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…

“It’s not so much English teachers, it’s the idea of English teachers.”

I came across an interesting article in the Korean Herald the other day.

It was about the Association of Teachers of English in Korea, a group of foreigners trying to better the reputation of us foreign teachers in the eyes of the Korean public. The article described the public’s image of English teachers as “promiscuous party animals.” Ouch.

Of course not every Korean person feels this way about English teachers, but apparently enough do that they’ve made it a law for all English teachers to be tested for HIV before they can get a visa. Interesting indeed…

I just wanted to share a few more quotes…

“National Communications Officer Rob Ouwehand of the Association of Teachers of English in Korea believes that the regulatory testing stems from both the fear of English teachers and HIV, both of which can be cured with knowledge.”

“To reconnect with the public, Ouwehand believes they need to put themselves out there, swapping scary thoughts of English teachers with positive images.

The perceived reputation of foreign English teachers in Korea, fueled by the Anti-English Spectrum group and perpetuated by the media, had long been one of drinking, drug abuse, sexual promiscuity and disease.

It is speculated that the efforts of the vigilante group helped push the ministry’s institutionalization of the testing in 2007.

‘It’s not so much English teachers, it’s the idea of English teachers,’ he said.”

“ATEK agrees that teaching is a really intimate relationship. The teacher-student relationship requires a lot of trust and respect, fortunately HIV and AIDS has never been transmitted through trust and respect.

HIV cannot be transmitted through saliva, tears, sweat or casual contact.”

Good thing we’re all going to be replaced by robots soon anyways!
Rolling Eyes Smiley

Culture Shock of the Week: In which I scandalize 15 pairs of young, innocent eyes

Third grade’s lesson this week was on weather and the types of clothing you wear for different kinds of weather. I – of course – made a picture-filled powerpoint to demonstrate the new vocabulary…

Picture 1

Picture 2

Picture 3

On the summer clothing slide, a student in one of my classes guessed ‘bikini’ when I pointed to the swim suit. And so I explained that a bikini is two pieces, and did a quick sketch on the board behind me.

This absolutely scandalized the boys in my class. They covered their eyes and turned away in horror! And wouldn’t even uncover them when I erased the bikini. I had to change the slide and get rid of the swimsuit, too.

I guess they’re 8-year-olds and I should have known better than to put something so ‘suggestive’ in front of them. It’s been quite a while since I’ve really been around eight year-olds (probably about 15 years), so I guess that makes me a bit out of touch. But I was really shocked by the effect my quick sketch of a bikini had. Next time I’ll know better…

My First Field Trip

Last Monday, the fifth graders took an all-day field trip to Gyeongju. For some reason, I got to tag along. Gyeongju was the capital of the Silla kingdom, which ruled the Korean peninsula between the 7th and 9th centuries. The entire area is like a giant open-air museum, full of ancient artifacts, making it one of the most popular tourist destinations (outside of Seoul).

As interesting as it was to learn a bit about Korean history, it was even more interesting to spend the day with 120+ fifth graders…which I haven’t done since I was in fifth grade myself. Lucky for me, I didn’t really have any direct responsibility to monitor students, and more or less just got to go along for the ride.

Our trip started by taking a bus for about 30+ minutes up a mountain, to what felt like (but was later confirmed not to be) the top of Tohamsan.
Atop Tohamsan

On top of Tohamsan we visited Seokguram Grotto, a distant part of Bulguksa Temple that has a giant stone sculpture of Buddha. It was all quite pretty, and I got to see some more of that Korean temple architecture.
Entrance to Seokguram Grotto
Please note that it is mid-October and it is still warm enough here to wear a t-shirt. 🙂

Entrance to Seokguram Grotto
Entering Seokgurum Grotto

Temples at Seokguram Grotto
The temples from below (and an every-energetic fifth grader mid-attack)

Water fountain

Another temple at Seokguram

Inside one of the smaller temples. No photos allowed of the main Buddha, unfortunately…but I grabbed one from the internet:

Famous Buddha sculpture at Seokguram

A bit of history: The Buddha was completed in the year 774. It faces the East Sea, to keep an eye on Japan (I suppose). It’s about 3.5 meters tall, and much more impressive in person. This photo doesn’t really do it justice.

