Sunday, March 15, 2009

alternative schools

Read a few newspaper articles or a random English teachers blog, and inevitably you will come across something about South Korea's behemoth of an education system. Like China and Japan, Korea's education system emphasizes rote memorization and testing to assess student performance and aptitude. The pressure on kids starts as young as elementary school, when parents begin to push kids to attain high marks, often enrolling them in hours of afterschool academies that teach anything under the sun -- art, math, science, history, Chinese, Japanese, and, of course English. Academies, many parents believe, give kids a leg up in a fiercely competitive society. Their elementary school marks will determine what kind of middle school they enter, middle school marks determine the high school they enter, which all goes to determine the college they enter. And much more than in the US, this will play a heavy hand in their future job prospects.

My host siblings last year, who were both on the cusp of elementary and middle school, went to an average of 9 hours of hagwon a week and have taken two two-month trips to the Philippines just to study English. And this is not an extreme, but the norm of what middle and upper class families do to ensure their children have decent job prospects in the future. Its not unusual to meet Korean students who have been sent abroad to foreign boarding school for years beginning in middle school or high school so that they can master English abroad rather than drudging away for hours in after school academies to learn it.

The results, as you might predict, turn out to be that students spend an insane amount of time memorizing information for tests that they will forget after passing. The mother of all of these tests is the 수학능력시험 (National Scholastic Achievement test for college entrance). Leading up to the test you can seen families in church, temple, and in front of the testing center, praying for the good marks that will land their children into a prestigious university. The niece of my host parents stopped coming to family holidays for the past year and a half because she was too busy preparing for the high school examinations that prepare students for this goliath of a test. Unlike the SATs, the board of education holds the 수학능력시험 once a year. Students usually have only once chance at taking it, unless their family is willing to support them while they curl over in library cubicles preparing an additional year for the chance at a better score (a friend of mine took it three years because he wanted a score that would get him into a more reputable university). I asked my roommate a Korean grammar question the other day and he said "I had to study that for the college entrance exam but I forget it, like most of that stuff."

Especially in language education, Koreans are starting to realize that the system doesn't work. Its produced a sizable number of Koreans who know English grammar better than many native speakers but can barely put together a 5 word sentence. And from what I saw in my elementary classroom last year, teachers are beginning to use more activity-based techniques that get students actively using the language rather than studying only grammar and vocabulary from books.

Believing that the mainstream education was failing many students, a group of alternative schools has sprung up in Korea that are trying to address the stress of public schooling. In the past 12 years Koreans established at least 80 alternative schools throughout the country. Many of these are organized by different interest groups (christians, buddhists), but a sizable portion (that I can't find a link to an actual number at the moment) of schools are being established to create student-centered environments for the students. Over the winter vacation I volunteered at one of the Seoul-based schools that are attempting to create these types of environments -- The Haja Production center.

So here's the point in the post where I am planned to give a well-organized description of what this school is and to argue that it is doing something effective that normal Korean schools are missing. Really though, I only volunteered at this school for a week and while I did get close with the students i worked with, that's hardly enough to make some big point with. So instead I'm going to use this space here to just generally talk about what I do know about the Haja center and what i liked about it during the time I was helping there.

Haja was set up for students who were disillusioned with the public education system (not only those who quit school, but also students who wanted a different style of education). The center is set up more like an open university space where students can come and go in and out of the building freely when they don't have class but are expected to attend scheduled classes throughout the day. There are a range of different disciplines. From what I can remember there is global studies, where students study social issues -- especially through the social conditions of migrant workers living in Korea, percussion ensemble, video production, writing, fashion design, hip hop music production, and a few other things that I forget. I believe the students have one year of general studies, choose a discipline to focus on in their second year which they will continue studying for the final 3 years of the school. In their senior year they are expected to organize a large project related to their discipline (which is what brought me to the center -- I was helping a student run a 4 day English camp that was helping her plan for a series of camps that she will give throughout the spring in different alternative schools around Seoul). To change the students impressions about education and the bad associations that they have with schools in the traditional sense, the school does not use the word teacher (which is always attached to a teachers name as a sign of respect in Korea) or student, replacing these words with words that mean something like the producers (students) and the people who are always at the center working to make it run(teachers). The school seemed to have pretty high expectations about students accepting others regardless of age, gender, sex, sexuality, size, shape, and on down the list. What I found during my time there is an environment where students seem to work together with less power struggles and little squabbles than I have seen in other students their age. I also noticed that students are much more willing to express themselves, both in their choice of clothing, their willingness to volunteer, and their use of ideas in creative projects. This is all coming from someone who has experience with college and elementary students but little with high school students. So I don't have a whole lot to compare it against. But, it was a place that i felt the students were very comfortable and that I personally felt was one of the most comfortable places for myself that I have been in here in Korea. Working there and being away from teaching for the few months before made me realize that I do really enjoy teaching and that I think I will do it when I get back to the united states as "the big job." Ideally, I'd like to teach in an alternative school working on similar principles as the Haja Center.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

