5 Things to Do in Preparation for a Year in Korea

In anticipation of my fast-approaching return to the peninsula, I thought I’d put together a list of things I’m doing to prepare. Going back for a second time, it’s nice to know a bit more of what to expect. While some of the things below may be a bit me-specific, I figured my list could be of help to any of the thousands of other westerners out there preparing for their year of English teaching in Korea, who happen to find this.

Should anyone stumble across this who’s been to Korea or happens to be there now, please feel free to add your suggestions in the comments!

1. Learn some Korean.


Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, only has 24 letters and very few pronunciation exceptions (unlike that other language I know). Do yourself a favor and learn it in advance, so you can read bus schedules and beer menus as soon as you step off the plane. It’ll only take an hour or two, so no excuses.

The best place you could possibly start is here:

Talk to Me In Korean
Hyunwoo Sun came to my EPIK Orientation in Seoul in 2010 and blew us all away with a Prezi presentation on Korean culture. I started studying with ‘TTMIK’ shortly thereafter and it’s still my #1 resource. The amount of awesomely helpful material they have available FREE on their website is mind-boggling. Go now!

I subscribed to their daily sentence/vocabulary emails nearly 2 years ago and have yet to receive any repeats. Their sentences can be a bit textbook, but the vocabulary is always helpful. They’ve even got audio to help with pronunciation. A word a day can never hurt.

2. Bring these things (especially if you’re a lady).


Things may have changed in Ulsan with its recent addition of Costco, but as of last year these were all hard to find and frequently requested in care packages from home.

— Shoes —
Unless you have a small, narrow foot. My 8-1/2 (US) sized foot was very frustratingly one size too big for all Korean women’s shoes. Should you happen to have a Korean-sized foot, you’ll be able to find street stalls full of cute, cheap shoes in nearly every city. Lucky you.

— Bras —
There are plenty of cute bras, but bigger band and cup sizes are in short supply and cheaper to buy at home.

— Make-up —
Your non-Asian skin tone will probably not be available, unless perhaps you’re in Seoul. However, Korea does have tons of make-up and beauty stores, where you’ll be able to get all kinds of products like BB Cream. While I’ve never tried it, apparently BB Cream is a thing worldwide, so maybe I should.

— Tampons —
They’re not very popular, so don’t expect to find many.

— Deodorant —
There’s definitely deodorant available, but nothing I could find that lived up to my sweaty American standards. I’ve heard from a few sources that once you stop wearing deodorant your body will adjust and stop being smelly. I’ve also heard that that’s definitely not true, so I’m not about to test it out for myself.

— Clothes —
I was almost tempted to put this into the “things not to bother bringing” category, because there are so many cheap clothing stores everywhere, and Seoul has Myeongdong. Ulsan even has a “big size” store for us of non-Korean proportions. But trips to Seoul are expensive, so I’ll be stocking up on jeans and some work clothes before leaving. I will however keep my t-shirt supply minimal as I’m always on the look-out for only-in-Asia finds such as this.

— Pictures —
Bring pictures of your family, your hometown, and you doing some of your favorite things and your first day of teaching is already set.

— Small gifts from your hometown or home country —
You are probably going to meet a co-teacher, who will have to do a ridiculous number of things for you to help you get functioning in a foreign country. This is a nice way to say thank you for all the trouble you’re about to put them through.

3. Don’t bother bringing these things:

— Basic Medications —
Korean pharmacies are awesome, and doctor visits are super cheap.

— Stationary —
It’s so prevalent, it’s inescapable.

— Hiking and camping gear —
Hiking is extremely popular in Korea, so there’s brand name and rip-off gear readily available. My personal favorites are ‘Red Face’ and ‘Black Face’ but there’s plenty to choose from!

— A Computer —
Thanks to an obsessive gaming culture, ‘PC bangs’ are on every corner, and you will more than likely have 2-10 that never close within steps from your apartment. They can however be a bit smokey and/or over-crowded with adolescent boys, so I’ll be bringing my laptop. Although not having internet would save quite a bit of money.

4. Work on your singing voice

After-festival noraebang-ing

It is more than likely that you will end up in a ‘noraebang’, or Korean singing room, with all of your co-workers and colleagues within your first few weeks in the country. Someone, probably your boss, will at one point give you the microphone and song book and demand a performance. You may as well be prepared.

