Monday, November 28, 2011

November Reading List

  • Your Inner Fish by Neil Shubin - The autor is Provost of the Field Museum and anatomy professor at the University of Chicago. He is also a paleontologist, who discovered an important transitional fish called Tiktaalik, an intermediate between water- and land-dwelling creatures. This book is an eloquent elucidation of the central tenet in modern biology, that of the origin of species by descent with modification. He examines human anatomy to explore our evolutionary links to reptiles, sharks, and even bacteria, and does so with wit, clarity and joy.
  • The Bangkok Sporting Club by David A Berger - I didn't particularly like this book, at least not for the characters--one insane, one manipulative and dirty, and one naive and boorish--or for the story; I did like the settig, which is that pearl of the Orient, Bangkok, and the author was accurate in his treatment of it. Anyway, Phoenix Systems has a front-end contract to set up a new computer system in the US Embassy, and Phoenix's programming guru has disappeared with the job half-done; so underling Eddie reluctantly comes to Bangkok to finish the job. Meanwhile, there are occasional hints, snippets of conversation the author decides to let us hear without any apparent rhyme or reason, to suggest that not all is as it seems...
  • Angel Time by Anne Rice - I have always been a serious fan of Anne Rice, but her last few offerings have been wanting. This tome is the story of a twenty-eight year old professional assassin who ruminates to the point of tedium about religious belief and his lack of it; at his point of moral crisis, he meets an angel who takes him back in time to use his "special skills" to save some medieval Jews from an angry mob. At no point do the protagonist's special skills come into play, the climax and denoument are telegraphed well in advance, and there's not even a good plot twist at the end, like one could once count on in an Anne Rice novel (there is a plot twist, it's just not all that good).
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  • The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros - Prose poetry about a Hispanic girl named Esperanza growing up somewhere on Chicago's south side. In brief vignette's we meet her friends and neighbors, and slowly get know her and her inner life. Imanginative yet truthful, lyrical but streetwise, this book was a pleasure to read, and I wish it had gone on much longer--it's only 109 pages.
  • And So It Goes: Kurt Vonnegut, A Life by Charles J Shields - I used to say that Kurt Vonnegut was the greatest living American writer, but he died in 2007, so I don't say that anymore. I was very sad when I heard of his death--but not as sad he was to have lived so long, according this book, the first pure Vonnegut bio to make it to market. He was old, and tired, and in failing health for about ten years after completing what he promised to be his last novel, Timequake in 1997. When a critic asked why he brought out another book (A Man Without A Country) he answered that he had expected to be dead by now. Death, suicide, gallows humor, were major themes in his work, and it is clear he was ambivalent about living, much less living to 85. I for one am grateful he decided to stick out as long as he did. Anyway, this book is a bit uneven, and since it tells the Vonnegut story as truthfully as possible it is at times a hard read, for he had troubles--wife troubles, children troubles, friendship, health troubles ... it was usually the case that the instant something went well in his writing career, something would go to hell in his personal life. And his writing career was for many long years a trouble of its own, especially in the critical world, where he is seen even today as a writer for "the young". But his works need no defending by me. Here are the words his character Mr Rosewater prepares for the neighbors' twins' baptism:
    Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies—-God damn it, you've got to be kind.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

2011 KidPower Toy Con

Last week, just in time for the Christmas shopping season, my classroom became the exhibit hall of the KidPower Toy Convention (third annual). This is one of my favorite lessons, but I have to admit it got rather wearying by the end of the week.

It is an information gap interview activity, where 10 better English-speakers man the booths of toy manufacturers and try to convince the other thirty or so students/store buyers to stock their newest product on the store shelves.


The buyers, however, have a specific type of toy they're looking for, within a certain age and price range, etc. They represent store chains like HomeNever, 6-Twelve, or Baiso, and their worksheets have all the information they need to share with the booth operators, and spaces to fill in the product details as they go.


You can well imagine the ages and ages it took to put this lesson together, but this year it was simple--no new toys to find or materials to create, just an hour or so to set up the classroom last Friday.

The toys are all non-competitive, non-violent, don't use batteries (thus, kid power), no movie tie-ins or pop culture references. They're also hands-on, though the kids in charge are warned to take care of them.


