28 June 2010


Text of my reflection given at the Fulbright Korea ETA Final Dinner on Saturday, June 26, 2010 at the Dragon Hill Lodge, Yongsan Garrison, Seoul.

So, here we are. I promise I’ll keep this short both because when Emily asked me to say something she told me to keep it short. But, mostly because I’m not really sure what to say to sum up my last three years and relate it back to you. That’s odd for me because, as I looked back at all the blog entries and emails home I wrote over the last few years, I realized I used to have a lot to say about my time here.

You see, you should understand that I like writing. A lot. Proof-reading is something awful… But writing is fantastic. When I first got to Korea, I would write these 11-page single spaced emails home documenting every thing I saw and experienced. It was all so new and exciting and strange and it gave me something to write about so I would just write and write and write. But I wouldn’t proof-read. I would just write.

I just wrote because, let’s face it, proof-reading is boring. Writing is where the excitement is at. The first pen stoke on the paper, the first word padded out on the keyboard, the first recollection of the story that your friends will read in all its vivacious lack of clarity and because of that lack of clarity you get comments and questions and you enter into dialog and conversation and it stays exciting and fresh and new.

Eventually though, the new becomes familiar, the strange, routine. And so, I stopped writing.

You see, I always write when I am traveling. I think it was a habit ingrained from my youth when my mom would make my sister and I write diary entries to keep track of what we did everyday on camping trips. When I first got to Korea, first experienced orientation, first met my host family, first started teaching, I was traveling. I saw something new everyday and I did something new everyday and so there was something to write home about everyday. But at some point, I stopped traveling. At some point, I looked out the window of my homestay in Pyeongchang, out the window of a bus leaving Incheon for Pohang, out the window of my apartment at school to watch the sunrise against the glorious background music of my students’ morning calisthenics routine… At some point, I looked out and I said, “I am home.” Now, when I look back and “proof-read” those pages and pages that I wrote so long ago, I laugh at myself. How naïve and foolish and even foreign I sound to myself now!

It is strange for me that when I start grad school this fall in Seattle, I will most likely start writing again, and not just because I’ll have papers due, but because it will be a new experience. It is strange for me that, over the course of a year, two years, and then finally three, I should consider a foreign shore more familiar to me than my native land (though I’m sure I’ll adjust to Seattle much quicker than I did to Korea).

But I have come to understand that this is the nature of our work here. To put down our pens, our cameras, and our laptops and not just view our time here through a window, but to step beyond and build a home with the people that we have met, known, and loved. Over the past one or two years, you have not just been an observer here. You have lived here. You have had a home here. It is my hope that—as you “proof-read” your blogs, your emails, and your pictures—it is my hope that you find that Korea has been as good a home for you as it has been for me.

13 February 2010

“Problems Inherent in the English Native Speaker Conversation Classroom (ENSCC) and a Method for Overcoming Them”

Originally published in the Gyeongbuk Secondary Living English Association journal for their 11th conference, January 2010.


In Korea, secondary schools typically utilize an approach to English as a Foreign Language (EFL) learning which I call the English Native Speaker Conversation Classroom (ENSCC). The goal of these classrooms is to supplement the school system’s already strong reading and listening comprehension curricula with an interactive class that will also teach the students to speak English. Despite English speaking not being tested on the National College Entrance Examination (대입수능시험, NCEE), schools and parents encourage the use of these classrooms and expect three things from such a program:

1. The students will get into better universities. Top Korean universities are increasingly requiring more classes, programs, and admissions procedures in English making it increasingly difficult for even a student with high marks on the NCEE to succeed.

2. The students will have more job opportunities. Especially since Korea’s economy is so tied to the global market, English speakers have more options for employment after school.

3. Students will do better on the English portion of examinations. The ENSCC should strengthen other English skills (i.e. reading and writing) allowing students to do better on examinations that test those skills.

Typically, a native speaker, if available, will teach this class in order to ensure the students experience what many Koreans assume to be error-free English.

Problems Inherent to the ENSCC

Though these are noble goals, several problems are inherent to the ENSCC. First and foremost is the lack of clearly defined objectives for the English language learning itself. Though everyone knows what the students are expected to be able to do once they acquire a facility with the target language, there is no clear definition of what facility with the language means. In other words, there is no standard for the teacher to teach towards.

