Yellow dust

So about this time every year, dust from the Gobi Desert area starts blowing through most of East Asia. I didn't really know about "yellow dust season" before I got to Korea, but boy have I gotten an introduction. While I haven't actually SEEN the dust, I've definitely felt it. Started last week with some wheezing -- I've used my fast-acting inhaler about once in the last year. As severe as my asthma was in childhood, it's mild to nonexistant these days, and I was naturally surprised to find I had breathing difficulties. I developed a slight cough and the breathing worsened, so Monday I went to the hospital.

Korean medical care is interesting. I go see the general doctor, who speaks enough English, tell him I'm having breathing trouble and am asthmatic and all he does is listen to my lungs. It sort of freaks me out how they prescribe anything without taking a medical history, asking about possible interactions or even doing a real physical. Anyway, he gave a "Turbuhaler" to take twice a day and two doses of prednizone and that was that.

My wheezing did get better, but I got sicker. I went back on Thursday and I've progressed to full-blown pneumonia. This time my "physical" consisted of listening to my lungs, temperature and a chest x-ray (this is the nice part of Korea: a $10 chest x-ray!). I got lots of drugs (they don't tell me what they are, and it's a convoluted process of looking up the insurance number on druginfo.co.kr and then googling the active ingredients). Hopefully, they're working.

I did get Friday off work, though not if The Hagwon had had their way. I don't have any sick days left, because I used them both for India-related things, but even if I did the Korean view on illness isn't terribly pragmatic. They try to bargain with you, "well, maybe you can come just for this one class, because parents expect there is foreign teacher--"



Again, the weaknesses of Hagwon education

As I said, the new semester started last week (that's why I've been so busy). I've touched on some of the frustrations of teaching at a hagwon, but a couple things happened this week that really highlighted one of the major reasons my "school" can be counterproductive to actual learning.

Unrealistic expectations
Yesterday my coworker called a teacher meeting to discuss discipline. In the course of developing a sticker system to encourage homework completion and discourage, say, yelling in class, the issue of the textbooks came up. Without any consultation with the foreign teachers (or, for that matter, the Korean teachers), the school purchased books far too advanced for the classes. First graders with no experience in real classwork were being given Level 2 Dictation books for listening, and the speakers were at conversational speed.

But they aren't willing to slow down or change. We just have to "make it work" because the parents expect more. As a coworker aptly put it, you can't go from arithmetic to physics in a week. You'd think that these parents, who are not by ANY means fluent (I've spoken to most of them) would realize how difficult it is to master a language, and yet they expect their small children to do it in a month? There's challenging students, but there's also going so far over their heads that they can't even reach.

The same day, one of my B-level students' mother came in for a meeting and to observe. She was furious that her daughter (first grade) was in the second-level class -- even though two of the smartest kids in the grade are as well, and we use the same book as the A-level. She yelled and screamed and carried on and finally my boss decided just to move the girl up, after the mother called the kindergarten teacher to get confirmation that YW's English was in fact remarkable. The truth, of course, is that she belonged and was doing well in B-level. But it wasn't about the kid. It was about the mother, and the image of being in the top class.

At least I have one sane parent, though! A former kindergarten student of mine who'd been placed into the C-level class was bumped up, and after a day his mother asked that he be moved back down to give him a chance to master the fundamentals. That kid will probably end up with better English than any of them!


Found a new website for general bookmarking: This Week in Evolution summarizes a paper a week. So much of my reading is either on the mechanisms of evolution or the general evo-creo debate that it's nice to interject some current research in there. Keep an eye on it.


It's a whole new year.

Today was the opening of the new year for Korean schools, which means changes at The Hagwon too. We have a new crop of baby first graders coming in, which means everybody else is shuffled and pushed up an hour. Reshuffling of the afternoon teachers, too: one teacher got transferred out and another brought it; all of my wonderful classes were taken away from me and given to the disciplinarian teacher, who really should be doing, oh I don't know, the classes with discipline problems. But that'd make too much sense for The Hagwon! In fact, in a stunning piece of reasoning, The Director is pointedly not giving the bad classes to Disciplinarian because if the boys can't spend English Hagwon time playing with their friends, they might quit.