This is a successful lesson at least insofar as students actually want to come in and take their turns speaking and listening, as you can see from the guys waiting their turn:


One of my co-teachers asked me after class one day this week, "Do you ever think about that you are making conversation class with forty students? It is almost impossible." Turns out, this was a compliment, that I was succeeding in holding classes where forty students were actually conversing/comunicating. In his previous school, the native teachers were frustrated and never seemed to find lessons that worked.

i know the feeling. After three years now, though, I have largely fixed or eliminated lessons that don't work; of course, it must be said, some things don't work with all classes, and nothing works for all students.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Politics is Inevitable, and Sometimes Graphic

Okay, for the past month exactly, I have been collecting images, photoshops (is that even a noun? Now it is), graphics, etc, shared by my peeps on FB.

As long as they had a political slant. And were amusing. Well, actually, the ones toward the end are not amusing one damn bit.

Remember to click on the image to enlarge if you can't read it.










Monday, November 21, 2011

Cold Snap

I hauled out my winter stuff a few weeks ago, but really have had no need for anything but the lightest of windbreakers--until this weekend. Saturday's high was in the mid/high teens (in Celcius) but Seoulites woke up to a -1 C morning temp on Sunday.

Today, it was -3 C and I don't think it got above 6. According to the Korea Times:
Although this was the first time for the temperature to fall below zero, it was 25 days later than in an average year, the KMA [Korean Meteorological Administration] said.

In other news, FC Seoul (3rd place) lost to Ulsan Hyundai (6th place) 1 - 3, while Suwon beat Busan I'Park one to nil this weekend in the first round of the K-League championship.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Lights! Camera! Action!

For the last several weeks, first grade classes (remember, this is high school's first grade) have been doing a conversation unit about movies. After learning and reinforcing a lot of key movie terminology (based on the good work of our friends at Lanternfish:, we started applying it.

For example, in lesson three, half the sudents watched a Mr Bean vignette, then have to describe it to the other half, who had been sent out of the room. I provided vocabulary on the board, stopping and starting the video to make the plot and ideas clear; then, the co-teacher and I go around asking a few pointed questions of the ones who did not watch: What was the setting? What's the first thing that happened? What was the climax? Why didn't Mr Bean just walk back down from the high diving board? (Mr Bean at the Swimming Pool) Why was Mr Bean popping paper bags anyway? (Mr Bean on the Airplane), etc.

This week, lesson five, begins with a fifteen minute review of the movie terms, using a new methodology I found quite effective and will use again. To wit: I previously prepared a set of questions on little chits cut out from a Word doc, and put them in a container. The co-teacher walks around the room and randomly (more or less) selects a students to stand up, pull a question, and read it aloud. If the student reads it loudly and clearly, there will no repeating. I then pull a student ID number from my magic English cup for the student who answers.

If the student answers correctly, we all cheer and move on to the next question. If he doesn't know (or wasn't paying attention), the student remains standing, and will get a chance to answer another question later on. This was extremely effective in getting the question-askers to be loud and clear, and getting the rest of the class to shut the fuck up and listen carefully!

Plus, it can be used for lots of types of interactions: complete the sentence, vocab review, grammar points, etc. The key is not to allow your co or yourself to repeat or rephrase, as we so often do. How it took me so long to reach this formulation, I don't know, but I'll be using it regularly!

The main activity of this, the final lesson of the movie unit, is "Create Your Own DVD", an idea I stole from Eat Your Kimchi and modified to suit. One big difference is that my DVD template is actual size; anyway, the idea is pretty clear: students will design and execute a DVD cover for a favorte movie or a movie they'd like to make or see. I set up certain requirements of what it should consist of, requiring application of the things we've learned in the unit, like plot, genre, critic's reviews, stars, setting, etc. I show a couple of real samples, pointing out the features I'm talking about, then let them get to it.

The results range from the ridiculous (click to see full size):


... to the sublime:


And a few more examples, for posterity:





These projects are not, however, representative, in one main way: the majority of students spend all their time on the front cover, the graphic in particular, and hardly do anything on the back, which is mostly about writing in English. That is, after all, the pedagogic function of the activity.