On that same note, you could familiarize yourself with the many rules of Korean drinking. However, as a foreigner no one will expect you to know these anyways.

5. Get your fill of these things before you go, because you won’t be getting them in Korea.

Oh salty, cheesy, non-fish flavored snacks, how I will miss you.

This is probably more me-specific, as I really like food, but I will definitely be trying to enjoy all of these at least one last time before I go:
— International cuisine, especially burritos
— Good bread, sandwiches, and baked goods
— Good beer
— Cheese, cheesy foods, cheesy snacks, mac & cheese
— Peanut butter
— Granola
— American breakfast
— Pie

While many of these are widely available, they’re generally a bit expensive. $6 for a jar of creamy Jif? No thanks.

Ultimately, the best advice I could give to anyone going to Korea for the first time would be to throw any and all expectations you may have out the window. Because anything could happen, and it probably will …at the last second, without any prior warning. Be prepared!

How Korea taught me to love singing

노래방 (noraebang) translates literally to ‘song room’ and is Korea’s very popular version of Karaoke. People go in small groups, and are given a private room, bookable by the hour. The usual set-up includes 2 microphones, 2 tambourines, a couple of song books, a giant remote control, a big couch around a table, and 1-3 TVs that show the song lyrics along with a totally irrelevant video of Korean couples breaking up or scenic beaches. Most places charge by the hour, but will add quite a bit more time for free if you start to run out. Some of the fancier establishments require that you buy some alcohol and food, but at most purchasing alcohol is optional (although that may actually be illegal) or you can bring your own. Some places have a pole in the middle of the room (for dancing?) and some have girls you can “order” to come and sing and dance with you! Some are very fancy, and some are in dingy basements.

noraebang with the fatherMost noraebangs seem to be open all night, from early evening til morning, although I can’t be sure because I’ve never found one closed when I wanted to go. I’ve never been one for karaoke, and was quite terrified by noraebangs at first. But visiting noraebangs quickly became one of my favorite evening activities in Korea. I’ve been more times than I can count, and have more than exhausted all of the songs I know in their song books (for myself as well as the friends that usually accompany me, I’m sure).

After-festival noraebang-ing
Picture taken by my friend Ellen.

Noraebangs are much more a part of Korean culture than karaoke is in America. I was pretty surprised when my first school outing went to a noraebang right after dinner, and everyone was expected to sing and dance together in one very cramped room. It was quite unlike any work party I’ve been to back in the US: I danced with the head teacher while the principal sang an old pop song, and then was asked to sing “Poker Face”. My lack of confidence was only made worse by everyone else’s impressive singing abilities. I don’t know if it’s because most Korean people grow up going to noraebangs and get more practice singing, but I think they’re much better than the average American at carrying a tune. After a couple crates full of Hite and Soju, my lack of ability didn’t matter. By the end of the evening, I had sang an ABBA song I’d never heard before with the gym teacher, and “Last Christmas” and “Love Me Tender” arm-in-arm with several less-than-sober colleagues.

As it turns out, this really isn’t anything out of the ordinary when it comes to workplace outings in Korea. At first I thought it was so “unprofessional”, but Korea just has it’s own kind of professionalism. And I have to say I appreciate it quite a bit.

Want to impress your Korean co-workers at the noraebang? Try some ABBA, Michael Jackson, Beatles, “Lemon Tree” by Fool’s Garden, or “I Believe I Can Fly”. Younger audiences will probably appreciate Lady Gaga, Adele (if you can pull that off!), Backstreet Boys, NSYNC or “Bad Case of Loving You” by Robert Palmer. Why some of these songs and groups are popular, I truly don’t understand…

Potatoes are not people!

Last week I was teaching my fourth grade classes a textbook unit that covered the sentences: “What’s for lunch?” “We have fish/salad/rice/chicken.” Which I think is awkward and perhaps entirely incorrect, but was in the textbook and so had to be taught (which is a topic for another post). My students were very interested in what kids ate for lunch in the USA, which prompted me to do some research into school lunches around the world.

This is a typical school lunch for me in Korea:

School Lunch

Every day we have some kind of rice, soup, kimchi, vegetable and protein (usually fish or chicken or tofu) . All of the kids, from pre-K through 6th grade, are expected to eat everything, and to eat enough to satisfy their teachers.

