Dayjobs

At the university I teach the students to speak and write.

The conversation classes are the ESL equivalent of a factory line: the students face each other in two rows and drill common grammar forms into each other’s heads, switching places when they finish, the student at the front moving to the back and the rest of the students in the row moving down, while the students in the opposite row stay still. A large projection screen displays the sentence forms that the students have to practice, and alternating pictures ensure that the conversation always stays fresh.

Thanks to this method they spend almost the entirety of their forty minutes in class practicing and speaking rather than listening to a dull lecture they can’t understand. This design is my own, and though it can be boring I feel like it works fairly well. Many of the students choose to come back for more. I would also appreciate it if the tables were turned, and I was among them, learning Korean in this way and doing my best to get the language to stick in my brain. It gives them confidence, too. The more people you talk to, the better you feel about your linguistic abilities.

This is the final result of honing down months of lesson plans. In the beginning I lectured them, waited for what seemed like hours for them to answer questions (while half the class was yawning), and then I tried to get them to play games together, wasting reams of paper on unnecessary sheets that sometimes took hours to draw. At last I stood them up and had them move around the classroom, but thanks to their habitual shyness they had trouble finding partners, and I had to constantly run around and match them up and yell at them if they just stood by themselves and stared at the floor (which was often). Lining them up in rows ensures that they always have someone to talk to. Then there was also an issue of finding something for them to say. Left to themselves, they would repeat the exact same phrases over and over again for an hour. I went with my friends. It was fun because I liked it. I took a taxi. But by projecting pictures onto the wall and suggesting verbs for them to use on a whiteboard, I can keep them from falling into this incredible dull trap, changing the context each time they get a new partner, forcing them to use new words and patterns, and warning them if they keep repeating the exact same crap. This factory method works.

The writing classes are not born out of the same trial and error, but almost all of the materials and plans I use come from seasoned veterans who are also teaching the same courses. The most surprising thing about these classes is that they seem to be more about teaching people to think logically and critically, to support arguments with facts: most of the students who take them already have a strong grasp of how the English language functions. But so far as I understand it, when the typical Korean student enters college, he has not written a single paper on any subject, ever. They spend their time in high school preparing for multiple-choice exams, so when we first ask the students to write paragraphs, they give us bulleted lists. When we first ask them to support their arguments with evidence, they say things like, “It is good because everyone likes it.” There is little to no organization. They just vomit out whatever they think of. But largely thanks to the experience of the other professors—who each week pump out powerpoints and presentations going through specific genres of papers (opinion papers, comparison papers, biographical papers) sentence by sentence—by the time the vast majority of them leave these courses they’ve come to understand that pulling random shit out of their asses will only get them failing grades. Though this university may not have the best reputation in the country—a reputation not helped by the president getting caught exaggerating the job enrollment numbers of graduating students—almost every student I have encountered takes learning seriously, and I think that they really get something out of the time that they spend with me. I, at least, generally enjoy spending time with them. To lecture a class of sixteen college students, and to feel like you’re doing it well, is more satisfying than planting flowers and significantly more pleasant than washing dishes.

So much for the university. I’m working two jobs at the moment—as well as writing a trilogy of autobiographical novels and raising a toddler in a strange foreign country—and the second job involves visiting individual children, mostly in their homes, and either teaching them to read and write or encouraging them to expand on the impressive linguistic abilities they already possess.

Two of these kids are fairly illiterate. They were completely illiterate when we started at least six months ago, and through a great deal of patient work, for an hour a week, I’ve at least managed to get them to remember the names and (most of) the sounds of the alphabet. But in Korea it seems like kids learn to read by memorizing entire words rather than the sounds of letters and the ways in which they interact, which means that one student can read me an entire paper that she’s committed to memory but then can’t even sound out the words “How are you?” if I spontaneously write them down for her. This one is in kindergarten and easily distracted. The other may have a learning disability. His face is curiously impassive. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him smile or frown, and he speaks only in a very faint, toneless whisper, even in Korean. I’ve expressed concerns to my wife that their parents are not getting their money’s worth and that they should get themselves a Korean teacher to nail down the basics—because most Korean kids can read English fairly well by the time they finish elementary school here—but their parents are aware of my concerns and seem tor prefer that I keep on chipping away at their kids, who are progressing very, very slowly. One hour with them takes about as long as five or six hours spent writing for pleasure, or two hours in the university.

Some of the other kids I work with are brilliant. One of them just started middle school, and he’s a better writer and speaker than almost everyone in my college writing courses. Another is in kindergarten and seems to progress with a good strong leap every time I meet with him. Two boys I meet at the same time are badly mismatched: one is advanced but not fluent while the other is at a low intermediate level, and the fact that they’re friends means that they speak a lot of Korean together despite constantly yelling at them to stop. A pair of girls I work with is better matched—they’ve both spent a year outside of the country—and I honestly look forward to seeing them each week. In their company the time passes quickly, and I usually leave feeling better than when I first arrived. We’re reading Maus together, and I’m trying to get them to write me essays about the things that interest them, though their method of writing appears to involve reading brief Korean-language articles about non-Korean subjects (like the Pre-Raphaelites, which I asked one of these girls, who is a very talented artist, to write about) and then translating these articles into English. I may have to borrow some of the ideas from my college courses to ensure that these sessions together are helpful and productive.

The thing that really sucks about this second gig is that it’s always in the evening. On Monday and Tuesday I’m off at this time, so I get to hang out with my kid when he gets home from daycare, but for the next three days I have to spend each evening tramping around the city. Weekends go entirely to the toddler except for the few tense hours he spends napping. All in all I have maybe about twelve hours a week or less—including Saturday and Sunday—when I’m not working, preparing to work, or so exhausted that I can’t do anything. Barring a miracle, I can’t see this situation improving; I can only see it getting worse, though I still dream of the day I can quit these jobs and devote myself to books.

But altogether these two jobs amount to about thirty hours a week and allow my family to live in relative comfort—though even after a year we still run out of money in the week leading up to payday. I’m hoping that when my wife finishes her university education a year from now she’ll be able to find a decent job here in Korea (as a celebrity English teacher perhaps) or open her mind up a little more to becoming a nurse in America, where the average salary is almost $80,000 (she already has a nursing degree and several years of experience in three or four hospitals). She gets testy when we talk about this because she wants me to work too, and with my liberal arts education I’m basically unemployable outside of a restaurant, and not altogether eager to become a dental hygienist or a software engineer, which are some of the results I find when I type “best jobs America” into the google. I’m more open to chasing after a doctorate that would allow me to teach something more interesting than ESL, like history or philosophy or literature, though I doubt I’d be able to find a job doing so in the Western world; for some reason I suspect pursuing Asian History would help me get my foot in the door at some sort of thinktank. As you can tell, my plans are specific. I have thoughts about getting into politics and I still have hopes for my books. We’ll see.

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