Sunday, August 28, 2011

Something fulfilling. . .

More than 2900 North Korean refugees came to South Korea in 2009.

When we began attending our church in Korea last year, I was so impressed to learn that they had mission work teaching English at a refugee center for North Korean women.   All year long I toyed with joining the group that teaches, but I never did go.

This year, as soon as I returned to Korea, I decided to give it a go.  I figured if I really loved it, I could make a regular commitment to it for the year, but I didn't know if I would.

The Center is an hour and a half drive to a community south of us.  As the six of us headed out from the church, I wondered what the night would be like.  I only knew that the number of people to attend is always a mystery, that we would teach a few simple action verbs, sing a few songs, and speak a simple Greetings dialog for about an hour.

It's hard to bring to life the experience.  At the appointed hour about 25 women and 3 young boys entered the lecture hall.  Most of the women were smaller in stature, smiling, bowing, and excited to be there.  The energy in the room was palpable.  The ladies sat in the closest rows.  For some women this was their first lesson as they had arrived within the 2 weeks since the last session.  For others their three months in the refugee center were almost over, and this would be their last lesson before venturing out on their own to a society so different from their homeland.

The ladies were EAGER to learn - so eager to repeat everything we said.  We practiced introductions, first going through a brief dialog.  Then the 5 of us fanned out and spoke personally to as many women as we could in a few minutes' time.  A few were outgoing and others were shy and uncertain of their pronunciation.  We spent extra time trying to help them hear and say the difference between "work" and "walk".  At one point I became the demonstrator of verbs, pantomiming eat, run, walk, jump,  and dance, among others.  This brought me right back to my early days of teaching beginning French.  I have no qualms looking silly in order to make learning a language fun.  It was amazing hearing the ladies and the children laugh at my antics as they repeated the words and tried the actions themselves.

As the time neared the end, Patricia taught the ladies a song refrain about finding empowerment.  The ladies were happy to stand and sing.  They listened quietly as Jacob prayed for their safely, transition, and friends and family left behind.  Our teenage translator did a great job translating the prayer.

At the end of the hour, people filed out slowly, being sure to say thank you while shaking our hands or bowing.  I amazes me to think what their lives must have been like and what drove them to leave their homeland.  It seemed paradoxical: how could women who have experienced such pain show such obvious joy?

Needless to say - I'm hooked.  I've been inspired to work out some upcoming lessons to use.  Perhaps I'll let you all know how it works out.  Now I'm counting down the days until I can return.  As Patricia says, "It's more about showing them love and compassion than it is about teaching English," though I hope we managed to do both.

May God Bless each woman and her loved ones.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Risk-taking 101

I had a nice conversation with my students the other day.  I was trying to make a point.  I placed two statements on opposite ends of the board: No success without failure first AND Failure is not an option.  Then I asked them to stand somewhere on the imaginary continuum between the two statements on the board.  Which philosophy most matched their own or were they in the gray area?  Most aligned themselves with the first statement.  Many stood in the middle.  A few brave souls stood on the "Failure is not an option" end.  From there we divided ourselves in two groups to have a short debate.   Students on the side of "No success without failure first" discussed how allowing for failure made them less stressed and willing to try things in order to improve.  They felt it led to a more perseverant attitude.  Those on the side of "Failure is not an option" felt that by aiming high they would achieve more, accomplish more, or have a better chance of winning.  In the end the students explored the idea fairly well.

When the conversation was over, I tried to make a few points of my own.

1) In order for good communication in arguments of this nature (or any "discussions", for that matter), it is good to define terminology clearly.  For YOU what does "failure" or "success" mean, for example.  Once each side has clearly defined the terms as they understand them, communication can be improved.  We can even agree to disagree in a civil manner.

2) I've seen people get paralyzed by a "failure is not an option attitude."  I don't want my students to get paralyzed or fail to attempt new things because they worry they can't achieve them on the first attempt.  In my classroom, it is okay to fall down.  Just get back up and try again.

3) The way I see it, one must be willing to take risks in order to be creative or innovative.  And the world needs a lot of up-and-coming innovators.  My students are just a few short years away from being the ones to take on some of these big issues.  They've got to be able to come up with brand new solutions to brand new issues that face the world today.  And while they may feel that in the end "failure is not an option", they must also know that sometimes success only comes after countless failures.

I hope this sets the tone for the class.  I hope my students become bigger risk-takers in their speaking, writing, and thinking.  I hope they seek quality achievement but only after adequate exploration and discovery.  I hope they aim BIG!  They are OUR hope, after all!

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Fresh Start

One of the things I like best about being an educator is that we get to experience beginnings and endings each year.  The work is cyclical.  Begin in fall, finish a semester in winter and begin a new one, then finish again in Spring.  I love getting to know a new group of strangers each fall, getting to know them (quirks and gifts and all) and seeing them off in the spring.

New staff arrive each year.  This year at my school there are 13 new staff.  Each person brings his or her gifts and expertise (or inexperience) to the table.  At any rate, I enjoy making new friends, mentoring, and learning new tricks of the trade from new colleagues each year.  This year I have a new co-teacher of American Lit.  We've already met a few times to flesh out our vision of the course and the first unit and opening days.  It's fun negotiating these new waters and learning each other's strengths and what philosophies we hold in common.  I'll learn from him and he'll learn from me, and in the end both we and our students will be better for it.

At the beginning of the year the building itself holds new appeal.  You can usually expect that the floors have been waxed and carpets cleaned. . . maybe something received a fresh coat of paint.  In our case, we're coming back to a brand new weight-room facility that was built over the summer.  That, and several meeting rooms created from what had been large, open spaces in one of our buildings.  So the campus has received a bit of a face lift.  All the old student work comes off my wall in the Spring making way for new student work and inspiration to take its place.

The beginning of the school year also marks the opportunity to simply START OVER.  Whatever I didn't like last year I can DO OVER.  A bit of reflection after a unit or a year completed helps me to realize which things WORKED in the classroom and which ones DIDN'T.  If I had a particularly difficult group to work with, here's a fresh start.  If I had a particularly difficult schedule, here's a fresh start.  If I had a rough ending to a year, here's a fresh start.  And even if I just completed a magnificent year of teaching (as is the case with last year), I still have a fresh start - a new beginning. . . and it feels good!