Archive for the ‘suneung’ Category

Scores Don’t Matter, Except When They Do (Which is Often)

Tuesday, November 13th, 2012

Fistbump Kid came up behind me, when I was looking at weird thanksgiving hand turkeys on Huffington Post (… yeah. It’s for a lesson plan, okay?) and he seemed much more subdued than normal. Normally Fistbump Kid is laughing and joking with everyone, teachers and other students, and you can hardly get the kid to settle down. Today, I didn’t even notice he was behind me.

“Hey teacher” he muttered.
“Hey FBK, what’s up?” I took a closer look. “Are you okay?”
“I’m nervous…”
“Ah, you have your test tomorrow, right?”
“Yes,” he said, barely meeting my eyes “and it’s an important test but my English score has been going down.”
“Really? I’m surprised by that. Your English is so good. I think that your English skill has really improved over this year.”
“Yes, but when I do tests I get so nervous and I can’t concentrate.”
“Well… score is important but score is not the same as your English level. Even if you do not have a good score, I know your English level is good. Another person may have a higher score, but out of all the students I think you and I have some of the best conversations.” I countered.
The bell rang, and he then smiled, thanked me, and quietly walked away.

I ran into my third grade students at Sloth’s Coffee last night, they were partying like rockstars (i.e. drinking cappuchinos) and wearing their pajamas, and playing on their smartphones. My second graders have countdowns on the chalkboard in their homerooms (358 days until the Suneung), there are more restrictions placed on them now, and they’re becoming more serious everyday.

As someone who doesn’t test well, particularly with Korean, I feel his pain. Every time I’ve taken a Korean language test I’ve scored lower than I should’ve. Part of it is that I psyche myself out, seeing all of that hangeul suddenly pop up on my page (이것을 조금 무서 보이죠? 아이구 외국어 너무 어렵네요) and part of it is that I’m more of a free-answer person anyway. As much as I want to tell FBK and the other students I work with that scores don’t  matter, unfortunately in the system that they’re currently stuck in, they do.

얘들아 – 좋은 점수를 받지 않으면, 괜찮아요. 아직 똑똑한 친절한 학생이예요. 내일 연습 시험을 열심히 해보고, 그때 걱정하지마세요. 점수는 중요해는데, 다른 기회가 또 있을 거예요. 좋은 점수를 받아는 것이 그리고 좋은 사람이 달라요.

On Rice Cakes, Traditional Rice Taffy, and Hot 6

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

Today was the 수능 (Suneung – the college entrance exam), and life here in CP went on like normal. You’d think on a day that determined the future of so many young people you’d be able to feel it in the air, the very atmosphere would be crackling with electricity and you could smell the standardized tests from miles away, but if you didn’t know you’d assume it was a day just like any other. If you live in a city you can tell. Planes aren’t allowed to take off or land, all high schools and some middle schools are closed, the police escort late risers to testing sites, and parents often spend the entire day in prayer. However in sleepy sleepy CP, less than a mile from my high school where all of the third grade boys in the county were taking the exam, the cars trundled along as per usual and the old people sat and chatted on the street corner for hours.

The first group of students that I really connected with, the students that were first graders back when I was a first year teacher, took the Suneung today. One of them was my host sister, who I have only seen twice since leaving Yesan at the end of my first year. We’ve tried to keep in touch through kakaotalk and skype, but with both of our schedules it’s been difficult. When I first moved in she was one semester into high school, and in February she’ll graduate and, depending on the results of this test, go on to the university of her dreams, or to a university she had to settle for. I want her to do well. I Miss You SO Much(e) Boy also took the Suneung. I also hope he did well. Same with all of the students who stood on their desks and shouted OH CAPTAIN MY CAPTAIN, all of the students in class 2.2 of SGHS I did the pen pal exchange with, the girls in my club class my first fall at CPHS, my thousand kilowatt senior, and so many more. I want them all to do well.

Unfortunately, they can’t. The nature of this test, and the way that it’s scored, is that in order for someone to do well, someone has to fail. You receive a percentile ranking, which is one of the things that makes this test so competitive. If it’s not my students that do poorly, it’ll be someone else’s students.

