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Wednesday, October 14, 2015

On Teaching ESL in South Korea (for YeahWrite.Me)

Ten years ago, I was living on Jeju Island off the south coast of South Korea. The five years I spent on Jeju Island were a high plateau in my life. I've had ups and downs enough to recognize and appreciate a nice, long, good run, and my years on Jeju were one of those; I was on top of my game, and my game was... English as a Second Language. ESL.

The reasons I say I was on top of my game are essentially these: I was doing rewarding, soul-satisfying work in which I took delight day-in and day-out and at which, all modestly aside, I excelled; I was also living in love with an incredible woman who loved me back – which I realize is a fairly normal state of affairs for a lot of people, but for me, for whatever combination of blind luck and good reason, has been attainable only occasionally in my life for relatively brief spans of time – and this was the longest cohabitation on record and things were still going swimmingly; and then there was the truly awesome playground that was Jeju - we had beaches galore, from the out-of-the-way and secluded spot for a campfire and a skinny dip to the upscale and touristy attractions… all of these options for enjoying the ocean (a treat beyond treats to someone who'd grown up landlocked in middle America), and we had deep forest aplenty to explore, and we had mountains - mountains! Oh, and this was the only time in my life that I had a motorcycle, too. Can't forget that joy.

ESL with actual foreign, native-speaker instructors like me was fairly new in the public schools of South Korea at that time. I wouldn't go so far as to call it uncharted territory, but we were definitely making up most of what we did as we went along. It took me a couple of years to develop my methods, but once I had them, I was golden. In preparation for most of my classes, I would just sit down and write a Mad Lib. You remember Mad Libs? Sure you do. Maybe you called it something else, but... that word game where you have a little story with a lot of words left out, and whoever you've conned into playing with you has to give you the words to fill in the blanks and complete the story. A (noun) bought a (adjective) (noun) with which (adverb) to (verb) the (noun). Go!

This was the bulk of my lesson planning during the last few years I taught ESL: I would create a fill-in-the-blank story on a worksheet, then I would make little laminated flashcards of words that would go well in the blanks. Usually I would manage to find images for the flashcards, to illustrate to the student what the words meant. So then when the class bell rang, I'd pass out my Mad Lib worksheets and distribute the flashcards and the students and I would get busy composing a story together. Worked like a charm. Next class: new story, different words, same familiar and sure-fire method.

I worked in various schools over the years, teaching everything from kindergarten through the middle- and high-school years to sessions even where I taught the Korean teachers, and my Mad Lib method worked in every setting, with every level of student. Oh, sure, I had to throw in some basic grammar exercises and such here and there, but the core of my classes was almost always the fill-in-the-blank story or dialogue. My bread and butter. And somehow, I never ran out of ideas for them.

High plateau for me though it was, living in South Korea had its share of challenges. There are any number of cultural differences of course, great and small, between the province of Jeju in South Korea and my home state and nation. Some of these differences, such as differences in driving etiquette, can lead to potentially disastrous or even fatal situations. More commonly, these differences, cropping up all unexpected as they usually do, tend to result in… awkward moments. Take, for example, this little cultural difference: on Jeju Island in South Korea at the time that I was living there, it was (and is still today throughout Korea, so far as I am aware) perfectly acceptable for the owner or superintendent of an apartment simply to open the door of that apartment and walk in as if he or she lived there. Free entry, utterly unscheduled and unannounced, anytime at all… If the door happens to be locked, well, the super or owner has a key. Only if it were bolted would he or she bother knocking. This is just a matter of course, quite natural for Koreans, while quite unexpected and I daresay insane… to your average person from, say, Indiana.

So it was that early on a fine Jeju Sunday morning, as I sat at a low table with coffee and a cigarette, working up a few Mad Libs to get me through the week’s teaching, the door to my apartment suddenly opened, and in breezed the estimable grandmother whose building it was. Good Lord only knows what errand or mission she was on. She came a few feet into my one-room apartment, head down, then looked up and froze in her tracks. Startled by her entry, I had arisen quickly to my feet. I then, just as hastily, sat down again at the table, from the surface of which I proceeded to scoop loose-leaf paper and notecards into my lap.

For I was wearing not a stitch of clothing.


  1. Hahaha. That would teach her to knock next time

  2. Ha! At least you were alone and naked ;)

  3. Oh dear! I think my door would always be bolted after that!

  4. LOL! I bet she wasn't expecting THAT. HA HA HA! At any rate, she could have walked in on you having sex... and that would have upped the embarrassment factor big time. I would have been so mortified if I had been either of you. Lord have mercy!! The look on her face and yours had to be priceless. Moments like this is what makes life fun to live and it makes for a great story. Love it! ♥

  5. Ooh, that's gotta be awkward. On the bright side, if I ever am privileged enough to explore South Korea, I'll be sure to keep that little cultural difference in mind. :)


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