Sometimes you just have to shake your head and get on with it.

So, my new and vastly unimproved schedule:

2pm - first grade, mid-level. I had half of them in kindergarten. They're solid students and mostly good kids. I won't have any trouble with them; also, there's only six.
3pm - kill me. Rotating class (so, a different group MWF than TR), low level, no interest.
4pm - no, seriously. Big rotating class, equally low, much worse discipline-wise.
5pm - low level underacheivers, but small class size and only on MWF. I can do a little with these guys, anyway.
6pm - thank the hockey gods for this one. Our six smartest elementary kids in one room. I've got my 4th grade writing genius (more on her at a later date), two 4th graders who lived in the US for two years, a very talented 5th grader and one of the funniest kids I know, even if he is a bit behind the others and in 6th grade (he's the "daughter of a bitch" boy).

Aside from losing all my kids that I've had since I started at this damn place, the big downsides are that I'm no longer teaching my 8-year-old math genius and my favorite first grader won't be with me anymore, either.

This whole thing would be so much easier if I didn't care about my job or my kids.

On a high note, I got to name a couple kids today. One was "Weasley" already, but I tagged two more "McKay" and "Carson." Cookies for whoever gets the reference.


Yes, yes, meme time

...from All in a Day's Work:

1. Grab the book closest to you.
2. Open to page 123, go down to the fourth sentence
3. Post the text of the following three sentences.
4. Name the author and book title.
5. Tag three two other people to do the same.

Fourth full sentence? I'll go with that:
"But as I have already allowed, this does not rule out biological laws; it merely sets the burden of proof for those who want to propose any. And in the meantime, it gives us a framework for describing large and important classes of regularity we discover in the patterns in our biosphere.
CHAPTER 5: Biological possibility is best seen in terms of accessibility (from some stipulated location) in the Library of Mendel, the logical space of all genomes."

The closest book to me happens to be the one I'm reading, Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett. I'm not actually to page 123, but I'm enjoying it thoroughly so far. It's my first non-Dawkins evo book in a while, and while I don't think anything can surpass The Ancestor's Tale as my favorite nonfiction of all time, Dennett is a bit more philosophical and willing to apply these concepts to humanity, which I guess makes sense since he's a director of cognitive studies.

I tag Bug Blog and Beautiful Biology.


A splash of culture

I will admit that what passes for foreigner culture in Korea -- especially the smaller cities, such as mine -- is drinking. We drink a lot, and the teachers who DON'T drink have essentially no social life around here. But you actually learn a lot in the bars, and cultural exchange via alcohol can be the best kind, so here are a few of the things we tend to find continually amusing, no matter how long we're here:

1. Soju. The official alcoholic beverage of Korea, this stuff is essentially vodka's weak little brother. It's made of rice (shock.) and tastes like diet lighter fluid, but it's only about 40 proof. We shoot it most of the time, but a lot of places make sawa, flavored soju, with fresh strawberry, kiwi, grape, etc., and that stuff is good.
2. Side dish. This isn't even just a drinking thing. When you go in a restaurant or bar, you are immediately showered with side dish (note: this is never plural), and I think it could be a federal law that kimchi be served with every meal. In bars, side dish tends to be the normal pretzel-peanut-salty fish combo. In some you have to order side dish with your alcohol, fruit, sausage, soups, omelette, that sort of thing. In soju tents and maccoli houses, side dish comes with your drinks and ranges from shrimp to squid to egg to veggies...
3. Soju tents. Open-air (in nice weather) permanent tent-thingies with plastic tables and chairs, usually a projection TV with soccer on, cheap-ass soju and good side dish. These places are wonderful.
4. The soju drinking game. So you know when you open a bottled drink, the circle of plastic that the cap seperates itself from on the initial twist? Well, on soju that circle is aluminum and breaks upon opening the bottle, but one end stays attached to the cap. You twist it tight and pass it around the table, with everyone taking a turn flicking it. The people on either side of the eventual person who flicks it off take shots. Then the winner looks at the number that's indented on the underside of the cap. It's always between 1 and 100, and you go around the table again guessing numbers (so if the number is 37 and the first person guesses 50, the caller will say "lower" and the next contestant's range is 1-50). Whoever gets the number takes a shot. Simple and elegant, as drinking games go, and built right into the bottle.
5. The two-hand thing. Ok, so, it's actually impolite not to do this when handing ANYTHING to anybody else, but especially money and alcoholic beverages. The basics, for drinking: a) always pour with your right hand. b) the left hand should either be on the bottle, on your right wrist, on your right elbow, or on your chest. c) always hold your glass with the same two-handed grip when someone is pouring for you. d) never pour your own drink. e) never let someone else's glass remain empty. Not following these rules results in bad luck for the people across from you, so says tradition.
6. Kombae! "Cheers" in Korean.
7. Nore bong. A fairly common post-bar/tent destination, the nore bong translates as "music (or song) room" and it's private karaoke. For like $15 you and all your friends can go croon drunkenly in your very own room. And you can bring beer.

