Monday, June 7, 2010

In Media Res: Neither for nor against, forever with my students.

On teaching to the middle: I entered my first class this morning with no expectations, demands, concerns, or anxieties regarding the beginning of 150 minutes ( three weeks) of exercises designed to help my students acquire commonly used English regarding "hard work" and "feelings about belonging". Even though the next three weeks include the language work Korean students least enjoy, I'm confident about my lesson plans and tend to enter class ready to find a means to solve one problem: How do I reach the students with the least English knowledge yet encourage the advanced students to learn something new about English they already know?

Some teachers like to talk about teaching to the middle. I abhor the practice. I believe it's an important aspect of anti-intellectualism in the classroom. It resists conflict and complexity in most discourse and does much to insist that the teacher is the sole guide to classroom discourse, which could be called The Status Quo. I only mention this because Arne Duncan's and President Obama's educational policies are on my mind. Maybe I'll write more about this later.

I like to encourage group work in my Korean classes for two reasons. First, when Korean students do not know an answer and/or are confronted with a difficult series of complex tasks, they may decide to quit participating in class and will sleep if permitted. They simply give up. Second, critical thinking is not required in Korean classrooms where following directions and repeating correct answers is more highly valued. I've had to come to terms with my desire to make every thing and space look like me and admit that my job as a Native Speaking English Teacher is not to criticize Korean education culture, which foreigners often purposefully choose to ignore is a public education system with a complex pedagogy developed over many centuries. On the other hand, I am not required to give up my principles and practice simply because I am a guest from a different culture.

Creating groups that contain high, middle and low performing students and designing lessons that focus on specific skills that students should already possess is one very reliable method to insist that critical thinking skills remain a necessary part of my classroom work. I'll discuss my current assignment in the next post.

Monday Class & The Big Picture: My first Monday class is with second grade boys who are at an intermediate level. It's hard to accurately judge my students' English knowledge: they're purposefully reserved when they participate in class and, as a result of study methods, they often know many more words than they can use. It's easy to say they are low-performing when they have more knowledge or high-performing when they have little knowledge. There are maybe ten students in each class who are behind, yet the majority of the class can understand about 80% of what I say to them without needing an explanation from their Korean co-teacher.

My task is to find a way to activate the knowledge students already possess in order to encourage them to acquire new knowledge. I talk to my Korean co-teachers about language acquisition all the time. Korean students are inundated with English everyday yet encouraged to keep it at a distance via signs, fliers, TV, Internet, radio, classroom, homework, and hagwon. English is always something they are in the process of learning and it's implementation involves an objective ranking based on an exam or a promotion or some other opportunity to succeed. Therefore, English remains technical and foreign, always institutionalized and never satisfyingly realized. They're mostly overwhelmed with English, and oppressed by it. I refuse to implement strategies in my classroom that might reinforce this unfortunate, mindless and alienating process.

There are few opportunities for students to daily work on understanding the language in lieu of memorizing meaning. I use my weekly 50-minutes with them to encourage acquiring skills necessary to recall and recognize English they already know to address things using English they may not yet completely understand. It's like I'm teaching them how to construct a complex puzzle. They hold all the pieces in a semi-transparent bag that permits them to see and feel the shape of the pieces yet mostly obscures the images. They have an idea what I'm talking about but nothing approaching clarity.

I'm teaching them to put the puzzle together by teaching them to (fore)see what the final image should look like when the puzzle is complete. I describe the image and not the process of putting it together. They can remove pieces from the bag but are prohibited from putting them back. The pieces accumulate much quicker than an accurate and useful image is constructed. It's a difficult task that requires trial and error because many of the pieces look the same yet have easy to miss differences. No two pieces are alike yet some of them can be used interchangeably.

The key to solving the puzzle is learning to understand how the pieces fit together, understanding how they feel, as much as understanding the bigger picture. Some days it feels wrong and the overall composition of our classes deteriorates and the students can forget what they know for the difficulty in seeing the bigger picture. They don't have a picture of the completed puzzle; they have me. Because of this, I fear abusing their faith in me.

The problem with everyday language: In an attempt to permit them access to what they need in my classroom, I resist using convention to teach. I insist on working together to approach speaking English in everyday situations without insisting that English belong to me. For example, it's easy for Native Speaking English Teachers to teach idioms to their students. It's easy to entertain younger and older students with fun discussions and presentations about common and uncommon idiomatic expressions in English. I wouldn't mind if my students were advanced English speakers learning to fine tune their usage, but my students don't understand what makes the words used in common expressions work they way they do in English sentences. I'm not doing them any favors by skipping the basics in order to make them smile. In addition, teaching idioms is easy work and the first crutch for a lazy foreign teacher.

The longer I teach here, the more I understand why so many people either love or hate their English teachers. The love for teachers always comes from students who learn from energized instructors who attempt to communicate something more than English and its rules in an orderly and entertaining manner. The hate, often a mixture of contempt and frustration, is a reaction to teachers who resort to implementing methods of discipline and punishment through boring lessons that reaffirm the teachers are the masters of English rather than help students find a means to better use English.