From Seokguram, we took a 50 minute walk down-mountain to the main part of Bulguksa temple. I walked with a couple of fifth grade girls, who introduced themselves by their English names Eugene and Destiny. At least, I think she went by Eugene and not Eugenia. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that Eugene is generally a guy’s name, although maybe I should have. Isn’t that kind of my job, as resident English teacher/Western culture expert? But then again, why should she have to subscribe to cultural norms when she isn’t even in the culture to begin with?

I asked Destiny if she knew Desinty’s Child, but she didn’t. I’m quite excited to turn her on to Destiny’s Child/Beyonce in class this week.

Eugene and Destiny were very curious about my arm hair and under-eye circles. I also amazed the fifth grade girls by putting up my hair (which they said looked much prettier than when it was down) and by wearing earrings. I’m sure this novelty will wear off soon, but for now it’s very fun.

Walking to Bulguksa
Walking to Bulguksa

Watch out for falling rocks!

2 of the 4 guardians of Bulguksa Temple
Two of the four ‘guardians’ of Bulguksa. Apparently every temple has them.

A bit of background on Bulguksa: It was built 751-774, under the Silla kingdom. As the center of Buddhism, it cultivated a lot of the era’s most famous Buddhist art. It was also a ‘center of prayer for the protection of the country from foreign invasion,’ but alas, the entire temple was burned down by Japanese invaders in 1593 (which seems to be an ongoing theme in this country). The temple wasn’t restored until 1973.

Bulguksa Temple

Bronze Buddha statue in a temple
Bronze Buddha statue

In the temple

Bulguksa Temple
All of the dragons take me back to my ninja-aspiring days

Seokgatap and Dabotap
“The contrast between the simplicity of the Seokgatap and the complexity of the Dabotap is designed to represent the dual nature of the Buddha’s contemplation and detachment from the world.” (<- stolen from wikipedia)

Bulguksa Temple

Bulguksa Temple

Bulguksa Temple

Apparently one part of the temple was for making wishes. If you can add a stone to the top of a stack without toppling it, your wish comes true.
Bulguksa Temple

Stones were stacked everywhere! It was nice to be surrounded by so many wishes…
Bulguksa Temple

We had a picnic lunch, where one of the students was munching on some of these:
Silk worm larvae!!! He offered me some….but I just couldn’t do it. The only thing I’ve turned down trying so far. Before I leave, for sure. But that’s something I’ll have to build up to (those and the shrink-wrapped non-refrigerated squid tentacles at HomePlus).

At the end of the day, my co-teacher translated for a group of students who wanted to know how my field trip had been. Getting to see Korean national treasures for free and hang out with a bunch of fun 10 year olds without having to monitor their behavior? “Absolutely perfect.”

Teacher, do you have a lover man?

For the first five minutes of all of my classes my first week, I gave a brief introduction and opened myself up to questions from the students. Below are some of my favorites. These are from 3rd – 6th graders.

–       How old are you? (In Korea, age is very important because it determines your relationship with someone. But for some reason the students were very surprised – shocked even – to hear I was 23. My answer was always greeted by gasps of shock, sometimes even applause.)

–       Are you married? (No.)

–       Do you have a boyfriend? (Nope.)

–       Do you have a lover man? (At first, I couldn’t believe that that was what I had heard. And made the tiny 4th grade girl who had asked me repeat it four times before realizing I had heard correctly and then trying to dodge the question. But, the question of my having a ‘lover’ came up in two other classes. I tried to ask one of my Korean co-teachers about this – were the students really asking me if I had a lover? Apparently, yes, although perhaps the word is used more frequently in Korea. I can’t really imagine a fourth grader back in the US asked about a ‘lover’ – although I haven’t been in fourth grade for a while).

–       Does your sister have a boyfriend? (Nope. Why, are you interested?)

–       Do you like kimchi? (Asked by almost every class)

–       Did you sleep with your shoes on in America?

–       What university did you go to? (NYU)

–       Is it famous? (Lady Gaga went there. – This got applause for some reason.)

–       What elementary school did you go to? What was its name?

–       How old is your dog? (14. – This answer was also met by gasps of shock and awe. As was the idea that my dog was a girl.)

–       Do you want to be in the military?

–       From a third grader – What are your dreams for the future? (had to think about it for a bit, but then said – To travel the world.) Then you’re living your dream! (That made me smile)