were on, which is probably why no one was supposed to be there). They had RC flying phoenixes that were shooting flames out of their wings, soaring across the night sky. And for the grand finale the skyline was completely full with more fireworks than 10 Fireworks Fridays at the K. It was amazing. Needless to say, Korea came away with the victory.
In the end, it was a great time and my only wish is that I could have seen more of the performances during the day. Still, it was a beautiful day with some even beautifuler company (I'm talking about you Joel and Maria, well, at least one of you...) Thanks for tuning in and I'll leave you with a gallery of some more festival pics!
Oh, hello! I didn’t hear you come in. Welcome back to my blog and to an exciting new post all about the Korean education system. OK, truth be told, this will definitely be a long one and it might not be too interesting for those non-educators (heck, it might be completely boring for everyone regardless) but if you ever wanted to know all the ins and outs of schools in Korea, you’ve come to the right place. If that sounds completely awful, may I recommend http://www.catsinsinks.com/
To begin with, the Korean school system has a lot of similarities to the US system. It’s broken down into elementary, middle, and high school. They have public and private schools. And the general organization and class requirements are the same as back home. That being said, there are plenty of differences between the two, so let’s dig in!
Type of Schools
Korea has public and private schools, like the US, but they also have things called hagwons and academies. Public schools are similar to those in the US in that they are funded by the government, students don’t pay to attend, and many of them lack the money and resources necessary to provide a proper education. Most classes have 30-45 students in them, at least at the elementary level. For English teachers, our curriculum is decided on at the national level. At this time, every single English class has the same textbook, and it’s not so great. Here’s a video of the kind of content we teach to 5th graders, which is way too easy for most of them:
Fortunately, in the next year or two, schools will have a choice of one of several English texts, depending on their students’ ability levels. Private schools here are set up similarly to the US as well. Students have to pay to attend, and they generally have smaller classes and more resources since they get tuition fees plus the same funding from the government that public schools get. Generally (from what I’ve heard at least) private schools are set up from endowments from companies and aren’t associated with religions or churches. Some business will want to start a private school, set up a fund of billions of won, and bam, you’ve got Samsung high school.
Hagwons and academies are pretty similar to each other and I have several friends who teach at hagwons. These are places that students go after school to further their instruction in specific subjects. The classes are usually around 5-15 students and they are open from 3:00-10:00PM. It’s basically like taking extra classes in English or math or science or clarinet or whatever subject the parents think the kids should know more about. Generally, teachers at hagwons and academies get paid more, since they are privately funded, but they also don’t get as many days off and have a lot less free time.
The students here present an interesting paradox. Their typical day runs between 10-12 hours of straight learning. They get to school at 8 or 9, depending on if they have a class before school starts, and right after school they had to the hagwon or academy for more classes. Most of my students don’t go to bed until midnight or 1:00 because they’ve got so much homework to do after they get back from academy. Plus, every other Saturday they have to be at school! Luckily I don’t have to teach those days.
So with all that constant learning, you think they’d be pretty burnt out. But they’re not! They’re like if you took 8 packs of mentos, dropped them into a gallon of diet coke, and then sealed the lid before it exploded. I think it’s because they don’t have an outlet for all their energy, they just have to stay inside all day learning and memorizing. If we gave them a couple hours after school to go and play, and if they had Saturday off, I feel like they would be way more chill in class.
The last thing I’ll say about the students is that they’re incredibly book smart. They are great at memorizing and reciting and doing worksheets. However, they are sorely lacking in the creativity department. Any assignment they get that asks them to think outside the box or create something original usually results in lots of blank stares and students asking, “wait, so what’s the right answer?” Aside from that, they are very respectful, friendly, and hardworking (most of the time), and I have a lot of fun working with all of them.
The Teachers and Faculty
Like in the states, teachers here vary greatly between and within schools. But I’m going to go ahead and make some sweeping generalizations about them to try and capture the gist of what I’ve learned so far. Every 3-5 years, public school teachers are required by law to move to a new school. I still have not gotten a good answer on why this is the case, it just is. Regardless of how much you like a school, the history you’ve built up there, how you’ve shaped the school culture, it doesn’t matter. Once your time is up, you are out of there. You can request where you want to go next, but you don’t always get your first choice. To me, it sounds like a bureaucratic nightmare trying to organize the transition of thousands of teachers to and from all the public schools, but that’s how it is.
