Contrast and Connections

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I come up with the idea for most of my blog posts while laying in bed trying to sleep. Something about the lack of responsibility, the lack of focus, frees my mind to wander and make connections. And writing is all about making connections. So here’s some connecting.

This is an example of something that happens often. I’m teaching a fifth grade class. We finish a reading activity and I check the answers. I toss out a ball. Whoever it lands near answers the question. That person then throws the ball to whoever they want for the next question, and so on.

In Korea, students often stand when they answer. The ball comes to this kid. He stands. I say, “Read the answer for #4, please.” But the kid just stands there doing nothing.

I think to myself, “Not this again, dammit.” He’s not being disrespectful because he’s standing at attention and looking right at me. He’s just doing nothing.

Mouth slightly ajar. Eyes wide. Always those two things.

I ask, “Do you have the answer?” I wait for a while. Nothing. The class doesn’t start to snicker the way they would if this was something strange.

“If you don’t have the answer, it’s okay.” Nothing. He doesn’t try to give an answer, he doesn’t tell me that he didn’t finish, he doesn’t even say something in Korean to my co teacher. He just stands there.

“Is there a problem?” He’s like a UFC fighter curled up in a ball at the end of the round, eating elbows to the head and waiting for the damn bell to ring.

This happens a lot with many different students, and I have no idea what to do about it. I just want to move the class forward, but they won’t respond to my questions, they won’t seek help, they won’t do anything. I thought it only happened when they try to speak English, but recently I’ve seen it happen when my co teacher is speaking Korean.

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This started happening more often recently because I’m trying to change the way I teach at my school and the change is not working. I think it’s clashing with how the students are trained to learn. That’s frustrating as a teacher, but fascinating as a writer. I’m conflicted.

I’m trying to change the way I teach because some of the private schools are producing kids that speak English very well, but the public schools are not. I think it’s because of the English curriculum the public schools use.

The chapters in our books are are based on single phrases. Just looking at the sixth grade book now, we have “He has short, curly hair and big, brown eyes,” “I want to be a doctor,” “I want to feed the pigs,” and so on. Every chapter has a page for listening, speaking, reading, writing, and then a review game.

The structure is great. The problem is the execution. “I want to feed the pigs,” is the exact phrase they hear at the start of the chapter in the listening section. In the speaking section they practice scripted conversations that all revolve around “I want to feed the pigs.” And so on, up through the test where they get questions like, “I ____ __ feed the pigs.” They get about four alternatives they can swap out, like “I want to play soccer,” and “I want to eat kimbap.” But they’re still just memorizing phrases instead of learning the building blocks of English.

It would be like a math class that only teaches two plus two equals four. You watch a video where characters are in a situation which shows that two plus two equals four. You do worksheets with different word problems to demonstrate how two plus two equals four. You then take a test where you have to solve for “Y” in the equations “Y+2=4,” “2+Y=4,” and the grand finale, “2+2=Y.”

You’ll never forget what two plus two equals, but you sure as hell can’t do math.

This is why Korean students study English for over a decade in the public school, but can’t speak the language. (Source #1) (Source #2)

Now I’m trying to teach creative use of English with vocab and grammar the kids already know, just like I was trained to do in LA. But it’s not working. Most of them freeze up like I described unless they are absolutely certain of their answer. They aren’t willing to take a chance.

I can only guess at why this happens, so here’s my guess. I see culture as a set of slider scales. Like the kind you have on your phone. Slide the scale between full volume and no volume. Full brightness and no brightness. Except in culture it’s full formality and low formality. Full individualism and low individualism. We’ve all got a bit of everything, but we sit at different places on the scale.

I have no idea if this is accurate. I’ve read zero sources. But I’ve done some travelling and I met a ton of people from a ton of cultures when I was teaching English in LA. I can only say what I see, and so far it matches what I see.

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My best guess is that these freeze ups happen because Korea is pretty close to full power on the “mistake stigma” scale. They often have a very clear, right way to do things and there is no room for variation. I talked a lot more about this in a previous post.

The book’s questions are very clearly right or wrong. When I call on a student they are either sure they have it or sure they don’t. No need for hesitation. But the freeze ups are happening more often now because introducing creative language brings a range of color into what was once black or white.