In my research, I came across this great blog What’s for school lunch? And apparently this is what kids are eating for lunch in the US:

Chili dog and fries. Yum!
Chili dogs and fries.

Nachos and fries?!
And nachos and french fries. Wow. Healthy!

Of course, my students were all insanely jealous that they never get french fries or nachos or hot dogs at lunch (although they do sometimes get a fried mandu or rice cake, albeit rarely). I tried to explain that many kids in the US are not very healthy, but of course my 4th grade students couldn’t care less about that aspect.

I know there’s been a lot of reform going on in the US to push for healthier school lunches. But today, I came across this interesting article on Slate: Congress wants the Agriculture Department to rethink its healthy school lunch proposal: it’s just too good.

According to the article, the school lunch legislation going through Congress has been derailed, thanks to the efforts of lobbyists from the National Potato Council and other interest groups. The proposed changes included limiting starchy vegetables and salt, increasing healthy fruits and veggies, and a stipulation that pizza can not be counted as a vegetable (that has to be a law? really?).

All of those changes sound like good ideas to me, but apparently not to everyone:

The Department of Agriculture created a proposal that fit within its budget and pleased nutritionists, public health experts and many school lunch officials, but it didn’t please the American Frozen Food Institute or the companies that provide much of the food served to kids at lunch—companies like Coca-Cola, Del Monte, and the makers of frozen pizza.

The article also sited the NY Times to report food lobbyists have spent $5.6 billion fighting these proposed school lunch changes. And it seems that’s enough to buy legislation away from the best interests of the country’s children.

In Korea, school lunches are planned by the school nutritionist, whose job is to create a healthy and varied menu each month. According to my Korean colleagues, the parents wouldn’t have it any other way.

I was talking to a Korean friend about this, who thought it was pretty crazy that the government would give the kids unhealthy food, which could lead to obesity and other health problems later in life, and then not provide them with the health care they’d need to take care of these problems. She thought it was pretty funny. I think it’d be funnier if it wasn’t actually happening.

It’s pretty hard to explain to my Korean friends that my country puts the interests of its potato industry ahead of its children! How ridiculous can we get? If I were in America right now, I’d take to the streets! I’d join them on Wall Street! And this would be my sign:

Potatoes are not people!

A Tale of Two Summer Camps

Summer “vacation” in Korea isn’t quite the same as most students and teachers have it back in the US – for most Korean students, it means just as much studying at private schools, and for me and other EPIK teachers it means extra teaching at special English camps. So while Korean schools don’t officially run year-round, students never really get a break from studying – ever (at least until they graduate high school).

Over July and August, I spent three weeks at a school in a remote location in Ulsan and 1 week at my school. Teaching for 6-10 hours a day can be quite stressful, but it’s not all bad. Really, it can be quite a bit better than regular school teaching. At camps, I’ve gotten to plan and teach a lot of my own lessons, and the students are generally much more motivated to learn English. After my overnight 5th grade English camp last winter, I saw my students’ levels transform, as well as their enthusiasm for learning which they still have months later. So when the option came up to teach another three-week overnight camp for summer, I didn’t hesitate to sign up. Although I did try my best not to get assigned teaching grammar this time…which I found to be a rather unfortunate subject to be stuck with for 7 hours a day last camp.

A bit of background on these English camps – 5th and 6th grade students are shipped off to a secluded campus for three weeks (with breaks on the weekends) of intensive English studying with lots of foreign teachers. The camps are organized by the public system, and in Ulsan it’s done by the MOE (Metropolitan Office of Education). They have classes from 9 in the morning to 9 at night or later, only breaking for meals and perhaps a bit of PE time. To me it seems a bit ridiculous to have 10 and 11 year-olds in classes for 10 hours a day, but that’s just because I’m not Korean.

For summer camp, I was working with all 6th grade students off in the very southern corner of Ulsan at Seosaeng Middle School, on a tiny peninsula sticking out into the East Sea. Based on my two camp experiences and anecdotal evidence, the first day of camp generally goes like this: get picked up by a bus carrying a bunch of students. Meet the frazzled Korean teacher in charge of your bus. Make the ~1 hour drive to camp, receive some vague instructions about what to do upon arrival. Arrive at camp, find your room, try to follow vague instructions previously given. Receive different instructions several times while students and teachers wander aimlessly. Wait. Be prepared to be in a classroom of 16-60 tired, shy students eager to be entertained with no planned activities or help from a Korean co-teacher for 1-4 hours. Stay positive! After the first day, everything should settle down into a relatively set schedule.