A 1995 study conducted by E.B. Zechmeister et al. found that native English speaking high school graduates typically can wield a vocabulary of 12,000 words (Journal of Reading Behavior 27(2), 201-212). I can imagine that many of those words are specialized (e.g. words used in science and math) and so are not typically taught in Korean EFL classrooms. Teaching students to be able to comprehend such a vast vocabulary with 10 hours or more a week of instruction time between school and after-school academies is hard enough for Korean teachers. It is impossible for teachers to accomplish the same during one hour per week supplementary classes. Therefore, having an ill-defined objective for the ENSCC such as “We want our students to speak English,” inhibits the ability of teachers to accomplish that objective.

A second problem is that conversation typically has no contextual clues to aid understanding. This is especially true at higher levels and prevents understanding, which can eventually frustrate the language learner.

For example, If I am in a store with my Korean friend who speaks only a few words of English and I ask my Korean friend to pass me a can of tomato sauce while pointing to the can of tomato sauce, my Korean friend is able to see the can of tomato sauce which I am pointing to and give it to me. In this case, my Korean friend does not need to know any English because it is clear what I want given the contextual clues (i.e. my pointing finger and the can of tomato sauce). However, if a week later we are in the same store, but this time in the produce section and I say, “By the way, that tomato sauce last week was so delicious! I think I’d like another can,” my Korean friend, knowing only the word “tomato,” might think that I am talking about the tomatoes sitting next to us in the produce section we are in. The conversation has been taken out of context, and this creates misunderstanding. This becomes an even greater problem at higher levels when teaching abstract concepts and ideas (e.g. freedom).

For any conversation where the context is not immediately present, the parties must have a common vocabulary between them. Unfortunately, an immediate context is not always possible in the ENSCC, and so there must be a common vocabulary to carry the students through the conversation.

A third problem is the presence of multiple levels in the ENSCC. It is common wisdom that when a class is too difficult, students become frustrated and thus unwilling to learn. When a class is too easy, students become bored and are not learning anyway. Therefore, when deciding the material for a particular class it is important to strike the proper balance between too difficult and too easy. This is nearly impossible to do in a mixed-level class, however. Inevitably, the class will frustrate some students and bore others.

The final problem is the lack of incentive to learn English conversation. Though the vast majority of students would like to go to a good university, have good job opportunities, and do well on the English portion of the NCEE, all of the students are more concerned with receiving good enough scores on the NCEE so that they can go to a university and get a job. Thus, the ENSCC is often seen as either a waste of valuable time better spent studying for the NCEE or an hour long game session to just relax and have fun. This notion is strengthened by the fact that the ENSCC typically meets only once a week. The ENSCC is perceived by students, parents, school administration, and even the teachers who teach them to be, at best, a helpful but in the end unnecessary supplement to student success, at worst, a novelty or gimmick to boost the school’s prestige. To use a metaphor, whereas the standard school curriculum, designed to help the student pass the NCEE, is the student’s rice, main dish, and kimchi, the ENSCC is the student’s after-meal vitamin supplement. Usually, the student will be just fine without it.

A Helpful Method: Teaching Toward a Topic

These, at any rate, are the challenges teachers face when administrations decide to employ an ENSCC in their school. I myself have had to work with these problems for approximately two and a half years. While I have no firm solutions to them, I have developed a flexible method, which I call “Teaching Toward a Topic,” that works well-enough for my school’s purposes.

Step One: Long term goals based on specific topics. It can be for a month or it can be for a semester, but at the end of the given period the students should be able to have at least one or two basic conversations on the selected topic. For instance, if the selected topic is “Our School,” the student should probably be able to talk about their schedule, who their favorite teachers and subjects are, and what they do with their free time during lunch. Do not be too concerned with them answering at significant length. A simple statement of fact or opinion, a supporting detail or reason, and another question are what typical conversations are made up of anyway, so saying, “I like math because it is easy. How about you?” or “I am busy next period. I have biology. How about 7th period?” is adequate for our example topic. Obviously if the students are ready for “Environmentalism” as a topic, the instructor should expect more from them.

At our school, the goal is to help students pass the English portion of their college entrance interviews if they choose to graduate from high school early. Since we know what questions are typically used for these interviews, we use those questions as our topics and design our lessons around them.

Step Two: Review necessary structures; discover vocabulary. This is the instructional portion of the ENSCC lessons and units. If the ENSCC instructor and the normal curriculum instructors can coordinate well, a minimal amount of time should be spent learning new structures and vocabulary in the ENSCC. The time restriction simply does not allow enough time to make instruction in these areas feasible and the main goal of the ENSCC should be practicing already learned material.

