Monday, June 30, 2008

"I Wish We Had Some Communists Here!"

Thom Yorke--"Everything In Its Right Place (live)" (mp3)
Jenny Owen Youngs--"Fuck Was I" (mp3)

There's a funny scene in the great Dudley Moore movie Arthur where he's drinking with a soused guy at a bar and the guy is lamenting the fact that in our country kids are learning how to dance while in communist Russia, kids are being taught how to fight. Trying to commiserate/gently mock him, Arthur responds, "I wish we had some communists here."

Welcome to Korea, where children are in school for the summer.

It's worth pondering. What are our students doing right now? Working jobs, hanging out, going out at night.

A Korean student, a rising senior, is old enough to go out and drink Soju all night long. But he doesn't, she doesn't.

A Korean rising senior is taking classes in a hagwon like the one we're in. Korean seniors are in classes 2-3 hours a day focused just on SAT reading. They are in classes 2-3 hours a day on SAT essay. On top of this, they are memorizing 300 words a day, 1500-1800 words a week, perhaps tens of thousands of words in a summer.

It sounds silly, doesn't it? It can't possibly work, can it? Well, none of us think so, but when I ask students, they will acknowledge that while they don't retain these words for the long term, that they do know a lot of words when it comes time to take the next SAT.

The younger children are following a similar regimen, though more likely focused on the SSAT that will help them to get into a good American boarding school sometime in the near future.

On top of this, many of them (like our students) are doing extra AP prep work in areas like history that are a struggle for them. They are taking writing classes, working with me, for example, on college essays. My summer students here will walk into the fall with 5 college essays already written.

It does make you wonder, doesn't it? I mean, I wouldn't want our students in general or my child in particular tied to a regimen like this. But, I am also teaching 6th graders--yes, I have a class of 4 sixth grade girls who are very fun, very active, very willing to work and very smart. On top of it all, they have superb English, far better than most of their senior year counterparts. This means that in the next 1/2 generation, Korean students are going to be working the same summer regimen, but not to make up English deficiencies. Instead, they will likely be achieving absolute mastery of many elements of standardized testing.

Right now, the American boarding school market for Koreans has tightened up. But if these future applicants can bolster their SSAT scores even more and can pay their own freight, are top schools really going to turn them down?
Oh yeah, and every single student in the hagwon plays an instrument.

Thom Yorke live comes from one of Neil Young's Bridge Benefit concerts. Jenny Owen Youngs is available from Itunes.


John said...

The conference that Chet and I attended at Stanford on Teaching Quality Decision Making featured a speaker from the Stanford School of Education, Der Denise Pope. Her book, "Doing School: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students" should be required reading for the McCallie faculty and President Obama's Dept of Education chief. There was a lot in that hour and in the book, but here are a few items of note: Research indicates that there is very little correlation between homework load and academic achievement in elementary school. At the high school level, 2 hours maximum for all subjects in a given night--beyond that, homework actually starts to become counter-productive. She had a term that one of the students in her research had coined--"Robo-students"--which defines some of the norms among high school students: cheating, though, they know it's wrong, is a means to an end that they feel is unavoidable; lack of creativity and the ability to problem solve; a definition of success very different from our own. Asking the adults how they would define a successful person, the room resonded with things like, having friends, being loved, enjoying your vocation, having meaningful relationships. Asked the same question, students responded, making money, getting into a good college, getting good grades. Issues of personal fulfillment were way down the list. One of the things that she was driving at is that in ALL education is at heart "Character Education" and that as parents and teachers, we can do things to re-educate our students. Re-educated...sounds communist, after all!

Anonymous said...

From Kathleen in response to John but directed at Bob:
Sounds like Allison.

Hank said...

Uh oh! John used the M word.

John said...

Holy crap, I did! Forgive me. Mea Culpa.

Billy said...

Interesting dichotomy between what this Stanford researcher claims -- that more homework is counter productive, etc. -- and my anecdotal experience with Korean students.

Who work easily twice as hard if not three times as hard as our American students (which would put them well in the "counterproductive" category). Who can sometimes struggle to verbally communicate even the most basic sentences. And who, well, kick American ass in American schools, academically speaking.

So I'm not sure I buy into that "more than two hours is harmful" thing.

Are Korean kids generally less socially comfortable? Are they bad athletes? Are they in lots of dramas or cool student organizations? No. But I'm not gonna swallow the "we give our precious American kids too much work" claim when I see, academically, how the other half lives.

Part of the problem, culturally, is that I suspect Korean kids see working their asses off, academically, as just part of life. Kind of the way kids in Dillon, Texas, expect to work their asses off in football, football and football.

Academics are not not some agonizing burden for Korean kids. It just is what it is. Meanwhile, American kids see working on school as an annoying means to an end (degree, money). If they're entertained or engaged, it's not so bad, but otherwise it's not worth their time.

I don't envy the entire cultural difference, but to fail to acknowledge what they gain in their trade-offs (sacrificing athletics, for instance) seems unwise.

jennifer said...

I'm doing some tutorials this summer with kids who have to retake their exit level tests to graduate (oddly enough, I'm teaching at the "Dillon" high school...the one from the pilot at least). I'm working with a handful of kids who don't read well, can't keep their eras in US History straight, and get frustrated taking exams and just start guessing. Most of them are 18 years old.

I think there's certainly a correlation between work and achievement, and that most students who are willing to work hard, even if they don't have an aptitude for certain subjects, are still going to do all right. I just don't think kids are getting this message, and the ones I work with just seem to have an excuse for everything. They don't seem to understand how to start their own engines and keep themselves motivated. I think that motivation--whether it's coming from within or without--is the key.