So now you know a bit about how to drink in Korea, which I'm sure will come in handy. I know that when I go home in five months (speaking of which, I was accepted to UAH for a second degree last week) I'll be pouring with two hands for months.


It's February!

Which means pitchers and catchers report and the NCAA ping is sounding again. Forgive the diversion, but my Tar Heels are ranked number 1 by Baseball America for the first time in program history, and I'm pretty excited. Granted, Seton Hall (our first-weekend opponent for several years now) is not the most fearsome of teams, but a sweep and 27-4 outscoring in three games is a good start.

Robert Woodard, who was awesome last year and will be awesome this year, took a perfect game into the 7th in the Friday season opener, retiring the first 20 batters and ending up with 7.2 scoreless, one-hit innings. Brilliant. I thought last year would be the best chance at a national championship for a while since Miller and Bard would be leaving, but I guess being an out away improves your recruiting.

Among recent graduates (or draftees), Andrew Miller is looking really good at Tigers camp, looking like the best of the young arms, though he'll probably start the year at Lakeland. I doubt he'll be there long, as he managed to ascend to Detroit last year. Chris Iannetta's a shoe-in for a roster spot in Colorado, even though their signing Javy Lopez makes it a bit harder for him to earn the starter's role right off the bat. Still, .260 after his call-up last year's nothing to sneer at.

I think those are the only two in camp so far, so it'll be a month or before I can check up on how the minor leaguers are doing and where they got assigned this season.

Let's go Tar Heels!


Bigger lies and bad science

Yesterday we wrapped up a week and a half of kindergarten parent interviews. It wasn't too bad, fun to meet some of my kids' parents and to show off their reading, but there were parts that bothered me immensely. For instance, did you know that every child in my class is WELL above average? I know! Shocking! It was a reminder of what I do try to forget -- we aren't a school, we're a business, and keeping the parents happy comes before teaching the kids.

The format of the meeting was pretty straightforward. We gave a powerpoint presentation on the elementary school program, then our director came in and bullet-pointed it in Korean, showed off the textbooks and explained the prices and schedules. We brought the kid in and had them do a reading rate test in a minute, told the parent the kid was unbelievably great and then asked a few questions to show off their listening and speaking skills. Of course, the questions were rehearsed and for half of them the reading was basically them saying "a" and "the" and "to" and us providing the rest.

The reading rate test was shit, of course. We took first and second-grade level tests off a website that measured reading speed, but it was one with a start and stop button, so the passages weren't meant for a 1-minute timed test. However, without any supporting data, my coworker decided that the passages (which, remember, weren't made for a 1-minute test) weren't meant to be read in 1 minute, so the average must be about half the passage, in this case 20 words. So she persisted in telling EVERY parent whose kid churned out 45 words a minute -- the lowest "score" amongst our 7-year-old ESL students -- that he or she was well above the reading level of the average American first grader. Even after I explained that a) the passages we chose weren't intended for this sort of test, b) data on the topic shows first graders average 50-80 wpm according to a couple different studies and c) not knowing how to say a word SHOULD affect their score, she STILL didn't stop telling parents that.

But the bad science for marketing ploy bothered me most. At my university, only one science major required a research methods class for graduation, and that was psychology. I imagine that part of the reason is that because of the nature of psych research, the variance, the difficulties in study design and the impossibility of generalizing most things to a whole population, it's more important that students be capable of distinguishing bad science from good, but whatever the reason, I did very well in the class and misrepresentation of psych research is a huge pet peeve of mine.

