Saturday, August 25, 2007

First Week: Survived

So the first week of school has come and gone, and while there have been more than a couple 12-hour days, neither of us is all that much worse for the wear. And a special bonus: the first Saturday we won't be spending at the school!

In fact, we actually had one-on-one meetings with our principal this week, and while he paid Nana and me pretty much the two greatest compliments I could think of ("You don't act like first-year teachers" and "The kids are telling their parents they've never had teachers like you" -- seriously, the parents are all posting to this giant Seoul education forum bragging about the middle school faculty at APIS), he also cautioned us against working too much. Which is a much easier warning to heed now that the school year is underway and much of the overhead work is already done!

So, today, then, will be devoted to adventure. What's the deal with Changdeokgung? Where's the best pot of tea in Insadong? Just as important: Can Justin and Nana set up wireless in the apartment? Can they buy cell phones? Can Justin buy some new shirts?

Stay tuned!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Geek Joy!

Google may very well be the greatest thing ever.

I'm going to post all my assignments on Google Calendar.
I'm going to share my class calendars will all my kids.
I'm going to have the kids set up RSS feeds or e-mail alerts for every time I add or change homework--the e-mails will go to their APIS Gmail accounts.
I'm going to put all make-up work on Google Docs, online.
Every last one of these things will show up on the kids' customized APIS Google start pages.
Which will be the first thing they see when they go online.

No more "the dog ate my homework," baby! And a whole heck of a lot of saved trees.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007


. . . is awesome. Just in case you forgot.

Yeah, seriously--after a late evening at the school yesterday, Nana and I went with our friend/coworker Paul (the guy who speaks Korean) to a chicken shop a few blocks from the school. (A chicken shop named "Hoo-la-la," no less.) Paul had seen the place hopping a few nights before and decided so many people couldn't all be wrong.

And let me assure you, they weren't.

I had read before coming to Korea that the Koreans really knew how to do fried chicken and beer, but I was determined to withhold judgement--I've had some pretty good experiences with fried chicken and beer in the states. (Mmm. . . chicken, okra, and bock under a tree outside the Spoetzle Brewery in Shiner, Texas . . . yes, that Shiner . . .)

After the other night, though, I have to say you can believe what you read. The beer wasn't the world's greatest (they had Cass on tap, far inferior to Hite, which is itself only a decent/unspectacular beer), but the chicken was superb. It was fried super-crispy, but still tender, in some kind of soy-batter, so it was salty and sweet and a little bit zingy all at once. The price tag was a bit high, but like KBBQ, it's meant to be shared, and three people can dine heartily without anyone spending more than ten bucks.

So, yes, Korean fried chicken--certainly an experience everyone should have once in their lives!

Classroom Snapshot: Learning Skills

I thought it would be interesting for you, our loyal readers, if we occasionally penned a few lines about the kinds of things we're doing in our classes. Given our ESL situation here at APIS (i.e., we have a lot of ESL students), we've needed to be really flexible with our instruction, and we've also had to turn to a few innovative strategies for keeping the native speakers engaged and interested without letting the English language learners get too lost. Though I imagine this will be of the most interest to our other educator friends out there on teh intarwebs (Shana? Errol? Michelle--both of you?), I hope all y'all layfolk will dig this kind of thing, too.

Anyway, down to brass tacks. (I have to get all my goofy idioms out now--I can't use them yet with my kids!)

A majority of our students came to school last week completely unprepared. I know this is a mantra of whiny teachers everywhere, but at APIS it was particularly true. The parents clamored for weeks for a list of supplies the kids needed for class . . . and then completely ignored it. We had kids come to school last week without pens or pencils, let alone notebooks. (We had this problem at Shaw last year, but for a very different reason . . . You can trust me, if they're in this school, they can afford notebooks and pens!) The idea of note-taking seemed completely foreign to them. And don't even ask about speaking in class!

Apparently, note-taking isn't common in Korean schools (earlier post)--including several of the international schools, which are based on the old British model, which gives the students a lot of independence, but as far as guidance and classroom participation goes, it doesn't offer anything more than the typical Korean school. And speaking up in class? Even less so. Culturally, many of these kids came to APIS completely unprepared to function in an American-style classroom.

That's where I come in. We've been working from some pretty specific standards and benchmarks here at APIS, and we have a lot of material for every class . . . but most of my benchmarks are procedural, whereas most of everyone else's benchmarks are declarative. In other words, most folks are teaching whats and whys, while I'm teaching hows. My very vague and very generally-stated goal for the year is to get these kids ready to read well, and to speak and write coherently about books. Another way of putting it is that I have very few standards, but the standards are very broad. (You'll have to pardon me--when I'm tired I lapse into jargon.)

So I've gone ahead and thrown myself on the proverbial grenade and built my entire first unit for each grade level around basic learning skills: listening, speaking, note taking, test taking, and working in groups. I've been specifically trying to tie these lessons to material from other classes, and my lovely wife has been great about practicing these learning skills with her students in social studies class. It's been an uphill struggle, surely, but my hope is that a few days spent on basic skills (and basic expectations! i.e. "Yes, you should take notes during class!") will help the rest of the year--in every classroom--run much more smoothly. So far, results have been pretty good, though only time can tell just how well the lessons took.

And now, I surrender the floor to you, our loyal readers. Can you think of any learning skills other than the ones I mentioned that fairly clueless middle schoolers absolutely need to know? If you're an edumacator, have you ever found yourself needing to throw a unit like this at 8th graders? How normal is this? (I have no idea!) And finally, a question for everyone: Can you think of any writing topics you really, really enjoyed in middle school or high school? My next unit is on the writing process, and I want to assign a short piece, preferably autobiographical, for the kids to work with throughout the unit.