For elementary school, the teachers are required to take a test before they start teaching. This test determines if they become a homeroom teacher, an English teacher, or a teacher of one of the few subjects not taught by the homeroom teacher such as science. From what I’ve seen, this leaves you with a lot of frustrated teachers who wanted to teach 3rd grade and ended up being the school’s English teacher because their English ability, though minimal, was the best out of everyone else in the school. Overall though, the teachers know their craft (they’ve all attended 4 year universities) and are passionate about education.
As for the principal and vice principal, these positions are treated very differently than in the states. Maybe this is different for high school, but at the elementary level no special degree (beyond what it takes to be a teacher) is required for these positions. Instead, principals (and vice principals) are expected to have 20-25 years of service as teachers before they are considered for promotion. Once a person becomes a principal, they receive the same salary as they would if they were still teaching, but on the plus side, they get a giant office like this one (which happens to be almost twice the size of my apartment).
Finally (for this section), parents! I’ve had the chance to talk with a few parents who have lived here and in the US and I asked them to compare their experiences with public education. The issue they all complained about here was that there was no communication between parents and teachers. There is no meet the teacher night or parent/teacher conferences or any chance to get to know the people that are entrusted with their children’s education. The parents said they even have difficulty getting a teacher on the phone as most teachers just perfect texting these days. What a great way to get feedback about one of the most important aspects of life:
Parent: “Howz Mikson n class? Ys he got Fs?”
Teacher: “Sry, ur kid is ALLways L8 and doesnt no how 2 learn”
Parent: “O I C. l8r teach”
The last thing I’ll talk about in this most epic of blog posts is discipline. So far, I have had to send 0 kids into the hall or to the office. Mainly, this is because my cooperating teachers handle the majority of disciplining here and they have quite an interesting system for it.
A lot of times, when they’re yelling at the kids about how rude they are or what not it will go something like this, “I can’t believe you are talking while I am, that is completely disrespectful. Put your hands on your heads! How many times do we have to go through this? Put your hands behind your back! Every day I tell you the same thing and you never listen. Put your hands back on your heads!” And so on and so forth for somewhere between 1 and 10 minutes. Sometimes, if just one kid is being bad the teacher will only have him put his hands on his head for a while. Or she’ll have him go stand in the corner on one foot or something like that. So far, it seems pretty effective, and generally the kids are good after that. At least for the rest of that class.
Also, if you’re bad, the teachers assign you to extra cleaning duty. In general, every student has to do some cleaning (mopping, sweeping, trash collecting) and I really think it helps keep the school clean. Kids know if they make a mess or litter, they’ll be the ones cleaning it up in the end. I must say though, they are the worst moppers I have ever seen. They'll drag the mop behind them, take one lap around the room with it, and call it a day. Not like the floor needs mopping, since everyone wears slippers inside, but come on! And when just boys are cleaning broom fights tend to erupt quite frequently.
Made it! Overall, I really love my school. The students are great and I have a lot of fun working with my coteachers. Plus, I get to wear slippers and jeans to work every day. Despite the heavy focus on memorization and route learning, we do some pretty awesome things here as well.
One of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had in education was helping to run an online class between our school and our sister school in New Zealand. At the end of class, the NZ teacher played a Korean folk song on his guitar while our students sang along from 6000 miles away. Seeing an activity that combined music, technology, and learning in such an awesome way reminded me of why I love teaching.
In closing, I will leave you with a sweet video of a presentation I made for an upcoming lesson. Also, you should go check out “Waiting for Superman,” a great new documentary about public schools in the US. Thanks for making it through! Now go check out http://www.catsinsinks.com/ if you didn’t at the start of this post!
Another blog post only two days after the last one?? That's right, and this one is even meatier than the last. So, remember field day in elementary school? It was always on a beautiful spring day in April or May, and you went around as a class to all these different games and events trying to win ribbons or prizes or just the pride of being the best at standing on one leg for a really long time. And there were awesome events like the water balloon toss, the egg relay race, and the "see how far you can kick you shoe off your foot game." Well, it turns out Korea has something pretty similar, called Sport's Day (rough translation...)
As far as I've been told, Sport's day in a country-wide occurrence where every single elementary school shuts down for a day of games and activities. It's a complete blast and the students really enjoy themselves for it, but it's set up a tad bit differently from field day back home. For sport's day, the entire school is divided into two teams, the white team and the blue team. Each grade gets to compete in one race and one game, earning points for their team as they go.
6 kids run at a time, until all 600 or so kids from each grade have gone. The students who place first in their heat get to run in a relay at the end of the day. My job was to stand at the finish line and stamp the hand of the first place kid in every heat. My second job was to try and catch the 1-3 kids who fell at the end of every race after they tripped over a parent or student or one of the 50 other people at the finish line.
