Friday, January 12, 2007


I am one tired motherfucker. Apologies if blog posts seem to be more about link whoring or reader mail (to be sure, the reader mail is worthwhile), but I hit the ground running when this semester started, and the pace hasn't let up.

My actual teaching schedule-- the one I'm paid for-- isn't all that bad. I teach Monday through Wednesday, from 9:40am to 12:10pm, and then from 3:05pm to 4:30pm. On Thursdays, I teach the same schedule, except my afternoon begins at 1:30pm instead of 3:05. On Fridays I am, in theory, free, but I've chosen to conduct two unpaid classes for my students: a one-hour French class and a two-hour English Circle. Prep for these classes is fairly easy, and the classes themselves are fun (hell, I received a text message from a student last week saying she thought our first French class had been great fun).

My two morning classes are Freshman English. The current crop of freshmen is quite a contrast to the previous crop of inbred droolers and nosepickers. I teach two advanced-level groups, and they haven't let me down yet. Not a single major discipline issue this time-- no attitude problems, not even from the princessy chick who worried me at the beginning. She's made a point of showing off how sleepy she is every day, but she's responsive to classmates and to me.

The freshmen have been involved in their project: the construction of "A Freshman's Guide to Smoo," which we will publish late next week. They have had layout and cover design meetings, and the various groups are in constant consultation with each other, following a "mixer" sequence I have found useful. Class essentially runs itself now; the girls are self-motivated and self-organizing. This is far better than sticking to a regular textbook.

In the past, I've heard students claim that "lack of a textbook" equates to "lack of structure," implying that one is learning nothing in such an environment. To combat this perception, I ask my students to provide me with slips of paper on which they have written two vocab/grammar items learned either in class or during their independent research, thus eliminating the possibility of anyone whining that they "haven't learned anything."

Students also finish each class by writing up a very quick action plan-- a "promise" that details what they will be doing during the time before we meet again. That's been very helpful, because I now check student progress against their promises. Some promises have been rather vague, but I simply ask for physical evidence of effort, and this leads to concrete answers. Fantastic classes.

My Mon-Wed afternoon Intensive 3 Reading/Writing class is doing well, too, despite being a bit less dynamic than the freshmen. What worries me-- and tires me-- is my three-hour-long Thursday class, the one that goes from 1:30pm to 4:30pm and leaves me feeling more flaccid than a dead gaebul.

I'm teaching a course in Greco-Roman mythology, a course I am singularly unqualified to teach. It's been a fantastic learning-- and relearning-- experience for me, but I can't say that the two classes I've taught thus far have been successful. Three hours is tough for anyone to endure, least of all a bunch of girls with short attention spans.

Our big boss wanted this, though: she wanted students of different ability levels to be mixed together and "learning" the sort of material they might encounter in a Western class; she wanted them exposed to lengthy lectures and tested in a more or less Western way.

But I can't and won't do that, and the same goes for my colleagues. I've largely abandoned the teacher-centered approach in favor of student-centered activities that prompt the students to produce language instead of merely absorbing it. Korean students spend literally years in the passive role; it seems a shame that twenty-five percent of this term's Intensive program has (mis)conceived as a way to keep students passive.

The students are being asked to do things they simply aren't capable of doing. Only part of my class was able to give brief presentations about the Greek heroes Perseus and Jason. The ensuing discussion of issues arising from those myths limped along painfully, because the lower-level students in the class simply didn't have the vocabulary to add their thoughts.

In such situations, many Korean students exhibit a "tarantula reflex," i.e., when suddenly placed in a foreign environment, they curl in on themselves and do nothing. One girl in particular does this in my Mythology class. I'm torn between sympathy and annoyance whenever she falls silent and slips into neutral. On the one hand, she's not doing anything I haven't seen done by dozens, if not hundreds, of other Korean students. On the other hand, I know that, if I were teaching an English Level 1 class full of Hispanic students, I'd have a happily noisy classroom, a classroom of students unafraid to make an effort to speak-- which is to say that the tarantula reflex is a function of culture. In my judgement, the reflex is objectively bad: in language classes, silence is death. You can't learn to speak a language if you don't make the effort to speak. This means somehow transcending Stephen Krashen's famous "affective filter" and grunting whatever comes to mind, no matter how incomprehensible.

I was at the office until 3am Thursday morning, having been at Smoo since 9:30am on Wednesday. By the time I left, I had crafted a magificent, 20-page handout for my Mythology students, filled with exercises that would keep them talking and, I hoped, thinking. I even managed to include some movie viewing time: we here dealing with Greek heroes, and I wanted my students to see snippets from the movie "Troy," to compare the on-screen action with the legends passed down to us from Homer and all the rest.

It was good to over-prep, but the students, despite the activities and my best efforts at keeping their attention, were dying on me. Many were tired. Some were yawning. Last week, I had eleven students; today, there were only eight. One girl had told me, last week, that she wouldn't be here today, but the absence of the other two girls did not bode well for the future. A colleague of mine reported he had only six students today, out of ten last week. I know how he feels. We both suspect that some of the girls in the Intensive program are going to assume that Thursday is "Skip Day."

Only two of the three groups were able to make presentations today (the Jason and Perseus teams, but not the Theseus team), and within those groups it was obvious that only one or two members had done any actual research before their presentation. I managed to get us through a quick and dirty survey of Heracles/Hercules, and we took a very brief look at Achilles and the Iliad. However, we didn't have time, after watching "Troy" clips, to move on to the rest of my handout, which included a survey of Homer's Odyssey, a rundown of Joseph Campbell's monomyth paradigm, and the homework assignment based on that rundown, which would have been to map a story (such as a film from the Star Wars trilogies or a book from the Harry Potter series) onto Campbell's template, to discuss our findings, and then to discuss whether Campbell's formulation works. I'll be tackling all that next week.

Suffice it to say that, by 4:30pm on Thursdays, I'm wiped out. I have emails to answer, projects to do at school (including creating the MS Excel grading file I usually create every semester), and things to keep me occupied at home. I can't face any of them right now. If you're reading this blog entry after a sweaty day spent constructing a ten-mile split-rail fence, I apologize for the whining. You're right: I have little to complain about. Then again, dealing with stuporous adolescents can sometimes be much more taxing than engaging in physical labor.

POST SCRIPTUM: I do want to make it clear, though, that this has been a far better semester, thus far, than the previous one, which ended not with a bang, but with a dying leper's whimper.


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