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. Continue reading “Dispatch from the Classroom: First Grade”

Perhaps The Grammar Lesson Could Wait: “Teacher he ate too many soju.”

Too many soju. (swimparallel/flickr)

Hearing amusing thoughts in the classroom is standard practice when you spend each day hanging out with kids. There’s rarely a week that goes by without hearing something that makes me scramble for a pen so I can recount it later. Maybe the heaps of holiday candy went to their heads, maybe all their witty English thoughts piled up in their young brains without an outlet, but this week, the first back since Christmas, the priceless snippets numbered too many to count. There was the first grader who curiously queried, “Teacher, does your mother have any children?” and met the giggles that followed with a look of confusion, and I can hardly leave out that this student’s name just happens to be Macqueen.

Even though all our kids obviously have Korean names, I couldn’t tell you what they are. They adopt names that are friendly to the English speaker, like Alice and John, at school. While parents or older siblings pick out names for some of the students, many choose their own. When a five year old gets to christen himself, it should come as no surprise that some interesting choices appear on the attendance sheet. While the names Eagle and Bright make me smile, the name Macqueen has to be my favorite. If you were wondering where a child would ever get the inspiration to name themselves Maqueen, you obviously haven’t seen the 2006 Pixar movie, Cars, with the lovable main character aptly named after Steve Mcqueen, an actor whose name and its accurate spelling are at least 50 years off this kid’s radar.

Then there was the third grade student who explained that she was previously absent from overindulging in rice cakes while mimicking vomit noises. That was followed by a conversation about the practicality of dispersing a message in a bottle by throwing it in a body of water when you could save yourself some time and just flush it down the toilet. And how could I forget  the third grade student who innocently raised her hand to announce that she searched my name on the Internet and found a picture of me behind bars in prison (a claim I was confident was not true, but checked nonetheless, just to be sure).
All of these were drops in the bucket of pithy witticisms compared to the resounding kerplunk of a conversation I had with a fourth grade student about a teacher’s absence. A co-worker came down with a case of the flu and had to end the day early. Two fourth grade classes were combined to accommodate. When I explained to the class why, one of the students crossed his arms over his chest and gave me a skeptical glance, as if to say, “You really expect us to buy that?”
“Um, Teacher,” he said, “I don’t believe you.”
“Oh?” I said.
“No, I think really he ate too many soju.”
I tried to expertly sweep in and put this subversion to rest, but to no avail. Truth be told, I may have inadvertently threw an ample amount of fuel on the growing fire, as the whole class was now jumping on board the soju conspiracy theory train. When the student persistently continued, “Really, he ate too many alcohol,” the grammar stickler inside me couldn’t be restrained. I had to reply, “It’s drink too much alcohol, not too many.” Perhaps this would have been a good time to forgo the grammar lesson as the student promptly took this as confirmation that in fact his theory was right all along.
“So, not soju, then what was it? Beer? Makgeoli? Wine? What kind of alcohol does he drink? Huh?” he insisted, throwing a barrage of heated questions my way like a good detective in a bad movie. You have to give the kid credit for a sturdy commitment to the truth. I admit my grammar correction lacked timing and foresight, but as Mr. Vonnegut would say, “So it goes.”

Snow Day in Ilsan

It was a sunny and snowy day in Ilsan on Monday.

After a week spent in the crunchy snow and shiver-inducing temperatures of the Midwest, my winter boots got plenty of use. When it came to packing them for my trip back to Goyang, South Korea, I nearly left them behind, thinking of the snowless streets I had left behind only days earlier. Over-packer that I am, I jammed them in my suitcase just to be safe, and by Monday, I was glad to have them. Christmas day brought a light dusting of snow, leaving about 2 inches of packed powder to derail my rolling suitcase on the sidewalks, but little more than that. As I woke up, jet-lagged and groggy, on Monday, I looked out the window and thought, “Is it snowing?” And snowing it was. A lot. And the flakes didn’t just make an appearance in the morning, but consistently fell in a white flurry all throughout the day. Continue reading “Snow Day in Ilsan”

What We’re Up To

Greetings everyone, it’s been a while since you last heard from us, and even longer since you heard from me. We’ve been pretty busy getting things in order around here, on the personal side of things, we have both been inexplicably busy lately. We’re thinking about the future, and trying to get things in order to apply for our next job. Those of you who follow me on twitter probably know I was at home for about two weeks over the Thanksgiving holiday. My grandma was undergoing surgery for pancreatic cancer and my return home was an emergency trip to be with her and my family while she prepared for and recovered from the Whipple Procedure. Now that it’s Christmas, Danielle is at home with her family, and my brother Tony arrived earlier this week to visit during my winter break.

In addition to working on some backend upgrades on this site, we’ve been collaborating with Anna and Andre (Seoulful Adventures) on the first of a series of journalism projects. We are currently putting together a story about the large Filipino community in and around Seoul and Incheon, centered around the weekly Filipino Market in Hyewha. Last weekend the four of us went out to the market and put in about five hours of interviewing and learning about the market, and the people who work and visit it. The project is the first of many to be produced under the umbrella of a new organization called International Underground. We hope to have the Filipino Market story up, and launch the full site soon. We’ll have more details here for sure. In the mean time, you can subscribe to the email list or the site’s RSS feed in the reader of your choice.

Creating International Underground does not mean that Schoolhouse: ROK will disappear. On the contrary, it means we will be able to focus on bringing you news and analysis from this site, but also do more broadly targeted, and more in-depth journalism, reporting unique stories, from among a community of journalists located in the Seoul area, and eventually around the world.

