Thursday, June 23, 2011

U-S-A! U-S-A! U-S-A!

We're here!  We're really here!

Okay.  I didn't kiss the ground when we arrived after our 14 hours in the air.  But I sure love being home in the US  for awhile.  After a year living in the Seoul area, eating primarily Korean food, and living on the 15th floor of an apartment, you might say there's a bit of culture shock.  So, first impressions back?

Everyone is so white, they all look the same.  No, really.  My family was cruising around the Madison square at the Farmer's Market with a few other hundred people (felt like the Seoul subway, it was so crowded).  Anyhow, I lost track of my family!  And I couldn't find them.  Everyone was the same height and had blond hair!  Now that hasn't happened for a long time.

The Farmer's Market was a kick.  It was our first outing and we wanted to try everything and we wanted it NOW!  We walked the square with my mother-in-law and father-in-law.  Tastes included: fresh garden sugar snap peas, pastries, and cheese curds.  We also couldn't pass up the tomatoes, mushrooms, and radishes.  Since then we've managed to have Culver's frozen yogurt, Benvenuto's Italian, mom's strawberry shortcake with fresh whipped cream, local lefsa, cheese, and sausage.  The list of foods never ends.
The drive?  Well, thank you to my parents for supplying us with wheels for our trip!  Getting behind the wheel of a car took me a few days because I first needed to replace my lost driver's license.  Initially, it was a bit weird sitting in the driver's seat, but now I feel comfortable.  Just "like riding a bike".  I've even been able to drive their manual with only killing it once!  The kids are re-adjusting to booster seats and mandatory seat belts.

The kids are rotting their brains with their old favorite television shows.  Thanks to a few rainy days, I think they are caught up on an entire year's worth of TV!  But might I say that this craze for reality TV stinks!  "16 and Pregnant"?  Really?  Do we really need to enter these poor people's lives?  The local news is fascinating, but I don't think I need 15 minutes of weather anymore.

Out - not up!  No need to look up, except to hope to catch some stars in the overcast night sky.  Now I'm enjoying endless corn fields with family farms tucked in here and there.  There's mile after mile of lush green countryside nestled between wooded hills.  Even walking for a few miles without another walker in sight.  That's Midwestern America, eh?  As you know, the Midwest experienced a harsh winter and a harsh spring with tornadoes and flooding.  So, it's no surprise that a few days ago we were under a tornado watch.  And, it has been raining for a few days.  Where's the hot weather and sunshine?

So, first week:  Focus on family and food.  What a joy!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I might seem weird. I'm sorry.

We're heading back to Wisconsin in a few days.  We're very excited.  It will be our first time back in 11 months.  My more experienced friends have been telling me what to expect.  It sounds like I might seem weird to you, due to culture shock and all.  So here's a list of the "Top 10 Weird Things I Might Do" so don't be surprised.

Top 10:

#10 - I might bow to people, instead of shaking a hand.
#9 - I might use two hands to take or give something to you.
#8 - I don't speak to strangers (not even small talk).  This includes cashiers and waiters.
#7 - I might get sensory overload hearing others conversations around me in English.  (It's easy to tune out people speaking a language you don't know).
#6 - I might look up a lot, expecting at least 6 stories to every building.
#5 - I won't know how to drive a car (sorry Mom and Dad, I'll do my best.)
#4 - I may stand closer to people and may bump into them without saying excuse me.
#3 - I might complain that sweet things taste "too sweet".
#2 - American dollars look like monopoly money to me.
and the number 1 weird thing I might do is. . .
#1 - I might say 'hello', 'goodbye' or 'thank you' in Korean!

Soon.  Very soon. . .

Thursday, June 9, 2011

The Home We've Created

I just finished reading my description of our apartment after we'd first moved in.  What fun to read my impressions of our apartment!  It mainly consisted of observations on space, color, furniture, and sounds.  I don't think I'd even think about some of those things anymore.  Yes, every appliance makes a unique sound, but I don't register these sounds much anymore.  Yes, an apartment is much smaller than a house, but the size suits us pretty well.  Yes the floors are all linoleum or laminate with no carpet, but I don't think much about that anymore.

I guess we've managed to turn a PLACE into a HOME.

First, we've managed to fill the place up.  Now, our apartment is so much more than a list of furniture.  Now it is home - a place filled with memories of people we know, things we've done and places we've gone.