It is important to note that, while structures are reviewed, vocabulary is discovered. This helps deal with the problem of having 12,000 vocabulary words to study. The students know which words they know, which they do not, and which they need to complete a given assignment, so it is better for the students to discover these for themselves than for the instructor to assign words to be memorized hoping they will be useful. (As a student uses the discovered vocabulary during the practice activity, other students begin to acquire the discovered vocabulary as well, see below.) To implement this strategy, the instructor uses activities with open ended prompts (e.g. interviews) and sufficient time should be allowed for students to find the vocabulary they need to answer those questions whether by asking the teacher, asking fellow students, or looking in a dictionary.

I should note that during this phase, which can take up whole class periods in longer units, I allow the students to use a significant amount of Korean. From personal experience, I know the frustration of a foreign language instructor trying to teach me the target language through the target language and wasting 20 minutes just to teach me how to say one word, when it would have been a much more efficient use of time to allow me to look in the dictionary or ask a friend for the definition of the word in the my native tongue. To my mind, English only classes are for practicing old material, not for learning new material.

Step Three: Practice, practice, practice. In step three, the students participate in some sort of structured activity or game to practice the target structures and discovered vocabulary. If possible, it will be helpful to provide a context for the activity as well to enhance understanding. As a student uses vocabulary that is unfamiliar to another student, the other student begins to learn the vocabulary through repetition and sometimes through the far less subtle means of asking a classmate, “What did he say?” I still allow some Korean to be used at this point to aid quick understanding, but the goal is to begin phasing out as much of the student’s native language as possible and replacing it with the target language.

The Internet is a great resource for activities that will allow students to practice target structures and discovered vocabulary. I often use board games borrowed from other teachers online and modify the text to my purposes.

Step Four: Test. In this stage, the instructor assesses the student’s ability to perform in the selected topic. However, the test should be non-contextual and as conversational as possible. A good example is the following activity I used for a unit on descriptions:

1. Divide the students into small groups.

2. Have each group pick one student to be the artist. This student will draw a picture while the other students describe it.

3. Ask one student from each group to come to the teacher’s lectern.

4. Show the students the picture for 5 seconds.

5. Tell them to return to their group and describe the picture to the artist without using their hands.

6. Repeat steps 3 through 5 at regular intervals until all students have participated. Use the same picture throughout.

7. Show the pictures to the class along with the original. Decide on the most accurate picture.

Since the student artist has never seen the picture, he or she has not context for the conversation. They must rely on their group members to give them an accurate description. For this, the students must have an adequate command of the target structures and vocabulary, and the students must share a common understanding of the target structures and vocabulary.

Final Thoughts on Incentive in the ENSCC

Though I have found this “Teaching Toward a Topic” method effective in dealing with three of the four stated problems inherent in the ENSCC, it does not address the key issue of incentive. How are ENSCC instructors to motivate their students to learn English conversation when there is seemingly no immediate benefit.

At our school, we have a definite incentive built into our goals; students who can pass the English interview portion of their university entrance procedures are one step closer to graduating a year early to one of the finest universities in Korea. We are fortunate to have that incentive, but other schools are not so lucky.

ENSCC instructors often turn to in-class rewards (e.g. candy, raffle tickets, etc.), but these are sometimes not enough to motivate students if they would rather study for their math examinations or even just sleep rather than spend 50 minutes speaking English for a piece of candy that they can get from a store for 100 won.

In the end, I believe that the only way to create real incentive for the ENSCC is to make it an integral part of the curriculum rather than supplementary to it. Though this is difficult to accomplish given the pressure to focus on studying for the NCEE, what follows are a few suggestions.

One way would be to include the ENSCC in the school’s internal grading and evaluation standards. In other words, students would receive grades and rankings based on class participation and performance. Students who know that their class performance will be recorded on their permanent school record are more likely to pay attention during class and to take the class seriously.

Another way would be to increase the number of times students meet with their ENSCC instructor. The usual method is to hold ENSCC classes once a week which makes it nearly impossible for the ENSCC instructor to teach effectively and for the students to learn. Instructors and students inevitably feel that their classes do not matter if the students forget all of the learned material between meetings. Meeting more than once allows the instructor to teach actual lessons and build on and review material from previous lessons.

A final, more drastic way would be to integrate the lessons into the normal reading and listening comprehension curriculum; in other words, to take a more holistic approach to language learning where each lesson includes some practice in each of the four skills—reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Students would naturally pay attention during the speaking portion of the lesson if it were combined with the other portions that are designed specifically to aid their success on the NCEE. This may mean the elimination of the ENSCC as a model, and if implemented, there will inevitably be some concern as to what role native English speakers will play in the school curriculum. Alternatively, the ENSCC could remain as a sort of laboratory class where students apply the conversational patterns learned in a real and meaningful way. The ENSCC would remain supplemental in this case, but it would reduce the pressure of teaching the whole of English conversation in one-hour sessions once a week. Regardless, integrated the speaking curriculum into normal classroom activities would inevitably allow students to have a better grasp of the language as a whole.

