Monthly Archives: April 2012

A rant, in honor of midterms in Korea

Elementary and Middle School students in South Korea have midterms coming up this week and next. One of my students has been so stressed out she has been getting headaches and she caught a cold. But she won’t stop. This post is for her and for all the other students struggling to fit in some sleep between study sessions.


Who is listening to the children who study all night, who go to sleep late and rise early? Who is hearing them say, “I don’t know enough. I must study more. I must make the score. I must please my parents, my teachers, myself.”? Who is telling them, “Go to sleep. You know enough.” No one. I heard it from my student today and I found myself saying, “I know you have to study hard. That’s the way things are.” But that is not the way things should be! And who am I to write this post after I said that to my student?


Where are the people who believe in the change? Where are the parents who join together and put a stop to the competition, to the long hours, to the test-focused classes? Where are the teachers who stand united and say, “We teach students, not subjects. We will not teach to the test.”? Where are the officials who grew up to say, “We were students once. We feel your pain. This much change!”? They’re out there, screaming from the rooftops. It is hard to change decades of test preparation, hundreds of years of test-driven education focus, thousands of years of culture. Sometimes we have to do hard things.


When can we give our students time to play, time to sleep, time to stop? When can we tell them, “Stop studying. Have fun. You deserve a break.”? When the “way things are” changes, when the students are the focus of the classroom, happiness is possible. In Finland, student happiness is built into the system. When can we realize its importance and implement it where it is needed – everywhere? When we bring empathy into the classrooms, happiness can lead to success.


What can we do to protect children, keep them safe? What can we offer these students who keep tight study schedules at night and sleep in their classes? A short story in a textbook I have seen tells of a boy being bullied in school everyday. Another story asks students to predict what will happen next and leaves a stressed out boy on the top of a building, standing, staring down. Real problems, staring down at us. What can we do? We need to implement a culture of support, starting now. We need to provide a safety net for falling children – the tired, the poor, the bullied and the bullies, the hungry, the stressed, the uncared for. We need to stop denying that they exist.


How can we affect change, protect students, uphold values? How can we see beyond reforms to effects? Once change is in place, it is necessary to reflect, to support, to be willing to adapt. It is necessary to always keep in mind the welfare of the students and teachers who must adapt and continue learning. Learning doesn’t need to be painful. It should be a joy. How can we bring that joy back into the classroom?


Why do we teach? Why do we care? Why do we ask for change? Here‘s one reason. Another is that we are all learners ourselves. And as learners, we know what conditions work best for optimal learning. Someone told me today that the ultimate goal, the one thing all humans want, is to be happy. Maybe we should ask our students, their parents, their teachers, the administration – what do you need to make you happy?


Sarah, I wish you were far away from the stress you have now, too. Good luck, sweetheart. 화이팅!



Saturday was Busan KOTESOL’s Reflective Practice Symposium.


 There were five speakers at the four-hour symposium, which was held at Busan’s University of Foreign Studies.


 It was a rainy afternoon and the weather combined with the out-of-the-way location of the university ensured that only the most hard-core reflectors were present.


 As a novice in the area of reflective practice, most of the presentations seemed similar to me. After the first presentation, I wondered what the other presenters would have left to talk about. However, as it turned out, each presenter had something unique to offer the symposium and the progression of presentations and workshops drew me further and further in to reflecting on my reflecting.



The first presentation “Principles and Practices: Second Language Teacher Development through Exploration” was given by Jerry Gebhard.

He went through the principles underlying exploration and ways to apply those principles. I took quite a lot away from this presentation. I learned that the goal of exploring is to see teaching differently, not to improve. Improvement might be a result, but it is not the focus. We should use exploration to understand our beliefs and our teaching behaviors. Judgment should be kept out of the exploration and description should replace prescription. A point that really struck me was about the overuse of praise. I realized that I’m guilty of praising students for wrong answers just because they tried to answer. There is a difference between being nice and praising for work well done. One of the things I’ve reflected on over the past few weeks is praise itself. One of my colleagues often gives praise of the “good job” or “nice work” variety. The other usually gives feedback “I like the way you did _____.” The praise feels good, but it’s easy to question its sincerity. The feedback is specific and helpful, whether it’s positive or negative, and it’s based on observation. Moreover, feedback helps me to see what I have done the way an outsider sees it. This presentation gave me a lot to think about in terms of exploring my own classroom.



