Thursday, September 04, 2014

confusion, fatigue, and excellence

Today moved a bit like a three-act play. It began with morning confusion, segued into afternoon fatigue, and concluded with early-evening excellence.

Yesterday, I had been sent a confusing pair of text messages, the first of which said that I had "English Clinic" (a one-on-one tutoring session) at 11AM the following day, despite the clinic's having been scheduled for 2PM on my printed time sheet. Knowing full well that this is Korea, where nothing moves in a linear manner and where snafus caused by lack of care and foresight are common, I simply rolled with it and texted back an "OK." A few minutes later, another text came saying I had no clinic the next day. I texted back a long-winded Korean-language version of "Huh?" and, after receiving no response, I decided to call the cell-phone number in question. I reached an apologetic girl who said that she was new to the department; I explained the two text messages that had come in, and she said I just needed to come in the following morning at 11. Turns out the second text had been sent in error (perhaps it had been meant for a different teacher). When I checked with our head office assistant about the English Clinic problem, the assistant said my English Zone* hour had been canceled, and I would be doing two hours of English Clinic instead.

So this morning, I went over to do my 11AM English Clinic session, and that's when I learned, upon talking with the guy running the clinic today, that I had no 2PM session scheduled. It's typical, in Korea, for parts of a bureaucracy not to be in sync with each other, and this snafu was obviously due to a lack of clear communication. I shrugged and, again, went with the flow. Okay, then: no 2PM session. Fine. For the session I did do, I sat down with a student who spoke excellent English. He went by the Western name Jack, and he had just returned from a year-long stay in Michigan. He said he was dying to go back, even though he felt he had experienced some racism from people who seemed to have trouble with his accent. Jack and I worked primarily on the nuances of American English pronunciation, and all too quickly, our session was over. I was left with several hours to kill.

I didn't have class until 3:30PM, so I grabbed lunch and loafed around. At 3:30, I found myself in a sweatbox of a classroom, teaching seventeen or eighteen intermediate-level students reading and writing. The kids were good, but the classroom was warm, humid, and cramped, and slogging through the textbook was a bit of a drag for everybody, myself included. I almost had the feeling that Unit 1 of our textbook might have been too easy for these kids; it's still too early to judge such a thing, but that was my impression today. I didn't have the heart to assign these tired souls homework over the Chuseok break, so I bid the class farewell by asking the stragglers to buy their textbooks and telling the rest of the class to go read the second half of Unit 1 in preparation for next week—nothing more.

The next class, an advanced-level listening/discussion session, came hard on the heels of the intermediate-level class. We got off to a late start because the prof who was in the room before us didn't watch her time very well, but let me tell you: these new students of mine were on point. I was thrilled to have them. Only seven out of sixteen students had shown up on Monday; today, I had ten, and I divided the kids into two teams of five each.

I kicked off the discussion by telling the story of how I had once helped an old, drunk halmeoni on a winter night some years back. This happened at a crowded bus stop, and no one else moved to help the woman. I asked my students to discuss the possible reasons why no one except yours truly bothered to help the old lady, who was in danger of freezing to death in the bitter cold and wind. Both teams did a great job of analyzing the situation and coming up with explanations; we spent about twenty minutes, as a class, kicking these ideas around. One student even used the English term diffusion of responsibility as part of his analysis of the situation, which pleased me to no end because that was precisely the concept I'd been hoping someone would bring up.

With that as a warmup, I then showed the students a YouTube video of a recent incident in a Shanghai subway car, in which people got up and ran away when a white man in the car fainted and collapsed to the floor (see video here).** As a class, we discussed the behavior of the Shanghainese who ran away from the fainting man. Was this symptomatic of a selfish society? Were the people afraid of the possible legal repercussions that come with helping someone who misunderstands the nature of that help? One student ventured an intelligent speculation: the first lady who got up and ran from the fainting man was a trigger, and the rest of the subway passengers were reacting to her and not to the man as he collapsed.

So I was extremely pleased with how perceptive these advanced students were, how logically they analyzed the situation, and how willingly they volunteered their opinions, with almost no prompting on my part. I'm planning to turn this class into something of an American-style seminar, now that I know what these students are capable of. I expect great things from them. (While I'm at it, I also plan to do something like the good old round-robin method with my reading/writing students because I want them participating actively in my class, not merely enduring it. As my motto goes: task-oriented, student-centered. The less the teacher is an active presence in the classroom, the better.***)

The one problem I had in that classroom was that I couldn't figure out how to get the audio going. Audio is crucial because the advanced class has a heavy listening component, and most of that component will come from the CD accompanying the textbook. So one of my several missions, after Chuseok break, is to work out all the technical kinks that come with using multimedia hardware and software in the classroom. For now, though, I'm basking in the knowledge that my classes are all generally quite good, but my advanced class is positively stellar. It's going to be very painful, at the end of the semester, to fit these kids into a curve. Right now—today, at least—I think they all deserve "A"s.

*English Zone is a free-talk session that gives students the chance to flex their English-language muscles in a somewhat unstructured environment through directed conversation.

**The way the man's legs behave during his collapse leads me to believe he might have been faking. Was this performance art? A psych experiment? A prank?

***A corollary of my motto is Fuck Fucking PowerPoint. For PowerPoint to be effective, the students have to stop what they're doing and focus their attention upon a single screen. This is no different from making the students endure a lecture, and longtime readers already know my opinion of lecture as a teaching technique.


1 comment:

Charles said...

I watched the video again, and I'm curious: What was it about his legs that led you to believe he was faking it? It didn't really look all that odd to me.