English Camps

Since I haven't worked a real job since July, all throughout the fall I'd been looking for winter English camp jobs to supplement my lack of income. Luckily, Fulbright (whose English camp I taught at this summer) started a new winter English camp that I hopped onto, and so January third I caught a train 3 hours south to just about as far south as you can go in mainland Korea, to a town called Mokpo. The camp was put together by the board of education for an area called Shinan, that is a group of thousands of islands off the mainland of Korea, and people still live on many of these islands, go to school, farm, and do what people do on the mainland minus the convenience of a nearby city and plus the benefit of doing it on a beautiful, green, craggy island. Plus, the area is famed for having the second largest sea salt field in the world (next to brittany -- where celtic sea salt comes from). All of the kids took boats or crossed huge steel bridges to get from their homes to the mainland. Sixty 6th graders piled in with us at a local YMCA, and teaching these kids was one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in Korea.

Compared to the Fulbright camp I taught over the summer, all of the instructors and counselors got much closer and many of us went on to another camp in Pohang that followed immediately after the Mokpo camp. Over the course of these camps I learned many swear words and extremely rude words in Korean through the korean counselors and finally chose a Korean name -- 김더덕 (Kim Deo Deok). Deo Deok is a relative of ginseng, and in the hierarchy of the ginseng family, it ranks the lowest. Which, I feel, fits my personality well, plus when its broiled its one of my favorite Korean foods.

Also of note, Korea leased half the arable land in Madagascar for growing corn and palm oil(,8599,1861145,00.html) for processed foods and ethanol.

Monday, December 22, 2008


Its almost Christmas and I've only been posting a bunch of psuedo-thoughtful rambles about culture for the last few months and haven't posted much at all about what's been going on day to day. So here are a few tidbits that have made me excited in the last few weeks:

1. I've made it my mission to set up my former co-teacher and the new administrator of Geumgang's Korean program on a blind date. Both are approaching that age where if they don't get married, they are hassled beyond what even the most mild mannered person can take. I hear it often enough now and I'm 8 years younger than them. At first, this was a selfless act of playing matchmaker, but I've now been made aware that according to custom if they stay together for two years they have to buy me a suit. So, everyone keep your fingers crossed. And don't get married or have any other events that require me to buy a new suit for the next two years.

2. I saw a Shamaness chanting hardcore while I was hiking to an all foreigner temple on the other side of the mountain to hear an American zen-master talk about mountain energy. The shamaness was kneeling in front of a shrine and singing beautifully while hitting a cymbal-like drum. I've never been much of a fan of listening to just singing. Recently though, a number of things here have drawn me towards singing with very spare percussion accompanying it. The first is pansori (판소리), traditional Korean opera. I saw it performed in Seoul for the first time a month or so ago. You can watch a clip here:

Pansori, like the shamaness and the buddhist chanting I'm going to describe below, uses the percussion to emphasize parts in the piece rather than to keep rhythym. Also amazing is that the drummer shouts short grunts and words of encouragement call choo-eem-sae (추임새) to emphasize parts that are especially emotional. The audience is encouraged to join in with the choo-eem-sae too.

The final form is buddhist yeh-bool (예불) or worship in front of the image of buddha. I've been going to these in the evening every now and then. The sutras are chanted while bowing before buddha and the chanting is emphasized by hitting a wooden block. I'm not sure what these actually do, because they don't signal us to bow and they always seem to be different. But they add to the intensity of the chanting.