I can predict your success as a teacher in Korea in one step: you will not become a better teacher and will not help Koreans speak better English if you teach them to speak and use English the way you use it. I have had to figure out a way to approach teaching my language that permits me to see it as something I need to learn more about. Once again, I insist that we resist finding ourselves in the language doing what we've learned is correct in order to see our students using the language as they will want or need to apply it. Then we should see ourselves in discourse with those students using English. The difference here is that our common perceptions we take for granted in everyday English are no longer there. Rather than teach the accepted cultural conventions for those perceptions to be held in common, we should focus on teaching the English language.

A wonderful moment: I was frustrated this morning when I asked students to get into their assigned groups and quickly discovered that they were not doing the work I had assigned them. They appeared to be working but were actually playing. As I encouraged them, they further ignored me. The students want to please me; sometimes they'll tell me everything I want to hear while doing nothing much at all. It can be infuriating because of the language difference. They address me in English and return to their other Korean conversations. They do this even though I'm studying Korean. They know I can understand them. It's a power trip: at moments like these, I can either compete with them or I can permit the refusal to cooperate until I find an opportunity to steer the class in a more productive manner. Anyway, the students used enough English this morning to move me on to the next group and, once I was out of earshot, they returned to gambling, playing, telling stories, and grooming each other.

I tend to let students help me guide classes. If they take us off course with good reason and we are actually learning something, I let them take control. American students tend to understand this liberty and will take advantage of it: class leaders will step up, understanding their classmates' desires and interests sometimes better than the teacher. They'll take the class into more engaging territory. Sometimes the students you'd least expect to see leading in the classroom take the opportunity to make a point or move classroom discourse somewhere more engaging. It's very empowering for them; it builds trust; it activates critical thinking. A well-prepared teacher can move with the students steering the class discourse to maintain focus on lesson objectives.

Korean students lack the training to create focused critical discourse in their classrooms. This morning my students reminded me of this. More importantly, they did not want to do any work whatsoever. I would have had trouble getting them to focus on an entertaining language game. Anyway, I scolded the boys and they apologized. I assigned them the classwork as homework and we covered two problems together.

While we worked together, I noticed something new. They trust me. I don't know when this happened. After all, I've only been here two years. My reputation as a good teacher, both in the school and community, is a new thing. When I first arrived, I was popular with the kids. I play soccer; I know music; I'm fashionable; I like Korea and the language; I know a little Korean history; I'm not a know-it-all foreigner; etc. My "kind eyes" and style went a long way to promote a welcome spirit. It wasn't hard for the students to like me.

I worried about it, of course. If they hate you, you can't last here. And when the students rebel against a foreign teacher, it's not pretty. There are many horror stories of teachers ruthlessly chased from Korea. It feeds the cynical blog and ESL site culture where critics like to troll. Anyway, my students liked me just fine, yet I didn't have their respect. My co-teachers were in control; I was tolerated. And, I admit it: it hurt my feelings.

This morning after I scolded my students, they quieted down and did the work with me. They actively participated. They smiled at me. They encouraged me. They were trust-ing me. I was touched. It's a rare moment worth sharing: my commitment to my pedagogy and consistent effort in practice was quietly rewarded with public regard not for the work but in spite of it in order to appreciate my effort as a teacher. I don't know if I can tell you how good I feel right now. (Yet, I'm editing this paragraph several hours after writing it and letting you know that this feeling was fleeting. Today was been a very difficult first day of a week that will be filled with frustrated students trying very hard to understand a difficult assignment. See next paragraph.)

The current three-week assignment I have developed is difficult. It requires a lot of classroom work from teachers and students. Though I love an opportunity to teach challenging material, it's not as if I'm looking forward to the inevitable frustrations that accompany attempting to take this job seriously. I think my students get this about me. I was very frustrated and their care transformed that frustration and a poorly functioning classroom into something that works.

The power a student has in difficult classroom situations is the power to (not) cooperate. I believe it's not a bad student who refuses to cooperate. I believe to refuse is an important liberty. Furthermore, my students seem to know that I'd permit their refusal.

Often when my classrooms get unruly, I'll step away from the center of things and silently stand in a corner. I'll patiently wait. In the US, these moments don't last too long. On the other hand, I've stood for two or three excruciating minutes in Korea: stood waiting for the students to be quiet and look my way. All of them. They eventually figure it out. Here, the recognition is often followed with nervous laughter. "What's he doing?" is often asked in Korean. I don't have to tell them they're upsetting me; they decide to participate. Anger is never an issue. Control? Well, you could say "Gary is always in control of his classroom" as my evaluators do say. Actually, I'm waiting my turn to participate. When I get my turn, I make it count. In the worst cases, a class leader will assert authority and invite me back into the class. When I continue, I don't have to raise my voice.

This is not a silly mind game. It's not about power. It's about wanting to talk with students about their work. After all, we both have important roles to fill within the classroom community. It's good that students understand what my role is by discovering that I actually do have one. The younger the students, the easier it is for them to forget. But I spent my first 8 years lecturing in the College and University classroom. I can tell you that they're as bad as the 15 year olds on many days.

Korean language: Tonight, I'm beginning my next class at Seoul National University. Looking forward to it.

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Pree-oz said...

What a terrific post. It makes me miss teaching, and it also makes me proud that I know teacher who loves to teach, no matter how much harder it is to educate than entertain.

Kelley said...

@Pree-oz - you should have the benefit of knowing how much gary used to scorn teachers in the past - before he started teaching. heh.