Summer “Camp”

(Mike here)

It’s late July in Mokpo, which means that, like The States, it’s summer camp season. American summer camp conjures up pictures of canoeing on a wilderness lake, making macrame potholders with teenage counselors and trying to sleep in bug-infested cabins. As usual, Korea has a different idea about these things.

First, a few things about Korea’s summer break. It’s no big drag-it-out affair like America’s big summer break; it’s a scant five weeks long. And the kids don’t really stop studying, or get much of a chance to goof off like US kids do. Most attend private academies (hagwans), and don’t stop studying just because the schools close. Many wealthier Koreans send their kids away to immersion camps in Seoul, the Philippines, or other exotic locations.

But not all kids can afford airfare, or the hagwans either, which is where the public school ‘camps’ come into play. For a few weeks, the native teachers pitch in and teach courses that aren’t as structured as the curriculum, and don’t follow the national guidelines. Things get relaxed and fun during summer camps; many native teachers show movies or teach sports and play games during the camp.

I’m not doing anything that fancy; I’m planning out the curriculum with my co-teacher, who will be with me in the classroom for the first two weeks of camp. So I’m keeping things simple – we’re teaching them about the countries of Europe, the wildlife of Minnesota, and folk tales. I’ll be teaching them Jack and the Beanstalk, and the folk song “Keep on the Sunny Side.” As a follow-up, let me just say that Korean fifth graders are about as interested in folk music as American fifth graders, which is to say, they like pop music better, though they were polite enough to listen to me and the old-time music.

(Akasha here) I’m having a blast at camp with my 5th and 6th graders right now.  I got to plan the whole enchilada.  I made posters and recruited kids, drafted a sample schedule full of activities to lure them in, and spent 2 months planning this horse and buggy show.  I was informed the day before camp started that there was no budget.  ( I unhappily changed the activities I had planned, science stayed, cooking was aborted.)

I have the fifth and 6th graders I’ve taught for 4 months. I teach four 40 minute sessions from 9:30- 12:40. The last two weeks I will have two groups of 3rd and fourth graders I’ve only seen in the cafeteria.   I split the 3s and 4s into a low group and a high group  based on homeroom referrals and I will see them for two periods each.

I had a blast planning camp and I am happy to report that my intermediate kids are having fun.  Most show up 40 minutes early and stay late to help me get ready for the next day.  My kids love K-pop, so the first week we reviewed the elements of K-pop and English pop , then I had them make a pop group, write a song, and make a video.  They rocked!  They came in early and stayed late getting extra help.  I’m so proud of them.    We also made cereal box guitars, straw flutes, and mixing bowl drums.  I focused on academic terms like “tension, pitch, and volume” and they rocked it out.  (This was my rebellion to their anesthetizingly boring curriculum) We also had a 40 minute session on pirates every day.  Anytime you can slay your students you’re bound to teach them something.

Week two is super busy.  I am starting each morning with states of matter.  We will be changing states and reacting by making ice cream, ooblech, and exploding things.  We are going to use our adjectives and comparatives to study the solar system. I’m going to torture them with Jig-saw reading activities and reward them by having them act out a  working model with balloons.  I think the kid I named Mike is going to spin until he pukes.  They are also going to create their own super heros/ villains and Gotham city. I can’t wait to assign them hero/ villain status.  Friday will be had bitter sweet day as we have a hero/ villain show down and a solar system scavenger hunt, then I say “good-bye” until August 29th.  Then I will repeat selected lessons with the 3rd and 4th graders.

Classroom management:

I  give a sticker every time they speak English.  I take one away if they speak Korean without prior authorization.

10 stickers = 1 simple prize (cartoon stickers, glitter pen, balloon)

20 stickers = one good prize (modeling clay, squirt gun, bubbles)

60 stickers = water balloon fight with the teacher

(I told them that >60 stickers and they will clean the room during the waterballoon fight)

The kid with the most stickers gets to use my super soaker in aforementioned fight

Our Korean teacher’s daughter is one of my 5th graders.  Her English is off the charts. She earned 33 stickers in 3 days.


Korean identity is very important to the staff and students.  They only take English names during camp.   So I named them after our friends.  I wrote names on the board and let them pick.  My top student is Maggie.  The kids in the video are Mike, Katie, Heather, Meagan, Carrie, David, and Jenni 🙂


This awesome camper chose the name “Ariana.”  She’s classy.

Side note- I am getting so spoiled by planning everything myself and getting to make my own rules, it may be hard to go back to co-teaching.  I love my co-teacher, he is a great guy, but we differ on a few core values.  He thinks adults shouldn’t interfere in kid society.  Kids here hit each other, A LOT!  I don’t care for it, but I am not allowed to stop it during the school year.  At camp we play by U.S. rules and there is no hitting.  If you hit someone I make you run a lap around the track (it’s next to my class.)  I’ve had two girls run laps so far.  Hitting is down to an all time low.  I love it.

Museum Day!

It’s days like Friday that make me really love my school.  I know, it’s the end of the semester, I won’t see most of my students for a month, but they are awesome people and if you met them you would understand why they merit this run on sentence.   Friday we had a visit from a traveling museum.  It was amazing.   All my classes were cancelled and Benji, my co-teacher and I decided to drop in to the exhibitions and visit with our kids.

sixth graders in tea ceremony

So here is how it broke down:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

My classroom became a Korean calligraphy classroom.  I sat in with a class fifth graders and learned how to create K-style calligraphy.  I folded the paper and wrote the names of my family members and their titles.  Totally wowed my kids by knowing how to write in their language.

The art room became an exhibit on how to make tie dyed scarves.  I love that in the photos you  can see the kids jumping off the tables.  Kids are assumed to be more disciplined here, but they are kids and jumping on and off furniture all the time.