The students all know this, and though they are friendly and support each other, though they’ve spent the last three years eating, and sleeping, and studying, and playing with their classmates, when they walk into the classroom on Suneung day they know they are walking shoulder-to-shoulder with their competitors. On this day, a senior has no friends. The first and second grade students recognize and understand this burden and cheer on their seniors, knowing that in one or two years the same will be done for them. This goes beyond the actual testing day – you can see it all year. On an average day at CPHS, you’ll see the second grade class captains standing in the stairwell of the main building during lunchtime, two boys and two girls. They rotate this duty so that different students do it on different days, but it’s always four students standing there, ready to shush the loud first graders as they run up to their classrooms after lunch, because the third graders need lunchtime to study without any distractions. The first and second graders, though they dislike each other, take note of and respect the third graders’ drive to succeed, and do their best to help them along.

Korea has a lot of superstitions about tests, more so than Americans do, at least to my knowledge. As there’s a lot more emphasis on testing, this isn’t all that surprising. On a test day, you’re not supposed to wash your hair, because then you’ll wash all the answers out of your brain. Another superstition, is that you cannot eat 미역국 (miyeokguk – seaweed soup) before an exam. The seaweed soup is so slippery that it will cause you to do badly. This belief is so prevalent that an idiomatic expression for failing a test is 미역국을 먹다 – I ate seaweed soup. A surprisingly logical reaction to this superstition is the idea that if you eat sticky food, you will do well on the test. Therefore, it’s thought that eating 떡 (deok – rice cake) or 엿 (yeot – a traditional and very sticky rice taffy, normally eaten by the older generation) is optimal test food.

On Tuesday I ran into multiple students leaving school. I walked with a first grade girl for part of the way to the market, where she was buying rice taffy. I asked if it was for her, and she giggled and said that it was for the seniors taking the test. She mimed chewing rigorously, and then explained that it would help all of the things that they had studied stick in their brains on Thursday. I told her that if flavor didn’t matter she should get the pumpkin because it was the best, and she giggled and raced off. The second student I ran into, a second grade boy, was also buying presents for the seniors. Instead of rice cake or taffy he was buying Hot Six, a ridiculously powerful energy drink. I was struck by the differences between the two gifts – one, a traditional and difficult-to-eat snack that followed superstition, and one, a very modern invention guaranteed to take years off your life. However, more than that I was struck by the effort the students went to in order to support their seniors.

The Suneung is over, for most of the third graders. Some of the students that scored very poorly will elect to take off a year and study again. They’ll take classes in the city at an academy designed to prep students to retake the Suneung, and rent rooms roughly the size of closets near these academies to reduce distractions. For the ones that receive good test scores, or scores that are good enough, they’ll embark on the time-consuming task of applying to university, but also they’ll find themselves surprisingly free. If they hang out of the windows of their homerooms it’ll be to breathe in the fresh air, and gaze at their surroundings, instead of to keep themselves awake while studying. If they stay awake late at night, it’ll be to talk to friends instead of cramming for the practice test. If they go into the nearby city, it’ll be to go to academies that fulfill their own interests, or to get their driver’s license, instead of to study math or any other core subject. They’ll get perms and dye their hair, join gyms to throw off the weight they’ve gained studying, buy new clothes for university, and some of them will get plastic surgery. As they slowly come to life again, the second graders – my CPHS babies, my life for the past year and a half – will slowly start to fade into the 360-odd day “final” push to the Suneung, something that seemed so far away when they first entered high school.

This is my final Suneung as a teacher in Korea, I’ll leave six months after my host sister graduates. That’s good, because I don’t think I can take another one. It makes me sad that I won’t see Hongdae, Solomon, Fistbump Kid, EC, or any of my other CPHS students (or the SGHS students I was only able to teach for a semester) graduate, and I’m sad I won’t be there to support them through this process, but I’m also happy I don’t have to see them go through the pressures of Suneung day. I’m also happy to know that their juniors, the students who come after them, will support them.

English Mania

Monday, September 19th, 2011

I was informed recently that I will be hosting a one-a-week teachers class. I’m actually really excited about this (though it does take away my 1st planning period on Fridays :( ) because I get a chance to interact with the English faculty outside of my regular English classes or lunchtime. I won’t be teaching anything, just coming up with topics and facilitating discussions.