Jeremiah Dost has a B.A. in history and is a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. He has been the native English conversation teacher at Kyungbuk Science High School in Pohang, Gyeongsangbuk-do since August 2008. He taught previously at Pyeongchang High School in Pyeongchang, Kangwon-do for one year. He can be contacted at jeremy.dost@gmail.com.

01 November 2009

Mrs. Lewinsky Remembered (Year 3, Day 68)

Here's something I wrote on May 20, 2009. I didn't have a blog then, but it is a reflection about my experience teaching. I thought now would be a good time time to share it.

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Mrs. Lewinsky Remembered

Working as a teacher in a program that hires teachers for elementary schools as well as secondary schools has brought me to a certain realization about my own elementary school teachers. They probably swore.

I always have this fond recollection of my elementary school teachers, especially the young ones right of college or even still performing their supervised teaching requirements, as being the kindest, gentlest, most sincere and, quite frankly, sinless beings on the face of the planet. They could do no wrong, no harm, and no evil. They were pure, unadulterated good. They were the perfect models to mold young minds and hearts in their most fragile stages, preparing them for the rigors of their later life.

But now I know elementary school teachers. More importantly, I know them as adults—adults who at one time were taking the exact same elementary school classes I was taking. They are no more sinless, pure, or good than the rest of us. They are human. Indeed, they bleed.

I came to this sad realization in what is almost certainly the most innocuous way possible—I saw a curse word in an elementary school teacher’s “Gchat Status”.

For the uninitiated, Gmail—Google’s email service—has an imbedded instant messaging service called Gchat. Users can write a short sentence or two indicating their current status to either elicit conversation or ward it away. However, by my estimation, most people just use it to post interesting links of one kind or another (mostly harmless) or to inform others about what they just did with their lives (mostly crazy; I’m still amazed by what people are willing to make public about their lives on the Internet, myself included). So, on the one hand, you could get a link to a humorously captioned picture of fuzzy feline or a sweet guitar lick played like a pro by an amateur computer science student. On the other hand, you could be informed that your friend just got married or that the-guy-to-whom-you-sent-an-email-only-once-in-your-life-but-somehow-he-wound-up-on-your-chat-contacts-list’s dog has diarrhea.

Or, you can come to a sad realization about your childhood—that Mrs. Lewinsky, you teacher in the 1st grade, was possibly going downtown every evening to carouse and that she more than likely uses words like shit, damn, and even the unspeakable f-word on a regular basis.

I can’t remember the exact phrase in question, and in fact before the incident, I’d heard many of my elementary school teacher colleagues use such colorful explicative in combinations worthy of any deep voiced video fighting game announcer’s talents (86 HIT COMBO!). I do remember it struck me though. I do remember the certain loss of innocence that came with it. And I remember the small part of me that died with a muffled whimper deep within my childlike soul on that day as a single tear streaked my cheek. Any loss of innocence is profound (and certainly worthy of illustrative hyperbole).

I also remember feeling at least a little bit betrayed. How dare Mrs. Lewinsky say I couldn’t swear! How dare she say that it wasn’t polite language, that it was un-genteel, that I would have to sit in the corner for 10 minutes if ever I committed such an infraction again! How dare she hold me to a standard of pristine innocence that she herself couldn’t possibly have maintained outside of school hours with a couple of beers in her!

But I do understand why. I too am an adult attempting to mold young minds, albeit high school minds far more intellectually advanced than my 1st grade mind was. And, thus, I too hold my students to a far greater standard of etiquette than I hold myself. It may have been hypocritical for Mrs. Lewinsky to hold me, a child, to an adult double standard, but it would be even more hypocritical of me, an adult, to hold my adult colleagues to such a double standard as well.

And in the end, I remember this—my friend is Mrs. Lewinsky when she swears in front of me, a mature adult able to handle such foul utterances. My friend is Mrs. Lewinsky when she insists in all-knowing hypocrisy that her students do no swear in front of anyone. But she is most Mrs. Lewinsky—pure, innocent, sinless Mrs. Lewinsky—when she holds herself to that same impossible standard in front of her children—wide-eyed, impressionable, 1st grade me.