Dispatch from the Classroom: First Grade

Don’t Pick the Flowers

“Don’t pick flowers,” was the immediate response when my first grade students were asked recently to imagine that our class had been whisked away from our room in Ilsan, South Korea and plopped down on an isolated island with the challenge of governing ourselves. “Don’t pick flowers,” was among the first must-have laws. Our white board was soon overflowing with edicts like, “Don’t catch whales or animals, except cows,” “Pick a president, then be nice to them,” and “Love the nature.” How simple it is to bring law and order to a society. Others included:

  • Don’t pollute nature or the sea.
  • Stay away from strangers.
  • Don’t go to dangerous places.
  • Don’t go too far from the group.
  • Don’t say bad words.
  • Don’t kill animals. Eat rice, fruit, or vegetables.
  • Eat what is good for your body.
  • Behave.
  • Always be happy and work hard for the country.
  • Always try your best.
  • Stick together.
  • Don’t use too much water.
  • Every child should go to school for free.
  • Be nice to others.
  • Don’t go to the deep sea.

I find myself relishing these moments with kids whose think so easily of a flower’s welfare. I suspect growing up in the United States I had a similar carefree attitude at their age. Considering I had little to worry about beyond avoiding yet another bellyflop into the water at swim practice, little stress stood in the way of a happy-go-lucky youth. While I was hopping off the block around first grade, by comparison the kids here have to figure out how to do a perfect arabesque from the high dive. The expectations are much higher much younger.

Since I work at an academy to supplement their elementary school education, the students come to me after having spent a day in elementary school (albeit shorter than the eight-to-three school day). In addition to perfecting their English at my hogwan, many of the students can rattle off a list of others they attend. Ranging from math to Korean history, computers to yoga, there’s an academy for everything in South Korea, and it wouldn’t be an academy without homework and tests. All of this ultimately prepares them for a high-stakes standardized test that all students will take around their junior year of high school, largely determining their admission into college and career success.

In first grade, there are subtle indications of the relative stress these students have compared to many North American kids. Hearing a 7 year old sagely explain, “I know the journal is due today, but I just don’t have time for that this week,” or watching their aptitude filling in bubbles on standardized tests are among the small signals here and there showing the difference between my experience in first grade and theirs. Luckily, a grueling schedule of schools, tests, and homework certainly doesn’t stop these kids from impressing me with funny, and sometimes profound, thoughts. Here are just a few, complemented by pictures:

This pose is just as classically Rina as translating windings from Alien into English

From Alien to English
Rina

We salvage the copy machine’s unused one-sided castaways for spelling tests, and lately there’s been a batch with jibberish wingdings printed on them. The first graders are convinced they have stumbled upon an extraterrestrial language previously unseen. While most of the students marvel at the foreign characters, one first grader is quite confident in her other-worldly knowledge. Ever day we wait with baited breath for her to translate the alien language and reveal the strange character’s mysterious meaning. Today’s message may look to the Earthling’s eye like triangles and circles, but in fact, Rina explained to us it means, “I am happy today because I catched a yummy fox.” Rina informed us it can be both a song and a spoken statement. She has perfect pronunciation. I would know, as I have heard this phrase in both alien and English. A trilingual student, what a marvel.

Reading Jeena's journal is a highlight of my week every week. The thoughts that come out of her head are priceless.

Talk to the Animals
Jeena

If I can talk with animals, I’ll go on a trip. I will ride on the elephant’s back. I’ll take a tent, foods, water, clock, flash light, telescope, and a map. I will take my family.

When it is hot, I will ask Elephant to spray a water on his back, and I will ask the monkey to make a shadow with trees. When it is cold, I will ask the bear to build the tent that is in the backpack. I will ask the cheetah to buy a small heater. I will rest and drink cocoa with my family and animals sometimes. I’ll check where I am. I will eat foods. When I start the trip again, I’ll go to Brazil and share my foods with some people. I will ask the monkey to take the coffee that my mother likes. I will put it in my backpack and perch at my home. I will go home and write this story in my diary. If I could really speak to animals that would be really fun.