Our dorm situation at camp brought with it some more interesting problems the first day: all of the foreign teachers were in one wing of the building, with one bathroom to share and no where to shower. Eventually, they told us there was one shower room for boys and one for girls, which was an open room to be shared with all of the students! The school dorm management didn’t seem to understand that this was not “OK.” But by the end of the day, they had it sorted out so we wouldn’t have to shower with the students, and we had a “sink shower” room for female staff with some semi-private shower curtains. Having living in Korea for a while and beet to the jimjilbang/public spas has made me a bit more immune to nudity, but I’m not quite ready to shower with all of my students…

Living in a dirty middle school dorm room for 3 weeks was a bit less than ideal, but it did have a very nice view:


Every day the class schedule was two hours of grammar, reading and vocabulary, an hour of speaking and an hour of “song”. That left two hours for “special activities”. I lucked out in getting a pretty laid back arts & crafts activity.


Little paper dragonflies that balance on their nose. It was a pretty simple idea suggested by my co-teacher, and the kids were totally into it! 아싸!!


The biggest obstacle of camp was preparing a song and dance for the Song Festival. Aiiigo, aiiiiiigo. I felt like it was a bit much to expect us to choreograph a dance and teach it and a song to our students within the little spare time afforded by the camp schedule, but the results were actually pretty great. Upon arriving to camp, we were told that the song we selected to teach each night would be our song for the festival. I had “Another Brick in the Wall,” which was quickly vetoed by my class as too slow and boring. They instead chose a song by some awful British pop act McFly, which had been in some Korean drama. It was beyond awful, but absolutely adored by the students. And it’s all for them anyway.

Teaching “Another Brick in the Wall” was an interesting failure… I thought something in it might resonate with the students, who are studying all day and at 12 are starting to feel the seeds of rebellious teenage angst. But it didn’t quite work out. Most students couldn’t have cared less, no matter what I tried. I think I reached about 10 students out of the 100-200 I had, and only had a couple of classes that I felt good about. Eventually I gave up and switched to James Brown “I Feel Good,” because at least it would make me happy and let me get totally goofy. And it actually got an entire class up and dancing! My best 20 minutes of camp.

One of the highlights was “Octopus’s Garden” by the Beatles. So cute! Next time, I’m choosing a song with an animal theme.

The boys from my homeroom class.

So camp was a big difficult, particularly aapting to the schedule hearing “Teacher! Teacher! Teacher!” “Teacher! Teacher!” non-stop all day, every day except for the hours you’re sleeping. But then after 3 weeks, it’s over!! And you get all these letters:




And they overwhelm all of the bad memories of camp and you wonder…maybe I could do it again next time!

But apparently that won’t be a question to consider because the camps are no more! Or so I heard. I guess they’re too expensive. Ah well. They were …interesting while they lasted.


A week later, I had my school’s camp. Which was 6 hours a day of whatever I wanted to do with a group of 4th-6th graders. I was pretty excited about this never-before-had freedom, and got to work in a lot of group projects and non-English subjects. Each day had a theme: The World, Animals, Science, Fairy Tales, and Superheroes.

Animal Day:

I ripped off this mask design from something I found online but thought it looked pretty cool.

Summer English Camp
This is from “Oktapodi: the sequel” inspired from this great animated short.

Summer English Camp
There’s an alien fishing with a big worm. She sees the octopi and says, “Lets go with the cosmos.”

I also redid my dragonfly craft, which was great once again!


And I was really excited to do a reading and writing activity based around superhero comics. First we read a bunch of comics that I had made. Then we discussed how to make a comic, and the students had to make their own…


It looks like there’s something inappropriate happening between Superman and Wonder Woman. And perhaps Catwoman is having a wardrobe malfunction?


I like this a lot.

The comic book activity ended up being a bit too much about coloring, and a bit too little about English. But I think it could be modified into something really great. I was quite pleased with the results.

Looking back on summer camps after having started regular classes again, they look good. Even with all the work. And I’m happy that the last thing I do before I leave Korea for good in February will be my school’s winter camp. Oh, the possibilities…

Culture Shock of the Week: Korea and Butts and Lawsuits, oh my!