This is where Korea really separated itself from American field day. Back home, we were either playing a game or moving to the next event station, so there was very little down time. Here, the kids have tons of free time while the other students are racing or playing their grade's game. When the students aren't participating, it falls on the shoulders of a few teachers and parents to keep the 100's of kids happily entertained with juice boxes and dried squid while they wait an hour for their turn to play. Surprisingly, there's a lot of unrest.
The first game up was the 2nd graders, and they played what can only be described as... well, i'm not exactly sure, but here's a video.
Pretty awesome, right? So after that, there was a race, and then the 3rd graders took to the field with a sweet relay game...
If you missed the kid getting biffed in the face during that second hand off, you might need to watch it again. Don't worry, he was totally fine. After the relay, we had another race, more hand stamping, and then the 4th graders! Now, originally, I thought that big ball relay was the coolest relay I'd ever seen. This changed my mind:
Human sled relay! OK, well, the sleds weren't made of humans, but you know what I mean. Then, another race, another game. This time it was the 5th graders. Take it away YouTube...
So much fun! Then, for the final game, the 6th graders played tug of war. If you've never seen a tug of war game span the entire length of a football field, I highly recommend it. And while it was fun watching the 6th graders fall over each other as they tried to pull with all their might, what was even better was watching their synchronized dance a little later...
Finally, the students had their relay, which was really fun to watch. Going into it, the score was tied but the white team won the girls and boys race so they ended up crushing team blue after it was all said and done.
Once the games and races were finished, and the students came back from lunch, the afternoon was devoted to the arts. All the musical clubs (violin club, clarinet club, etc.) performed, some of the students did short skits, and then these guys did a few stirring numbers from Andrew Lloyd Webber's eternal masterpiece, Cats. (In case the costumes didn't give it away)
Well, that about does it! Thanks for sticking around for this ridiculously long post and I'll leave with a gallery of some highlights from the day!
Well, I've officially made it one month here! All in all, I'm loving it. The people are great, the food is tasty, and I haven't had to experience yellow dust season yet (whatever that is), so I'm feeling pretty dandy. Plus, we just had Chuseok break! What's Chuseok? I'm glad you asked, since I was going to do a blog post about it anyway!
Chuseok ( is the Korean equivalent of Thanksgiving. It rolls around on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar every year, which is usually right around the fall equinox. Koreans typically spend this time leaving the city and heading back to their hometowns. They get 3 days off (unless you're in a public school then you get the whole week!) to eat traditional foods, hang out with family, and perform customary ceremonies to give thanks to their ancestors. Overall it's a pretty great holiday, especially when you show up for work and after putting in a hard 3 days your boss is like, "hey you know we've got a week off after next week for this Chuseok thing."
So, in order to celebrate, I asked the good old GF Michelle to fly on over, and help me explore Seoul while all the locals were out of town. Here's what we did...
On one of Michelle's first days here, we went to Insadong. It's this big street in Seoul that's full of tons of shops and vendors and is perfect for souvenir finding. Turns out it's also perfect for random animal finding. There was a guy that had about 15 sugar gliders climbing all over him and was letting everyone play with them. I love the expression on the old man's face in the background.
We also went nureabanging one night, which is basically like Karaoke, except everyone gets a private room. Surprisingly, they have a pretty awesome English song selection. Plus, there are crazy music videos that play while you're singing that have absolutely nothing to do with the song. Most of them look like excerpts from the travel channel jumbled with clips from Korean soap operas.
Next up, we decided to spring for some massages which turned out to be one of the best and worst days ever. Best, because we got hot stones, our feet dipped in wax, and some premium service. Worst, because I elected to go with the deep tissue massage which was a decision that every single muscle reminded me of for the next two days.
The next day, my boss took us to a traditional Korean village in Yongin, which is sort of like the colonial village in Williamsburg except awesome. People still live there, farming, fishing, building bridges, making paper, weaving silk from silk worm larvae, and performing traditional (allegedly) dances which you should definitely check out in the two videos below.
Plus they had some pretty decent horse acrobatics that you can check out too.
Finally, we climbed (aka took the cable car) to the top of Seoul mountain (Namsan) for an amazing view of the city and a delicious dinner. Overall, it was the best Chuseok break I've ever had and you can check out some bonus pics in the gallery below. Sorry this post took forever to get up, but it's been a busy couple weeks, plus there will be a new one in just a couple days!
Also, after Chuseok break was over, Michelle had the chance to visit my class for a couple days and we put on a little performance for the students. Needless to say, they all paid perfect attention for the entire song.