Tuesday, October 5, 2010

This post contains pictures of cute children, consider yourselves warned

So, as of today, it's been a week since I started working at the Beobdong Children's Center in Daejeon, finally beginning my volunteer work. I have to be honest: while I've been grateful to have some adjustment time, it's also been difficult for me to just BE without something to DO. So I was glad to be taking on one of my first major challenges.

The Beobdong Center is about ten minutes away from Hannam University by bus. (Yes! I can take the bus now! And get off at the right stop! I feel so ridiculously proud of myself.) It occupies the second story of a multi-story building. It is run by Rev. Kim (aka "the Chief") and her daughter, Myung-ju onni (big sister Myung-ju). Both of them are amazing and sweet people who are capable of making you feel right at home. There are about four teachers there who give the kids lessons in science, math, and whatever other schoolwork they need help with. There's also a teacher for piano, and there's a cute little closet-sized practice room for the kids to do music in. The walls are decorated with photos of the kids and art that they themselves made. It is very small, but a sunny and warm place, both physically, now at the end of summer, and emotionally, because of the love the people there put into what they do.

Let me just say that the first week had its ups and downs. Despite having about a month of Korean lessons under my belt, the average conversation is too complex and happens too quickly for me to grasp. Besides that, the Korean we're learning in the classroom is formal, polite Korean -- and it doesn't bear much resemblance to the informal, colloquial way kids talk. So I did struggle to communicate, particularly with my first- and second-grade class.

That's right, class. I was not really expecting to be asked to teach formal classes (I was thinking it would be more along the lines of playing with them and teaching them English words casually, through games), but serious lessons are apparently what my center needs most at this time -- desks, textbooks, and all that. Don't get me wrong, I'm here to serve them, and to meet their needs, and I'm perfectly willing to do classes. But it was a little bit of a sink-or-swim situation when I walked in last Tuesday, with no lesson plans prepared, and was asked to give lessons, starting immediately, to four classes' worth of students. See you back at shore. Hopefully.

So I dove in. God is pretty infamous for throwing curveballs and calling people to do the unexpected, right? A YAV needs to be flexible, if nothing else. My first class was with the first- and second-graders, three very cute but very hyper little boys who speak virtually no English (they don't start that subject at school until the third grade, apparently). They're very enthusiastic and they have more energy than they know what to do with, so keeping them focused on a task can be difficult. The first day started off well, with them telling me their names and then practicing writing them in English letters . . . but things kind of went downhill from there. How do you give kids directions or discipline them when they literally don't understand a word you say?

So the second day I came back with a different approach, and brought in a deck of cards. This time it was much better. I showed them the numbers one to ten, then spread the cards out on the table and had them slap the number I called out. This caused the entire classroom to echo with smacking sounds and loud, joyous screams of "Five!" and "Eight!" when they found their target. Okay, a crude method, maybe. But you know what? They got better at their numbers. At the beginning, they kept making mistakes and slapping the wrong ones, but they quickly learned (if only for the sake of beating each other to the punch). And I really don't care if they're loud as long as they're participating wholeheartedly. (And, you know, as long as the Chief doesn't mind, either.)

My next class was with the third- and fourth-graders. This may be the most promising group in the sense that they are better behaved and better able to focus than the younger kids, but they don't have the inhibitions that the older class has (more on that later). They love shouting out the words they know and trying out the new words I teach them. Today we we went over time- and date-related words like the days of the week, the seasons, etc. and then practiced listening and reading skills with that classic known as bingo (which was always a favorite in my beginning Spanish classes).

After my first two classes, around 5:20, it's time for dinner. There is a kitchen in the center that feeds all the kids and teachers. Kids eat first, of course. So far, the food has all been very delicious. I've had mandu (dumplings), gooksu (noodles), and today there was -- well, I don't know what it was. I think it was some sort of seafood -- squid maybe? -- under the breading. Anyway, it was yummy. And the center serves a particularly fiery version of kimchi to go with every meal, so I am toughening up my taste buds.

After dinner, I have the fifth- and sixth-graders for a while. They have the best English skills . . . well, in theory they do. In practice, they are easily the shyest group that I teach, and getting them to say something . . . anything . . . requires quite a bit of (figurative) arm-twisting. Even when it's just reading a vocabulary word from the textbook. They're happy enough to repeat what I say, but they don't want to be put on the spot or have to generate anything. That's a feeling that I can definitely understand, of course -- I am never going to win a prize for being the world's most extroverted person -- but many years of studying language and of studying the study of language have taught me that, as embarrassing as it can be, you just have to put yourself out there and speak it, or you won't learn it. (My Korean professors know it, too. When I go home at lunchtime every day, my throat is sore from all the Korean I've been shouting for the past four hours.)

I have a middle-school class as well, consisting of five students from the seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. However, since I arrived in the middle of their semester and they are all studying hard for their mid-terms, I won't start teaching this class until later in the week.

Please don't misunderstand, though. Reading back over this post, a lot of it is talking about the challenges of the job rather than the rewards; but make no mistake -- I'm very happy to be where I am right now. All of the kids are unbelievably cute and sweet and funny, and they've welcomed me with open arms, and despite my struggles as a newbie teacher, I'm eager to go back for more. I know there will be tough times as I try to figure out the best ways to communicate and to make the lessons interesting and meaningful for the kids, but I think I will end up learning a lot in the process -- about Korean culture, about language and learning, about the kids, about myself.

Tomorrow, I have my first class teaching English to the Sunday schools kids at Youngrak Presbyterian Church, and two weeks after that, I'll start going to the library to read English-language children's books to the kids there. I'll let you know how those adventures turn out! Stay tuned!


  1. Giving and helping others, especially children, will give you much more in return than you can imagine. We are proud of the work you are doing. Besides, you're having fun as well. Keep it coming.


  2. "a little bit of a sink-or-swim situation" ... you will undoubtedly find this might be the most rewarding experience in, or at least likely one that you will cherish and remember warmly for the rest of, your life.

  3. Let us know if you've started reading stories at the library yet. I bet that will be interesting!