I don't know the solution to this, since one justification is that it allows the weaker English student a chance to be expressive in class, a class in which they usually understand about one tenth of what's going on. I get that.

What I don't get is how they managed to make it into high school English without one iota of actual English.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Suneung Follow-up, and Tuttle News Wrap

First of all, our friends at the JoongAng Daily have a pair of stories concerning the aftermath of the suneung or Korean SAT which took place last Thursday. No, no suicides--the results won't be released for two more weeks. (Wow, that was crude and ugly! Here's hoping this absurdity changes before more lives are lost ...)

Mother of all tests easier this year, declares the headline. Last year's SAT was "brutal", so this year's version was "more forgiving":
“We made efforts to have about 1 to 1.5 percent of students with perfect scores in each subject,” said Lee Heung-su, director of CSAT writers, in a press briefing yesterday.
Last year, only 0.06 percent of students received perfect scores in the Korean language portion, 0.02 percent in the math portion and 0.21 percent in the English language portion.
“Taking into consideration that last year’s CSAT was harder despite the fact that a high percentage of questions came from workbook lessons published by EBS, we tried not to make too many modifications this time,” said Lee.

On the downside, an easier exam makes it more difficult to be a stand-out at the top of the heap, just as the college application process enters the final turn. Sez the article:
According to college admission experts, the easier the test is, the more strategic test takers should be about their college applications, as the fate of test takers with similar CSAT scores rests on how well each of them do in the application process.
Seventy percent of applicants to the better universities (like SKY) are admitted through the regular application process--i.e., consideration of SAT scores; however, many other fine institutions will consider the scores along with high school grades, extracurricular activities and admissions interviews.

Good luck to all!

Meanwhile, in Tuttle news: 1) I had no classes, as today was a national criterion-referenced scholastic testing day for HS first and second grade. No one had told me, even though I went over the November-Decemder calendar with my handler just two weeks ago.

2) Today was 민방공 min bang gong, literally people's defense from the air, or air raid drill. It didn't affect me personally, as I was inside at 2:00 when the sirens went off. When I came to Korea, these drills did not happen, but for the last year or so, they have been held most every month, usually on the fifteenth. I think the timing of their resurgence coincides with the Cheonan incident, but I can't say for sure.

In the US of the fifties and even into my dimly-remembered 1960s, schoolchildren periodically crouched under their desks, or were herded into schoolhouse basements, in civil defense drills. I remember that when I worked in the Math/Physics building at WGC, we were an official fallout shelter, with the signs:


The Korean version, which began popping up around subway station exits, looks like this:

While I was inside today, and I guess "safe" from potential harm from the air, I did get caught in one of these drills last spring. Civil defense officials, wearing the customary yellow beauty-pageant sashes of Korean officaldom, take over all intersections and make the cars sit idle for fifteen minutes. They herd pedestrians into the confines, or at least the general area, of the nearest fallout shelter aka subway exit, where they cool their heels for fifteen minutes, until the all-clear blows.

Busy ajumma wait five minutes or so, then cluck and growl at said officials and continue on their way with their two-wheel shopping carts trailing behind. (Note to self: I so need one of those wheelie carts.)

3) Next week is the Kid Power Toy Convention at Young-il HS, I'm getting all excited! Partly because it's a really fun lesson, and partly because it means Christmas is near.

Monday, November 14, 2011

School Trip Weekend


I went to France this weekend--or rather Petite France (or rather 쁘띠 프랑스)--as part of the first school-type trip I've taken since coming to Korea. This was part of my Saturday Public Speaking class, and our twenty kids were combined with the same number from the Critical Reading and Writing class and the Mathematics class.

