Back to School time

first day of school

 

Today is the first day of the second semester of school here in Korea, which actually doesn’t mean anything much for us subject teachers (English, Art, Music, etc.).  The first day of a semester here is usually taken up with the opening ceremonial stuff and the kids are quarantined in their homerooms for the organizational chaos that is involved with trying to get them back on a school schedule.

Meanwhile, I’ve got all the windows in my classroom open so I can enjoy the absolutely gorgeous weather that has magically descended on Busan this week. For the moment, at least, it’s clear and just slightly cool, without a hint of the oppressive humidity that has been slowly killing my soul all summer. I have no doubt that there will be one last heat wave somewhere between now and October – but I can sense the coming of fall, and it gives me hope that I can last ’til the cold weather arrives for real.

 

winter is coming        …and it’s going to be awesome.  

 

 

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You’re a Wizard, Harry! (Summer Camp)

An EPIK contract in Korea comes along with the expectation that you will teach English language camps during both the summer and winter vacations of your school(s). Of course, your school should (and often does) work with you to make sure that the camp dates don’t conflict with any vacation days that you want to take during that time. But definitely count on the camps coming first in terms of their priorities.

Of course, everyone’s school setup is going to be different – but my camp was one week at each of my schools, starting right after the end of the semester. So I had a week-long camp at my main school followed by the same week-long camp at my second school (since the students were different, I happily was able to just do the planning for one camp and then repeat it). I had one 90-minute class of lower-level students (generally a mix of 3rd/4th graders) followed by a 90-minute class of slightly higher-level students (5th/6th graders), meaning that I just had to tweak the material slightly between classes.

To the delight of my students, I chose Harry Potter as the theme for my camp. My coteacher is a bit older than me and she was somewhat skeptical of the idea that students would be interested in Harry Potter enough for the theme to work, but I forged ahead and I’m happy to say that they were stoked about it. ^_^    They had to fill out anonymous reviews at the end of the camp and one of the students wrote that when she made a magic wand it “made [her] feel like a real wizard”. You heard that right – we made magic wands!

Still, I will say that planning for a summer camp is Hard Work. You’re not starting with the structure of a textbook, so every bit of structure comes from your brain. Plus it’s camp – these kids are supposed to be on vacation, but their parents signed them up for this English camp (probably because their English isn’t great). They don’t want to be there. You have to balance the desires of the school (for them to do English worksheets and memorize vocabulary all day) with the needs of the kids (to have it not just seem like an extension of school).

I think I managed that balancing act this time around, but I definitely leaned hard towards the “fun” aspect – we didn’t do a lot of worksheets. On the other hand, I think I exhausted my best camp idea and now I’m terrified about winter camp, haha…

 

Korean Harry Potter

 

 

School Life (a Belated Beginning)

I’m afraid I’ve been horrifically lax in keeping this blog up-to-date since I started teaching. School prep took up so much of my time I barely was checking my email, much less typing up blog posts. Still, it’s nice to look back on how I saw it at the beginning – so here’s a draft that I started back in April…

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I’m barely settled into my new life, teaching elementary students and living in a Korean neighborhood, but I wanted to attempt a post about everyday life here. I’m sure this is going to change as the year goes on, but it’ll be nice to freeze the beginning in a bit of amber.

I teach at two different elementary schools, so my commute changes every other day (M/W/F at one school, Tu/Th at the other). But generally, I get up in the morning and get ready, pack my bag for school, frantically realize there’s one thing I forgot to prepare, etc.  Then, depending on the day I either catch the bus to my second school or just walk around the corner and up the hill to my main school.

Teaching as a Native English Teacher (NET) is truly a unique experience. I’ve heard from other teachers who have not felt like they were able to live up to their potential in the classroom, but I’ve lucked out in that I have two Korean co-teachers who have treated me as nothing less than a partner when it comes to teaching. We plan each day’s lesson together, prepare different parts of it on our own, and then teach it together. While we might not actually type up a lesson plan the way I was taught to – we definitely write down a list of activities we’re going to do and topics we’re going to cover.

