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

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!

Korean-Flashcards.com
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).

packing

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.

CHEEZ
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!

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Halloween

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One of my students models my Halloween costume. Can you guess what it is?

I had meant to write about Halloween before, but apparently never got around to it. Oops! Nothing like some Halloween in January though, right?

I never really liked Halloween as a kid, I think because I could never come up with good costume ideas. But then in university I discovered the amazingness that is Halloween in New York, and that I really like to make things, and since then I’ve been all about it. And as far as teaching holidays to my students goes, Halloween is definitely the most fun.

Halloween isn’t really celebrated in Korea, although it seems to be gaining popularity from all the foreign English teachers telling kids about it and throwing parties at school. All of the big supermarkets have small Halloween sections with witch hats and devil pitchforks, but it seems most kids don’t dress up unless they have a Halloween party at their private schools. Most of the kids are aware there’s a Halloween-candy connection though, which is all they really care about. Many of my students came by the English room on Halloween to say, “Teacher! Trick-or-treat! Candy, please!” Haha, nice try kids.

Some decorations from home made for a nice festive atmosphere in the classroom–

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I hadn’t put little plastic spiders in cotton cobwebs in years! It’s pretty fun.

In my weekly “English Cinema” class we watched The Nightmare Before Christmas and made Halloween masks. I was a little worried about whether they’d be into the movie or not, as they don’t really celebrate Halloween or Christmas, but they seemed to like it. Especially the music.

The Halloween masks came out pretty cute, and gave me a good use for all the disposable chopsticks I’ve accumulated from over a year of take-out kimbaps and delivery.

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We should’ve used some paint or something more vivid, but they were still all right. I especially liked this project because I got to spend my “deskwarming” time making samples:

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The best part about teaching in a school is getting to wear my costume there, even if I am the only one.

Last year, I had had a rather raucous Halloween exploring downtown Daegu on a bar crawl with mobs of foreigners. This year, I stayed in Ulsan, where there were plenty of parties at the foreigner bars, but nothing quite like Daegu. I was really surprised to find a Korean-hosted party at one of my favorite bars, Showtime, in Ulsan’s old downtown. I was the only foreigner while I was there, and so forced to play the pass-the-paper-mouth-to-mouth game between two ajosshis, but also got a free cocktail. 아싸!

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:

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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.

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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!!

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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.

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

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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:

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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:

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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!

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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…

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

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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…

Remon, anyone?

Yellow Remon

The second thing I spotted in my School’s “Engish” Center was this little tray. After the “ENGISH” sign on the entryway. aiiiiigo…

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.

In the Midnight Hour

It was a couple of Friday nights ago that I found myself alone and broke in Ulsan’s “old” downtown area around midnight. My friends had just left in a cab for the university district, but I didn’t really want to make the trek across town and instead decided to call it an early night (midnight is very early for Korea). It wasn’t until after they got in the cab that I realized I had sent them off with the last of my money, and with buses long since having stopped running, I decided I’d better walk home.

But before I freak out my parents, this story isn’t going where you think. Walking across town at midnight in a city is generally a very bad idea for a woman on her own, especially in another country. But in Korea…things are a bit different. As soon as I turned the corner out of downtown, I found myself surrounded by throngs of high school students, just getting out of hagwons (private school) for the evening. The main road between my neighborhood and downtown is lined with hagwons, building-to-building and stacked 6 floors up. I felt a bit embarrassed to be slightly tipsy and in my evening apparel, suddenly joined by a hundred high school students still in their uniforms toting books and backpacks.

The education system in Korea is always talked about in the local news, and gets quite a bit of recognition worldwide. When I first moved out here 9 months ago, my co-teachers were eager to discuss Obama’s comment that the US should follow the Korean education system because it’s been so successful. They felt it was absurd; in their view, education in Korea is far from a model system. Both of my co-teachers have young kids, and explained how stressed they felt about having to send their children into the school system.

So what’s going on? This is what I’ve observed in my time here:

From the time a child starts to speak, they start studying English. By kindergarten, the child is sent to English hagwons for more study. In elementary school, the student will study in school from 9-3, and then attend hagwons until as late as 8pm (according to my fourth graders). In middle school, school goes until 4:30 and hagwons even later. By high school, most of them start studying early in the morning and go into the wee hours of the night. All of this is building up to the end of their final year of high school, when they’ll take their college entrance exam to determine what kind of university they can attend. If the student does bad on that test, they have to wait another year to re-take it.

Parents feel torn: they don’t want their students to study all of the time, but if they don’t, they won’t have a chance to compete with their peers for a good university or job placement. In the end, everyone feels stressed: the kids, because they spend all of their time studying, and the parents, because they’re sending their kids into a system that makes them unhappy. The public school teachers are stressed because students come to them wanting to play games and relax before their hours of evening study, and how can they assign homework knowing the students’ hectic schedules? Hagwon teachers get students who are tired and unable to focus after a full day of school. Who does the system benefit?

I see it in my fourth and fifth grade students, who regularly say they feel sad, terrible, and “depressed” even about how much they have to study. And they don’t get any breaks, either. School let out for summer earlier this week, but many students are still coming to school to study. Next week I start an overnight English camp for fifth graders where students will study at least 10 hours a day, every day, for three weeks.

All of this stress must be unhealthy. According to this recent article in the NY Times, it very sadly all too often drives them over the edge.

Beyond the stress, or perhaps adding to it, is the cost of all this extra education. Hagwons aren’t free, so only those who can afford so many years of so many private school classes are able to get the edge on their peers. It certainly doesn’t provide a very equal opportunity.

Sure, the Korean system is successful in that it’s boosted the economy from third world to one of the strongest in the world in 50 years…but at what cost to the people?


Anyways, this news broadcast from January has some more insight from local students and educators, who can say it much better than I can:

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.

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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…


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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?


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When’s your birthday?


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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.

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Our display space.

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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…

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