Thursday, July 07, 2016

KMA: done (and now we look forward)

My three days at KMA are done; later this month, I have one more 7-hour Saturday class. I had only three students this time around, and it was an arduous slog through twenty-five pages of teacher-generated material plus an entire business-English textbook devoted to email-writing skills. I tried to keep up the energy level as much as I could, but even for me, it was a hard go.

The students varied wildly in English ability. There were two ladies and one guy: Miss Yoon, Miss Han, and Mr. Kim (married and proud of his baby boy, who just learned to roll over by himself). The guy spoke English at a high-intermediate level—tentatively, but almost always correctly. One of the ladies wasn't far behind him; she made herself understood pretty well, but had some pronunciation-related issues. Miss Han, however, was hopeless: she had recently transferred from a department that required no English skills to one that required quite a few English skills.

Like many other KMA students, Miss Han had been ordered by her boss to take this class. Unfortunately, as a beginner among students of much higher ability, she threw the class off. I'm not saying that to blame her; if anything, I felt great sympathy for her, especially when I remembered back to how stupid and slow I felt when I was in my intensive Korean class, surrounded by super-competent Japanese students for whom learning Korean was easy.

So: much of what I did in class was teach material to the two faster students, then go back and help Miss Han catch up to them. She was often clueless about where we were in the textbook; I would break into Korean to help her, and would even physically point on the page to where her desperately zigzagging eyes needed to be tracking. To her credit, she seemed motivated to learn English, and she asked many questions* about English-learning techniques and strategies. I basically told her—since she was at the beginner level—that she'd have to figure out for herself what pedagogical style best matched her own learning style. Was she a "deductive" learner, needing grammar charts and rules to point her to how to form sentences? Or was she an "inductive" learner, preferring to plunge into conversation and written interaction, improving herself by making mistakes along the way?

Miss Han obviously needed a huge amount of remedial assistance: she was misreading simple words, leaving out necessary words while adding in unnecessary words, and blundering around without even the most basic notion of how to put a sentence together. On one level, this was frustrating because I normally move fast through my KMA classes, relying on my students' competence to carry the momentum forward; on another level, I felt guilty about pushing Miss Han to keep up with the other students when it was painfully obvious that she needed to be in a wholly separate session.

During a break, I asked the students about what sorts of courses they'd like to take at KMA if they could have their druthers. Miss Han immediately said, "Basic English!"—which made me smile. Miss Yoon offered the same complaint that all my other KMA students have given: instead of blasting the students with a torrent of information during an intensive-style marathon course, why not break the courses up into smaller chunks, with classes spanning several weeks? I told Miss Yoon that I'd ask my boss about this, but also noted that this issue has been raised before, and KMA hasn't changed its ways. There's also the added difficulty of KMA teachers' schedule conflicts: all of us who teach at KMA are part-timers, i.e., we all have regular jobs, and must work around those job schedules to be able to teach at KMA at all. How likely is it that we might have a string of free weekdays or weekends during which to teach longer, more drawn-out courses? I apologized to Miss Yoon for not having better news for her. Mr. Kim, meanwhile, quietly suggested a course devoted specifically to telephone English. I thought that was a great idea.

The course I just taught spanned three days: two full days, at eight hours each plus an hour for lunch; and one half-day, at four hours, stopping right at lunchtime. Miss Yoon liked the course enough to say she would recommend it to her coworkers. She also praised the way I had emphasized grammar: "I've never met an English teacher who put so much emphasis on grammar before!" she chirped. I told her that that was because I'm fairly old-school in my approach to language teaching. While oral proficiency and communicative competence are important, you can't expect to reach a high level of competence when no one is bothering to correct your errors. The "just learn by talking" philosophy will take you only so far; if you want to learn precision, you have to pay closer attention to the technical aspects of a language. I've listened to "fluent" people who speak rapidly, with a minimal accent, and who succeed at expressing their thoughts clearly, but who have obviously developed some bad speech habits along the way, making basic grammatical and syntactic mistakes that, at this stage in their language-learning, will be hard to exorcise.

One more KMA class to go this month—a Saturday class. Before that class, however, I've got two days of teaching at Seoul National University: July 13 and 20. One KMA day, two SNU days, and that'll be that for July. August will bring two more SNU days and, I hope, one more KMA day, assuming the class doesn't get canceled. SNU also emailed to say that they might offer more on-campus work this fall or winter, so I'll be looking forward to that.

*She asked these questions in Korean, as you might have guessed, and I answered them in Korean. There was no other way to convey the complex ideas she needed to hear.


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