The textbooks that we have are useful in that they give us a structure and a general idea of a schedule for the semester. But that is just about where their usefulness ends. I don’t know who is in charge of designing English textbooks in Korea, but I would like to write them a strongly-worded letter. The activities are often opaque and highly repetitive (not in a helpful way), forcing the students to do the same activity over and over again. So, except for a few activities here and there, we basically throw the textbook out the window and plan our own activities around the grammar concepts and key vocabulary that the chapter is supposed to cover.

For example, here is a section from my 5th graders’ textbook, from the unit for “What Are Those?”:

read and play.jpg

 

It’s another repetitive reading exercise – my students’ eyes would be drooping about 3 minutes into class if I tried to make them do this. So instead, my co-teacher and I pulled a typical ESL game called “Running Dictation”. We typed up the words and phrases on sheets of paper that we posted up (with a cover sheet) on the walls of the classroom. Students (in groups) took turns running to a sheet, reading the phrase, and then running back to their group to dictate the phrase for them to write down. This exercise not only gets them awake and moving, but they are practicing reading, writing, speaking, and listening all in the same activity!

But enough complaining about the textbooks. 🙂   School life is pretty charming so far – all of my coworkers are friendly and I’m really starting to feel like I’m part of the community. Only a few of them can speak English well enough to hold a conversation, but all of them have offered me a friendly “안녕하세요” (annyeong-haseyo) or even “hello” as we see each other in the corridors.

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And that’s apparently when I stopped typing. 😉

Reading back over it, life seems about the same now in August – though perhaps I’m looking back on it through slightly rose-tinted lenses since I’ve been off on vacation for the past three weeks. We start our second semester this week and I’m a bit nervous to find out whether I’ve managed to actually retain the ability to teach a class of energetic elementary schoolers.

We shall see, I suppose…

EPIK Orientation – Feb 2017

Again, there have been so many blog posts written about EPIK’s orientation process that I feel a little silly adding mine to the mix. However, this year was the first time that EPIK decided to split the orientation up into three different geographic regions, so perhaps it merits a surface pass just for the numbers:

I arrived at Incheon Airport a couple of days before orientation was due to start. Let me just say – I highly recommend this course of action. Admittedly, it’s not cheap to stay in an airport hotel like I did (I specifically saved up for that luxury). But if you’re a little more adventurous (and not coming down with a nasty chest cold like I was) there are plenty of AirBnbs in Seoul for much less. Orientation is a marathon and you’ll want at least one night to sleep and try to start getting over the jetlag before you jump in. Believe me.

On the day we were supposed to be picked up, I met up with some friends at Seoul Station and we took the KTX train down to Gimhae Airport in Busan where the EPIK pickup was. Sadly, you can’t take the train directly to the airport, so we had to get on the Busan subway and transfer to the airport light rail. Not what you’d call easy with five people and twice as many suitcases, but we survived. Once we arrived at EPIK’s check-in desk, they registered us, checked that we had the correct visa in our passports, and (eventually) loaded us onto buses to the orientation site – about a 40-min drive across the city. The buses held maybe 40 people, but we only had about 20 in ours, so we each got a double-seat to ourselves (bliss).

Once we arrived at the campus, we had our temperature checked by the nurse, were given a small snack (juice and a bun), and given our room assignments. Unlike what I’ve heard about previous orientations, our roommates were pre-assigned, and there was much guessing throughout the week about what formula was used to make those assignments. I totally lucked out in that my roommate and I were the same age and general energy level, and we both liked to go to bed around the same time every night. We also got a corner room with a gorgeous view over the city!

We were further broken up into Classes of about 40 people each, based on where we were going to be placed (Busan, Ulsan, Daegu, etc.). I won’t bore you with the details of our schedule, but from Monday – Saturday we had pretty much the same schedule of lectures with a break on Thursday for a field trip:

 

7:30-8:40:  Breakfast

9:00-10:30:  Lecture 1

11:00-12:30:  Lecture 2

12:30-1:40:  Lunch

2:00-3:30:  Lecture 3

4:00-5:30:  Lecture 4

5:30-6:40:  Dinner

7:00-8:30: Survival Korean class

11:00:  Curfew (everyone had to be back in the dorm building)

 

That schedule doesn’t leave a ton of time for hanging out, but tbh you don’t really have the energy for it what with running from one lecture to another. You also have to somehow fit in the time to plan out what you’re going to be doing on Sunday, which is a lesson plan demonstration with 1-2 other folks from your class. Still, we managed to get out to have a few drinks in the neighborhood a night or two.