3. Finals are over and I am enjoying doing nothing/ making lesson plans for the winter camp I'll be teaching in January/ trying to read the Republic despite falling asleep every five minutes because it is boring as shit. I thank the Korean administrator who long ago invented that glorious thing known as the 2.5 month winter break here.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Making Koreans

"We have made Italy, now we must make Italians." --Massimo D'Azeglio

This weekend I visited a First birthday celebration with my host parents. The big shindig is a holdover from a time when severe diseases commonly hit children right after childbirth and made their first year of life an uncertain one for the parents. Its the "we're going to make it" celebration when, it was expected, the threat of disease had passed. Special rice cakes are made and passed around to everyone in attendance to ward off evil spirits that may hiding around some corner in the baby's future. The baby wears a weird costume and I think rides on someone's back. The biggest part of the celebration though is when the child chooses from a big assortment of different objects one that will represent their future passion or occupation. So included here is a paint brush (artist), noodles (cook), book (scholar), pencil (writer), instrument (musician), money (rich person), and a few other things that I forget at the moment. At this particular party the baby girl choose a paint brush.

More interesting than the ceremony itself, is that its only recently that this ceremony has been practiced across the board by almost everybody in the country. For example, my host father, host mother, and many of the teachers at my old school had never had the ceremony. According to my host father, this is because the ceremony was reserved for the Yangban(upper classes) until the Japanese occupation. I'm guessing that with most people's incomes rising alot in the last twenty years, people have had more disposable income to throw at these big broo-hahas.

Lately though I've been wondering how this, and many things Korean, are a response to the period of Japanese occupation, the formation of an independent state afterwards, and the collapse of the extremely rigid Joseon dynasty class system in the midst of those two events. Cultural practices that were once strictly reserved for certain segments of the population suddenly seem to have been universalized. Instead of people carrying on only the traditions that distinguish their former class, they've been picking and choosing between those traditions that distinguish themselves and the country as Korean. Take the Hanbok --traditional Korean dress -- for example. The common hanbok worn by most people during formal occasions now is modeled after what the upper classes and rich wore during the Joseon dynasty. A majority of people couldn't afford clothes this fancy, and instead wore much plained cotton or hemp based clothes instead of the silk or imitation silk of the upper class designs. Farm music and royal court music has also been elevated to a reputable status and enjoyed by most people regardless of class.

The list goes on with these different cultural symbols, but most of these I think have been promoted by the media, education system, and individual Koreans themselves as defining qualities of Korean culture as they tried to define their country in the wake of the Japanese occupation and the quick modernization that took place after the civil war. An ethnographer writing during the 1980s described talking to Korean students in Seoul during the 1980s and telling them that she was studying Korean culture. The ethnographer said that overwhelmingly, these students asked what there really was of Korean culture to study. They felt, she said, that most of it had been destroyed between the occupation, the war, American influence, and their rapid development. At the same time though this was a period when people were beginning to rediscover traditional cultural practices perhaps out of anxiety over that lost past. In my school last year, everything remotely traditional and idiosyncratic was promoted to me as the legacy of "our nation." It'll be interesting to see what will continue to be practiced and evolve and what will be preserved as little more than nods to the past.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

My Two Teachers

In our classes its open season on almost any subject, granted that its discussed in Korean. Love, ettiquete, spicy food...our class has worked its way through discussions on all of life's many sacred and profane subjects subjects with the two teachers we meet with each week. As my Korean improves bit by bit with these teachers, I am actually becoming able to learn about Korea through Korean. No longer am I forced to always resort to "Do you like..." questions and deductive reasoning to guess at someones opinion. So as you can imagine, these two women have been at the center of most of my Korean-culture-learning experiences this semester. At the same time, these women are almost night and day.

Our Tuesday and Wednesday teacher grew up in Seoul and attended University there (a sign that she either studied pretty well or that her parents were pretty well connected). Overall I'd say that of the two she's better adjusted to foreigners and diverse opinions. And take her ideas on marriage: the other day in class she told us about her boyfriend, and we all raised an eyebrow at that. After insisting that she is not having an extramarital affair, she explained that its just what she calls her husband. Not even in the United States have I heard of anyone doing this. Her logic goes something like this though: whenever you call someone husband, it implies that you are going to serve them as a wife. They have a more equal relationship, share in housework, responsibilities, and he routinely makes her ramen, so it feels odd for her to call him her husband. While I am still not ruling out the possibility that this was just an elaborate story to cover up the accidental admission of having an affair, its bizzarro world for Korea any way you cut it.