We left Saturday morning at 9 AM and returned Sunday, a half-hour late, at 5:30 PM. The weekend divided into three parts, so that's how I'll describe it. We drove northeast from Seoul into Gyeonggi-do, and spent most of Saturday at the Institute for Mathematics Culture, basically an interactive math interpretive center:



The morning was basically a lecture (in Korean) for the students, then we went to lunch at a tofu restaurant about a ten-minute drive away. The afternoon had lecture, but also hands-on activities for the students:



... as well as the teachers (my native teacher counterparts in the critical writing course, Lauren and Derek, learning about the 'catenary'):


We spent the overnight at SMOE's retreat center in the town of Namyangju-si, styled a bit like a Swiss chalet, but with few of the amenities. As the weekend was chilly, the ondol floor-heating was welcome, but the sleeping on the floor was not. Shortly after arrival, there was a welcome speech, then we played a game of Jeopardy we had prepared, with the kids in the PS and CRW classes divided into four teams. Later in the evening, the facility staff led the kids in a series of recreational games in the "program hall" before 11:00 PM bedtime.



Say what you will about the isolation of the location, the notable absense of elevators in a five-storey building and the lack of bedroom furnishings, the food was quite good!

In the morning, the students were supposed to wake early for an exercise regimen, but no one we talked to did; after breakfast, we packed up and left for France--you know, the smaller one (webpage here).

Petite France appears to be a combination tourist resort (there are guest houses for rent, and loads of sightseeing families and romatic couples) and educational center (vis, our visit, the SMOE logo prominently placed outside, and its other title as Gosong Youth Development Center). It has also been used for filming numerous Korean dramas.



Period French table hockey

One of my students as participant in the mime artist's half-hour routine

If it is supposed to recreate France, the site is an unmitigated failure--not to knock the art, architecture or artifacts, but the fact is that everything is in the Korean language, and what is not is in English. Oh, there is the occasional 'Le' in front of a noun--Le Gallery, Le Shop--but I heard not one iota of French spoken. You might as well save your money and go to Paris Baguette or Tous les Jours.

Okay, that's going a bit far; there were things to see and enjoy, enough to occupy an hour, perhaps. But then I found the "Saint-Exupery Memorial Hall, dedicated to the creator of Le Petit Prince:


Most of the exhibit was in Korean and contained reproduction photos from Antoine de Saint-Exupery's life. Ho-hum. But the top floor was the jackpot--two dozen or so original drawings and sketches, a sampling:




There you go, dear reader, my first school trip, and my first trip into the Gyeonggi-do countryside outside Seoul. The sites we went to were all well-done: professionally managed, more-or-less interesting for the students. However, we spent far too much time on the buses, and the week-end was just far too long and drawn-out.

However, my real complaints are dry and pedagogical: 1) while the extra class program per se is based on exclusively English-language instruction, not a single portion of any of the sights, site or activities was done in English (the only exception is our Jeopardy game); 2) none of it had anything at all to do with public speaking.

From a curricular perspective, this weekend was a waste of time for my students--hopefully they benefitted in other ways, not least by some informal social time with members of the opposite sex. The students were well-behaved, upbeat and positive, and seemed to enjoy themselves--more than I did, at least.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011


... You, too, can be a 수능달인, suneung dalin or Korean SAT expert. Just eat our glutinous rice cakes!

For a mere W 20,000, you are sure to get the university acceptance letter you desire, with this collection of lucky baked goods from Tous les Jours.

E-Mart seems to specialize in chocolate products to improve one's suneung score, from Dr. Yoo to Hershey's to Ferrero Rocher. The Ferrero Rocher display is all about the "Golden Bell", a TV quiz show. According to this article, other products you can buy to boost your suneung expertise include a math-formula cushion to enhance your bedtime studies, portable oxygen tanks, and a suneung watch which makes no disruptive ticking sound--and also indicates when test-takers should move on to the next section.

The "D-1" on the Golden Bell display, by the way, is the countdown of days left before the big exam. Yes, it's tomorrow!

The suneung exam is a spectacularly big deal in Korea; the second Thursday in Novemember is the one time the university entrance exam is offered, and it is therefore the one day to which every high school student's whole academic career has been building.

Students and their families and their schools try to obtain every possible advantage, naturally. Special study mats, yeot and beef-octopus porridge might not help, but they might, so why risk it?

My high school only met during first period today, for two reasons: 1) underclassmen need to clean up the school, since SAT-takers will be arriving for the exam tomorrow; and, 2) so they can then go set up cheering groups at the school where the seniors will go to take their exam (somewhere in Yeongdeungpo-gu).