Then, bright and early Monday morning you have to be packed and ready to leave as you’re either put on a bus to your city (for the non-Busan folks) or picked up by your Korean co-teacher in their car (if you’re staying in Busan). We all stood there feeling like puppies in a pet store window, watching hopefully as each car drove up. Thankfully, my co-teacher was very punctual and arrived just a few minutes after the hour. We loaded my insanely heavy suitcase into her trunk, and off we went!

 

 

 

 

 

Packing for Korea

There are about a million how-to-pack-for-Korea posts out there, so I’m not going to try to reinvent the wheel. This is mostly for my own amusement when I look back at it in six months and think “Why on earth did I think I needed to bring that?!”.

So, my quest to fit almost everything I could need for a year in South Korea into one large 50 lb suitcase failed – but I did manage to fit in almost everything I think I need:

Clothing

  • 2 pairs of jeans
  • 3 pairs corduroys
  • 2 pairs dress pants (I brought far too many pants)
  • 3 short-sleeve tops
  • 4 long-sleeve tops
  • 2 work-appropriate dresses
  • 2 blazers
  • 3 casual t-shirts
  • 1 sweatshirt
  • 2 sweaters
  • 2 cardigans
  • Enough underwear and socks for 2 weeks
  • 4 bras
  • 3 pairs of tights
  • 3 pairs of Uniqlo Heattech leggings (school hallways aren’t necessarily heated)
  • 3 Uniqlo long underwear tops
  • 2 pairs pajama pants
  • Black boots
  • Flats
  • Heels
  • Sandals/flip-flops
  • Raincoat
  • Winter coat
  • Gloves/scarves

 

Other Items

  • Misc office supplies (post-its, paper clips, scissors)
  • Gifts for my co-teachers (I’m bringing maple sugar candies)
  • Extra toothpaste with fluoride (not sure how available that is in Korea)
  • A few DVDs (in case I can’t get Netflix to work)
  • 4 sticks of deodorant
  • Umbrella
  • Korean plug adapters 
  • Extra contact lenses
  • And probably a few other things I’m forgetting…

 

The real challenge for me was having to revamp most of my wardrobe around Korean dress codes. Most of my professional wear conformed to American standards of decency, meaning no cleavage but a modest v-neck or scoop neck. Apparently Korean standards around the neck/chest area are much more modest, and I heard stories of teachers being reprimanded for wearing a shirt that even showed too much collarbone. So I had to hunt (and I mean hunt) through American stores to find work-appropriate shirts/dresses that wouldn’t make me look unprofessional in the eyes of my coworkers. And since I won’t be able to fit into any of the clothing in shops over there (other than, perhaps, a few stores in the foreigner district in Seoul), I have to just guess and hope for the best!

Because I’m taking a somewhat circuitous route to Seoul (by way of visiting my cousin in France) I decided to ship my luggage rather than drag it through seven different airports. I priced out several options and read so many reviews that my eyes started to glaze over, but I finally settled on Luggage Forward. It’s a bit more expensive than I’d like, but they were wonderful at answering my thousand and one questions. Plus, they track my luggage and take care of any hangups that happen with customs, etc. so the convenience factor makes it absolutely worth it to me for this trip. I’m just crossing my fingers it gets there in one piece!

 

suitcase

My not-so-little suitcase, just before I handed it off to be shipped

 

 

 

Visa Application

Having received my packet of papers from the EPIK office, I can now move on to the next paperwork-intensive part of this process – the visa application! I swear, I feel like filling out the EPIK paperwork is a part-time job at this rate…

To apply for an E2 visa (Foreign Language Teachers) to teach with EPIK, you need the following things:

[NOTE 1:  If you are NOT teaching with EPIK, please check with your local consulate for requirements. These are specifically for EPIK teachers.]