Thanks to my mother, these kids have all learned and certainly earned the term "goofballs."

My Name Spelling is P-i-c-i-d-i P-i-c-k-y

Alice

One day I walked into class to find one of my students dissolving in giggles. This is not unusual, but since few things hold their attention long, I was became curious after the same joke continued to entertain them twenty minutes into class. Whatever could be entertaining them this long, I wondered, when Alice marched up to me with her notebook. “Teacher. Please call me Picidi Picky,” she said, the kids consumed in laughter once again. Before I could ask the obvious question “Why?” she held her notebook in front of my face. “My name spelling is P-i-c-i-d-i P-i-c-k-y.” she earnestly explained. “Please, please, please just call me Picidi Picky. It is too funny.” When I inquired as to how she chose such a name, she replied with a typical response among our students. “Just.” Of course, why hadn’t that occurred to me? Amazingly five days later, Alice remains committed to her new name Picidi Picky. I’m starting to think it suits her.

After spending a summer in Australia, Trina's not too shabby when talking about beautiful things in English. In Australia, I saw numberless twinkling stars. I thought that the twinkling stars fell down to me.

All the World’s Beautiful Things
Trina

What things do you think are beautiful?

There are many beautiful things in the world. I like the natural things.
I like rainbows. It is colorful and lovely. I want to touch a rainbow. I like stars, too. In Austrailia, I saw numberless twinkling stars. I thought that the twinkling stars fell down to me. Also, I like the song of a bird. The song of a bird sounds like a sweet sound. When I listen to the song of a bird, I will get up early. I like my mom’s hair, too. My mom’s hair is curly and soft. When I sleep, I touch my mom’s hair.
Many beatiful things, come to me!

Trina memorized all nine pages of her hand-written story about Santa's visit to a sleeping child on Christmas Eve.

My Best Christmas Present
Jeena

My best Christmas present are paintbrush and a sketch book.

When I was 6 years old, I got a paintbrush and a sketchbook. That time, I was so happy and excited, because that time, I only drew the picture with a pencil, and I used it all of sketchbook. My sister got a pretty doll. When my sister slept with a doll, I drew my sister very quietly because when my sister woke up, she crys and crys until she is tired of crying. I drew dad when he was doing a work, mom when she was cooking delicious food, and grandpa when he was piping all the way. I drew all the family sitting on the sofa. It was great. Next time I want to get a book.


Lily is a certified pro at being a kid. No matter how many pictures I take of her, she's always a blurry streak. This was a lucky moment when she paused to attempt to turn a whistle into a telescope. After finding this method ultimately ineffective, she was soon back in motion.

Pitiable Fish
Jessica

*I’m cheating a bit by including this in a post about first grade students as Jessica is a second grader. But this journal is simply too good to keep to myself.

My best present that I received was a small aquarium that had 10 fish living there. One day, a fish died. I was sad that one of my dad’s presents died.

“Pitiable fish,” I thought. The next day, one more died. This happened every day. Finally, last one left and lived for a long time considering a fish’s lifespan. I thought she could live for many years. Helplessly, the fish just lived for three months. I was very sad, but I won’t cry anymore, because of my 2nd best Christmas gift: a robot named Pino.

I like Pino, too. But, I will never change my thinking about 10 fish.

You may remember Macqueen from a previous post, a name inspired by the movie Cars. Despite formally changing his name to Alexander under his father's advisement, Macqueen still stuck.
Packed up and ready to go home.
Serene as can be.
Bosom buddies.
Daniel is quite adept in the fine art of enhancing speeches with actions.
Clearly done with the teacher and her camera.
That's one cute kid.
"Please of please Santa, take me to the North Pole." Santa obliged.
Nothing less than rapt attention, clearly.
The choreographed speech continues. Something tells me he may have gotten some assistance with that poster.
Tell us all about it Rina.
What are you looking at?
Just a few kids, talking shop and making deals with plastic animals for currency.
This kid has style.

2 thoughts on “Dispatch from the Classroom: First Grade

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