The school year ends in December in Korea, which gives students January and most of February off for winter vacation. In theory. What really happens is that students are sent to all-day and overnight academic camps, so they can study hard and get ahead for the next school year. What this means for us foreign English teachers is that while the rest of the teachers in our school have vacation time, we’re teaching English camps!
Most public school teachers are assigned to a winter camp. Those that aren’t are contractually obligated to be at their desk anyways. I was given three camps to fill the work days I didn’t take off as vacation. My first camp was an all fifth grade, three-week overnight camp in Gyeong-ju, one city north of Ulsan. The camp was 21 foreign teachers, just as many Korean teachers, and hundreds of students, all living and working together in a university dorm for three weeks.
Early Monday morning, I headed to my elementary school to board a bus full of fifth graders to take me to English camp.
Unfortunately this view was only possible after going up the crazy steep hills we needed to climb to get between the dormitory and classrooms.
My assigned subjects: grammar and ‘pop song’. I was none too please to learn that I would be teaching grammar to 7 classes a day, five days a week for three weeks. Boooooooring. But as it turned out, grammar can actually be quite fun! For me, at least.
The challenge of camp was teaching without a computer. This turned out to be a really good thing though, as I had come to rely pretty much exclusively on computers in my normal school teaching. It was also an excuse to draw lots of silly pictures.
It also required a bit more thought to come up with games, other than the typical powerpoint games I was used to using. Most of the games were just answering questions competitively, with rock-paper-scissors or a giant red plastic hammer thrown in there somewhere. But the kids didn’t seem to mind.
I have to say I quite appreciated having a male co-teacher. All he had to do was open his mouth or stand a little too close to keep them in line. The kids were much better behaved than what I was used to, but still, he seemed to get a lot more respect just by being a male. Which was frustrating, sure, but it made my job much easier.
Together we had a 16-student “home room”. These are most of my girls:
By far the best part of English camp was the students. At first it was a bit overwhelming to be around so many students for so much time every day without any breaks. But they were all so sweet!
The students had one hour of non-studying time a day, during which time they had gym or game time. Gym time was typically thrown together a bit haphazardly at the last second. Usually it just involved jump rope competitions. Korean kids are absolutely amazing at jump rope.
Teaching the ‘pop song’ class proved to be quite a bit of a challenge. After dinner, there was a two hour ‘culture class’ that combined two classes of students and put two foreign teachers together to handle them on their own (it was the Korean teachers’ time off). Some of the teachers really lucked out and were given ‘movie’ as their subject. ‘Pop song’ doesn’t seem so bad at first, but when you take into account that soon-to-be sixth graders have absolutely no interest in singing, and are totally exhausted after a long day of studying, it proved to be quite a bit of trouble.
We decided to teach “Yellow Submarine,” switching it up with “Lemon Tree” occasionally (which is very popular in Korea for some reason).
Towards the end of the week, we tried playing a game that went over extremely well. It went like this: one student is sent out of the room, while another student is secretly selected to be ‘it.’ The class has to sing the song, and the closer the student gets to the selected student, the louder they have to sing. Having 32 Korean fifth-graders screaming “WE. ALL. LIVE. IN A. YELLOW. SUBMARINE!” at the end of each class made my night, every time.
These poor students though. Many of them missed their families, and were apparently crying at night. They were also studying from 9am – 9pm every day, with only a few breaks for meals and a snack. I had to read their English journals, and the first week they were all writing “I don’t want to study. Mom, dad, help me!!” I suppose it’s beneficial for them to get so much practice with English, and to be spending so much time around native speakers, but at what cost??
The end of my overnight English camp brought on my elementary school’s week long, just-during-the-day camp. It was something I had been dreading ever since learning about the existence of these winter camps, as the students at my school are so poorly behaved and I would have to be teaching them solo, without the support of a co-teacher. This seemed rather impossible, as my students don’t really speak English.
But as it turned out, it wasn’t nearly so bad as I thought. Being able to teach more or less without a text book allowed me some creativity to give them different class activities, which I enjoyed immensely. And I think they did too. The students were also rather miraculously much better behaved than normal. For the most part. The lower level class of mostly young students and one sixth grader proved problematic, but with my advanced class I found we could actually do a variety of activities, that involved partner work! And writing! Such things I could’ve never attempted in my normal classes.