For my first class (which actually won’t happen for a few weeks because of the English competition and midterms) I’m thinking about showing this TED talk about English mania. It’s something that as an EFL teacher I’ve been torn about. On the one hand I love teaching English as a foreign language, and it’s my job – on the other hand there are times where I somewhat feel like a cultural imperialist.

I agree with many of his points, but I’m not sure I agree with his conclusion. The clips of the Chinese students yelling their goals in English were particularly shocking. I guess I don’t feel that I can agree with his conclusion because I’m inherently biased as a native English speaker who is already benefiting from the fact that English is the dominant language for global communication. Would I agree with his point if I had to learn Chinese in school starting in the third grade?

“Why English? In a single word: Opportunity. Opportunity for a better life, a job, to be able to pay for school, or put better food on the table. Imagine a student taking a giant test for three full days. Her score on this one test literally determines her future. She studies 12 hours a day for three years to prepare. 25 percent of her grade is based on English. It’s called the Gaokao. And 80 million high school Chinese students have already taken this grueling test. The intensity to learn English is almost unimaginable. Unless you witness it.

Teacher: Perfect!
Students: Perfect!
T: Perfect!
S: Perfect!

T: I want to speak perfect English.
S: I want to speak perfect English.

T: I want to speak –
S: I want to speak –
T: perfect English.
S: perfect English.

T: I want to change my life!
S: I want to change my life!”

My Korean students are in very similar positions to the Chinese students in this video -they have been learning English since elementary school, and they also have a test similar to the one mentioned in the video called the suneung (수능) that will greatly affect their future. If they don’t do well on the suneung, they probably won’t get into a good college, which in turn affects their ability to get a job after graduation, and regardless of what type of college they want to get into, a good portion of the suneung test is English ability. Is it any wonder that I have students who stress over English? It’ll be interesting to see what the English teachers, people who went through this education system and managed to still retain a love of English, think of this video.

My Life in Bullet Points

Friday, November 19th, 2010

A LOT has happened so I’ll update you in bullet form and expand in blog entries later.

Recent wins:

  • Woke up at 5 am yesterday to go with underclassmen to cheer for the 3rd graders (high school seniors) taking the 수능 (Suneung), which is a test that students start preparing for in elementary school. If you don’t do well on this test you can’t go to the college you want (or even college at all in some cases). Most of my students in the academic track stay at school until 10 pm or later every day doing self-study… pretty much just for the Suneung, and even the kids that are not in the academic track stay late and study. I was there before any of the teachers (got there at 6, most teachers got there at 7:30/8) and got to hang out with my students in the freezing cold. Apparently foreign teachers never go and cheer for the suneung so my school was really shocked (and very happy) that I went, and since I went with my host sister and not a teacher apparently they didn’t even know I was coming.
  • Almost finished with book 2 of piano, going on to book 3 in a few days.
  • FINALLY figured out how to do a dora chaugi kick in hapkido (watch the video, he does one at 0:24).
  • Went to the hapkido night class one day instead of my usual afternoon class and saw one of my trouble maker students. This kid is about 6’4″ and has to weigh at least 250 pounds, he’s massive. We had to practice blocking practice and I was paired with him and I completely took him out. I can now say I beat up one of my students.
  • I’ve been practicing with a core group of 7 students for the English competition (we have to sing a pop song) that’s coming up and today we finally nailed the difficult harmonies in the chorus. My students were so happy!
  • I taught a lesson on Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along-Blog to my advanced kids.
  • I bought some sweaters so I won’t die!
  • Discovered a duck pond in my “downtown”
  • Went to Daegu/Busan with friends last weekend and built a sand-castle.
  • Tomorrow I’m going to the United States ambassador to Korea’s house for a Thanksgiving dinner with most of the first-year F*bright English Teaching Assistants.


  • I’ve been sick.
  • I lost my VOICE which is absolutely awful if you’re an English conversation teacher.
  • Korean vocabulary has recently been stagnating and grammar is definitely getting worse.
  • I STILL don’t know what I’m doing for Winter Break.
  • I feel like I’ve hit a wall in my relationship with teachers at school due to the language barrier and I really want to build deeper relationships but I don’t know how/I’m too tired to keep trying.
  • I have had 5 times as many spam comments as actual comments on my blog. Hint hint.

More later, I promise. As well as actual pictures eventually.