Thank you for reading, happy holidays, and stay tuned.

Happy Thanksgiving from South Korea

All the students at school would like to wish you a Very Merry…Thanksgiving! I admit I’m a bit late with this sentiment, as that day of family feasting is likely fading in some people’s memories as Christmas approaches, but the kids are as cute as they were a month ago, so don’t be deterred.

Of course they needed a little prompting to shout, “Happy Thanksgiving,” for the waiting camera, but you may be surprised by just how much they understand about the holiday and its history. The video may not show it, but my first grade students can even rattle off the name William Bradford and spout off a fact or two on the Wampanoag Indian tribe. I suspect that is more than I could say at their age.

Less Bang For North Korean Bucks

Much ado was made this week about North Korea revaluing its currency. The story first caught my eye as a headline on Twitter and, given the near lack of an economy up north I didn’t think much of it, but my curiosity heightened when I saw the Korea Times and the New York Times pick it up. Our stalinist neighbor announced this week that it would drop two zeros from its currency, issue new bills, and limit the amount of the old bills that could be exchanged.

Unsurprisingly, the change was met with harsh criticism. The Wall Street Journal’s Marcus Noland called Pyongyang’s bluff saying it was a decision made not out of sound economic policy, but “yet another stratagem by the central authorities to short-circuit the development of an entrepreneurial class independent of the state.” Other news agencies cited a widespread, chaotic reaction from within the secretive state’s borders.

The problem is not so much the revaluation itself, it is a strategy used by many stable governments to halt bad economic policies of the past and fight runaway inflation. By revaluing the currency “at approximate parity to major currencies such as the dollar or the euro,” the strategy is often used as a tool for citizens to hold their government accountable for their country’s economic performance. That is clearly not what is happening in North Korea. Holding the government accountable for anything is the last thing the North wants its people doing, and instead this was intended to snuff out small, underground entrepreneurs, and preventing people from holding any savings. Noland writes:

Unlike a Turkish or Ghanaian-style reform [two countries who recently revalued their currencies], in which all citizens are encouraged to convert all their holdings of the old currency, the North Korean regime limits the amount of currency that can be converted. This renders excess holdings worthless, and has set off the frenzy this week to get out of old won and into anything else—dollars, Chinese yuan, physical goods—that will maintain value. Any economic “reform” also creates opportunities to parcel out benefits, as with a 2002 price and wage reform that favored the military.

Other sources like the New York Times also commented on the conversion limit as a fault of the program. The government initially only allowed 100,000 ($690, officially, $35 on the black market) to 150,000 won to be exchanged into the new bills, a rule that would “effectively decimate private stores of cash wealth in local currency.” Following this decree several news outlets reported protests in the streets of Pyongyang, and chaos in the public transportation systems as people flocked home and then to their banks in attempt to redeem their new bills, and sell off the rest into something else.

In response to the protests, the North made a reluctant and disingenuous compromise. All citizens are now allowed to exchange all of their savings for the new notes, but the exchange rate will change after the first 100,000 won. According to Daily NK:

“The maximum amount per household which could be exchanged in cash was initially set at 100,000 won, but overnight it increased to 150,000 won, then subsequently a new decree was handed down.”

“According to the new decree, the exchange rate is still 100:1 for 100,000 won, but now the authorities will only permit people to exchange the rest of the money at 1,000:1.”

As a result, if you take 200,000 won in cash to a bank, you get 1,100 won in new denomination bills. This emergency formula will do nothing other than destroy the fortunes of the people. [Quotations taken from NK Daily’s source.]

The overwhelming verdict among news agencies across the world is that the North’s currency valuation scheme is targeted at two things: obliterating any kind of personal wealth, no matter how small, and shutting down any kind of entrepreneurial activity, black market or otherwise. In addition, the South Korean Unification Ministry has yet to issue an official statement on the subject because it is waiting for Pyongyang to first officially announce the unexpected economic activity.

The blog North Korean Economy Watch has a great collection of quotations from and links to international publications covering the revaluation scheme.

Closer Than We Think

Do you ever wake up in the morning, pour some milk into a bowl of cereal, and think, “Hmm, I wonder what on Earth children in South Korea eat for breakfast?” Find the responses to this query and plenty of other questions about the daily life of a student in South Korea in this video.

Do you ever wake up in the morning, pour some milk into a bowl of cereal, and think, “Hmm, I wonder what on Earth children in South Korea eat for breakfast?” Find the responses to this query and plenty of other  questions about the daily life of a student in South Korea in this video created by fellow teacher Seth Mattern.

Seth is a certified educator in the United States, and after the logistics of international pen-pal projects and video exchanges proved too messy, he created this website with another teacher in Colorado  as a convenient forum for cultural exchange between students the world over.

In addition to this, which I imagine is only the first of many videos to be posted in the future, poke around the website to read some essays by both Korean and American students, and responding comments. If you’re an educator anywhere in the world, and are interested in participating in the site, just send an e-mail and I would be thrilled to put you in touch with the appropriate people. Even if you’re not an educator, I know the kids would love to read any comments and answer any questions you may have.

These students are in fourth and fifth grade and recorded this around 8:00 at night, since they stay at our school until 9. You’ll find that later nights and longer hours spent in schools of all varieties are not the only differences between Korean and North American students. And as for breakfast in Korea, I’ll let the kids speak for themselves, but I suspect many will be surprised by their answers. Enjoy!