Thanks for your help!

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Why is it that my students don't know enough English to read a textbook page without help, but they know enough English to know that "homo erectus" is funny?

Two all-beef patties, special sauce...

Things you can order at a Korean McDonald's:

Bulgogi Burger (Bulgogi is Korean shaved beef, kind of like roast)
Shanghai Spice Chicken Burger
Shrimp Burger
Crazy Hot Chicken Folder (from the picture, I think they mean "pita")
Thai Chili Sauce McNuggets

and of course, that ever-popular side dish, Corn Salad.

I wussed out and got the cheeseburger. "Cheeseburger" in Korea is pronounced "chee-su-bu-guh." It will get you though a lot.

PS. The advertising campaign for their new spicy menu is "HOT 4 YOU." I think I met that guy in a chat room once...

Sunday, August 19, 2007

I Stand Corrected!

Some Koreans are comfortable confronting their elders, provided their elders are reconstructed anthropomorphic gargoyles at a Joseon-era palace. And provided the umbrella goes with the shirt.

I would have loved to hear this conversation.

Man: "-nee-kka?"

Turtle: "-nee-da!" (Translation: "What would I know, I'm just a stone turtle! Hah!")

On the Start of School: Lessons Learned

Well, now, the real work begins.

Nana and I weathered the proverbial storm of the first two days of school admirably, if I do say so myself, although we may be a little worse for the wear--we find ourselves completely exhausted this weekend, but (as of yesterday) still with a whole week's worth of planning to do. But we're learning (I hope) and for me at least, each lesson plan gets a little easier to write, and there is even, somewhere on the distant horizon (a few weeks from now?) the possibility of a full weekend off. By which I don't mean a full weekend without any school work to be done--oh, no--just a weekend during which we don't need to spend time at the school. (We were there for about five hours yesterday.) Oh frabjous day!

In any case, here's what I actually meant to do with this post--write a witty, insightful list of some of the lessons we've learned since the start of school three days and a billion years ago.

1. When dealing with middle schoolers, the normal rules that govern the flow of time do not apply. Say you look at the clock and it's 10:40. You start the class working on a fifteen-minute journal assignment. What time is it fifteen minutes later? That's right, it's the end of the period, at 11:35. But the next day, the same assignment could be over at 10:42. In other words, for every lesson, you have either planned twice as much, or half as much, as you need. And as far as I know, there's no telling which one any given activity will be. I've taken 10 minutes to get my ESL kids to get their notebooks and pencils out. But the fairly complicated index-and-table-of-contents exercise I did with the same class on Friday only took five.

2. Most students in domestic Asian schools go through the whole day without saying a word. This is considered a success. Talking is something you do with your tutor--and even then, you had better make sure you mumble, or even cover your mouth when you speak. (Seriously, I have a student who covers her mouth every time she speaks. I can't even hear her over my own breathing.) This has been a serious problem, on top of the language barrier. The kids who have been in American schools not only speak English better, but they're used to interacting with the teacher and with one another in class. And the kids who haven't have two strikes against them: weaker English skills and an ingrained terror of uttering anything that even sounds like a word in the classroom.

3. The same goes for note-taking, it seems. I've had students look at me funny when I asked if they brought a pen and note paper to class. I actually had to pass out note paper and pencils on Friday when I wanted the kids to respond in writing to some questions on the board. I'm told this is normal--apparently, in most Korean schools, the students sit passively and absorb throughout the day, then learn what they can at night from their textbooks and, if they have the money, from their tutors. So no wonder all the kids I see look like they've been awake since the dawn of time! They're wasting eight hours a day! Lesson learned, though: Most of us middle-school teachers have scrapped our previous plans for this upcoming week in favor of a mini-unit on active-listening, note-taking, and discussion skills. In other words, we're going to spend a week getting the kids to talk to us and to write while we talk. It's not their fault, of course--they just came into this having no idea what was going to be expected of them in an American-style classroom.

4. By the way, did I mention that almost all of our kids are Korean? And a majority have never lived overseas or studied in an American or international school. Apparently, those rules governing admission to international schools are made to be broken. Which is fine, it just means we've got a different set of challenges to face: instead of a classroom full of expats and diplobrats (highly independent, to a fault), we've got a classroom full of Koreans (highly respectful, but terminally shy).

5. Our biggest challenge this year won't be educating our English language learners; it will be keeping our (minority of) strong English speakers interested while the rest of the class catches up. I expect a lot of growth very quickly from the ESL kids--they have a ton of support, with an hour of ESL class and two hours of after-school ESL tutoring every day--but I just hope we haven't lost the other kids by the time the ESL crowd is ready to go. This first semester will be interesting, to say the least.

6. And, last but not least: It's not actually that bad to work really hard at something that interests you, or something you care about. This past week, Nana and I have been putting in more hours than we ever did last year in DC, with one particular week of my paralegal misadventures excepted. We're tired, and more than a little nervous at the prospect of keeping these kids engaged and learning through the rest of the year. But we're happy, when we have time to think about it. The work is good.

Plus, the weather is clearing up, which helps. But which also introduces a new problem: instead of crushing heat and rain, now we have searing heat and sun.

For now, all the best from the both of us. Keep the comments coming--posted here, e-mailed, or otherwise. We both love the attention! And it means a lot to us to know that we have such strong support from family and friends.