I've quickly described two classrooms; neither is an actual room we could call The Real Classroom. One is an ideal classroom and the other a rhetorical space. Teaching in an ideal public classroom is an experience I very much want to have. I'd love to see the promise fulfilled, the promise of democratic discourse in a public classroom that results in learning and an exchange of ideas many of which derived from the original social difference of the individuals in the class. The latter space, which I refuse to call a classroom, is the space I'm obliged to maintain. It's a space wherein cultural difference, contractual obligation and the State all work to create turbulence that is always just slightly less than the natural noise in an actual classroom: students, teachers, desks, chairs, the A/V, the fan. For the students, this turbulence registers in anxiety and discomfort heard in their voices, seen on their faces. Some simply sleep through it. A few react violently to its presence.
I don't now how most teachers handle this. Actually, I do. Most teachers use their power to maintain order in their classrooms with more or less successful results. Most teachers teach to maintain order: order in the tradition, order in the room, order in their assumptions, order in their lives, and so on. In addition, I always assume, and I think I'm correct in making this assumption, that most teachers don't believe this turbulence (as opposed to the everyday noise) exists. Most teachers I meet seem willing to accept the classroom space a school district provides for what it is and that their task is to instruct students on how to do specific tasks more correctly, more efficiently. In effect, our public classrooms are nothing more than training students how to be good employees and consumers. I don't want to pick on most teachers, but I do have a problem with the attitude that for all its claims to appreciate the importance in education actually reinforces the notion that ranking is much more important than understanding and appreciating knowledge. I don't think it's good for us and I know it's not good for our students.
Most days, teaching public school in Korea is a lesson in humility. Even when what I teach entertains and educates my students, an honest assessment of the quality and usefulness of my lessons can lead to slight, if not heavy, depression. I never question my dedication to teaching; don't misunderstand me. It's that I get depressed when I think of the dirty rooms, decaying infrastructure, smelly uniforms, unhappy employees, horrible food, and incomplete lessons. Of course, there's much more we, as in society, can do to improve the horrible situation(s) of public education. In Korea, as in the US, much public discourse concerning educational reform embraces the ideals we all think a healthy democratic society has to offer the classroom. But much if not all the talk about teachers and students is focused squarely on the outcomes of tests that evaluate performance of students and now teachers. These ideals are, then, not at all about education, pedagogy, practice, knowledge, discourse and rhetoric. They are market ideals that help explain, encourage, inculcate, and distribute capitalist cultural myths. I don't care about these ideals when it comes down to it because I find them facile and vacuous; in the sense that we all know them already, some of us agree with them in spirit, and yet do absolutely nothing to insure we shall attain them.
I'm going to post a lengthy description of my last lesson and attempt to examine what I'm doing here at Samsung High School. I want to examine the usefulness of the language work I attempt to accomplish on a weekly basis.
I have titled this post "The Noisy Classroom" because I encourage noise in my classrooms. The noise in my classes is bilingual--Korean and English. The noise is outbursts, questions, casual conversation, friendly banter as well as scolding address: all the typical noises are present. I tend to have students work in groups. My high school students tend dwell "behind the curve." They are nowhere near proficient enough to meet Korea's standards for students their age. In each class, I can expect anywhere from 2 to 6 students who are at a solid intermediate level or above. I can expect 5 to 10 students who are at a low intermediate level. I can expect the other students to be at a beginner level or have little to no desire to use English at all.
This poses a problem for me. If I were a teacher who made demands of my students based on the standards, as most teachers do, I'd get no satisfactory work accomplished, no matter how good my lessons were. No matter what my colleagues think of ESL/EFL standards, theory and praxis, I'm not teaching in an environment where I can use traditional teaching methods to gain positive results. First, the students aren't at the level that Korea's standards insist we (teachers and students) maintain; second, I have no instutional support.
In addition, the standard serves to remind my students how poorly they perform in comparison to the standard. It serves no other purpose; I'd argue even at the schools where students outperform the standard the standards do not encourage learning instead instilling habits of competition. Students are, in fact, oppressed by the standard. I found in my first year at school that the lessons the Korean teachers encouraged me to instruct were of two kinds: 1) informative lessons meant to encourage students to memorize and repeat certain linguistic structures and/or vocabulary and 2) games meant to entertain as much as teach. These lessons fulfill two concerns Koreans have about classroom management: learning and entertainment.
I do believe that Korean teachers, in this respect, are very similar to American teachers. They want students to enjoy their lessons. The problem is that the kinds of lessons I was encourage to design, implement and teach do not take students into consideration. The lessons are actually much more about satisfying what the teachers, administration and culture of education demand. This is the turbulent noise that most adversely affects my classrooms in Korea. In the US, in my university classrooms, I could control this noise more effectively. I am, in fact, part of the problem in Korea. I'm the colonial presence in Korean culture, the physical manifestation of all that worries Koreans about English-language culture in Korean society. And my voice, if it is in tune with standards, is a repetitive You're Not Right. Most teachers I know are unwilling to work this into how they teach, this consciousness of oppression. Some are unwilling to admit it's presence. Still others seem to take pleasure in treating students like slaves to their cause.
With the next few posts, I want to share my lesson, consider my classroom, come to a better understanding of what it is I'm doing here and what my work means. Feel free to participate in the comments. Share your stories, questions, concerns.