Sticker prominently displayed on the bus to English Camp...

This is a bit of a blurry picture, but what you may or may not be able to see is a woman from behind, wearing nothing but a thong and high heels and a dragon back-tattoo. This big decal was very prominently decorating the interior of the bus I rode back from English Camp with my sixth grade students. It seems like a bit of an odd choice of decor for your very public bus, but to each their own…I guess. You’d think having this in view of a bunch of 12-13 year old boys would cause quite a commotion, but none of them seemed to pay it any attention. Maybe they didn’t see it? That seems highly unlikely, as they’re 13-year-old boys and it’s a picture of a mostly naked woman…

But butts are really not a big deal in this country. Maybe it’s because everyone goes to the jimjilbang together (well, boys with other boys and girls with other girls) so nudity isn’t really a big deal. In the hospital, there’s hemorrhoid removal posters featuring big extreme close-ups of the point of surgery, and no one pays them any mind. Plastic surgery is advertised with really smooth and firm-looking bottoms. A nurse will give you a shot in the but without any concern for who else may be within view, because no one really cares.

Really though, it’s better that way, right? It’s just a butt. We’ve all got one. We’re so uptight about that stuff in the US. Can you imagine if a bus driver that worked for public elementary schools had that sticker on his bus in the US? I’m sure there’d be a lawsuit in no time. Or at least he’d be fired, immediately. Probably before he even got the chance to pick up any kids.

Today I was thinking about some of the differences between teaching in Korea and the US, at least what I know about teaching in the US based on growing up in the school system. In Korea, I can hug my students or give them a pat on the back and it’s no big deal. I can give students my cell phone number, although that’s not really something I’d want to do (many other teachers do though). I can “threaten” my students when they’re being bad..not that that happens a lot…but if I were to, say, mime kneeing a student in the face, I wouldn’t have to worry about repercussions. Not that that’s a mature way to approach classroom discipline… But the Korean teachers often discipline the students by having them hold their hands above their heads or stay in push-up position for a prolonged period of time.

In the school bathrooms, there’s often no soap at the sinks. I have my own antibacterial hand stuff, but I don’t know what the students do. Yesterday there was a bee hive/bee infestation situation in several classrooms, which still hadn’t been resolved today. Earlier this week the fire alarm went off in the middle of class, but we just waited for it to stop so we could continue. After class, the fire alarm light was still flashing in the hallway, and no one was paying any attention…

I’m pretty sure all of these things could be potential lawsuits in the US. In Korea, it’s no big deal. I was aware, but never really realized how much our sue-anyone-for-anything culture really influences life in America. Actually, I think that’s probably a big reason behind the differences in driving in the US and Korea…but that’s a topic for another post.

Classroom Decorating

The start of a new school year in March brought with it a few big changes in the world of teaching. First of all, I got two new co-teachers, as one of my previous co-teachers had to leave the school and the other one wanted to switch to teaching homeroom. Thankfully, my two new co’s are very friendly and kind. I also switched to primarily teaching 6th grade, three times a week, with one day of 4th grade too.

I’ve also found my role in the classroom significantly diminished, which basically means I don’t get to plan as much and have less responsibility to prepare materials. Which means I have a bit more time on my hands at work. I’ve also found that the more I get used to teaching, the easier lesson planning gets. So this semester I’ve had a lot more free time on my hands.

All of this free time has gone into classroom decorating.


This is The Point Board, for grades 3 and 4. The students are divided into teams, and compete for points throughout the class. Fourth grade is ridiculously competitive. When they were in third grade, the Korean English teacher would give stamps that added up to coupons. Coupons could be exchanged for candy, or they could be used in class as a sort of “trump card” to automatically get to answer a question, no matter who else was raising their hand. All of the students were constantly using coupons in class. So basically, they were competing for coupons to use to get more coupons to use to get more coupons…not adding up to anything. I figured they would tire of that eventually, but the students have brought it back this year in 4th grade, introducing the convoluted system to their new Korean English teacher! I would think by the end of the year, they’ll have some higher expectations in the terms of rewards…

This is 6th grade’s version. Team 3 is the winner! Team 1 was misbehaving and has to stay after class to clean the classroom. 😛

Teachers' Office door decor
This is the door to the office I share with my co-teacher. The sign was her idea. But I was quite pleased with how it turned out.

