Tuesday, June 16, 2009


This week my lesson isn't as thrilling as $100k Pyramid, but it's still going pretty well. I call it "Identities."Lisa gave me a set of "identity cards" that she made and used last week. With the class separated on opposite sides of the room, half of the class gets a new identity (Karl, Jessica, Juan), and the other half gets a piece of paper. I tell them that they need to meet five new people and get to know some things about them, and we review questions they can ask to get to the specific information, like:

Birthday: "When is your birthday?", "When were you born?"
Place of birth: "Where were you born?"
Age: "How old are you?"
Hobby: "What do you like to do in your free time?", "What are your hobbies?"


As basic as this sounds, it's really tough for a lot of my students to formulate these questions without a prompt. If I ask them how they would ask someone about their siblings (and trust me, I explain the word "siblings"), they look at me with a blank face. "How many..." I say. "How many..." they repeat. I can see the wheels turning in their heads, churning through all of the English rules and formulas they've learned in the last 10 years. "How many brothers and sisters..." someone will say, after 2 or 3 minutes of silence. "Right," I say finally, "How many brothers and sisters do you have?"

After reviewing the questions, I pass out the identities and ask them to mingle and write down responses for up to five people (depending on time) before sitting back down. Once they are seated on their respective sides of the room, I tell them I want them to introduce me to the people they met. "Who did you meet?" I'll ask one student, who will look at their sheet and say, for example, "Karl." I'll look across the room and should "Where's Karl?" If they aren't paying attention this quickly gets everyone to look up. "Karl" raises his/her hand. "What's up, Karl?" I'll say. Back to the first student, "Tell me about Karl." They look back at their card. "He birthday is December nine." "His birthday is December ninth," I have them repeat. I review the use of personal pronouns (he/she) and possessive adjectives (his/her) and write examples on the board for them to review as I go around the room and ask different students to respond.

Koreans, in general, have a big problem with the difference. As one teacher told me after class, they first have to think of the gender of the person they're referring to. Then they have to think about the function of the word (adjective, pronoun) and finally the correct format for the gender and function. Though the Korean language does have pronouns and possessive adjectives like this (그 = he, 그녀 she, 그의 = his, 그녀의 her), my co-teacher told me that they're rarely used when speaking - they are only used when translating English directly into Korean or in the written language. Instead, they more often use the general word for "person" (사람), which carries no connotation of gender.

I can't fault the students for their own failures when it comes to speaking - the system of English education in Korea has stacked the odds against them. Their class lectures are conducted almost exclusively in Korean, the only exception being when a new vocabulary word is introduced, and even then it's sandwiched between lines of Korean, so it remains trapped, effectively, within the language structure of Korean. Students have difficulty developing a separate identity for the English language within this framework.

I also read recently that such different languages (grammatically, phonetically, etc) as English and Korean require over 2,000 study hours in order for a native speaker of one to gain proficiency in the other. More similar languages, like English and Spanish, or Korean and Japanese, require only about 360 study hours to reach the same level of fluency.

In any case, I feel like I'm starting to get a read on my students and can control them better. It makes a world of difference in the way they behave and how much they participate. I think at first I was more concerned with making sure the students had fun - one of our objectives as EPIK teachers, after all, is to cultivate interest among the students - than trying to make them participate. I think the students started to sense this, the same way that a dog smells your fear, and they started to take advantage of it. I can't say exactly how my attitude changed, but now I have no problem kicking a student out of the classroom after a few requests to participate. If they aren't interested in the activity we're doing, I'm not interested in having them in my class. Usually, after kicking a student out of a troublesome class, obnoxious students will reveal themselves to be nothing more than sheep in wolves' clothing - they roll over and purr, or do whatever sheep do to display defeat or obedience.

I was expecting some difficulty with "Identities," since it's a speaking activity and requires a certain amount of unsupervised conversation. Surprisingly, as long as the students have a reference point for questions, they are perfectly willing to participate in the activity. Sometimes I'll catch them taking shortcuts - saying "Birthday" instead of asking a question - but I'll remind them to ask questions and wait for them to correct themselves. With a little bit of encouragement they begin to see how easy it is.

It also helped that one half of the class was pitted against the other - I told the ones with identities not to reveal the answer unless the other student spoke in English. The classroom setup only improved the situation - since friends sit next to each other, they can't ask each other the questions. They have to talk to the students on the other side of the room. Whereas a good friend would just turn their card around and let you copy all of the answers, those other students don't have a problem holding out the answer until they hear some English.


  1. Anonymous12:44 AM

    I can see the evolution of your transition into a teacher. Nicely done.

  2. Several months ago, a woman who was teaching the Kalmyk language to Kalmyk people in Russia came to give a couple presentations here at the university. One of the interesting parts of her talk that I remember was that she was saying that she used a specific Russian language teaching methodology that involved a lot of roleplaying, where each student would come up with an alternate identity to use when talking with the other students. I thought it was interesting, since I've heard a number of people say that they feel like their personality is different when they speak a different language. Anyway, your "Identities" lesson sounded similar. If I can find my notes when I get home, I'll send something about it.


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