I haven’t spent much time discussing what goes on in my classroom. For the first year, it was mostly me trying to keep my head above water and my students from sleeping. But this year, I’ve been working on something new.
To understand the difficulty of reaching these kids, you first need to understand how their school is set up. It’s a rough go for teenagers, to say the very least, to be educated in Korea. There are deeply rooted, strong social standards that demand rigorous education. Parents spend a small fortune to educate their kids, sometimes up to half of their monthly income, paying for private schools, tutors and hours upon hours of lessons at private hagwons (or ‘academies,’ private tutoring or education centers where kids while away the hours learning English, test prep techniques or music lessons).
Our school is a bit different. It’s a prestigious college prep school divided into three parts: the boys’ school, the girls’ school and the Global Leader Program (an international program that Jerry teaches for). I teach for the boys’ school. My students wake to a bell at 6:00 am, head to breakfast and then get ready for school. Homeroom begins at 7:40, followed by first period at 8:10. Classes finish on the hour and there are ten-minute passing periods in between. Lunch is an hour long at noon. They finish seventh period at 4:00 pm, then have a half an hour before their after school lessons start. On Wednesdays they do community service in lieu of lessons, but these lessons go until dinner time, which is 6:00 pm. (Please note, at this point in time, they’ve been up and at ’em for 12 hours already, which is a long day by anyone’s standards.)
They aren’t finished, though. After dinner finishes at 7:30, they go to ‘yaja,’ or study hall. They find an open classroom and study from 7:30 until 11 pm. If you don’t finish your homework at this time, you’re going to be finishing it after lights out at midnight.
Now, in case that whirlwind of information is a blurry timetable, it works out to mean that students get a maximum of six hours of sleep every night IF they’re finished with assignments and studying by lights out and IF they are fast asleep once their head hits the pillow until they wake up again at 6:00 the next morning. Lather, rinse, repeat.
It’s grueling. And it’s highly competitive. Rigid grade curves, stringent standardized tests, mountains of homework. It’s rough to watch them… I honestly don’t know how they keep up.
I really struggle with whether or not to give homework. They have enough on their plates, to be sure, and there’s definitely enough argument that kids don’t need any more homework than they already have. So I’ve started using flipped-classroom techniques in school. I release a video each week for my students to pre-teach what their content for the week is (vocabulary, chapter concepts, etc.). The students watch the video and learn at home (their dorm room) and then they come to class to do activities that reinforce what we’re covering.
I’ve also rolled out a gamified-plan to keep them engaged. Every activity they complete offers them the chance to earn points for their class. Each class is a team competing against all of my others for extra points to put them ahead. The prize at the end of the rainbow (semester)? A pizza party.
I created a website where they can check their homework every week. Fridays are video days when I post the next week’s unit video. In class, I give mini-quizzes to assess if they’re watching the video and learning. But the game is a role-playing game as well–I’m portraying the mission leader for the game, who is helping guide them to their ultimate goal: to defeat a horde of zombies.
Yes, you read that correctly.
All of their points earn them survival items, which in turn puts them ahead of other teams. Collaboration, extra effort, staying on task–all these things earn bonus points. They can even earn bonus points using Twitter to tweet challenge items with a special hashtag. For example, in our photography unit, we learned about the overlap between words and images and in one section, we discussed the meaning of “a picture is worth a thousand words.” To earn some extra points, they could tweet a photo worth one thousand words to them with our hashtag and their student number (no names because internet).
So far, the response has been a little slower than I’d like, but more positive than I feared. Part of me is self-conscious of putting my face in these videos to explain vocabulary words, but in an informal poll of my students, many identified that seeing me say and pronounce specific words was very helpful. And in situations where they might have difficulty hearing the words, being able to watch my mouth helps clarify what the word might be.
I’ll keep you posted on how this continues to go, but I think so far we’re only a few weeks in and already rolling into a good start. My students sleep less, we play more games and they generally seem to be having more fun, which is such a relief for me as a teacher who knows how much work they do and how tired they are and frankly, feels rather sorry.
After all, they’re only kids.
If you’re curious, you can check out pictures below of some of our recent classroom activities.