Our apartment is in Suji-gu, Dongcheon-dong, in Dongmun GoodMorning Hill.  We're in o-pek-gu dong.  This is what we need to tell taxi drivers who bring us home.  We live many stories up on a 25 floor building amongst 14 buildings.  There are 5 playgrounds on our complex.  There are also two entrances and three guardhouses.  Very close by there is a walking and biking path that runs along a stream lined with beautiful flowers this time of year.

Our apartment is a three bedroom, 2 bath, with living room, kitchen, and sunroom with lots of windows. It's quite quiet at night when we sleep - surprisingly so.  But at night from around 8:30 - 10:30  children come out to play and we can hear them loud and clear even so many stories up.  (We still can't get over how late Korean kids stay up.)

Part of what makes it home is it now reflects US.  We've managed to add all sorts of furniture since we first arrived.  Some purchased, some hand-me-downs, some found at "free mart".  We've got a couch and recliner, 42" television, 2 book/curio shelves, coffee table, drawers, and three plants in our living room.  We've also got a sizable rug to cover the floor.  On the shelves are souvenirs we've accumulated throughout the year including knick knacks from India, China, the Philippines, Russia, and North and South Korea.  On the wall are masks, photos, fans, and a scroll, an decorative scroll with our name on it.

Venture into Anna's room and you'll see the STUFF that she has accumulated throughout the year.  Yes, some of it was purchased at the cheap stationery store nearby, some of it was created by her own hands, but most of it was the result of "dumpster diving."  She's got a shelving unit we found at the garbage; on it is an eclectic collection of junk ranging from a mug and teacup collection to various types of containers, to traditional vases worth $50.  She's also found us a nice umbrella holder!  She finds the most random things and rationalizes their "use" or "beauty".  Unless we force a clean up, it's usually a mess in there, so beware.

Our bedrooms consists of a bed, two closets, two chests of drawers, a built in desk and an office desk.  Our bedspread looks like a fuzzy tiger skin; we bought it from a street vendor for about $30.

The kitchen doesn't look much different than the day we arrived.  It is primarily white with silver appliances, small and functional with a small table and four chairs.  It's got a dishwasher and a big kitchen sink.  There's a still life painting of daisies on the wall near the table; we bought that from a street vendor last fall.  There's a red decorative fish hanging in the kitchen that we brought back from China after the Chinese New Year.  On the little window sill there's what's called a PeeBoy (also from China), a small teapot for brewing looseleaf tea, a teacup from China, and a little copper plaque that reads Vietnamese Restaurant (one of Anna's original creations).

Alec's room is neatly organized.  He's got two narrow shelving units, a bed, a small desk, and a black cushy floor chair.  He's managed to accrue some 300+ Pokeman cards, several stuff animals including one called Tigress who sings and wiggles her bottom around.  His dresser is just outside his room and contains lots of hand-me-downs inside while on top is a picture of Brett Favre as a Packer.   He's still got White Puppy (now a sickly gray), in case you wondered.

The furniture we began with - a couch and chair - are now in the "sunroom" overlooking the courtyard.  It's a nice airy place to do work or watch the world go by and listen to children playing.

We've got a clothes drying room, which replaces a dryer.  Clothes manage to dry in a day or two, which is nice.  The washing machine has its own little space.

Not all of the cupboards and storage spaces are full yet, so I guess that means we must need to come back for another year.  But in the meantime, we'll be saying Anyunghekaysayeo (good bye) to our HOME in about 1 week.

Hope to see many of our US friends and family soon! And thank you in advance for sharing your homes with us!

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Hooray for Portfolios!

If you aren't an educator, you may not be interested in this post.  If you ARE an educator, you might be.  If you are a parent, you SHOULD be!

I've just completed reading 29 senior portfolios for semester 2.  As always, it was a time-consuming activity but definitely worth it.  I always come away feeling fulfilled as an educator when I'm done reading portfolios.  Why is that?  Because of the reflection process.  So rarely in education do we ask students to reflect on themselves and their learning.  An educationally sound portfolio stresses reflection, however, and that is one of its greatest contributions to our students' learning.

Let me do my OWN reflecting here. . . .

For twelve years now I've fully engaged in the portfolio process.  For most of those years it was with seniors who were okay students or who struggled in English/Language Arts.  All that time I maintained that using portfolio assessment in the classroom would be beneficial to ANY student, no matter what the skill level.  This year my gut instincts were validated.