Tomorrow is a school holiday, except for the unfortunate seniors, and most businesses will open late to decrease traffic congestion, in order to make sure seniors can get to their testing site on time.

That's another reason the school day is so short today: seniors have to go scope out their testing site to make sure there is no confusion tomorrow. So in addition to seeing wandering, out-of-place students, you see signs like these, at least in the subway:

At the entrance to the school was posted this board, being examined by one of our students. It indicates where they are to go for their exam tomorrow, and also maps out the locations for students coming to Young-il as their testing site.

Good luck! Eat your omega-3s tonight, and get to sleep early--preferably on your math-formula pillow!

Monday, November 7, 2011

This Week in Korean Education

I count four stories of interest in the week's online editions of the main rags. First up, do politics and education make good bedfellows?

Here's a great quote from a university student Choi, a law student who declined to give his full name to the Korea Herald for its story:
“One of my professors focuses too much on his political activities. Thus, his students, including myself, feel he has been negligent of his duty to teach and do research,” he said.
“Fortunately, his political views were quite similar to mine, so I was not offended. But many others with different views might have been annoyed when he expressed his views during his class.”
I imagine they might be, yes. The article, or thinly-disguised editorial by one of the right-leaningest paps, decries the involvement of popular professors, or "polifessors" [ugh] in the Seoul mayoral election to replace Oh Se-hoon.

One wonders if the story would have hit the presses had not Park Won-soon gotten the nod of the electorate, and pushed the poltical landscape a little further to the left than the KH editorial board likes. Park was an independent candidate, but with decidedly leftist tendencies.

In America, by comparison, Fox News and other right-leaning media don't utter a peep when, say, Georgia State University professor Newt Gingrich attempts to wield influence, but let a Barack Obama run for office, it's all effete intellectual professors of law trying to destroy the country...

So what do Korean university bosses think or say about this? Any policies guiding politics in the classroom? Apparently not, as:
Some critics also pointed out that as most professors joining politics and public service take a long leave of absence from their schools, young scholars cannot find permanent positions despite the vacancies.
Universities appear to be reluctant to take them off their payrolls as their activities in high-profile public positions help promote their schools.

Second, a weird story from Gwangju in Jeollanam-do, regarding a parent that injured himself in front of a group of teachers while complaining about treatment his daughter had received while being reprimanded by a teacher at the school.

According to the KT report, he had picked up a chair as if to attack the teacher during a meeting, then decided to use a tape dispenser, with which he cut himself. The father later apologized, and no charges were filed.

I am unclear about who the charges would be filed by in this, but in America, it's altogether possible the father would sue the school for having dangerous weapons like tape dispensers at hand.

Joong-Ang Daily had the only story I found on the Bureau of Audit and Inspection's report on university finances. Which is odd, because it's a blockbuster that should play into the hands of those who want to stymie the power of the education elites here. In essence, top managers at numerous schools have defrauded them of monies ranging from thousands to over ten million US dollars!

Not surprisingly, some universities take umbrage with the "interim report", complaining among other things that it's none of the government's business what they do with non-government money.

To be fair, academic independence is critical to a democracy, but that independence precludes both government and other power-brokers from excessive fiduciary entanglements. Also, when faculty members subvert the application process in favor of faculty children, that's particularly appalling here, where the application process is such a gauntlet. Speaking of which ...

The Suneung 수능 exam will take place this Thursday; it is the Korean SAT, offered once a year, and the only chance for most high school seniors to get into university.

It is not the only way, however, as some top students can get in via the "admission officer" system devised by the current administration to recognise superior students; and the early admissions system, which is much the same, and consists of a series of high-stress interviews with admissions officers.

I have been helping one of my students prepare for this exam process during periodic lunch breaks and free periods in the last few months: I give him a topic, a question and five minutes; he gives a five to seven minute response, including follow-up questions; then we debrief his answers.

He is an extremely bright kid with outstanding English skills, and while he got a lot better during this process, I can't take much credit. At the end of last week, he informed me that he got admission into his first choice, the Underwood International College of Yonsei--among the most prestigious placements in all of Korea.