At the start of the semester in March and April, I was incredibly ambitious with decorating for each unit in the text book. The English center has a big fuzzy board that didn’t get used at all my first few months here, and I was determined to put it to use. So my co-teacher and I put together some rather elaborate wall displays…

Teaching directions
Lesson 2: Is this York Street?

When’s your birthday?

Mine’s August 27th.

Now that 6th grade has three days of English class a week instead of two, there’s actually a bit of time to do some fun stuff beyond the text book. For lesson 3 “I like Spring,” the students made mini season books. In these pictures you can get a glimpse of the students’ English level…which is not very high. But some of their books were really pretty.

Our display space.


Every 6th grade English class in the city of Ulsan has a one-time trip to the local “English Experience Center,” where they have 2 hours of unique English classes. Last year, my job on these days was to lead groups of students through basic everyday life sort of dialogues. It was nothing short of a nightmare, with students trying to run away, beat each other up, destroy the school’s props and go to sleep on the floor while I tried to get them through dialogues far beyond their level that none of them could read. In hindsight, I probably should’ve created some material more suited to their level. Oh well…

Crazy Animals!

Luckily, this year things were different. I was given 40 minutes to do whatever I wanted with the students in the classroom. The school provided a Powerpoint and activity about ants, but I decided it would be more fun to do a class about strange-looking animals. I tried to focus more on the evolutionary aspect, like why the animals looked the way they did, and what purpose their odd traits served in their survival. Which was a bit difficult to do in English with some of the classes. After looking at several strange-looking animals, the students had to design their own. They had some really cool creations! Overall, I thought it was quite fun.

The class was called “Crazy Animals”, because I knew crazy was a word the students would recognize. I felt if I used “weird” or “strange” not all of them would understand, and I wanted to have everyone together on the same page at least for the subject of the class.

6th grade students' invented animals
A lot of students drew animals that ate people…

Help me! NO!
Help me! NO! – drawn by the sweetest, shyest little girl

This is the "Kiss Dog." It has big lips so it can kiss people.
The Kiss Dog. It has big mouth so it can kiss for person. It live in a Africa.

It's delicious!
It’s delicious!

One last thing – a prepositions picture I put together for 4th grade. I realize the perspective is far from perfect, which is rather unfortunate for a lesson on prepositions, and the position of the box/Spongebob are debatable. But I’m still into it:

The robot is in the bed. The glove is on Obama's hand.
The robot is in the bed. The doll is under the sofa. The glove is on Obama’s hand.

I’m kind of hoping some of these classroom decorations outlast my time at the school, so I can leave behind a bit of a “legacy”…but if not that’s all right too, they’re serving a purpose now. To help the students. Not just to keep me busy in the afternoons. Really…

Sports Day!

The scoreboard - it's a tie!

The best day of the year in school is most certainly Sports Day. Fierce competition, free food, happy students, silly dances, and zero responsibility. What could be better?

Sports Day is serious business. The day before Sports Day was ‘Sports Day Practice Day,’ where the students rehearsed running relays and stretching. It’s not just a day of fun and games: it’s a day of fun and games in a specific, controlled way that’s impressive to parents (and also a day to imbue a bit of propaganda, as I later discovered).

Sports Day preparation

Watching Sports Day Practice Day from the window of the English room on the fourth floor gave me a good preview of the events to come. Groups of students were rehearsing dance numbers all afternoon, making me anticipate what I would see the next day.

Sports Days preparation - with umbrellas!

But the next day, I came to school to find Sports Day had been canceled due to ‘yellow dust.’ I didn’t see any dust, but apparently it was so bad that exercising outside would be ‘dangerous’. Of course, I didn’t find out about the cancellation until 5 minutes before the start of my until-that-moment-canceled first hour class. Surprise! While this holds true to anywhere you are, I think it is particularly important to anyone working in a Korean elementary school: always be prepared for everything.

The following day, it was on. The schoolyard was all done up for the big day.

Sports Day

I was impressed by the number of parents able to come out, considering it was a Tuesday morning. It seemed a good number of the students had parents present.

The activities started with some stretching:

…which was accompanied by a song so great I had to capture it on video:

Isn’t it wonderful?