[NOTE 2:  These instructions are for applying in person at your local consulate. If you’re applying by mail you’ll need to include a money order for the $45 application fee and include a SASE for them to mail your passport back to you.]

  1. A completed visa application form.
  2. Your passport (and a photocopy of the passport’s info page).
  3. A passport picture, attached to the form.
  4. Your original Notice of Appointment (NOA) and a photocopy of it.
  5. Your signed contract (make sure to sign at the bottom of each page).
  6. The $45 visa application fee (in cash, if you’re applying in person).

 

One thing that I’m so glad my coordinator warned me about is that the Consulate is going to keep the copy of the contract you give them. That is just a copy for the visa application process – you’ll sign two more copies (one for EPIK and one for your records) at Orientation in Korea. The consulate will also keep your NOA, so if you want a copy (and it might be a good idea just in case), make a copy of that as well!

I drove out to the Consulate in Boston (which isn’t actually in Boston at all, but in Newton) one morning and had my first experience with what it’s going to be like living in a foreign country. For some reason I assumed that the staff working there would be fluent in English – and while their English was loads better than my Korean, we still ended up with quite a few moments of staring at each other in confusion. But, in the end I got my numbered ticket, stood in line, went over my paperwork with the patient man behind the little teller window, and walked out with a receipt telling me to come back the following Friday. Success!

It was a little nerve-racking to leave my passport behind, but fingers crossed I’ll have it back in my hands with a shiny new visa page by the end of next week!

 

P.S. I picked up my visa 5 business days later with no problem! Just remember to bring the receipt that they gave you when you dropped off the application. Now I have my shiny new visa page pasted into my passport, I can breath much easier…

 

 

Dynamic Busan, City of Tomorrow

After sleeping in this morning and lazily getting around to checking my email, I almost fell over when I saw a message from EPIK with the subject line “Final Approval Received”! In it, my coordinator informed me that I had been accepted by the Busan Metropolitan Office of Education and they would be sending me my contract in the next few weeks. I am so excited/relieved to finally have confirmation that this whole crazy thing is actually happening…

The email also informed me that they would be confirming the orientation dates soon, and warned against purchasing my plane ticket before receiving my visa. I don’t really understand how they expect us to wait until mid-January to purchase a ticket to fly mid-February, but I suppose they don’t want anyone complaining that they bought a ticket that conflicted with the orientation start date. I’m going back and forth on when I’m going to buy my ticket…it’s just such a tough decision! The only thing to do, if you’re me, is mounds of research and spreadsheets. 😉

 

But back to our topic – Busan! Also known, in the charming way that most Korean metropolitan areas have of giving themselves slogans and nicknames by seemingly appending random English words to the city name, as “Dynamic Busan”. (My favorite slogan so far of any city is “It’s Daejeon”, a rather uninspiring welcome to the city of Daejeon, if you ask me.)

But Busan, known as Korea’s “City of Tomorrow”, also apparently has some fantastic pieces of its past to recommend it. This little seaside metropolis is one of the few pieces of territory never captured by the Northern Army during the Korean War, and thus it served as the capitol of the wartime Republic of Korea. That unique history also means that it contains neighborhoods and areas that were untouched by much of the destruction of the 1950s.

The city of Busan has a population of approximately 3.6 million people and is the regional center of the southeast portion of Korea. It is the largest port city in Korea and its port is actually the fifth largest in the world! In other fun trivia, Busan is also home to the world’s largest department store – Shinsegae Centum City is over 5 million square feet of shopping and is part of an even larger 12 million sq-ft complex. I will be avoiding that place like the plague, I think.

Much more inviting is the idea of the plentiful hiking opportunities in the nearby mountains, temples dating back to the 7th Century, and the apparently gorgeous Busan Aquarium. Busan is also home to varied and delightful festivals, such as bonfire festivals, flower festivals, lantern festivals, sand castle festivals, international film festivals, and – to make my mother incredibly jealous – a hydrangea festival in July.

I’m still researching this incredible city that will be my home for the next year, but I can’t wait to share it with all of you!

 

 

gwangan_bridge_busan_south_korea-wallpaper-800x480

Busan’s Gwangandaegyo, or Diamond Bridge