Friday, July 07, 2006

no rest for the reary

when thunderbolts and mighty gales
assail the hallowed halls
when demons rise from pits unseen
and citizens are mauled

when all is chaos, gore, and doom
and hope is but a dream
when ghosts and devils rule the land
and danger is extreme

we call upon the fat of ass
the mighty-buttocked ones
to use their heft on our behalf
and evil overrun

those blubbered folk, whom songs of old
did praise for standing firm
their bellied, bellicose bellows
pushed battle to the berm

when silence glides across the land
to mute the shouted word
the fatties take that time to rest
and sharpen pikes and swords

for battle's pause is but repose
and soon we must again
take up the armor and the glaive
and march to conflict's end

I, the warrior rotund
upon the mighty crag
I stand amid my plump comrades
they rally to my flag

where'er the evil shadow lies
where'er the demons hide
upon that spot, a fat man fights
to turn the battle tide

This week, it was hard to be me. Along with the unparallelled sweatiness-- things weren't quite this bad last year-- it's been an emotionally draining week at Smoo. I normally look forward to the intensive courses, because those are the ones where I usually shine, but this week got off to a rocky start.

On Monday, we didn't have class, but we did have to come to Smoo to conduct placement interviews (a.k.a. level testing) for incoming students. This was the first time we'd done such a thing for regular conversation courses (we still host regular courses during the intensive period), but it was a step in the right direction; I think we'll be doing placement interviews for all classes from now on. It took about two hours to interview students for both regular and intensive courses. The office asked us to sort them out using a 12- or 15-level hierarchy, the purpose of which was to give the office some leeway in fiddling with the sorting.

I understand the office's position: realistically speaking, we can't always place students in the level to which they've been assigned in a placement interview. There are only four teachers in our department now, and according to policy (such policy as there is), there should be no more than ten to fifteen students per class. This means that, if there are twenty-five students placed in Level 1 and five students in Level 2, then the office is likely to shunt ten students from Level 1 to Level 2 (that's an extreme example, but you get what I'm saying).

To complicate matters, students will complain if they feel they've been placed in the wrong level, and some will demand entry to a different level, up or down. This is what caused me a bit of stress this week. One of my favorite students from last term interviewed with me on Monday, and I decided, according to our 15-level system,* that she was a Level 2+, i.e., the office could place her in either Intensive 2 or Intensive 3 without causing her undue difficulty. The office, perhaps looking at the numbers and noticing that Level 3 was already fairly crowded, decided to place the student in Level 2. When she found out her result, she apparently went nuts, complained to the office, and demanded a retest, which she got. Her new result, from a different teacher, was Level 4, and she ended up receiving the average of the two interviews and was plopped into the overcrowded 3 group.

Most of this information came to me second-hand, because my student, true to Korean form, did not bother to confront me directly about the situation-- something she should have done the first moment she knew there was a problem. This is one of those aspects of Korean culture that I, despite being half-Korean and culturally sympathetic, cannot agree with. Many Koreans prefer to argue their case through intermediaries, but from the Westerner's point of view, this feels more like a cowardly version of backbiting or rumormongering.**

So I was out of sorts on Tuesday when I got wind of what was going on. Added to this was the stress of knowing that a couple other students had challenged their level placements (not all had been tested by me; such challenges occur routinely), and the horrifying fact that I was sweating like a champ during class. Have I mentioned my deep and abiding hatred of summer? I have? Well, hear it again: Summer slurps donkey dick and I can't wait for October.

Classes were OK this week, if not exactly stellar. My first class of the day is an intro-level regular conversation class. Eleven people showed up on Tuesday (the first day of classes), eleven came on Wednesday, then we lost two on Thursday. Down to nine. This class also has one guy in it. He seems a bit slow-witted, which makes me doubt he'll survive to the end.

My second class of the day is a Level 1 regular conversation class, which started out with eight students on Tuesday, then dropped to six on Wednesday, and held steady at six on Thursday. This class is quieter and a bit more serious than my intro-level class, but the students who remain seem very good. I'm hoping they'll hold out for the semester, but I have a sneaking suspicion that this class is going to dwindle.

My third and final class of the day is my Level 4 intensive conversation class. We had a wonderful start on Tuesday with fourteen students and the lifeboat exercise, but on Wednesday there was a sudden drop in attendance to nine students, something that's never happened in one of my intensive classes before. It turned out that at least two students dropped out because they were intimidated by the other students' speaking ability, as well as by the fact that I take no prisoners and speak at full speed in my highest-level classes (ESL adepts and students of linguistics will recognize the "I+1" notion at work here: the general idea is that the student is supposed to rise to the demands of the class).

One of the students to drop out of Intensive 4 decided to join Intensive 3. The girl whom I had placed into Intensive 2 (the one who went ballistic and demanded a re-interview) had, through her pouting, finagled her way into Intensive 3. Both students had been in my Level 1 conversation class the previous term, and I discovered that two of their friends-- who had also been in my Level 1 class last term-- were now in Intensive 3.


I was beginning to suspect that these students, who had started this term off in disparate classes, were basically maneuvering to stay together in the same class. This made me extremely unhappy, and my colleagues weren't too happy, either. As one coworker said, student jockeying undermines the teacher's authority, and it's something the office should prevent. I agree that the office needs to be stricter about student complaints.

At the same time, I understand that the office has to divide the students as evenly as possible to avoid crowded classrooms. Intensive 3 strikes me as overcrowded right now; the teacher is an excellent one, though, so all the students will probably stick with him to the end. My Intensive 4 seems just about right: on Thursday, we were back up to eleven people. It turned out that some folks were simply absent on Wednesday, when we had only nine people. I reminded the absentees about the attendance policy and warned them that a string of absences would mean failure.