Anyway, I mention this to bring you up to speed on the following story, about a kid with "sixth-grade scores" meaning "bottom forty percent of his school" who got into Hanyang University, one of the top schools, which requires "first-grade" scores. (My student 외수 earned "first-grade" scores at Young-il.)

Lee Kyu-hyeok used the admissions officer system to by-pass the suneung. Bribes? Powerful family? Blackmail? Creating an innovative software program that improves the performance of smartphones?
“When I was a senior at middle school, I bought the Blackjack Samsung smartphone. But it was too slow and sometimes stopped operating. I began work to repair it and made Kyuhyeok Rom. I thought it would be useful for other people, I distributed the software via the Internet blog,,” Lee said.
I'm not sure how well this guy will do in college, but I'm glad to see any signs that the suneung is losing its vice-like grip on the Korean educational system. Perhaps someday, English classes will teach students to actually speak English rather than to prepare for a nitpicky hour of grammar questions that are unrelated to English usage.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Lesson Plan: Quidditch Rules

"Very funny, Teacha!" was the typical assessment of this new lesson plan (and "funny", it should be noted, is Konglish for "fun, or enjoyable"). And if my goal is to hear students speaking English, which it is, then this lesson worked well.

I teach at an all-boys high school in Seoul. Two generalizations about my boys: 1) they love sports; and 2) they like the Harry Potter movies. Combine those two, and one thing emerges: a lesson on Quidditch, the sport played by wizards at Hogwarts School.

This is an information gap activity in two parts, enlivened by some videos. Class begins with a YouTube mash-up I found of flying scenes from the movies with Lenny Kravitz's "Fly Away":

Now that I have their attention, I can explain the first part of the drill: each team (or table) has a set of materials:


A and B cards each have half the rules of each category. Each list of rules has missing information--those blanks on the A card can only be filled in by information on B's card. The A and B pair sit across from each other, read their lists aloud and fill in the other's missing information. They practice until everyone knows the rules--well, the rules of their category.



Meanwhile, the co-teacher and I circulate, helping with vocabulary and quizzing them on their set of rules, to prepare them for the next phase. Before we move on, though, we watch a video that might help make things clearer for them; I put (not very good) titles on this scene from the first movie, where Oliver explains the rules to new Gryffindor Seeker Harry (or watch at

At this point, students should be well-familiar with a sub-set of the rules; I created seven sets of rules cards, incuding: the pitch, the balls, the players, the broomsticks, game progression, rules of play, and fouls. I decided not to use Fouls with my students, as there are a lot of made-up words, and I don't see any up-side to confusing them: Quaffle, Bludger and Golden Snitch are quite enough.

Now a pair of students will share their rules with other pairs of students. "A" students will go first, receiving a worksheet with six categories of questions, as seen below:


My powerpoint for the lesson has a rotation diagram to move the "A" boys from table to table. They ask their questions and write down the answers they are given by the "experts" in the sub-topic. A timer goes off (100 seconds, for my guys) and they rotate to the next rule category. Watching the classroom clock, I have them do four or maybe five rotations.



Then the "B" guys get a question sheet and the process is repeated. As I said, this lesson worked quite well; one class had trouble with their behavior during the "rotation" sequences, acting like hooligans, but even they spent a lot of time actually speaking English!

This lesson preparation was extensive: first, I found the rules of Quidditch at a Harry Potter Wiki site (, though this page has changed since then); then I had to select and simplify the rules, eliminating as much lingo as possible; divide the rules evenly between A and B; provide "information gaps" to be filled by the other card; create two sets of question worksheets, with three questions on each rule category.

I made the cards and rules topic signs to look as polished as possible and printed them off in color (a moderate to-do at my school) and since I had gone to that much trouble, had them laminated. Now I had to work out the logistics and procedures, and voila, many hours later, another lesson for the files!

While I did this lesson with my second graders (high school juniors), it would also work with the first graders at my school. A great deal more simplification and selection could make this doable at the upper middle school level--and I think it would be worthwhile.

Sometimes a great lesson plan is an idea, a handful of words and a great motivation. Sometimes, it is a well-put-together powerpoint or a couple of songs and a piece of paper. Other times, though, it is a meticulously prepared set of materials, specialized technological resources and an exactingly executed implementation plan.