Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Earning My Students' Focus: Coraline, Halloween, New Lessons

I mean it how I wrote it. As opposed to "keeping my students focused," which is what some ESL/EFL teachers do over here. Visit YouTube or Facebook and you'll find dozens of classroom clips of young, ESL teachers (and older expats as teacher) playing clown and entertaining their classes while not teaching anything of use about language, its meaning or utility.

It's frustrating to think I might have to be evaluated someday by a foreigner who believes this is useful and good teaching; moreover, it's depressing to realize that many Korean EFL teachers think this is what praxis boils down to in the US, in my case, when it's decidedly not.

The powerpoint presentation has become the signifier of a lesson that often simply doesn't exist and teachers not-teaching stand in front of their projections babbling on and on about what they want to teach but won't actually get around to teaching. Some do this in various characters they create as they attempt to perform in front of the students. I don't know who's kidding who here, but it's apparent that a few students think they're learning when they're being only mildly entertained and a few Korean co-teachers think they're working with a smart teacher who's actually nothing more than an egomaniac while the rest of us watch in shock as we try to learn how to build a valuable pedagogical community that can promote worthwhile teaching practices. I blame capitalism and boredom for this development and implementation of technology in classrooms. We have a shut up and watch this culture of conspicuous consumption. We like treating students like they're consumers. But I'm getting off topic.

I know many of my colleagues work very hard to create useful lessons that help their students use English more effectively and help them feel as if they are coming to an intermediate mastery of usage. I'm not going to stick up examples because I know some of these people and I think their hearts are in the right place. I just gag every time I see a newly published video with amateur theatrics passed off as useful teaching and progressive pedagogy.

Onto Coraline.

My school doesn't have English Camps. Many high schools don't. So, this summer rather than teach 60 hours to three or four students who would want to sign up for a camp with me here in Daehakdong, I volunteered to teach at two English Camps for middle schoolers. I was a mad commuter on crutches with my broken foot but was very happy to be in Jamwondong at Sindong Middle School for three weeks and Gusandong at Eunpyeong Middle School for one. I finally had a chance to meet other foreign teachers and I must say that I was pleased to make new friends and learn new teaching methods. Having only taught in the University and College classroom, I'm not at all embarrassed to admit that I learn a lot from my colleagues about how to work the secondary-school classroom. Well, or how not to work it. It depends on what I see. I yearn for peer evaluation. This summer was a great opportunity to listen to my colleagues.

At Sindong Middle School, we wanted to provide a couple of fun days during a lengthy camp. We decided to screen a film on one afternoon. I offered up Coraline, which I had just seen and thought the students would like. I expected nobody to be interested, but they were. And the students loved the film. I had no idea. The kids were fixed in their seats, focused, and hung on each scene. Korean audiences can be very expressive. It wasn't difficult to understand how much they enjoyed the break from classes and liked the film. As a result of its reception at Sindong, I decided to show it to students at my school.

Each semester I prepare one or two cultural lessons. We have drawn monsters, discussed superstition, talked about parents as 잔소리군 (jan-so-ri-gun; a nag) and teachers' disciplinary action, thought about hunger and poverty, shared about sports. Anything to give them a break from direct instruction and encourage some critical thinking while using English. The classroom experience here is so rigid, they usually like it. In addition, the students and co-teachers usually have no experience with the material I use. The classes can be fun.

Last Halloween, we talked about Jack-o-Lanterns and Halloween monsters and the students competed in groups of six to create the most interesting monster concept. The winning group in each class received a bag of Halloween candy that I prepared. This year, I decided to try to create a multi-week project with Coraline. I've recently got into the habit of creating four-week blocks of lessons that have their own focus. It gives the students time to develop a way to use the language they're learning in my classes. I didn't know how my coteachers would be react to me wanting to show a film, so at a department meeting I only mentioned showing the film as a Halloween treat and admitted we'd only have time to watch 50-minutes or half the film. The students enjoyed the film so much my co-teachers insisted we finish it the following week. I thought this would happen and it permitted me to add in our next meeting that I had some ideas for two more lessons using the film content as material.

My co-teachers are thrilled, as you can imagine, because for the next few weeks they need not worry about this part of their jobs. And they are tickled because we agreed about something quite naturally: Coraline is a good film, it's interesting, it's useful, and the students are happy. Honestly, I hadn't thought about the language level of the film. But it's intermediate (vocabulary and usage) to advanced intermediate (speed of dialogue.) I used the Korean subtitles, but in my future lessons I can implement the actual vocabulary from the film without any difficulties. One significantly Korean aspect of the film is Coraline's relationship with her mother and father. Her mother is a sympathetic character as well as a real nag, her father can be distant but has her complete admiration, and Coraline is a bit of a princess. It's hard to summarize this complex relationship so quickly in this blog post; forgive me. What's important is that the kids totally get her and her parents. I couldn't be more fortunate because I hadn't considered that they'd necessarily get everything about the relationships in the film. Sometimes I'll show them something or use an example in class that I'm sure they'll understand and I'm just way off base with their gist of families and culture.

While Coraline is not flawless, it's a visual delight. It's heart is very big. And it's not weird for weirdness sake, which it could have been had Tim Burton gotten his hands on it. It's wonderful to have 100 minutes of class-time spent in silence for 20 classes of peace of mind. And it's a good break for the hard-working teachers here. I've gotten a kick out of watching my kids peacefully sitting, trying to have fun.

We decided to use two of our many ideas to make a four-week block of classroom activities. Two classes around Halloween to watch the film, its 97 minutes, followed by two classes of lessons using Coraline's characters and themes. I'm focusing on a Fantasy/Reality lesson that will teach 1) new vocabulary with a focus on synonyms and antomyns, 2) cultural usage of American English and 3) group work and presentation of material in class. I've got speaking and writing covered as well. This lesson will encourage students to think about how to express their fantasies in contrast with their realities. It will encourage translation via bilingual discussion in group work. Something I wholeheartedly support. My English Classroom is purposefully bilingual. (I hate the English Only crap teachers pull here. As if the kids aren't using Korean when they use English.) We'll also get the class to create a marketing campaign for the film as if they were marketing it for Korean audiences. In short, ads for the film using pens, craypas and paper.

All in all, Coraline was a wonderful way to work on a Halloween/Autumn set of lessons without resorting to awful lessons about culture that nobody cares about, like "My Teacher's version of the source of Halloween" or "My Teacher's version of the meaning of Thanksgiving and how it relates to Chuseok (because My Teacher needs to assimilate everything in order to teach it)" or "My teacher is an individual who has a different take on Halloween and Thanksgiving than other foreigners and this makes my Teacher cool, or so she thinks."

Anyway, my hour of free-time is up and I'm off to teach. Please feel free to share your Autumn lessons in the comments and/or provide links and/or criticism.

Possibly Useful Links: Henry Selick, Neil Gaiman, Coraline Wiki, Coraline Movie, Coraline IMDB.

1 comment:

Pree-oz said...

Gary, this is a wonderful post, and a fabulous unit based around movies. I loved reading what you did with it. It makes me miss teaching very much.