And what a liberal opinion on drug use she has. When the foreign monk in our class admitted to doing drugs (before he became a monk), she didn't freak out. She asked a calm set of questions about American norms and then even gave the monk a concerned yet calm congratulations on quitting. She also had no reservations about going into 15 minute explanations when asked how to say things like: "I have to poop", "I have to pee", or "We made out." All of these conversations are performed at mind-bending speeds that many of us catch only in bits and flashes. They are also conversations where the teacher talks to herself for a majority of the time. But we've come to think of our questions as the slaloms that steer her.

Our Wednesday and Thursday teacher grew up in the country in the same general area as our school, in what I assume was a pretty traditional family. Despite teaching foreigners for some time she often seems thrown off by anything outside the pale of traditional Korean values. One of the American girls in my class recently started dating a Korean student two years younger than herself. After a long class discussion about age and dating with our class, our teacher took me aside, concerned, and asked if it really was normal for a girl to date a younger guy in America. After explaining that it often happened, she laughed and said "strange." And then there was the discussion about tattoos and the American man who tattooed his entire body to look like a lizard. She thought it wasn't unusual for Americans to do this and even flicked out her tongue like the lizard man himself had done on a talk show she had stumbled upon at some point in the recent past.

While presenting my essay on Pittsburgh in class a few weeks ago (that I've posted below) my teacher stopped after reading that my ancestors had come from Italy and Slovakia and said, "then you're not American." I told her that I am American and this is when she started getting confused. The other Americans and I tried explaining that if you are born in America you are considered American. Then our teacher said this must be true for Europeans, but not for Asians. She insisted that you are always Korean or always Japanese or always Chinese. At this point things got too complicated for us to say anything more than, most Americans think Asians that are born in the us are Americans too. I don't know if she bought it, but we gave her enough to be confused over America for the next few days.

I imagine its hard conceptualizing the diversity of America and our idea of American identity when you come from an country as ethnically homogeneous as Korea. And being in Korea this past year has made me realize what an odd country America is. We can have such a diverse population and while many people may feel they are not part of the American experience, I think that many of us share some basic common values in diversity and personal freedom. And all Americans, of course, like pizza and basketball I am told by a student down the hall. Which I guess makes my teacher correct, I must not be American then.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

First Essay in Korean

One of our Korean teachers requires that two students write an essay for class each week about whatever topic they want. I was lucky enough to be at the end of the list for this assignment, so I just turned it in last week. The essay needed lots of editing, but it nevertheless taught me a lot more about grammar and some basic sentence elements that I just hadn't needed to learn until attempting this essay. So, at the bottom of the post is the original Korean essay and above is my rough translation.

Pittsburgh: Steel City

When I ask Koreans, that wear my hometown baseball team's hat, if they know of Pittsburgh, they don't know. But, a few weeks ago, in the Nonsan Post Office, I happened to meet a man who knew a lot of things about Pittsburgh. Because my hometown is very small, I was really surprised that this man knew so many things about Pittsburgh. He knew that there were many steel mills and that the American music composer, Stephen Foster, was born there. Maybe that man can introduce Pittsburgh better than me, but anyways I will introduce it.

The French discovered Pittsburgh first, but the English conquered it in a war and founded the city. At that time the city was very important for trade and the military. After about 1820, the city started growing big. At this time, the city started making steel. And Pittsburgh's population quickly rose. Many foreigners came through the Steel mills to find work. Italy, Germany, Slovakia, Poland...many nations came! My ancestors came from Slovakia and Italy. Each ethnic group created their own neighborhood. Even today, there are still these kinds of neighborhoods. Each of these neighborhoods has diverse architecture. The South Side is a neighborhood with famous architecture. Each neighborhood has people, restaurants, and architecture that is a little bit different.

A long time ago, because Pittsburgh had a lot of factories, the air was really bad. So, when office workers would wear a white shirt to the office, at lunch the shirt would have changed to brown. Because other countries started making steel too, most of the mills in Pittsburgh have closed. Since the air has turned clear and the city clean, the city has received awards from magazines for it. Pittsburgh was also poor for a while, but now the economy's being restored and the city's becoming beautiful again. And because there are many universities and good hospitals, people have started moving to Pittsburgh again. So more good restaurants and music clubs are also opening.

If you come to America, take a trip to Pittsburgh!