To me portfolio assessment  has meant these four core components: collection, selection, reflection, and projection (goal setting).  It has also meant fully engaging in the writing process and reducing (or eliminating) the emphasis on traditional grades.  At points it has also meant conferencing with parents and students to arrive at a final grade.  This year, specifically, it has included an emphasis on
  • the writing process, including careful planning and brainstorming, writing, and peer and teacher review and revision opportunities
  • heavy discussions of texts prior to writing
  • written reflection on oneself as a reader and as a writer at the end of the term
  • goal setting before the term and evaluation of previous goals after the term.
All (or nearly all) of my students from AP Literature will be attending university next fall.  They are going to places like Northwestern, Wellesley, University of Chicago and Princeton.  They are students who came in with strong abilities to read critically, think critically, write well-organized essays, and express themselves confidently in class.  They had already tackled some pretty difficult literature and certainly knew their way around technology (being at a 1-1 school).  Frankly, I was amazed at their initial abilities to discuss our summer reading After Dark, by Haruki Murakami.  I didn't think they had far to go to be ready for college (or the AP exam).  But even these stellar young people reflected on their learning and growth through their portfolios and the revision process.  You may be interested in the results.

The exciting thing here is that through full engagement in the writing process and the portfolio assessment process, these skilled and talented young people grew as readers and writers.  Surprisingly, many of them felt they hadn't had much opportunity for revision and polish in previous classes.  (Are we still too consumed with pounding them with assignments, slapping on grades and moving on?)   Many students reflected on the value of class discussion (or wiki discussion) in helping them see a text through a variety of perspectives.  This, in turn, let to greater depth of thought.   They valued peer and teacher evaluations and comments, taking them to heart in subsequent revisions.  Without revisions, what good would the comments have done?  I credit the revision process with helping them to grow to the next step.

That is voice.  Many students reflected on how they had gained their VOICE as writers.  To me this is a very advanced stage of writing.  It only truly comes after mastering the basics (organization, support, strong thesis, critical thinking).  It is also the one thing that most of the students LACKED when they entered the class in the fall.  Even more surprising, VOICE is not something we discussed very much in class.  I don't even remember using the term very often.  And yet, it happened.  Once students felt confident in their writing skills, they were able to tackle the nuances of writing like voice and style.  I would confirm their intuition on this point.

Another aspect I found interesting had to do with creative writing.  I'd like to give a shout out to the vast benefits of allowing students to write creatively from time to time, even in an AP Lit class that seems to need to focus on analytic writing.  First, the students appreciated being able to USE their knowledge of how poetry works by trying it out themselves - exploring, playing with words and sounds, learning how to find just the right word at just the right time, seeking the right image or emotion, creating tone - all these things were freeing for them.  It also helped them to explore and find their VOICE!

Aha!  The pieces begin to fit together.  In addition to writing a bit of poetry, we ended the year with short story writing.  We'd just finished watching and discussing the movie Inception.  I modeled for them my own process (I love doing that).  I asked their advice for wording, holes in the plot or characterization, and how my story should end.  They then worked on their own "Inception-like" short story.  A challenge, to be sure.  For several of these students this was their first time writing a short story.  I couldn't believe that!  How could you go all through high school (maybe even middle school and high school) and not write a short story?  Again, they experienced their epiphanies.  They liked the freedom of the topic and the structure;  they liked the challenge to take risks and be creative!  They enjoyed tapping into that side of themselves at the conclusion of their senior year.  And, guess what?  So many of them credited this experience in helping to further develop their VOICEs.

For me, I see more clearly how allowing students to explore a variety of writing (and reading) genres helps to move them from mechanical drones who all sound alike, to interesting writers who enjoy what they are doing, understand their strengths and weaknesses and who ultimately find their VOICEs.

Additionally, I was surprised at how many of the students were worried that college writing or literature classes might stifle their newly found voices.  Their perception is that college classes will want to stuff them back into that cookie cutter mold where they sound like everyone else.  I assured them this wasn't so - that they would only be encouraged to continue growing and discovering their individual voice and style.  (So if you are a college professor, please don't squelch them!)  Several of the students would like to start blogs just to continue refining their VOICE.

Finally, let me comment on another mature insight on the part of many of these graduating AP Literature seniors.  They must write in a way that connects to their readers.  Perhaps because they HAD readers who commented on their work, they became aware how important writing TO an audience truly is.   On some level it seems obvious - "of course you are writing for an audience!  everyone knows that!" - but in practice, this is often not the case.  Novice (even intermediate) writers only think of themselves; they have difficulty stepping away from the piece and wondering if it will maintain the interest of their audience or speak to them in some provocative way.  But many of these students got there.  They not only understand it, they KNOW it.  Amazing!

So. . . Hooray for portfolios!  Even in a class that seemingly has its goal as passing a standardized test, portfolios still won the day!