I also told them, however, that academic failure did not mean they should simply stop coming to class: during the winter intensive session, two of my failing students remained with the class to perform those skits, which I found cool (that class, by the way, started off with twelve and ended up with nine, a 25% drop over eight weeks, which is great compared to the usual student attrition during 12-week terms): a fine example for all future students.

On Thursday, I received a surprise visit from my former student, the one who had demanded a retest. She appeared in my office flanked by two of her friends/classmates (former students of mine from the previous term), probably for moral support. I noticed she looked mighty contrite and almost near tears.

"I'm so sorry, Kevin," she said with a smile when she saw the narrow-eyed scowl I was beaming at her. "After you put me in Level 2, I couldn't sleep that night. I thought you hated me or something!" That ranks among the most childish thoughts I've ever heard expressed by a college student, but I had to give her points for actually gathering up her courage to come and talk to me face-to-face. Not easy, that.

I told my student that I wasn't very happy about what she had done, either, but I was glad she had come to talk things out, and that no, I didn't hate her.

"You were right, too," she said. "I should be in Intensive 2. My mother said to me, 'Your teacher knows your level! You should follow his recommendation!'" But I think my student's going to remain in Intensive 3, if for no other reason than that she's already switched levels once, and her friends are all in Intensive 3. I accepted her contrition; she and her friends hung around a few minutes and we joked about nothing in particular, just to reassure each other that the world hadn't ended and no deep harm had been done.

Today, Friday, I had my very first French class, and it went quite well. Six students showed up, which was heartening. Bare-bones approach: we started off with the French alphabet and worked on some basic greetings and other expressions of the "Hello, how are you, I'm fine, what's yer name, good-bye" variety, along with certain short utterances like "please, thank you, yes, no," and so on. The class is only one hour a week, and runs for seven of the eight weeks of term. I told the students not to expect that they would learn much; there's so much for them to cover, and Korean students generally fear French because, quite unlike Spanish, it's hard for them to pronounce (Spanish and Korean phonetics share a scary amount of overlap; Spanish words are, for the most part, quite easy to transliterate into Hangeul).

Disengaging their "English brain" will be the biggest challenge for the French students, most of whom have several years' experience learning and speaking English. French is arguably more notorious than English for spelling words in ways that do not match their pronunciation, and we saw a lot of problems related to pronunciation and spelling today. A very useful exercise that combines pronunciation and reading skills is this: have the students read aloud from a list of common names for French men and women. It's a good way to start the students down the road to internalizing things like spelling and phonetic rules. I'll be doing this with the students in the next class.

After an hour (1pm to 2pm), we didn't get much beyond those rudiments, but it was a start. Some of those students hung around for the next activity of the day, our 3pm English circle. The idea was to get together and watch a DVD of the TV show "Friends" (I know; this has been done to death in Korea), but thanks to technical difficulties, which always seem to crop up no matter how often we do the multimedia thing, we ended up watching part of "The Incredibles" instead.

The students elected to watch about 40 minutes of the movie with Korean subtitles, then they watched it again with English subtitles. Some students gamely took notes, frantically writing down expressions they wanted to ask me about. When we turned the lights back on, I was peppered with questions like, "What does 'We need to find you a constructive outlet' mean?"-- a question that somehow led to the expressions "outlet store" and "factory outlet."

The students who had initially wanted an English circle, the same group of naughty conspirators who had jockeyed to get into Intensive 3, seemed a little put off by the arrival of another student in their midst: I had extended the invitation to many other people, and one girl, Sujin, showed up. I'm not sure how welcome she felt; the core group is a bit cliquish. We had six people in all, though, so that was cool. The French class will meet again next Friday, while the English circle won't meet again until July 21.

But as my fat-boy poem implies, there's no rest for us megatubbies. I'm off to Namsan again tonight, and I've got lesson plans and Water from a Skull-- not to mention a fetid pile of laundry-- to contend with this weekend. I'm also shamefully behind in answering several long emails from friends and family, so that needs to be taken care of as well.

In all, a tiring week. It seems to have ended on a positive note, but not without having taken an emotional toll on me.

That's it for now. Gotta go sweat some more.

*For regular conversation courses, the fifteen levels into which students were sorted were: intro minus, intro, into plus; 1-, 1, 1+; 2-, 2, 2+; 3-, 3, 3+; 4-, 4, and 4+. A 12-level sorting system was used for the intensive course, because we don't run intro-level intensive classes. Not this semester, anyway.

**To be fair, this isn't unique to Koreans. When I worked as a French teacher at a private Catholic high school in Virginia, a couple parents simply went over my head to discuss student problems with my boss in the main office, something that always steamed me, and for exactly the same reasons. I'm not afraid of face-to-face conflict, and in cases where parents do an end-run around me, I always end up viewing them as cowards.

However, there is a cultural difference between Korean non-confrontational behavior and the behavior of those American parents. Koreans use intermediaries in a wide variety of situations: introductions that lead to business deals might be a good example of what I'm talking about. Dating is another area where Koreans often rely heavily on third parties for help. Conflict resolution through intermediaries is simply part of the larger, intermediary-using culture, which makes it unfair to accuse a Korean of cowardice when they don't confront you directly. (It still feels that way to me, though. You can take the Kevin out of America, but you can't take the American out of Kevin.)

The American parents cited above, on the other hand, have no such excuse to hide behind. Americans are known for their bluntness, which makes end-run behavior suspect, and cowardice a more likely cause for such behavior. I appreciate the parent who calls me up directly and chews me out for a perceived wrong. I might think they're wrong, but at least I can respect them for coming to me. The parent who goes over my head and berates my boss out of a sense of entitlement-- as if the tuition she pays the private school makes her a customer and her child merely a product-- is little more than a bottom-feeder, as far as I'm concerned.


No comments: