Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

In addition to pink parking spaces (for women who are ‘bad drivers’ don’t you know, and the only ones who take kids anywhere – thus needing the larger parking space), more toilets in newer buildings, and a day off per month for menstrual cramps (at workplaces I’ve never been an employee of), women’s rights are now being furthered in this fair city by discussions about this ‘problem:’

The city government is seeking to add female figures beside the male ones on every crosswalk traffic light in the capital. It has submitted a proposal to a policy-setting committee of the National Policy Agency (NPA) that female figures should be added to the traffic lights.

“It constitutes discrimination against women that only male figures are in crosswalk traffic lights,” the city said in the proposal. In the proposed new signal, a couple wears pants and a skirt, respectively, in the red and green signs.

And did I mention that the whole project is slated to cost 24 billion won ($21 million dollars US)?

I think this is yet another indication of a basic policy making problem which occurs over and over again here. Very serious problems are dealt with by making cosmetic corrections or by applying glossy band aid solutions.

This example actually reminds me some bang-your-head-against-the-wall moments I’ve had in the seminar section of my presentation class. While discussing problems and solutions with regard to gender discrimination in small groups, I’ve overheard again and again by female students that Korea is a good place for women because boyfriends carry girlfriends’ bags. Seriously, over and over again. On good days, I hope that this means that my girls have not had to face any serious obstacles in their lives thus far. Girls are just as educated as boys. University age women don’t have to do military service which seems to allow them more chances to travel, study abroad, and enjoy life in their mid-20’s. Therefore, maybe at this point, life seems pretty pro-female….until getting a job requires weight loss and plastic surgery, or female team members start being excluded from decision making or senior positions, or before they get fired for having a child or find themselves overwhelmed by the double burden. Perhaps, (thankfully?) for today’s Korean girls, they are able to get into their 20’s without significant gender barriers, but there must be still the knowledge of what is coming as most of the female students in the class we’re talking about parenting in, wrote in their most recent assignment that they have no plans to get married either because they don’t think they can be a career woman and a wife, or because they think the burden of marriage (their words) is incompatible with modern womanhood. I seriously doubt that those bright girls will see a skirted figure on a crosswalk and say ‘Wow! I think it possible to be a working woman and a wife because society now includes me in its traffic signals.’’

And about that skirted figure – nobody in the government has thought about this?

Some people, including many women, also question whether the signals are gender discriminative, finding fault with the city’s proposal. In representations of the new traffic lights released by the city, the new signals show two people — one wearing pants and the other a skirt.

“The idea that a woman should wear a skirt is more sexually discriminative, I guess. I think the figure in the current one doesn’t have any gender,” an Internet user said.

Sigh. There’s so many other things that money could be going to: maternity leave, parental leave, safe childcare facilities, childcare facilities in government offices!, shelters and support for victims of domestic violence, training for police officers as to how to deal with rape and domestic violence victims……and oh so many more. But those are hard things to develop (properly) and implement (properly). And then we couldn’t point to a visible sign on every street corner and say ‘see, men and women are equally represented on crosswalks, so of course they are equal.’

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The Korean media has been abuzz with the latest news that a 4th student in as many months has committed suicide at KAIST, one of the most prestigious universities in the country.  Across the ocean at my alma matter, the 4th student in a year – the 2nd in one week, killed himself on Tuesday.  Both situations are understandably drawing a lot of attention and creating discussion about who is to blame and how to stop students from taking their own lives.  In both situations, the heads of the schools, the President of KAIST and the Principal of my former university, are under fire for not properly comprehending or responding to the situations.  Over the past decade, I myself have sought help for loved ones in need of counselling and emergency psychiatric care on three separate occasions at my former university.  And of course, with 150 university students of my own to look out for in this land of hyper-competition, I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue recently.

My former university has a well developed health services system.  Of course, in Canada we have universal health care, and many additional programs not covered by federal or provincial funding are provided by the university community for minimal or no cost.  The school also has well trained dons and resident assistants who help first year students (the majority who are housed in residence) cope with the transition from high school to university.  There’s also programs that target LGBTQ students, Aboriginal students, and other minority groups who may have specific issues.  But despite all these programs, there are also a number of problems.  There’s an 8 week wait time to see a counsellor unless you have a psychotic break in front of the centre’s administration staff and the websites provided for family members or professors includes a lot of words but little in the way of substance or practical advice.

The university administration obviously recognizes these problems, but there is a great deal of criticism about statements which have been made by the Principal which sound caring but lack a proactive approach.  The advice being given to students seems to be ‘there are services – find them,’ but as I noted in my own letter to him this weekend, his latest video gives no fewer than 6 phone numbers with different times of availability for students in emergency situations to call.  A student who has already taken out the razor blade probably does not have the ability to discern which number is the best for his or her situation, and the student who realizes early enough that there might be a mental issue which needs to be addressed will only worsen to the point of taking out that razor blade as they wait the 8 weeks for their appointment.  The other point I tried to emphasis in my letter was that not only does money need to be poured into providing adequate services for students in need but also for loved ones and university faculty and staff so they can properly recognize and deal with potential problems when those who are suffering are at a place where by the very definition of their disease, they are unable to make a rational and reasoned decision to reach out.

Closer to home, the situation seems even more problematic in terms of the university’s response.  I could not find the original article, which I read on the Korea Times last night, but here’s an excerpt that was later posted on a different site.

The president wrote that there is nothing that can be achieved for free and that students must acknowledge the fact that they can lose from time to time. “The fundamental solution lies in each of the students’ mindset and attitude,” the president wrote. However, students pointed out that the president did not clearly comprehend the problem. Many said that his message showed that he did not have a firm grasp on the fundamental cause of the suicides, as the president implied it was mental weakness that led the students to take their lives instead of the school’s lack of more realistic and effective measures to support its students.

UPDATE:  As I was typing this post, another article citing the President’s comments was posted on the Korea Hearld website.

I think we have two additional problems in Korea.  The first is, despite one of the highest rates of suicide among young people in the world, it is still incredibly difficult to talk about such issues publically or to seek professional help.  There’s an even greater stigma surrounding mental illness, and a true dearth of services or safety valves (minus alcohol which of course causes more problems) for people to be able to discuss their problems in a safe environment.  The second additional problem is that society is far more competitive on every level than most Canadians could ever imagine.  From at least partway through elementary school, all but the poorest or most disadvantaged children are pressured by everyone around them, including their parents, to study until late, push themselves to the far limits of their abilities, and compete to the death with those around them.  And this massive race does not end with the university entrance exam or graduating from a prestigious university.  It is an all consuming life obsession, and it is rightly being blamed for some of the problems at KAIST.  There are also discussions about tuition although I would have to agree with this editorial that free tuition no matter what your grades are is not really addressing the underlying issues.

Of course, as I just stated, KAIST has two issues that matter more here than in Canada (although increasing student debt is probably not helping matters for some Canadian students), but I still wish that there were more of a discussion going on regarding mental health services on campuses.  Competition and money are very real issues, but when even your parents are pushing you beyond your limits, there is often nobody to talk to about how to carry on when you simply cannot ‘endure’ (a particularly well loved Korean word) any longer.  But there’s also other things which plague students – abuse, breakups, inability to find a significant other, friend drama, problems with social interaction…or the big thing no individual can solve with a ‘better mind-set’….chemical imbalance…which have little to do with competition or money.  It’s unfortunate that the stigma against mental illness is so great that we cannot even identify it properly as a potential contributing factor for suicides which have already happened or students unable to cope now who are at risk of suicide.

I’m not sure what to do about this in my own classroom.  There have been certain issues I feel passionately about that I have tried to address in a very subtle way in my classes – namely racism and homophobia.  I have had students write borderline racist assignments on China or Japan which I try to deal with not by directly labeling arguments as racist but by pointing out logical fallacies and helping students move away from ‘I think Chinese people are dirty’ sort of points to more evidence based reasons for the cons of living in China. I’ve also shared stories of times when people’s opinions of interracial marriage and/or biracial children have upset me, and my very identity as a ‘Korean-Canadian wife’ helps to put a human face on such issues.  As to homophobia, the string of bullying related deaths in the US last year informed my example seminar for my presentation class in 2010.  We talked about the effects of bullying and hurtful names as well as the ‘It Gets Better Project’ and the ways we can address all forms of bullying.  I also included some information on Gay and Lesbian groups in Korea at the bottom of PPT slides – not a noticeable thing to most of the class – but an extra little thing for students who might be questioning their sexual preference in order to let them know that my class was a safe class.

But suicide – what can I do about suicide?  When I deal with social issues, I never want them to overtake the main focus of the class, but I do want students to consider the issue if not for themselves but for those around them.  I’m thinking about perhaps doing a 5 minute segment next class (which happens to be the class before their stressful 2nd paragraph is due).  Perhaps talk about what to do if they are struggling in class, remind them of my office hours, and let them know that if there are other things affecting their class performance, they should feel comfortable talking with me.  I’ve been trying to search for our school + mental health or + depression or + counseling etc for the last hour while I’ve been writing this post.  Perhaps, if I can’t find it myself, I could get Mr. Lee to search for a phone number or room number and send it to my colleagues to let them know the information if they should ever encounter a student in need of immediate help.  My other thought is to develop a separate page apart from my syllabus and class rules which, in a very appropriate and culturally responsive way – would say something about where to seek counseling.  Perhaps I could have it translated into Korean and/or post it on my class website, or make it just a regular part of Day 1’s class.  Not make a big deal out of it and freak out students, but factually state that there is a place students can get help for their problems, and that I am also a listening ear.  I believe in a degree of competition, and I believe in setting standards and boundaries for my students so that they learn to finish assignments, finish on time, respect their teachers, and put time and effort into studying, but I also recognize that some students need help balancing the need to push themselves with the need to protect their wellbeing (not to mention those students who need professional help to deal with their brain chemistry which is no ‘fault’ of their own).  I don’t know. Maybe none of these ideas are worthwhile.  Does anyone else have a suggestion or input?

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The second paragraph (compare and contrast) of every writing semester is a modified research assignment. The vast majority of my students plagiarize, and the vast majority of the plagiarizers do so not because they intend to but because they don’t know how to incorporate research properly into their own writing. So after we do my paraphrasing and summarizing activity, I give them my own short article and forbid them from using any other article in their next paragraph. The topics over the years have been Christmas, Solar New Year’s Eve, high school education, and Thanksgiving in Canada. The students use the article to learn about these topics in Canada, and then they use their own knowledge and experience to contrast the information they have read with Korea (or China in the case of my international classes). The idea is that I can closely monitor how they are utilizing the information from the article because I wrote it and know it inside out, and students learn how to integrate outside research and their own experiences in their own writing.

For the past few years I’ve been specifically using the Christmas article to show students how to organize research in class. We go through 2 paragraphs together, and then I put them into pairs to complete the research chart together. I find the third paragraph, the one about the Santa Claus myth as it is understood in Canada, to be most enlightening in terms of how my students approach research. This is the paragraph they read:

Of course, for children Santa Claus is an integral part of Christmas. Canadians have a very developed myth about Santa Claus. Children are told to go to bed early on Christmas Eve because Santa Claus comes during the night. In popular myth, he lives in the North Pole with his wife, Mrs. Claus and his elf helpers who make the toys he gives to children each year. On Christmas Eve, he hitches his nine reindeer, including Rudolph, to his sled, and flies to each child’s house, where he slides down the chimney, and eats the cookies and milk children leave out to thank him for his presents. In preparation for Santa’s visit, children are usually taken to the mall to ‘sit on Santa’s lap’ and tell Santa Claus what they want for Christmas. Children can also send Santa Claus a letter telling him what they want for Christmas, and he will send a personalized letter back!

I tell the students that they should read the article carefully because there are many differences between Santa in Korea and Santa in Canada. Invariably, after 10 minutes of reading and discussing, they tell me that there is nothing different. ‘Oh really?’ I ask. ‘Where do Koreans think Santa lives?’ (My students have a very confused look on their face…. ‘Um…out in the universe?’) Who does Santa live with? (‘He’s a single guy.’) ‘How does he get the toys?’ (‘Department store? I’ve never thought about it before.’) How many reindeer does he have? (‘Just one…Rudolph!’) ‘Have you ever left food or drink for Santa?’ (‘No’) ‘Have you ever met Santa or written to him?’ (‘You can do that?!’)

The point is, even though the students have read (and understood) the paragraph, their prior knowledge of what the Santa myth is, supersedes what is in the article. They know Santa brings toys for children, and they know he comes at night. Ergo, Koreans and Canadians have the same story. They are shocked…shocked I tell you when I recite the names of the nine reindeer. When I show them pictures of Mrs. Claus, children sitting on Santa’s lap, and give them the address Canadian children use to write to Santa (Santa Claus, the North Pole, Canada, HO HO HO), they don’t know what to do with the information. All these new details change what they ‘know’ to be true. And they can’t believe that they failed to see those differences when they read the article.

Then we go over some of the differences between Santa myths around the world – what he wears, where he lives, what he brings, what he does, who he hangs out with. There’s always the same assumption that the Canadian Santa is a fat man with a beard who wears red even though none of that information is found in the original paragraph. Of course, that is true of the Canadian Santa, but it is not true of Santa in many cultures. It’s all a whole new world to them just as it was for me when I first read David Sedaris’ hilarious Six to Eight Black Men (if you don’t know about Zwarte Piet, begin learning) and started researching the subject. Therefore, I’ve found Santa Claus is a really effective (but fun) way to teach cross cultural research, and in my students’ case, it is strangely a great way to teach how what we ‘know’ sometimes affects what we can ‘see’ when we do research.

I had this same problem when I taught an advanced reading/writing class with a complex chapter on families several years ago. I decided that some of the material was too difficult for my students, so I decided to ask my mum to write something about her experience as the primary caregiver for her elderly parents and in-laws. They live independently from my mum, but she spends half of her time driving them to appointments, visiting, helping them with their banking/shopping/lawyer visits/home repair/and day to day living needs. She wrote a really lovely piece about the challenges of being one person who needs to care for so many people, but she also wrote about the many blessings she received from helping them, and how grateful she was that she had the opportunity to spend time with them. After we finished reading, I asked some comprehension questions and then asked the students what the main idea of the piece was. One very competent student put up his hand and said, ‘Your mother really dislikes looking after elderly people.’ I asked him where the evidence in the text was to back up his point, and he said, ‘Well, I know that Westerners aren’t very close to their families and are very independent.’ Several students had the same view. They approached the reading with that mindset and did not open themselves to the words and ideas on the page.

I wonder how often I do the same thing. I’m sure it’s often. It’s easy to only look for the points that justify your own point of view or fail to recognize what is on the page or on the street right in front of you because it doesn’t fit your preconceived version of ‘truth.’ I do think that living in a radically different context both helps you to challenge ‘truth’ and exposes you to completely different viewpoints which disturb your usual though process. But I’m sure there’s still tons of times when I refuse to acknowledge a truth which is directly in front of me. The difference when you are teaching, is that it is easier to see your students make this error than to see it in yourself.

I used the Santa Claus paragraph as way to start the conversation about how we research properly. We need to actually read the words present before making a value judgement about the information such words contain. And we have to realize that just because something has the basic appearance of something else (a fat man with a beard in a red suit in this case), doesn’t mean that there can’t be differences in the way that image or story is interpreted, expanded, or understood. By the 6th time teaching this same class this week, I’ve stopped cautioning students to look closer at the text because I think there is value in the students not recognizing the difference and then realizing their interpretative mistake. I think it teaches them (and me) that being a good writer, a good researcher, a good cultural commentator, is not always about being perfect, but about kinaesthetically recognizing through experience and mistakes that learning is a process and knowledge is an ever-shifting thing.

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On Being Absent

Ms. P, a very sweet reader, messaged me earlier this week to kindly inquire if everything was alright because I haven’t been blogging recently. The truth is, I haven’t even been coming to visit my blog to check stats because I’ve been so afraid to see the view stats plummet. March-June is writing semester as opposed to Sept-Dec’s presentation semester, and every March I go into a bit of shock as I’m bombarded with paragraphs, essays, quizzes, assignments, and endless prep. On top of all of that, I usually get a throat infection within the first few weeks back at class, and this particular March, Mr. Lee and I have been swapping illnesses every week. We started March with Mr. Lee getting an epic cold which led into my throat infection, and just as I finally got off of the antibiotics for my throat (which were causing me to pass out on the couch after every dose), I was hit with a sinus cold, which set back my marking which was then followed by Mr. Lee getting the flu and my sinus cold. And did I mention that it is the middle of Great Lent and my cravings for a mozzarella cheese stick or a glass of wine are seriously impeding my ability to sit down and write a coherent blog post on most days. Fun Fun March.

But one ‘good’ addition to my busy schedule is that I’m on a textbook writing team! It’s not going to be a widely published textbook, and it’s not going to pay a lot of money. But that’s okay for this stage in my writing career. It will mainly be used by the professors on our campuses for our writing credit course, and thus it’s kind of exciting to have some influence on what and how our students will be learning. The last one has been used for the past 5 years, so I hope several thousands of students will get a chance to use the book in the coming years.

I love teaching, but there’s only so much time you can spend in the classroom every day and week before you start going truly insane. There have been times when I was teaching writing 40 hours a week in the classroom. There’s a point when, no matter how much you love teaching paragraph or essay structure, you just can’t bear to go through what a topic sentence is for the 8th hour in a row one more time. What I’m trying to say is that I’m at the place in my teaching career where I don’t want to just be teaching. I need to expand my education horizons a bit more and find a new way to challenge myself. I also hope that writing with my two colleagues will give me the confidence to one day launch a book project of my own. I’m sure that I’m going to regret saying this later, but I’m so incredibly excited for a new challenge and a chance to prove myself in a new way in my department. Come December when we are fighting with the publisher about layout and font size, I’m sure I’ll be on here crying about what a mistake this project was, but for now, I’m ready to write.

So that’s my explanation for my absence and a little info on my new project. I hope I’ll be able to juggle everything, and I know that coming here to write out my thoughts will help me when it comes to textbook writers block and just clearing my head so I can write more effectively. I promise to try much much harder to post regularly from now on.

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I started teaching an intensive non credit winter program today, and I was reminded of one important fact about teaching adults in Korea.

We don’t have the proverbial elephant in the room, our issue is the ajosshi in the classroom.

At 9am sharp, I called out the students’ names, and all but one were there sitting alert in their desks. We discussed the expectations for the oral communication part of the course, briefly went through the concept of follow up questions, and practiced a few as a group. Then, I split them into small groups to interview each other and report back by the end of the class about the three most fascinating pieces of information they had gleaned about their partner from their discussions. I was pleasantly surprised by their level of English as I roamed around the classroom and excited by their willingness to talk freely with each other despite their lack of vocabulary and not knowing each other previously. I was dreaming of all the things this quiet but forthcoming group of level ones could accomplish over the next 5 weeks when, at 10 minutes until the end of class, the door burst open and an ajosshi strolled in. He didn’t seem the least bit apologetic for coming in 40 minutes late. He didn’t seem concerned about being the only one who didn’t have a textbook. And he certainly made himself right at home in the room strolling around and spreading out his things at a few different desks before settling right at the front in a desk surrounded by no one and stared at the board.

I broke away from one of the small groups I was talking to, in order to ensure that he really was supposed to be in the class and to direct him to join a group. He nodded in understanding, so I went back to finish the conversation with the other group, only to look behind me a few minutes later to notice that he was still in the same spot facing away from the rest of the class and discussions. So I returned to him, thinking that he had not understood me. He gruffly replied that he wanted to check out my stuff, and I noticed that he had taken my textbook and was paging through it and was reading over a syllabus he had taken from another student. When he seemed satisfied with my syllabus, he got up to join the group I had recommended, but as one might expect, the easy going banter which had been going on for 20 minutes between the two other students halted, and the students’ bodies noticeably stiffened.

I should say before I go further, that I enjoy teaching conversation to groups of ajosshis. (Writing is another matter). They’ve had more life experience than your average freshman, and they are more confident in their discussions. And of course, I myself am married to an ajosshi and hang out with his ajosshi friends, so I have a lot of experience talking to middle age men. I should note that I think there is a difference in men in their mid 30s to late 40s and in their 50s. The ones who hover just below to just over 50 do tend to be a bit more difficult, but I have taught many older men, and they can be fun. When they are in their element, and being their own culturally normative people with other people of the same age, cultural differences based on age are easier to accept and embrace because things are working in their ‘proper order.’ However, age differences not just age matter in Korea. So when you have 8 university students in their early 20s and one late 40s/early 50s ajosshi in the same class, you have a problem.

It’s extraordinarily difficult for women who take time off of work to have children to re-enter the workforce because although times are changing, most companies still associate promotion, positions, and power with age. If you are just joining a company at 35 in a junior position, you are working alongside 25 year olds at the same position according to the company – except you aren’t socially at the same level according to Confucianism. That means two coworkers of what amounts to a ‘radically’ different ages in Korea have to work together, but at the same time, one person has to speak differently, listen differently, and share their thoughts differently in deference to the other person. Age difference undermines group coherence because two people of the same company position cannot share ideas, gripes, and strategies freely. People of various age differences absolutely work together in the same team in companies, but their ages are usually connected to their position in the company hierarchy and thus this is the way in which Confucian values and modern company stratification are brought into harmony.

But, what makes the classroom situation so much more complicated is that the 20 year old and the 50 year old are paying the same amount of money. It is money that makes the hogwan so different from the public school system. Money radically shifts the Confucian hierarchy of teacher and student (or sometimes teacher, paying parent, and younger student). Teachers cannot but help to submit to money because paying parents or older students vote with their registration and their tuition. So with this 20/50 divide, you can see this whole mess of realities and expectations going through the students’ minds. There’s an older man in the room. We should ‘respect’ older people in Korea, which traditionally means actually listening to, abiding to, and submitting to their opinions. We have to temper our speech – actually change our Korean speech, we have to be careful of our opinions, we have to fit our opinions to those of our elders…and so the free flowing conversation has to be redirected to what the ajoshhi wants to talk about, to where the ajosshi wants it to go. And yet….and yet….the 20 year old has paid the exact same tuition, has registered for the class with the same expectation that he or she will be able to have the same amount of practice as everyone else, and the same amount of time to state opinions and have words corrected. There’s a disconnect here.

I ran into this problem in a big way in my second month of teaching in Korea. But this time it was a 20 year old female student vs. a 40 year old woman in an advanced reading/writing class. We were discussing relationships between older and younger people in response to what we had been reading. The 40 year old said that younger people were disrespectful toward their elders. The younger girl waited her turn and then said politely (in an English sense) that she thought sometimes people made mistakes or were only thinking about themselves, but that overall most younger people respected their elders. The 40 year immediately retorted that the younger girl had disagreed with her and thus showed disrespect. She then told the younger girl to never disagree with her again. There was…a dead silence in the room. The 40 year old is not actually in the wrong in terms of how older people often interpret the word ‘respect’ and in how it has been often interpreted in the past (although she was far far far more forceful about this position than most other people I’ve encountered). And the young woman was right in terms of how the younger generation understands respect. But in class…there was a clash. All the younger students looked immediately frightened. Could they not share their opinions anymore? Should they just stop coming to class? (Mr. Lee often reports that younger classmates in his conversation classes drop after being paired with older, more Confucian, and more dominating classmates). Everyone’s head swung toward me. What was the 25 year old teacher going to say?

I tried to be diplomatic. Yes, Korea has a proud Confucian tradition and value system I said, and perhaps outside of class we should follow this system; however, inside class (and while speaking English), everyone had the right to speak their opinions. The 40 year old had this look of pure hatred on her face, and she tore out of the classroom, found the 60-ish American head teacher, and pled her case. He, of course, sided with me, but it was my very first realization of this complicated dynamic, and how difficult it can be as a younger female (and expat!) teacher to juggle all of these different expectations.

I’m not sure what to do about the current situation. After 7 hours of hanging out with all 20-somethings today, the older student might decide that this program is not really meant for a person like him. Being the first class in the morning, he may always be quite late and thus just a student I have to find a spot for on occasion without worrying about the overall class dynamic. Conversely, he might be an alert student sitting upright in his desk every morning at 9am. Or, he might turn out to be a terribly open minded and generous older man who uses his age position to encourage the students…it’s happened….a few times….We’ll have to see. I do have 5 years more of age on my face, a ring on my finger marking me as an ajumma – a young one – but still an ajumma which gives me a bit more power – and I have much more experience in terms of knowing how to negotiate intergenerational dynamics in the Korean classroom. And if all else fails, there’s the 40ish American head of program who has a Korean FIL who can be brought in if there’s another incident like the one in my first experience in Korea.

But there’s no doubt that the ajosshi in the classroom – and the strange ‘equalizing’ effects of money in the form of tuition – make for an interesting dynamic in the Korean classroom which is perhaps indicative of the larger changes happening in this society.

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The following post is part of a series on teaching strategies in the Korean classroom.

Just a few months after finishing up my MA in reigion in South Asia, I came to Korea and almost immediately began teaching an advanced reading/writing class which was also supposed to deal with critical thinking. My students were very good at answering content questions based on the readings, and could write basic, if problematic essays, but they didn’t have the faintest idea of what to do with anything remotely critical or analytical, mostly because of the issues with the Korean education system I’ve already described at length. I wasn’t really sure how to approach teaching critical thinking and analysis as a newcomer to Korea, and I had absolutely no idea how to teach it in a skill based class instead of a content based class. Thus, I decided to bring content into the class and introduce my students, who were already studying cultural logic and intercultural communication in their textbook, to an issue I had had a lot of experience with. It had to be an activity which involved reading, writing, and critical thinking, and it had to be a controversial issue that my students had little emotional connection to because this was an introductory lesson in critical thinking, so this is what I came up with. I’ve been using it on and off with students from various ages and backgrounds, and in different kinds of classes, and in general, it works pretty well.

I started out by asking them to individually write their opinions to the following questions:

What are your personal opinions about religion? Is religion important in your life? Do you think religion is important for society?

Before the students even know what the topic is, they have to first think about the position they are coming from, and I make them write down their opinion before they speak on it because I noticed pretty quickly that when asked a question, my students tended to all respond in the way the first responder had answered. I tried this experiment for months actually, where I would ask the same question in 8 different classes every day. Over and over again, the majority of each class followed the first responder (also usually the eldest student), even when it was a factual question. Therefore, I wanted students to focus on their own personal views and to understand the bias from which they were individually beginning.

This approach tends to work well. The students each take turns reading what they have written out loud, and we take some time to note similarities or differences in perspectives. I usually have the zealous Protestant Christian who tells everyone that Jesus Christ is his/her Lord and Saviour and that religion (ie. Christianity) should be the basis of moral behaviour in society, the disaffected slightly rebellious younger student who proclaims that religion is the root of all evil, and a student who says that religion isn’t important in his/her own life, but that it can be a positive force in society if used ‘correctly.’ It’s important to orally validate all of these opinions as the students’ personal feelings on the topic, and we discuss the fact that how we personally view religion and the role of religion in society will probably affect our perception of the particular religious marker we are about to discuss.

How are women expected to act and dress in Korea? Are there different expectations for women compared with men? Do women face social restrictions in Korea, or do they have the same freedoms and rights as men?

This is another question the students write their individual responses for before they share their views. The point of this question is to get students thinking about differences between men and women in Korea and to see if students feel the differences they identify are examples of discrimination or not. Again, there is usually a wide range of opinions, and each student has a chance to share their views before we compare the different responses.

At this point, I reveal the topic: various forms of covering among Muslim women. We look at pictures of women in burqa, niqab, and hijab. I make sure to include pictures of women in all different forms of hijab to show diversity in styles and interpretation. We talk briefly about the tradition of covering, and a bit of the religious basis for the practice, but I don’t go into the various reasons why women cover. I want the students to figure out those reasons for themselves.

After viewing the pictures of various forms of Islamic covering, what are your initial thoughts about burqa? niqab? hijab?

I think this is a very important question. It’s important for students to feel safe in sharing their initial personal feelings. Most of them respond that they feel strange which makes sense. Korea is an ever globalizing society, but most of my students have never come into contact with a Muslim let alone a woman wearing niqab. If they go for dinner in Itaewon, they might see a woman wearing hijab, but 99% of them have never had any personal interaction with Muslim women who cover in any form. Many say they are afraid of women who dress in this way, and some have seen news clips on Afghanistan or read books about women in Muslim countries, and so they sometimes say they feel pity for women because they feel they are oppressed. A few say they find it fascinating, mysterious, or beautiful.

At this point I bring up the concept of hermeneutical lenses. We tend to think about issues from the perspective of ‘I agree’ or ‘I disagree’ with the topic, and in Korea, there is an additional tendency to say ‘we Koreans think.’ The first part of the lesson has been about acknowledging the role of personal or cultural bias in how we think, but now we move to looking at forms of covering from other perspectives. Since my students are all non-Muslims, we start with the ‘insider’ view point.

Brainstorm various reasons why a woman might wear hijab. (We focus on hijab only at this stage as it is far more common than burqa or niqab).

The ideas usually start off fast and furious: fathers make them do it, husbands make them do it, culture makes them do it, the law makes them do it, religious leaders force them to do it. I actually recently showed a picture of wood turtle and her husband on their wedding day in class, and my students said wood turtle wears hijab because her husband looks like ‘a hijab-loving man’ 

And then I show some pictures of women living in Western countries who wear hijab and ask if, as the students initially say, women are forced by law, culture, family, or religious leaders to cover, why women living in countries without such customs, converts and women from non-covering immigrant families still wear hijab.

There’s a bit of quiet, and then some tentative responses: it’s pretty, you don’t have to worry about your hairstyle, you can focus on things over than body and fashion just as public school students here wear uniforms in part to spend more time and energy to focus on studying, because they think that’s what Islamic tradition says, because it’s a way for converts to identify themselves, it’s a physical reminder of religion, it’s a way to hold onto cultural traditions when in a new country, it’s a way to rebel against secular society or non-hijab approving parents, it’s a way to feel community with other wearers, it’s a political statement, not wearing it feels like nakedness in the same way my students feel not wearing pants and a t-shirt is nakedness, it’s comfortable, it’s the equivalent of the ajumma sun visor in Korea.

My all-time favourite response is that hijab is comforting to Muslims in the same way that kimchee is to Koreans.

Some of the responses are elicited with prodding, but once the students put on the ‘insider lens,’ they start pretty quickly to be able to imagine other possible interpretations than their initial personal responses. And the diversity of interpretations is of course the point. There is, no matter how much any insider or outsider contends, one interpretation or reason for anything. There are multiple layers, multiple instincts, multiple reasons for our actions, the food we eat, and the rituals we do. We don’t all ascribe to every reason, but there is usually more than one reason.

We then move to expand the concept of lenses, but this time, we want to think about how various people – Muslims and non Muslims alike – might support or oppose women covering. We mix them up sometimes, and add or subtract certain people:

A feminist
A conservative politician
A person who believes in multiculturalism
A person who believes the Qur’an is the literal word of God
A woman who lives in a country where women do not usually cover their heads
An atheist

Initially for example, students will probably say that feminists would oppose covering because it goes against women’s rights. This is a good interpretation, and they are applauded for this. However, I then challenge them to think about why some feminists support covering. This takes a few moments of silence, but students eventually come up with the idea that if feminism is about choice, then choosing to cover is supported by feminists. They also talk about how if a woman can wear a miniskirt, then maybe feminists think that it’s okay not to wear a mini skirt.

Likewise, they initially say that conservative politicians are against covering because the existence of hijab, niqab, and burqa here are all symbols of Korean/American/Canadian culture changing and thus traditional Korean/American/Canadian culture being in jeopardy. But then, after a period of silence, one or two students also note that if conservative politicians and certain Muslims have similar views on conservative social issues, these politicians might search out ‘visible Muslims’ to help illicit more support for these causes.

These discussions do not always happen smoothly or spontaneously. There is silence. There are confused looks. There are half formed sentences that you may have to help finish because the students are struggling with speaking about something for which they lack language about or even a way to speak. They are so used to saying ‘I think’ or ‘We Koreans think’ that it is linguistically difficult to rephrase from another’s perspective. But if a teacher is comfortable with silence, and allows that silence to be a space for thinking and translating to occur, students really can come to these interpretations by themselves.

Originally when I created this topic, the French hijab-in-school controversy was raging, so we then looked at online comments from a BBC profile on the subject. There are the BBC featured commentator opinions, but the comments regular netizens near the bottom of the page are actually more interesting.

We do discuss if these people agree or disagree in terms of allowing hijab in public schools, but we go further and try to compare the reasons why the commentators feel this way. Two people may be for allowing hijab in school, but for very different reasons. A person can, for example, believe there is an underlying culture which influences a woman to cover which is wrong (‘forcing’), but feel that the greater evil is that girls will be denied an education and be further marginalized from society if they are forced to remove their hijab. On the other side, two people might be against hijab, but one because it symbolizes personal oppression and another because it is seen as damaging to the rights of other women.

More recently in class, we’ve dealt with the Canadian controversies of whether or not a woman accusing men of rape should be forced to take off her niqab in court to testify, or the issue over wearing niqab in a Quebec-government sponsored language class. If I had simply given these topics to students without the initial primer of personal background, bias, and lenses, my students probably would have simply said, ‘I wouldn’t allow it because I think it’s scary.’ Or, ‘I think she should remove niqab because it’s strange to wear it in Korea.’ These statements are fine, but they are more based on personal emotion or particular concepts of normative behavior. This pre-activity is not meant to change the students’ views or to influence them to think a certain way. All viewpoints the students bring up are considered, discussed, and evaluated by the class. Instead, the point is to also consider all the different viewpoints instead of just asserting one’s own view, and to make an argument based on logic not emotion or the students’ initial views of normative behavior.

By the end of the class, the students usually retain their original opinion, but they have a much more nuanced view and defend their position with a more thoughtful analysis. The student who thinks covering is oppressive and against women’s rights is more likely to talk about how the State is just as likely to enforce dress codes on women as certain Muslims are on each other. The student who initially saw it as a personal choice is now interested in making connections between clothing norms in Korean and Muslim communities. The person who was fearful is now more likely to say that when identity or safety is called into question, maybe there is a way to accommodate both the need for security and the wearer’s desire to remain covered. As one student put it last week, ‘maybe there is a middle way.’ Their basic position hasn’t changed, but how they articulate themselves and how they view the other sides is radically altered. (And the idea that there are more than two sides is a radical idea as well).

This is perhaps one of my favourite activities to do with my students. I love taking the journey with them each time. I love the slow process of widening perspectives and of putting on each lens and pretending to be another person to see their viewpoint. I love observing how the students make connections with their own cultural symbols and experiences. Even when the connections are a bit skewed, it’s fascinating to see the thought process behind the links. And most of all, I love how each and every time I do the activity it’s completely different because of how the discussion flows or the personal experiences and backgrounds the students bring with them to class. Korean students are so used to comparing their culture with ‘American’ culture (stands for all Western cultures), or Korea vs. China or Japan, that it is delightful to spend so much time on finding comparisons and connections with a ‘new’ culture.

Certainly replicating the activity with the same topic would probably be difficult without a background in Islamic studies, but I think that the concept of choosing a theme or a controversy and looking at it from a variety of perspectives is something easy to follow. For example, this semester we followed this activity with a lesson on Old Order Amish and Mennonite groups in North America. The activity needs to be tweaked for next semester, but it also focuses on helping students to get into other people’s shoes to see concepts of ethical behaviour, proper education, and cultural values from other perspectives. Again, it’s incorrect to assume that students will be able to analyze opinions or critically think about different perspectives without direction. An education system focused on answering questions correctly to ace a final exam has neither time nor reason to focus on these skills. However, in an ever globalized Korea, in an ever complex and integrated world, understanding other people is a vital skill, and I think this method is helpful for facilitating the process of understanding various angles of a controversial (and ‘foreign’) topic.

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I think we’ll start with plagiarism.  Ah plagiarism.  Such an ENORMOUS problem in the Korean classroom.  Let me start by being very blunt about something.  Teachers should not excuse plagiarism by pointing to cultural differences between ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ cultures.  I had a bit of a disagreement with a colleague about this.  He argued that because Korea is a communal society and ‘the West’ is based on individualism, (a dichotomy which grows ever more problematic with each year) plagiarism is completely understandable and acceptable.

And to that I will say ‘No.’ Yes, the ‘communal’ nature of Korea, and the older belief that younger people should follow (sometimes in the case of writing/thinking ‘copy’) older people does mean that Western teachers need to understand that students do not always intentionally mean to plagiarise.  When they are copying bits from the Internet or sharing answers to homework assignments between friends, we should understand that this behaviour is quite common.  However, that does not mean that it is okay for students to print their writing off the Internet, share essays between friends, and present others’ ideas as their own.  First, the purpose of an English class is to learn, practice, and then demonstrate one’s knowledge of English.  If students are plagiarising, they are not practicing, and when it comes to writing TOEFL exams or writing reports at a multinational or foreign company, my students are going to be at a great disadvantage if they don’t take the opportunity to learn and practice their English now.  And of course, many of my students plan to work abroad or join major companies, and if they get to those places and still believe it is okay to just cut and paste things from the Internet and pass the work off as their own words and ideas, they could potentially get themselves into very serious trouble.  Even in Korea plagiarism is becoming a larger issue, and people are getting in trouble for faking degrees/dissertations and plagiarising others’ work.  So, as instructors I think we have a very important role to play in not only teaching students grammar, but also teaching them how to properly use and reference others’ words and ideas. 

I’ve been teaching writing in Korea for 5 years now, and previous to that, I was a TA at a top university with a large international population.  The very first essay I ever marked was from a Pakistani student, and he plagiarised the whole thing by rearranging paragraphs from our textbook.  At that time, I thought the plagiarism he was doing was intentional, but after teaching here for so long, I now know that he, like 99.9% of my students, didn’t know how to properly paraphrase, summarize, and cite researched material.  Therefore, I’ve been trying to teach my students these skills in a step by step process, and I modified paraphrasing technique based on a process my friend who used to work at CDI told me about for the university classroom.

