Yesterday was day 1 of my second two week English winter camp.  Unlike the previous two week camp that wrapped up last Friday, where there were blue skies every day, yesterday morning was gloomy and overcast.

I wondered if there was any kind of portentous meaning in the gray skies and tried to shake it off as I walked into my office.  I turned on my computer, printed out a few things, and then made photocopies of stuff I needed for day.

To give you an idea of what I was copying (especially if you’ve never done a camp in Korea) here is a list of what I prepared.

1.  Classroom English Rules

2.  Camp Schedule with dates and times.

3.  A handout from the book “Ugly Koreans, Ugly Americans” about asking personal questions and taboos in introductions situations.

4. A writing assessment sheet with 3 simple questions.  I wanted the guys to spend 5 minutes per question, and write a minimum of five sentences or more per question, so I could see what their writing skills were like (one of the two major goals of the camp is to learn how to write a paragraph in English).

After organizing all the stuff I needed for my first day of camp and the two fifty minute periods I would be teaching I headed to the first grader (Koreans use elementary school grade language for high school grade names, don’t ask why–I don’t know) building where my classroom was.

I usually head to my classroom during a camp at least one hour early to prep the room and check that all the teaching technology is in working order.  I turn on the touch screen TV (I’d rather they had a power point projector and big screen, but oh well), and turn on the computer and check that both are working.  I also check that there’s an Internet connection.  All of these things in the past have for one reason or another not been working and if I don’t check with at least an hour to try and fix whatever problems might be happening I risk having to come up with teaching alternatives really really fast (it’s happened in the past, and it’s NOT fun).  OH, I also do these checks EVERY DAY–you can’t rely on the fact that something was working yesterday cause it might not be today.

I open the curtains to let in whatever natural light there is outside (unlike last week, not much) because I think it impacts student mood and energy levels.  If the only light in the room is artificial I think energy levels are lower.

I then check to see if the heat is on.  During the past two weeks of my first camp the heat had already been on, and I didn’t have to worry about walking the 100 feet or so back to the main building on the high school campus to the administration office to ask for it to be turned on.  Yesterday, however, I had to do so.

Having opened the curtains and gotten the heat turned on I then turned to prepping my white boards.  Depending on what I’m teaching, and whether I’ll do the materials more than once in a year, I usually make a power point file so that I don’t have to write things out while teaching.  For the camp, though, I didn’t have a power point made up of all the things I’d be putting on the white boards so I spent a few minutes writing it up.  Oh, and I cleaned the white boards.  It’s nicer for me to write on a clean white board, and I think nicer for the guys to be able to read off of too.

Looking at the above picture I forgot to mention my two ice breaking activities.  The first involves the use of balloons and speaking.  The second is getting the students to make ‘self-introduction posters.’  Last semester my school gave me a small budget to purchase color pencils and I had grabbed those for the guys to use in the making of their posters.  Not only do I have to do an ice breaker with the incoming freshmen who have never been in the high school before, but I also believe there’s a need for the guys to participate in an ice breaker with each other because they come from different middle schools all over the place.

I’ve written out a description of the balloon ice breaking activity that I use in my post called, English Camps in South Korea – A Guideline for Foreign English Teachers, so if you’re curious you can check it out there.  As for the self-introduction posters . . . this is what I do.

I brainstorm a list of topics with the guys.  Usually name, age, hobbies, favorites, dreams/wishes, and family are the topics that come up.  I do not teach them new language because I believe this is an activity where it’s better for them to be using language they already know.  I can then see how fast and easily they produce language they’ve learned, and how accurately they produce it too.  It takes pressure off of them to learn, and gives them time to adjust to the new environment, and of course me, the ‘alien’ English teacher.  While some students have a natural creative ability many students in Korea lack experience as language learners doing creative activities because there is a general antipathy on the part of Korean teachers, and surprisingly many students too, towards anything that they deem not to be learning tasks that are directly related to mastering test content.  As a result of this Korean students often have a really hard time beginning creative projects/tasks and completing them in what foreign teachers would consider a ‘normal’ period of time, so it’s a good idea to have a model of the self-introduction poster up on the white board, or even a hard copy that you’ve made yourself.  I like to change the colors of the words or letters, the size of the letters, the directions and angles of what I’m writing, and integrate pictures into the poster too.  Once the guys saw what I wanted they got down to it and did a great job.

While walking around to see what the guys were writing and assess their writing and general English levels I noticed something that looked familiar to me . . .

Looking closer I saw that this student had drawn a caricature of me, lol.  Then I noticed the word “surgery” and an arrow pointing to my eyelid–uhm, what???  Later, when I asked him what that was about he kind of shrugged and didn’t really answer.  I’ve been told I have very deep-set eyes, so I wonder if he’s suggesting I need to get surgery to somehow bring them forward and make them more ‘open’ or something.  I will never get cosmetic surgery, but the idea is funny.