The second presentation, on ways of reflecting, was given by Michael Griffin.

I’ve seen this presentation before, but what made it special for me this time was two things: first of all, I’d never seen it given by Mike, who is able to give information with humor and passion and (thankfully) without PowerPoint to distract my attention. The second factor was my partner. This presentation was part talk and part workshop. My partner in the activities was insightful and interesting. She came up with a number of good ideas I’d never thought about before, like the importance of sharing your work. It caused me to reflect that the act of sharing involves being prepared and organized to think about and put words to the observations we make. Sharing is similar to presenting in that way. Mike dealt with this, too, in the form of accountability. It is one thing to say you will do something or even to do it inside your head, and quite another to be accountable for it and need to have something to show. If I did it in my head, is it what I thought it was when it comes out on paper or verbally? Other important points from the presentation were time limits. You don’t want to set a goal with a limit of “indefinite”. You’ll never start if there is no end in sight. I remember last semester when I was writing some of my final papers for classes. I made my to do list on Facebook and asked everyone to guess which I was going to do first. It was an easy question: only one of the things was finite and, while unpleasant (I’ve always hated ironing), it certainly got done before the tasks without an end in sight! What is the best way for me to reflect on my own teaching? I’m still coming up with questions to ask myself, but most of all, which way of reflecting will be best for me?



The third presentation was called “Reflective Practice: Formulating your teaching experience” given by Josette LeBlanc.

This presentation showed how to reflect based on the experiential learning cycle. She showed how teachers can get stuck in a rut and think they are reflecting, making plans, and making changes, but actually end up doing the same things again and again. Josette shared the intriguing idea that we can see mistakes as gifts. I spent a while thinking about it, but I’m drawing a blank. Why are mistakes gifts? I’d love to ask her. One thing she pointed out that I’d heard just once before was that feelings are relevant to the reflective cycle. They’re outside the cycle, but they have an impact on our observations. From the handout during the workshop portion, I could see what she meant. In using feelings as part of the describing process, it adds detail and depth to the description because it adds questions that can be asked. Another important learning was how to make an achievable goal which states the situation, the intention and the reason. “Next time _________, I will _________ so that _________.” The presentation concluded with a question: Why do we reflect? Her answer: Because we want to become better teachers. Seeing things with a new perspective helps us make different decisions. I reflect because I want to know what is going on in my classroom and what I’m missing in the moment so that I know why I am making the teaching choices I make.



Personal Reflection: Being stuck in a rut reminded me of the hours I’d spent with coworkers discussing classes and complaining about administration in the local bar after work. We’d see the problems, even describe the problems, and talk about how to solve the problems, but somehow, the problems never really got solved. I think we were just to scared to make any big changes or take any risks. One of my coworkers was the first to get over that hump. One day he went to work and refused to teach any language that wasn’t authentic. He rewrote all the books and modeled to the students how people actually speak. The administration balked, but he’d been teaching there for five years by then and got his way. I disagreed with him at the time (and still do, but for different reasons now), but his actions gave me the courage to get out of my own rut and try new things in my classes. I was next to start making my own class materials. The feedback from the students and parents was positive. He and I trained newer teachers together and the result was a school that had teachers who cared about the students and about their own teaching and lessons where all the activities had a purpose and a desired outcome. We weren’t “real” teachers, but working together we got a good grasp on why we were there and the evening bar conversations became more productive.


The fourth presentation was given by Lyndon Hott about Reflective Practice in Integrated classes at Dongguk University in Gyeongju.

The presentation was based on his thesis. This fast-paced presentation dealt with his research and the formation of the integrated program in Dongguk U. It was a good opportunity to witness reflection in action. The designers of the new program did a lot of reflection and research to describe the current program and identify the things they wanted to change. Having created the integrated program, they cooperated with one another and spent many hours reflecting on what was working and what needed improvements. They interpreted reasons why some of the problems may have occurred. Then they made a new plan and implemented it. They monitored its implementation and reflected on whether the new plan solved the problems. The received feedback from the students and administration as well, so that more than a few people could add to the reflective process. The cycle goes on. One thing I only noticed upon reflection after the talk: this presentation was valuable because it showed an in-depth case study of the reflective cycle in use on a very broad scale (developing a university program!). This is directly relevant not only to my classes but to what I can do at my own school and gives a model of all that may be involved.