I was very excited to give them a more “creative” assignment of designing their own animals to practice writing about ability using can and can’t.
The lower level class was at first absolutely hopeless. I had one cursing sixth grader, a bunch of boys constantly fighting with each other, a totally spoiled brat, and most of them knew minimal English and couldn’t read. The second I walked into the classroom, they demanded “Game! Teacher, game!” My first subject to teach them was ‘reading,’ which was where I found out most of them couldn’t read. The book I was given to teach from didn’t really take that into account. It was a tough 40 minutes to recover from, but luckily the rest of the week I mainly taught them vocabulary, and we mainly played games to practice new words.
Ultimately I decided that so long as they were speaking English and occasionally writing, why not play a lot of games? It was vacation, after all.
I decided to turn our ‘play time’ game hour into a team building exercise in a desperate attempt to get the boys to stop fighting so much and work together. Although it was also kind of an excuse to revive one of my elementary school favorites:
The camp concluded with a two-hour cooking class, in which we managed to concoct the worst monstrosity imaginable. My co-teacher decided we would make garlic bread. Which sounded great, at first. The ingredients were minced garlic, butter, sugar and mayonnaise. Heaps of chopped garlic went onto this bread, as well as way more mayonnaise than I would’ve ever thought was a good idea. Then, this all went into a normal toaster. It wasn’t long before toasters all over the classroom started smoking and it smelled like we were going to burn the place down. Luckily, one kid had a toaster oven, and so that crisis was averted.
However, the heaps-of-raw-garlic-on-the-bread problem had not been alleviated. “Spicy, teacher, spicy!” the kids were all complaining. And with mountains of raw garlic, it tasted pretty gross. I tried to show them how to scrape off the garlic. But they instead opted for putting mounds and mounds of sugar on top.
So the students ate white bread piled high with garlic, butter, mayonnaise and tons and tons of sugar. I almost felt bad letting them eat it. But they were working together so well, almost entirely on their own, to get each slice in and out of the toaster oven, covered in sugar, and distributed to every student…how could I stop them? I’m sure there’s worse things for you to eat, anyway.
And finally, I had a two day, 4-hour/day storytelling class for 3rd and 4th graders. This was awesome because I was given absolutely no guidelines other than ‘storytelling’ and no movie for more than 2 class periods a day. I was quite pleased with the ideas I came up with and so I’m going to share them with you.
The theme was monsters. Day 1 was visual monsters, in which we read Where the Wild Things Are and learned about words that describe monsters and how they are different from humans and animals. And not to brag, but my reading of WTWTA got applause. Then everyone designed their own monster, and had to write about where it lives, what it eats, and what kind of personality it had.
I realize this is the same as my design-your-own-animal activity, but I was working with all new students, and I was quite a fan of how the animal one had gone over so I figured I could do it again.
Day 2 was auditory monsters, and we did a lesson on onomatopoeia. We read Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? and talked about different onomatopoeias in English and Korean. Korea totally beats the English language for onomatopoeias, by the way. The word for the noise your stomach makes when you’re hungry is my favorite (kind of goh-ruu-ruu with a rolled r-ish sound).
After that, I had everyone choose a sound and a complementary action for their monster, and we all stood in a circle and had to practice everyone else’s monster sounds. Then I helped them translate their sounds into English/the roman alphabet, and we put together The Monster Book. Ultimately, the lesson would’ve been much more productive if the students knew how to read, and could’ve practice translating sounds on their own. But I think it was still rather successful anyways.
Having to teach for so much, mostly on my own, and develop more of my own content was definitely a learning experience. A lot of it was kind of off-the-cuff, figuring out what was working and what was failing on the go. At least I really hope what I did worked. Being so inexperienced, it’s difficult to say, and I did have a moment towards the end of my first camp worrying that maybe I hadn’t actually taught them anything (but my co-teacher seemed to think otherwise). Having had no camp counselor experience, trying to get a group of kids just to work together and not hate being there was challenge enough.
If any teachers happened to have read this and want to leave me any feedback on anything, it would be more than appreciated! 🙂