Oh yeah, I also told him I thought my picture made me look like a serial killer–the other guys at the table were highly amused at the notion of the foreign teacher being a serial killer, lol.

There are several other posters and I’ll post pictures of the more interesting ones some time this week.  The other student in the picture below drew a picture of himself with a six pack and bulging biceps . . . it’s always interesting to see what the interests outside of school students in Korea have as school dominates so much of their daily lives.

Now you may have noticed that I drew two stick character pictures on the white board in a picture at the beginning of this post.  I’ve finally found a teaching method that effectively prevents students from blurting out rude questions–at least it seems to be working so far with the high school freshmen; whether or not it would work with middle school students is another thing, and I doubt very much it would work with elementary students due to the maturity level.

One of the reasons I do my white board work before I begin teaching is that it gives the students time to read it and think about the two pictures during the minutes leading up to the start of my class.  Later, after doing my balloon ice breaking activity and classroom rules I have an introduction power point I show the students.  It’s full of pictures and basic info about myself: name, age, my university major, my hobbies, family pictures, and other stuff that I think the guys would find interesting.  It humanizes the foreign teacher into a person instead of me as whatever negative image Korean news media has influenced the students into stereotyping me with (though I like to think many of the students are smart enough to know the racist stereotypes used about foreigners are not true).

After I finish my power point I talk about the pictures on the white board and go over the handout seen below in this picture.

I talk about several things over a period of 3 minutes.

1.  The need for Koreans when speaking in English to learn English cultural rules.

2.  The need to avoid using Korean social behavior rules when speaking in English to native speakers of English.

3.  Tips on how to figure out the answers to questions without actually asking the questions.  For example, “Are you married?”  Check the ring finger on the left hand–no ring generally means not married.

4.  I explain that I understand in Korean culture there are questions that MUST be asked and answered in order to know the proper forms of address and to ensure you’re being polite, but that those questions when used in an English conversation with a native speaker of English can often be considered rude.

5.  I point out that while some Koreans may say that we’re in Korea so we should follow Korean culture all the time that this doesn’t work for tourists because they are only here for a short time, that it doesn’t work for business situations because both parties have to respect each other’s cultures, and finally that if I was speaking in KOREAN but using ENGLISH CULTURE communication rules for being polite and making conversation that most if not all Koreans would tell me I MUST follow Korean culture rules when speaking in Korean, and by that standard we should consider what that means for when a Korean is speaking English . . .

There are a few more things I say while I talk about this handout but I think I’ve covered most of the primary points.  I don’t think I would have covered as many points if the freshmen English levels were lower but because I was talking to a very smart group of high level guys I felt it was appropriate.

By now you may be wondering when I was going to talk about my teaching nightmare and zombie students . . .

Here’s my story.  I’ve done my balloon ice breaking activity over a hundred times during my five years in Korea.  I’ve used it with elementary students, middle school students, high school students, university students, and Korean English teacher trainees with good to excellent results EVERY TIME!

Yesterday, however, was the first time in my five years of using this ice breaker that I experienced an almost complete and utter lack of reaction.

Alright, I think more detail is necessary to understand my shock at the students lack of reactions . . .

Step 1:  I ask the students what ‘ice breaking activity’ means.  Usually they don’t know the term so I ask them if they think it means breaking a block of ice literally.  I mime holding a piece of ice and breaking it with my head, and make a big production of doing it.  I may not get every student in the classes I’ve done this with to laugh, but I usually get at least HALF of the class to laugh.  In yesterday’s camp I don’t think I even got a giggle out of ONE of the guys.

Step 2:  After explaining ice breaking activity to the students, I then pull out a balloon from my pocket. I ask them to tell me what it is in English.  I then ask them to tell me how to spell it.  I ask them what color it is, and how to spell the color.  Getting them to do these simple things begins a pattern of me asking them to do something, and then them doing it (generally a good thing in teaching, lol, and something that if you haven’t taught in Korea you won’t understand why I point out such an ‘obvious’ thing–until you come here and are trying to get students to answer BASIC questions, lol).

Step 3:  I then tell them that we’re going to play a crazy English speaking game.  I tell them that the balloon is magical and it has the power to help them speak English loudly and quickly.  Usually at this point the students all begin laughing, and looking at each other nervously and excitedly.  Yesterday’s freshman . . . pretty much zombies snoozing after chowing down on the native English teacher’s entrails . . . yes, by this point it was that bad! LOL…sigh.

Step 4:  I then begin blowing up the balloon.  At this point I scan the class and look for a student who is shy and quiet.  The reason for this is that as I continue blowing up the balloon I move closer and closer to that student.  I pause one time just before I blow in the last possible breath into the balloon, and ask the class if I should blow more air into the balloon.  Usually I get several shouts of “MORE! MORE!” and “NO! NO! STOP!” from different students in the class, while at the same time the shy and quiet student is trying to crawl under their desk . . . all of this gets the class relaxed and excited to see what happens next.  Yesterday’s class . . . almost nothing.