The final presentation was given by Terry Faulkner: “ABCs of Reflection: How reflective practices can improve your teaching”

He pointed out several methods of reflection, including keeping journals, action research, and a classroom environment questionnaire and went through each. An interesting statement that arose: When you write down observations, you can see patterns. This is the benefit of journaling. When you go back and read the journal, you can see what has happened and whether things are happening continuously, only on Tuesdays, only when it rains, or what. I am not very good at this. I keep journals, but I write down the wrong things. Only when I am lucky am I able to puzzle out the patterns. Sometimes I start trying to spot patterns when I get a deja vu feeling in class. By then, the pattern is already there and it’s almost too late for me to work it out. Another thought-provoking comment for me was the quote, “an idiot is someone who does the same thing again and again and expects different results.” I’m inclined to disagree with this. It can be that teachers who force students to learn long context-less vocabulary lists day after day after day and always wonders why the students can’t use the words fall into this trap. Sometimes, however, the lesson is not the problem. Every class is different and every student is different. A lesson might not work in one class but if the teacher gives it up, she’ll never know if it would have worked in another class. Or on another day. I think an idiot is someone who doesn’t consider their audience. The third thing he spoke about was CHANGE. He identified three types of change: the kind that happens by baby steps; the kind where you’ve become good, but are always striving to be better; and the kind where there’s a big radical change all at once.Most of the time, the change teachers can strive towards is the incremental type.



What my coworker and I did was the third kind and we were lucky to get away with it. We had the trust of the students, parents, and administration (to some extent).


I see now that change doesn’t need to be improvement. Rather, it can be a deeper awareness in my beliefs and practices – a change in myself. 


Typical of my life these days, I have more questions than answers. This post is long enough already and if you made it this far, you’re a real trooper! Feel free to leave comments and feedback.


Walking in the rain… (whimsy)


I only care about walking in the rain for the first few minutes. I hold my umbrella carefully and try not to get my shoes and trouser-legs too wet. After a couple minutes, though, I realize that it’s useless. I start purposely walking through the puddles and sometimes splashing, even jumping. I have always loved rain.

EFL Teacher Milestones

Some may wish to skip this post…


Having just read this article from the Guardian, titled “Is 35 really the best age to be?” posted on Twitter by fellow EFL teacher and blogger @pterolaur . After a twittersation about the topic, we decided a new list was needed for EFL teachers. I highly recommend @pterolaur’s beautiful and insightful post. Here is my take on the topic. EFL teachers live a fairly transient life. By the time we are 35, we can’t be expected to own homes. Being married with children is not so common for us (but not unthinkable). Lifestyles are different. I have been in Korea for more than nine years now and I am not 35. But I think there are some reasonable accomplishments “lifers” can make by that age.


By 35 I will:


1. Have earned a Master’s Degree. In something. Probably obtained online.


2. Have been able to choose where I work, not just taken what’s leftover.


3. Have enjoyed meaningful relationships with special people. And kept in touch with some of them across the continents.


4. Have continued my professional development and encouraged other teachers in their professional development. Moved complaints about work from the pub at 3am to the reflective table.


5. Have developed a lifelong love for teaching and learning. And stopped visualizing what I’d like to do to the administration. And avoided becoming administration.


6. Have learned the language of the country I am living in. To a respectable level that is not so embarrassing. Like intermediate.


7. Have published a well-read blog full of things I care about. That I update every week. And reply to comments. (Don’t laugh. There might be comments some day!)


8. Have saved enough money to take a few months of vacation. Or retire in Cuba. Eventually.


9. Have traveled the world. Or at least the countries surrounding the one I live in.


10. Have contributed to the learning and self-confidence of my students. Which will hopefully extend further into their lives.


What do you think? What would you add?


In the middle of the night

The real world doesn’t keep these hours. It’s almost midnight and I’m awake. I’m not the only one. Facebook and Twitter are lively with other EFL teachers here in Korea who are also wide awake. Why? For me, it’s because my day doesn’t really allow much time for myself. For others, it seems to be time to catch up on social networking. Don’t laugh. Social networking is essential to the foreign teachers’ lifestyle.