피츠버그: 강철 도시

제 고향에 있는 야구팀모자를 쓴 한국사람한테 피츠버그를 알고 있냐고 물어보면 잘 몰라요. 그러나 몇주전에 논산 우체국에 갔을 때 피츠버그에 대해서 많은 것을 알고 있는 아저씨를 사귀게 됐어요. 제 고향을 아주 작기 때문에 그 분이 많은 것을 알고 있어서 정말 놀랐어요. 아저씨는 피츠버그에 강철공장이 많은 지도 아시고, 미국 음악가인 스데반 포스터가 태어난 곳인 지도 아셨어요. 어쩌면 그 분이 저보다 피츠버그 소개를 더 잘 할 수 있을 지도 모르겠지만 그래도 역시 제가 소개해야겠어요..

프랑스사람이 피츠버그를 처음으로 발견했는데, 전쟁으로 영국이 정복하여 도시를 차지하게 되었어요. 그 당시에는 군대와 무역을 위해 매우 중요했어요. 1880년쯤이 지난후에야 커지기 시작했어요. 이 기간에 강철을 만들기 시작했어요. 그리고 피츠버그인구가 빨리 늘어났어요. 많은 외국인들이 일자리를 찾아서 강철공장으로 왔어요. 이탈리아, 독일, 슬로바키아, 폴란드...많은나라에서 왔어요! 제 조상은 이탈리아와 슬로바키아에 왔어요. 인종마다 마을을 세워나갔어요. 요즘도, 이러한 마을들은 아직도 있어요. 마을마다 다양한 건축물들이 있어요. 건축물이 유명한 마을은 사우트 사이드예요. 이 마을에는 슬로바키아와 폴란드 사람들이 살면서 유럽풍의 건축물을 지었어요. 마을마다 사람들과 식당, 건축물들이 조금씩 달라요.

옛날의 피츠버그에는 공장이 많어서 공기 매우 나빴어요. 그래서 회사원이 하얀셔츠를 입고 직장에 가면 점심때는 갈색으로 변해있었어요. 요즘은 다른나라도 강철을 만들어서 피츠버그의 대부분의 공장들은 문을 닫았었어요. 공기가 맑아지고 깨끗한 도시가 되어서 잡지회사로부터 상금을 받았어요. 또 한 동안 피츠버그는 가난했지만 요즘은 경제가 다시 회복되어 가고 있고 아름다워졌어요. 그리고 대학교와 좋은병원이 많아져서 많은사람들이 다시 피츠버그로 이사오기 시작했 어요. 그래서 더 좋은 식당과 음악클럽과 커피숍이 문을 열었어요.

미국에 가면 피츠버그를 여행하십시오.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Jon stars in Back to School

Since graduating college, I've never stopped considering myself a student. I assumed that this self-branding would wear off with time and better things to think about, or whatever else makes us change our self-identity with age. But I just re-entered university to study Korean full-time, so this must extends my lease on the title, yeah?

Not that it matters, but its funny. I have an 18 year-old for a roommate and Korean friends who are at least three years younger than me.

About three weeks ago I started an intensive Korean language program at a tiny Cheontae Buddhist university called Geumgang University. Its almost the complete opposite of the environment at the University of Pittsburgh. Suddenly I've gone from an urban campus to one of the most rural campuses in Korea, a 17000+ student population to one less than 300, and a vibrant campus-life on the weekends to one that stops dead friday afternoon, as kids go off to the big cities.

But its an interesting situation. Everyone here gets a free ride, courtesy of the University. They specialize in language training, so there is a constant switch back and forth between Japanese, Chinese, English and Korean. And the environment here is amazing: built on the side of a national park famed for its "energy" this area is a hotbed for Korean shamanism. If a building isn't a farm here, its most likely a shamans house. Outside my window is a shamaness's house, and there's often pots and pans and drums being hit together as they carry out their ceremonies. Also on the other side of the mountain is the Korean equivalent to the pentagon, where they carry out trainings. So, when it isn't pans and drums being beat in the night there's the occasional sound of gun shells going off during rifle practice.

While I'm making it sound like this noisy and bizarre area, its really quite peaceful and one of the most beautiful areas I've been to in Korea. I have a constant view of the mountains, long stretches of green rice fields, some historically very important temples nearby, and wonderful hiking with trail heads right behind the school. I also brought a bike along with me when I came back to Korea, so its made for some awesome sightseeing along the country roads that wind back through these parts. I'll post some stuff about my trips thus far when I get some more time.

Oh yeah, and my mailing contact for the year will be this:
Jon Farinelli
Geumgang University-- dormitory room 309
14-9 Daemyeong-ri Sangwol-myeon, Nonsan City
Chungnam, Korea 320-931