The principal looks over the events

The Principal, administration and head of the Parents’ Committee sat above the events, lording over the proceedings behind a table set with fresh fruit and rice cakes like the Roman Emperor observing the Gladiator Games. Ok, it wasn’t all that much, but the grandeur of their set-up did seem a bit silly.

Some sixth grade students in charge of broadcasting

Some of my favorite sixth grade girls (not that I choose favorites…) were in charge of ‘broadcasting.’ Please note that the shirt on the right: “CASHED / i’m cashed, brah.” Awesome.

Free from responsibilities other than being present (and doing a tiny bit of relay running), I spent the day mostly observing and hanging out with students and other teachers. And being waved at repeatedly by waiting fourth-graders:

Cute fourth grade students, waiting

I think they're cheering for the white team

Fourth Grade cheer section

Team Blue fourth graders

They look so cute and sweet here. In class, some of them tend to be more of the opposite. Hard to imagine…

Each grade had one or more events. There were many races and relay races, along with a few adorable dances. But by far the most interesting event was #3:

3. Dokdo is ours!

which was “Dokdo island is ours!” (as expressed by my co-teacher)

Dokdo is a hotly-disputed tiny island / cluster of rocks in the sea between Korea and Japan. Both countries claim ownership, although they are currently patrolled by Korean coastguard and both of the two permanent island residents are Korean. Things recently got really heated when Japan released new school geography books that stated Dokdo belonged to them. Propaganda about these rocks is all over the place in Korea.

A third grader claiming Dokdo for Korea

The event was essentially a relay, in which the teams competed to cover all of Korea’s territory with little orange flowers. Dokdo featured rather prominently on the map, considering its relative size.

Dokdo is ours!

The final step was to put together a sign that read: Daemado Island is Japan’s land. Dokdo Island is Korea’s land.

It all seems rather silly to me, as there don’t seem to be any resources or anything actually worth disputing over on the islands. But it is definitely not silly to the Korean people. Or to my school, apparently.

Fifth Grade's Umbrella Dance

My second favorite event was the much-anticipated umbrella dance routine. It was super cool, and kind of reminded me of high school marching band days…

More cute outfits from the dances:

Adorable Kindergarten dance

First Grade's Twister-inspired costmes
First grade, wearing a bunch of Twister boards and towels on their heads and no pants!

Probably second grade? Diggin the doo-rags, and the GODSEND t-shirt.

My favorite non-dance outfit:

Kids wear these hoodies all the time. They seem to be gaining popularity with the older ones too. It can be very frightening to be teaching and turn around to see a small skeleton or monkey has suddenly appeared in class.

Two other rather interesting events featured parent – teacher race competitions. The dads against the male teachers was an intensely competitive match, although the teachers easily won. Go teachers!

Sports Day culminated in a giant relay race of the entire fourth grade, with the top sixth grade runners as ringers at the end. It was a vicious race: first the blue team had a giant lead, then the white team pulled way ahead. The entire school watched from the sidelines, screaming wildly for their team. Coming into the final lap, it was neck-and-neck, the blue team finally closing the gap. And then – the unthinkable! – the white team dropped the baton on the final hand-off. The blue team pulled way ahead and won by a mile, winning the day.

Spring has arrived

…and it’s brought with it five more months in Korea!

Spring on the Taewha

Last week my school informed me I had a week to let them know if I’d be re-signing for a second year at Samil Elementary. Another year in Ulsan sounded like a bit much… but I’ve also rather unexpectedly come to like my sixth graders quite a bit, so much so that I can’t imagine leaving them in the middle of their school year to some new and probably completely inexperienced Native Teacher…

So I’ve decided to extend my contract. As of right now, it’s looking like I’ll be hanging out for an additional five months, or until February 25, 2012.

From there, hopefully I’ll have saved up enough to kick around Asia for a while. On the short list of places to stop by on my way out of Korea – Mongolia, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, Macau, Japan, Cambodia, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia….

And after that…?

School Festival

This is a long over-due post from something that took place back in December, but I figured better late than never.

Most elementary, middle and high schools in Korea hold ‘school festivals’ at the end of the year, to showcase all kinds of student performances. Towards the end of November, I started to hear reports and see pictures from my friends’ schools. Many of them seemed to involve some cross dressing on the part of some of the boys in the school, which seemed rather strange, but had me eagerly awaiting what was to come with my school’s festival.