1. Social networking helps us stay in touch with the people back home. Here in Korea, home is waking up right now. I just read a new email from my cousin that included a “virtual hug”. I’m glad I am still up to read it. It also helps me keep up with my town in general. My city has a Facebook page. Today, an interesting link appeared. Did you know that there’s such a thing as “Korean chicken wings”?



2. Social networking helps us form our PLN. They can be teachers or professionals from all over the world. They are worth the time. Some of the posts and comments I’ve seen (or made) on Facebook tonight are part of interesting discussions across cities, languages, and time zones.



3. Social networking helps us keep up with the world. People with more free time and better internet access post and comment on what is happening in the world. I don’t have time to follow everyone. No one does (okay maybe some people, but they’re incredibly gifted). I read what has been deemed worthy of re-posting on Facebook (for news and entertainment) or Twitter (for ELT items).



And so here I am, past midnight, on the phone with another teacher talking about the transience of life here in Korea. These are the moments worth staying up late for.




Right now I’m supposed to be writing a syllabus for 6 months of Business English. Clearly I am not doing so. I am procrastinating. This post is about motivation.


I have read quite a lot about motivation, thanks to the friendly blogosphere and all the lurking I do on Twitter. Most teaching blogs on motivation are about learner motivation by much more talented writers than me.


But what does a teacher do when s/he comes to school and just does not want to work? Obviously, s/he has to do it whether s/he wants to or not. How do you avoid passing on a demotivated mood to your students? I have some ideas:


1. Fake it. Yes, I know. The students can tell. But they can also tell that you are trying. Which one of them has never come to class in an unmotivated mood? Faking it models a response teachers hope to get from their students.


2. Coffee and sugar. I’m not kidding. A few weeks ago I asked my friends on Facebook: What motivates you? One of them answered, “Coffee”. And she’s absolutely right. An extra caffeine kick (or a piece of candy) can do a lot to raise flagging energy. If it doesn’t work in fact, it makes the faking it easier.


3. Move around. A bit of movement and exercise can liven up both teacher and students as well and set the tone for a fun, interactive class.


4. Get student input. Sometimes when I don’t feel much like teaching, I ask the students what they want to learn. It’s a lot easier to fake it when the students cooperate and they’re more likely to cooperate when they direct the lesson.


5. And remember: time only goes one way at one speed. The trick is not to watch it tick by. The sooner I start, the sooner I will be finished. Getting wrapped up in the class, the lesson, the students helps to pass the time.


I know what I need now: lollipop!

Things I feel strongly about (Teaching and Learning)

I believe….


These words begin many a blog post about teaching beliefs. I had never thought very much about the things I believe about teaching before. Maybe this is because to me, beliefs are stale. They don’t really count. Actions count. My teaching might change from moment to moment depending on what I think will benefit the students most and not always in accordance with overarching “beliefs”.


The idea of having strong and unwavering beliefs scares me a little. I think beliefs should be flexible. When I am asked what I believe about something (or if I believe choice A or choice B), I’m afraid that whatever answer I give will stick to me. Am I, after all these years, still not an experienced enough teacher to have formulated any beliefs?


There are, at least, many things about learning and teaching that I feel very strongly about (maybe even believe, but in a changeable way). Here’s my list:



1. Flexibility – Learning to teach in Korea has taught me a lot about flexibility. Administration might change my schedule at the last minute; meetings might pop up; parents might call; students might be unprepared or have needs that need to be addressed before I can use my lesson plan. I have been asked to teach classes that started ten minutes ago – no books, no handouts, no time to prepare. I feel that flexibility to create a lesson plan in your head based on what you see walking into the room and flexibility to throw away the lesson plans you spent so much time on are both important in teaching.


2. Organization – That said, the lesson plans should still exist, whether I use them or not. Planning is as important as flexibility. Without the plan, how will I know what I am teaching and, most importantly, why I am teaching it. Without the plan, how will I know what I am changing and why? Another important factor is that the plan makes me look professional. The appearance of a well-organized, color-coded, time-segmented plan is more important in Korea than the content.


3. Empathy – Paying attention to the students is one of the most important things teachers can do. After all, they’re why I teach. Empathy might mean I have to throw away a well-planned lesson or spend time outside of class with them. When I think about empathy, I think about learner needs and Maslow’s pyramid. I have to always be aware of the students. How are they feeling? What do they need? When I was a new teacher, I focused on the lesson plan and forced it on the students, but I learned over time that happy students learn better than hungry and tired students. If their basic needs are not met, the lesson will not be successful.