I should give a little context to the skills my students have when I introduce this activity in class.  They have to have a certain basic level of English to enter the university, and after about 10-15 years of studying English in some capacity in public schools and hogwans, they can write simple sentences and they have a decent vocabulary although they are rarely able to comfortably use this vocabulary in conversation.  I also give my students this activity in week 4 or 5 after we have reviewed basic sentence structure, and studied compound and complex sentences, simple adjective clauses, basic transitions, and semi colons. 


I tell my students that basic paraphrasing requires two steps:  a) changing the words and b) changing the structure/order of the sentence.  We start with a couple of simple sentences such as:

Because the little boy named Sam ate too much cake, he vomited. 

As a class, I get my students to brainstorm various synonyms for the words in the sentence.  For example, ‘little boy’ becomes ‘small child,’ ‘too much cake’ becomes ‘a lot of cake,’ and ‘vomited’ becomes ‘got sick.’  We try to come up with as many synonyms as possible, with the most common sentence being,

Because the small child named Sam ate a lot of cake, he got sick.

At this point, I ask students to try and change the sentence structure while retaining the new words.  Because we have just finished compound and complex sentences, most students will write:

The small boy named Sam ate too much cake, so he got sick.

I find this step very helpful because it helps break down paraphrasing into a very easy equation for the students.  They see that actually, when we were doing compound and complex sentences earlier, they were already beginning to work on paraphrasing.  We work on several other sentences like this to build up their confidence before moving to the next step.


We then move to sentences which are a little bit harder in that they are not the compound to complex sentence types that we have been working on up until this point.  I like to find sentences about strange laws or facts because my students find them humourous and want to work with them.  This is one of my favourites:

In New York City, approximately 1,600 people are bitten by other humans annually.

As in the first section, we start by circling words which can be changed.  I get the students to work independently at this point as I walk around the room helping them and monitoring their progress.  The most common sentence they come up with is:

In the city of New York, about 1,600 citizens are gnashed by other people every year

I love the ‘gnashed’ part.  I also tend to get a lot of ‘gnawed’ and ‘chewed.’  I think this is a great teachable moment.  It’s a time for us to talk about how it’s hard to change every single word, and also, the words we find in the dictionary might have different connotations.  As the point of this exercise is not to get perfect sentences, but to help students to begin to acquire the tools to paraphrase by themselves, I welcome incorrect sentences because it gives me a chance to personally correct students’ common mistakes and explain the reason why they are making these mistakes. 

So then we correct the sentence:

In the city of New York, about 1,600 citizens are bitten by other people every year.

Students then try to re-write the sentence using the new words in a different way.  They can’t do a simple compound/complex switch here, so they need to think a bit more about sentence structure.

Every year, 1,600 citizens are bitten by other people in the city of New York.

We also do other sentences with the students working independently to change the words and change the order.  Depending on the class size, I also sometimes have different students put their sentences on the board, so I can correct common mistakes and so that everyone can see the various ways other students changed the same sentence.

Step 3

After doing these sentences, we move on to a bit longer passages from newspapers and move from paraphrasing to summarizing.  As a result, we change the process to include 4 steps 1) Identify key information 2) Change words 3) Change order 4) Include a citation. 

“South Korea’s birthrate marked the second lowest in the world after Hong Kong as many couples are reluctant to have kids due to a lack of a child welfare support system and soaring education costs.”Author: Bae Ji-sook  paragraph 1

 The students work independently to identify the key information which usually includes ‘South Korea’s birthrate,’ ‘second lowest in the world,’ ‘couples reluctant to have kids,’ ‘lack of child welfare support system,’ ‘soaring education costs.’  They then change the words that they circled to make their own sentence. 

 The Republic of Korea’s birthrate is almost the lowest in the world because many people hesitate to have children due to lack of childcare options and high tuition.

From here, students then change around the sentence structure:

Many people in the Republic of Korea hesitate to have children due to lack of childcare options and high tuition, so the birthrate is almost the lowest in the world.  

Again, different versions of the same sentence are welcome, and the students should have differences between their writing.  We then add a citation (depending on the semester, we may use MLA, APA, or another style), and then we go back and compare the students’ individual sentences to the original.  They read both of the versions out loud and suddenly get the concept of ‘voice.’  They can tell that both of them sound different. 

I like this activity because it gives students easy to follow steps, helping them to break down paraphrasing and summarizing into manageable parts.  Telling students ‘make it your own sentence’ is a very vague and scary order, and students’ biggest problem is that they don’t believe that they have the language skills to rewrite a sentence.  The activity also starts with a lot of hand holding and slowly releases the hand so that students develop a degree of autonomy by going through the process.

I expand it later when the students do their midterm paragraph assignment where they take information from one article and try to incorporate it into their own writing, and the final research essay.  In both cases, the students highlight sentences or paragraphs they want to use, and then change them on the same paper so that I can see that they have made the necessary changes.  It’s a natural and slow progression throughout the semester of changing basic sentences to incorporating research into essays. 

I suppose this is not ‘allowing autonomy’ insofar as letting students pursue their own path to knowledge, but that’s not what most Korean students expect, and that’s not what they need.  They need to be taught methods and strategies to express their own ideas in another language, and they need to be taught how to use others’ ideas and words properly in their own work.  There’s actually liberation in following a set of steps because essentially it helps students to take control of their own writing and express their own ideas without simply copying off of the Internet.

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