The gym became an art museum.  There were paintings, sculptures, photos, and fossils.  Curators took the kids around and helped them.  It was nice, because they could still be bouncy, noisy elementary kids, but they got to see cool regional art.

A sixth grade room was a green tea exhibit where women in traditional clothes taught the kids how to have a tea ceremony.  They saw Benji and looking around and gave us a private lesson on tea ceremonies in front of the 6th graders.  The girls took my camera and took a million  photos.

1st grade was taught about the local fossil digs and how fossils are made and found.

The science lab, I know our elementary has a huge lab with refrigerated chemicals and a separate storage for other tools I’ve never seen in a K-6 school, was turned into a class on how to make traditional soaps.  Kids made glycerine and sea salt soap with orange oil.  That floor smelled awesome.

It was a great day to learn more about Korea and to develop relationships with my students.

After school we went for the end of the semester teacher’s dinner  mentioned in the previous post.  The fish dinner was great, as was the view of the bay and the new suspension bridge.

It is hard to top a weekend so cool.  Remind me to tell you about Saturday’s day trip to the Muan White Lotus festival soon…

A different day in the life

So I begin my day by walking Mike past our friend Kelly’s school, to his school,where I don’t kiss him good-bye (cause opposite sex people don’t kiss in public here),  then cross a super busy street and walk “through” a mountain past the fields and orchards,  past two abandoned houses, and down a city street to my school.

I enter on the kinddegarten side of the building.  I’m still amused by the building configurations.  One building is kindergarten and 1st grade  on 1st floor, 4th and 5th on second, and 6th grade on the 3rd floor.   My building has Administration, broadcast, and English on 1st floor, 2nd and 3rd on 4th floor, and  Special ed and library together.  There is a newer, third building, for the gym and cafeteria.

I get to school and put my shoes in the cubby marked “English teacher,” and I walk to class.  I teach a class or two, then when we have a break between classes we go and bow to the principal, vice principal, and anyone in the “teacher’s office,” finally we go to bow to the administrators.  There are three administrators that take care of the finances and ordering of the school.  At home they would be in the superintendent’s office.  There is no secretary.  There is a school assistant and the school “nurse teacher,” sometimes they answer the phone.  The rest of the administrative duties that would be done by the principal’s secretary and office staff get done by the general teaching staff.  (more on this later) Nurse teacher is the school nurse and health teacher.  She teaches sex-ed, smoking prevention, and other “awkward” classes.

Like Mike, I teach 22 40 minute classes a week.  I teach kindergarten,  5th and 6th grade.  There are constant schedule changes.  I have worked my assigned schedule one week in the 3 months we’ve been here.  All other weeks classes have been cancelled or rearranged.  We teach out of the national curriculum. Lesson one is always listening activities and introducing vocabulary.  Lesson two is speaking activities.  Lesson three focuses on reading and lesson four focuses on writing.  It is still mainly just copying sentences into a d’nealian print form.     I co-teach with a great guy named Benji.  We try to to teach using the 50/50 model and we have a pretty good relationship.

I teach until lunch time.  At lunch time the English department (3 of us) meet in our office, walk to the cafeteria and wash our hands, then butt to the head of the line for lunch.  Everyday we have a large pile of rice, usually with  beans or grains in it, a few types of kimchi, and some broth based soup.  There is often a piece of fresh fruit, sometimes a few pieces of fish or chicken.  The meat/ chicken is always an “odd cut” of meat with bones and skin.  After 3 months, I am still a novelty and the students wave and call out to me trying to get me to look up and call back. We eat with metal chopsticks and a spoon.  Meat is served “on the bone” you eat it with chopsticks and discard the bone on the tray when you are done.

After lunch I take a stroll around the garden and chat with kids on their break.  A group of kids comes to”clean” my classroom.   I play k-pop for them and chill out as I make sure that they are “cleaning” the room.  Usually they push the dust around.  Kids are responsible for cleaning the whole building.  You can imagine how well they do.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I then go and teach whatever classes I have left.  I have 2 hours between the end of classes and the end of my contract day to prep, but there are always extra things popping up along the way.  On Wednesdays we go to the gym at 3 and play volleyball.  This is very big among all the elementary schools in my city.  My co-teacher stays after school to practice until 7 pm every night!  There are snacks during volleyball, the overall goal is to develop and maintain harmony amongst the staff.  I don’t play volley ball, but I chill out, cheer, and have fun.  If I’m back logged on planning I’ll just stop by for a few minutes, then pop back to my desk.

The kids stay around the building until 5 or so working on projects and playing games.  The soccer team practices outside my window until after 5 every day.  They are some of my brightest, funniest students.  I love our chats through the window everyday.  They are amazing boys.

We also have a staff dinner every month.  Some foreigners dread this, but I like it.  My co-workers are friendly and we work to piece together a conversation.  I like Korean food, and don’t mind spending a few hours after work with them.  This week we went to a fancy restaurant in the Shinan Beach Hotel to celebrate the end of the semester.  There are several rituals that are involved in these dinners that I am constantly trying to get right, but still am a little clunky at.  After we’ve eaten we all take turns going to pour drinks for the principal, v.p. and admin.  Each shot you pour gets reciprocated.  There is an order to who is served first and who eats first.  I’m okay at the obvious stuff, but the nuances are too much for me.

I’ve enjoyed these first few months.  This summer the kids go on vacation, Mike and I will teach four weeks of “English Camp,” then have a short break ourselves.  Who knows what second semester will hold.  I hope to write about the differences in schools overall soon.  There are some seriously huge differences in how schools function that I think are very interesting.