4. Technology – With all the new devices available these days, this is a subject I cannot ignore. I think technology can be really useful in the classroom. First of all, it makes the students comfortable. Second of all, I can learn from them how to use it and incorporate it into class activities. That way they feel involved in the planning process. However, I think that teachers need to regulate use of tech somehow. For myself, I regulate it very little. My students are allowed to use it nearly all the time, but I let them know in advance which things (like tests) they will not be allowed to use any technology for. Setting time limits for tasks also limits tech use.


5. Class environment – Having a pleasant class environment is important to both teachers and students. The class should be safe and enjoyable. I like my classes to be fun and interactive. The chairs should be movable. The walls should be colorful and display student work. The temperature should be on the cool side of just right. There should be enough light.


6. Mood – This is directly related to class environment. Mood is for me and for the students. For me, I have noticed that my own mood affects the class. Especially with younger students, they can catch my mood and it can make or break a class. I try to walk into the room with a good mood and a smile. The students really do respond. As for the students, being aware of their mood is also important. This goes back to empathy. I might have to change or adapt activities to lift the mood or to respond to the dominant mood. Awareness is essential.


7. Thinking time – I have experienced in my personal and professional life that having time to think results in students staying on task and doing better group work later. It might also allow the shy students to plan what they want to say or how they want to participate, while not having the time will prevent their participation at all.


8. Reflection – Last, but not least, reflection is really important to me. I think reflection relates back to all the other things I feel strongly about. Reflection in the moment helps me identify where my plan for the class is not working and correct. Reflection after the class helps me identify what worked and did not work for that class, that day and what adjustments I need to make.


This post was inspired by a #KELTchat from April 15, 2012



This was a complete poem when it was in my head. Unfortunately, it didn’t make it onto the page that way. These are the fragments that remain.

A sigh for decisions that cannot be unmade

A sigh for the games that cannot be unplayed

A sigh for the walls that were built every day

To keep the hurt out

To keep love at bay

I reach for the light I do not understand


Light that breaks down the walls

Light that flows from your hands

Yet without the darkness, light cannot be missed

And without the pain, love cannot be bliss

Each day of our lives we must do our very best

To live from our hearts

Without fear

Or regrets


Update in progress. Check back later!

Cultural values and dreams – Korea

Today my student chose to present on the topic of ads. First she showed this ad:

Then she explained that she was ashamed because she wanted me to understand the words on the ad. Since they are only in Korean, she decided to translate for me. I had not even noticed the captions in each image. Only the very strange (and rather lame), “Be Brave, please” at the end. My student was adamant that the captions make the ad.

Here are her translations, image by image.

1. Launch a preemptive attack.

2. Have an adventure.

3. Just do it.

4. Go on vacation.

5. Run for all you’re worth.

6. Break up.

7. Save the world.

8. Just cry.

9. Become a trouble-maker.

10. Go  home on time.

11. Take the road less traveled.

These translations are an insight into Korean cultural values. They represent the emotional attachment Korean people have to these ideals even though, in real life, they are just dreams. My student’s reaction demonstrated this. For me, the lazy, laid-back English teacher, it is a culture gap that deserves some thought.


Korea, like many Asian countries, has been called a “collectivist” culture (Triandis 1995). This means they see themselves as part of a group. The most important value in collectivist cultures is harmony. Maintaining harmony means a lot of things: not rocking the boat, acting for the good of the group rather than individual gain, and, as anyone who has been here for a while knows, a fair bit of mind-reading. People who live in collectivist cultures tend to distinguish between their public behavior and private opinions. They tend not to show emotions. They tend to obey their superiors. It is a highly structured life.


This ad depicts a dream to be an individual: free to strike first when someone provokes you; free to have adventure, experience danger; free to fall in love and take risks; free to take a vacation without your family; free to run with the bulls; free to break up without scorn; free to save the world; free to cry and show emotion; free to be a trouble-maker and give society the finger; free to go home on time instead of work all night; free to be yourself.


Those who have lived in Korea can sense why this ad had such a strong impact on my 15 year old student: this is who she would like to be. She would like the courage to break out of the confines of her culture and be herself.


For contrast: here’s the superbowl ad – as American as you can get! – that would not have the same impact in Korea.

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