Over the course of two days, each grade, kindergarten – sixth, was given about an hour to perform. I went with my co-teachers to the fourth, fifth, and sixth grade performances. It was very cute to see the kids running around in their costumes throughout the day – first grade girls in glittery tops and fairy wings, sixth grade boys trying to dress like K-Pop stars.

The biggest surprise of the day for me was that each grade put on an English pop song performance. Where did they learn this? I asked my co-teacher, who told me they learned the song in the after school program. Our school has an after school English program I don’t know about? At first I was a bit bummed that I, the native English speaker, was not in on the after-school program that was teaching the kids fun English pop songs, but apparently it’s privately run and just rents a classroom from the school. The best English song performance was “Dancing Queen” by a group of fifth grade girls in red bow ties. For some reason, ABBA is extremely popular here.

Other highlights were a taekwondo-dance hybrid very popular with the boys, and this choreographed routine that involved a big group of students holding up many colored cards to make a big picture that changed to the beat of the music. One of these card choreography routines showed a cute love story between a boy and girl, slowly unfolding through several images. The last one featured two monkeys, butt to butt. No one else seemed to think this was the least bit outrageous. I tried to get an explanation from my co-teacher, but she didn’t seem to think it was odd either.

At one point during the fifth grade show, the lights dimmed and a few students came out dressed all in black wielding neon green glowsticks. They then proceeded to twirl them around in a rave-type show to techno music.

But the most shocking part was the K-Pop performances. Each grade had at least one. The students seemed to just copy the dance routines from the music videos, and everyone seemed to think this was ok, even though it’s fourth grade girls wearing short shorts and go-go boots doing these overtly sexual dance moves… I guess that’s a cultural difference I’ll never understand.

Side note – my favorite thing in Winter camp was to play this song in class. All of the girls would immediately stop what they were doing to sing and do the dance that goes with the chorus. “You don’t know me! You don’t know me! So shut up, boy! Shut up, boy!” So adorable.

Also adorable was a group of fifth grade boys who did a dance to another popular K-Pop song. Dressed in their fanciest, hip-hoppiest clothes, they did an obviously very well-rehearsed hip-hop-styled dance with utmost intensity and seriousness. The other students went crazy for it. It reminded me of my middle school talent show in sixth grade, when a band made up for eighth grade boys covered that Eagle Eyed Cherries song “Save Tonight” and we all thought it was the. coolest. thing. ever.

While my school festival didn’t have any cross-dressing, it had more than enough cultural oddities for me to ponder. I did ask my co-teacher about the cross-dressing, but the only explanation she gave me was “it’s funny.” These kinds of things make me feel like I could live here for years and years and years and years, but some things I would never fully understand.

January = Winter English Camps

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.

(A few of these pictures I borrowed from Kerry, another foreign teacher who did a much better job at documenting things than I did.)

The best part of this place was the view:

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.

My co-teacher for the camp was Eui Hwan.

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:

5th grade Winter English Camp

They drew my portrait:
5th grade Winter English Camp

They also drew my portrait as a snowman:
5th grade Winter English Camp

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!

5th grade Winter English Camp

My favorite singer is ...Beyonce, but my family is:
“My favorite singer is…Beyonce, but my family is:”

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).

5th grade Winter English Camp
Some days we had a submarine drawing competition.

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.

Samil Winter English Camp - Design an Animal

My favorite was “Spicy”
Spicy Farts
whose farts are so ‘spicy’ they either kill fish or smell like dead fish. I like to think it’s that they kill fish.

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.

Samil Winter English Camp

Samil Winter English Camp

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:

Samil Winter English Camp - Game Day
Toilet paper mummies! This activity had little-to-nothing to do with English, but I did teach them the word for mummy. And they seemed to enjoy it as much as I did.

And in the end, everyone worked together to make their mummy, including my most troublesome:
Samil Winter English Camp - Game Day
They look so cute and innocent, but don’t let it full you! 🙂

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.

Samil Winter English Camp - Garlic Bread Making

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.

Samil Winter English Camp - Garlic Bread Making

Samil Winter English Camp - Garlic Bread Making

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.

The Monster Book

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.

This was my favorite:
Crazy Toilet monster eats American parents
“Toilet” monster eats parents in America 🙂

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! 🙂

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