We need perspective to understand anything about culture. So here’s an example from someone at the polar opposite side of the scale.

Back at the language school in LA, I liked to start new classes with “hotseat,” my favorite speaking activity. It’s simple. One person sits in a chair at the front of the room. The “hotseat.” I set a timer for three minutes. When I say go, anyone can ask the person in the hotseat whatever they want. I just tell them to play nice.

Most of my students in LA were about eighteen to twenty-five, and they were from all over the world. This example comes from an elective class for high level students, which means they were mostly European.

I think I can remember the nationalities of everyone in that class. We had a few French speakers from Belgium and France, as well as a Flemish speaker from Belgium. There were three or four German speakers from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. We had a two Norwegians. One Czech. Two Japanese. One Vietnamese. One Taiwanese.  One Peruvian and one Venezuelan.

One of the girls from Austria went to the hotseat first. Then a girl from Belgium. Then the lady from Vietnam. This class was almost entirely female. Maybe that’s why I remember it so well.

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The activity went smoothly. Questions were clear and answers were satisfactory.

“Where are you from?”

“Austria.”

“Do you like it?”

“Yes.”

“What’s good about Austria.”

”It’s beautiful. And the people are nice.”

And so on. Typically the first couple questions would come quickly. Then as the three minutes went on, questions would slow down and the person in the hotseat would sit in silence, waiting for someone to raise their hand.

Eventually the girl from Venezuela came to the hotseat. She was from the lowest level homeroom in this elective class. But you wouldn’t have guessed it by watching.

“Do you like Venezuela?”

That was the only question asked. She spoke to us about Venezuela for the entire three minutes. She said she really loves her country. She said every neighborhood becomes like a family. She told us about the time when her neighbor’s little boy got sick and everyone in the community came out to help him. How one family would take care of him while the mom went to work and how another family knew a doctor that could help him and so on. She would stop every so often to see if there were questions, but when she saw there weren’t she would happily go on talking about her country.

When she finished, a few people laughed. They weren’t laughing at her, I don’t think. It was just so obviously different that they couldn’t help laughing.

When she returned to her seat, I said, “That was some culture right there. Did you see it?”

That was not simply a talkative person, I told them. I had been teaching there for long enough and seen hundreds of students from around the world come and go. That wasn’t just a single talkative person, that was culture. That was an entirely different way of having a conversation.

It made me think of all the times I had gotten a new class and scanned the nationalities on my roster to determine what kind of conversations my class would respond to. If it was all European and Asian, there was a good chance I needed more structured conversation activities. But if there were Latin Americans in the class, they would get the ball rolling if I used more open-ended conversation activities. They were good at navigating those shades of color in a conversation that  is not black and white.

I didn’t do this when I first started teaching there. At first I thought, as many Americans do, that every individual is a unique snowflake. As if culture doesn’t even exist. Also when I first started teaching there, I almost lost my job multiple times because so many European students hated my class.

Over time, I learned to change my class’s conversation style to fit the ways different cultures communicate. It was a survival technique. I used it because it worked. Not every time, but often enough.

The early American immigrants came from Europe, and therefore we often think we are more connected to Europe. But I always found conversing with the Latin Americans more comfortable. I knew how to read their social queues and they knew how to read mine. I bet if I were teaching fifth graders in Colombia right now, I would not have students freezing up all the time. If they were uncertain, they would give it a try rather than awkwardly standing in silence.

As I’ve said before, one of the greatest benefits of travel is learning about your own culture by contrasting it with the culture you’re travelling in. There is something distinct about the way Americans talk and interact with each other. And I mean “America” in the big sense here, from the top of Canada down to the tip of Chile. We don’t care for formality and we’d rather look stupid than boring. If we’re not sure of something, we’ll still give it a shot. Who cares. We respect the effort and forgive the outcome.

And this may be a stretch, but I’m feeling fanciful. If all that’s true, then maybe there is a sense in which this is still the land of freedom. Freedom to express yourself in a different way. Freedom to make an attempt, even if it turns out to be wrong.

And if it isn’t true, at least I didn’t freeze up and say nothing at all.