You might say that I had a Ben Stein-teacher-moment . . .

Apparently my ‘voodoo’ ice breaking activity finally met its match in the zombies attending the camp, lol.

Step 5:  After I finish blowing up the balloon as big as it can get without out popping it I usually look at it, slam it a bit with my hands to make a nice boomy sound, and say something like “Oh, so beautiful” which also gets a laugh from the students.  I then explain the four rules to the game.  1)  You must speak loudly. 2) No mistakes. 3) No cheating. (As in friends whispering answers to students who don’t know what to say.) 4) Perfect pronunciation.  After telling the students the four rules I then get them to recite them back one by one to me to make sure they know the rules.  If the students are lower level I ask a different student, after getting them to repeat the rule, to explain its meaning in Korean, so I can try to ensure the students know what the rules are.

At this point, I then explain that if any of the rules are broken that I pop the balloon–and then I POP THE BALLOON, lol.  At this point the whole class I’m working with, regardless of age or gender, all begin laughing and talking excitedly and they’ve completely forgotten to be shy and quiet around the strange foreign teacher.

Yesterday’s class–I got some animated facial expressions, and a few exclamations, and then . . . back to zombie mode–argh!

Step 6: While the students are recovering from the balloon popping, I immediately begin blowing up another balloon.  Once that is done I tell them that they’re going to recite the alphabet (I usually have to repeat the word 2-3 times because they don’t understand it, and sometimes even get the co-teacher to translate) one by one through the class.  If the class is very low level I do a practice run once through with me modeling the pronunciation–otherwise things go downhill pretty fast!!

Sometimes, believe it or not, I even write out the alphabet on the white board.  Whether or not the class is struggling to recite the alphabet in the game one by one because their levels are so low, or because they’re shy, or whatever the reason happens to be . . . sometimes you have to write the English you’re working with onto the white board.  It’s more important that the activity is successful, especially for an ice breaker, then sticking to some insanely strict idea about what the students ‘should’ be able to do.

Step 7:  The game begins . . . if the students break ANY of the 4 rules–POP!

Step 8:  As I go from student to student I stop the game occasionally to correct any mistakes.  If the student gets the pronunciation somewhat correct I don’t pop the balloon but I do prompt them with a modeling of the correct pronunciation and ask them to do it again.

Step 9:  Then I move on to days of the week.  After running through that 3 or 4 times, depending on how big the class is, I tell the students we have to raise the level of the game.  I go to my desk and grab my water bottle.  I take out a new balloon, and put a tiny bit of water into the balloon, and then blow it up to about half of the balloon’s capacity.  While I’m doing this I usually hear a lot of excited and nervous comments from the students.

Step 10: Months of the year.  Students usually all begin groaning and making worried comments because they know there’s at least one student who will likely not be able to say the correct month when it’s their turn and that I’ll then pop the balloon . . . but the great thing about the water in the balloon is that if there was any boredom setting in that quickly disappears.

Sometimes I pop the balloon with a tiny bit of water in it and other times I don’t even if there were a few small mistakes made by students.  If the student who makes a mistake tries again and gets it right, I don’t pop it.  For shy and insecure students I also will sometimes give them some hints like the first letter of the word, or first few letters, or I’ll draw the letters in the air with my finger . . . that kind of thing to help out the lower level students.

In classes where I’ve got demon-students who are extremely loud and/or disruptive I pull a chair up to the front of the classroom, point at the student, and get them sitting in it. I then place the balloon on top of their head, and say “Okay, let’s go!”  At this point the class usually goes bonkers, along with the student in the chair, and I know the ice breaker has done its job.  I whisper to the student “trust me” or “kenchenayo” (“relax”) so they have an idea that I will NOT POP THE BALLOON!  I have never in the dozens of times I’ve done this popped the balloon while it is near the student’s head.

The power of the balloon on the student’s head comes from the illusion I create that I will pop the balloon, and this is an immensely powerful motivator to the students in the class to speak English loudly and to try very hard to speak English well.

However, yesterday’s zombie class barely reacted, and even after I put water in the balloon students were still barely speaking above a soft level of volume.  My co-teacher and I were both astounded that the ice breaker wasn’t getting the desired results . . .

I came to the realization, after finishing up my ice breaking DISASTER, that I had gotten a class full of students who were extremely introverted, very smart, and very talented in English.  Apparently this combination of elements in a class will produce an impervious shield that can repel the magical spell of my balloon ice breaking activity.

I guess it was bound to happen some time . . .

Now to begin plotting some kind of learning activity that will truly break the ice . . . MOOWHAHAHAHA!