So my fellow kindy teacher dug up some study showing that children who change schools have worse grades, while those who remained in the same school got better grades, went to university and got better jobs. First of all, university follows from having good grades and better jobs follow from being university educated, so I objected right off the bat to essentially telling parents that if they changed hagwons on us at age 7, their kid would be working at 7-Eleven in vocational high school.

Then, the attached graph showed that of the kids who "stayed in the same school," 70% had an A average, about 25% were B students and the remainder were C or D students. The A-B-C/D-F breakdown for kids who "changed schools" was 25%-25%-35%-15%. I couldn't find the exact study, because she didn't cite it, but I did read some similar research for a class in development of social behavior last year. Most of the work seemed to be focused on grade spans, illustrating that the jump from elementary to middle and middle to high could affect grades, especially in students that were going through puberty at the same time as the change in schools. For all I know, the study was looking at at-risk sixth graders making the jump to seventh. Or it was examining the grades of students who changed schools midyear, or those who had changed schools more than once in a five-year period. I don't know, and neither did she, and neither did those parents.

Of course, I can say with certainty that this study was not addressing the grades of 7-year-olds who are starting the first grade in public school ("changing schools") anyway and are only deciding whether or not they want to attend English academy in the same building that they attended kindergarten. And every time I had to explain that stupid graph, I thought about how I didn't deserve that A in Research Methods.

I do know that hagwons are first and foremost a business. It's why we can't give bad grades or bad comments, it's why 8 year olds have black belts in taekwondo. That didn't bother me at first, when I was teaching the kids who didn't want to learn English and never would. But now I'm teaching the really good kids, the ones who can be fluent, who can study abroad and go to college outside of Korea if they want to, and I do care more about what they learn than what their parents think they learn. These are bright, creative kids and they deserve better than the hagwon business, and I hate sitting in meetings being the only one on their side.

So in honor of solnal, the lunar new year, a resolution: I get five more months of these students, and I get to teach 'em not just English reading, but creative writing, science and social studies. In my class, this isn't going to be about what the parents see, it's going to be about what my kids learn. What's wrong with this system that that isn't enough?


Genius kids and DNA

In honor of Darwin Day, this is a writing sample from one of my favorite students. JS is about 9, just started the third grade and is a certifiable genius (btw, does anybody know of online IQ tests geared for children? He really wants to take one, and the kid scored 109 on an ADULT test. In his SECOND language). He routinely presents me with lists of mathematical operations to learn to say in English and his favorite phrase, since I taught it to him, is deoxyribonucleic acid. The assignment was a "personal narrative." They were supposed to write about an event in their life, fiction or nonfiction, in first person. Here's JS's contribution, a final draft, mistakes preserved:

If I were a DNA molecule, I would make a pupil rainbow. This is not a joke, and I'm just saying what I want to do. And I'd make that rainbow-colored-pupil-person's head is on Deneb (1500 lightyear away). It'll be the tallest person ever, and he or she will be bald because I want to tease him or her. But it's not a joke! And he or she will be a good basket ball player. But it won't get a exact shot because he or she couldn't see! HeeHee...And I'll make his/her IQ hi-lo (high, low) If he wants to join a Mensa club, I'll make his/her IQ 157. Why 157? I like 169, but it's too high, so I like 13 to, because root(169)=13. And 169-13 makes 156. I don't like even numbers, so I changed the 13 to 3x4=12 so 169-12=157. I can make 155 changing 13 to 14, but I don't like 2 same numbers in a row even though it's easier to remember the number. Oh, back to the rainbow-colored-pupil-person story. Some of the story is about numbers, that's what I'll tell. He can be a prime checker. Like the prime calculator in the murderous maths site (www.murderousmaths.co.uk). Like some one say '101' and he'll say prime. If someone says 76001, he'll say prime. If some one says 68103491, he'll say "No. It's 197x523x661." And everyone will say "Wow! You're great!"

Great indeed, JS.

Happy Darwin Day!

So February 12 is Charles Darwin's birthday, and thus DARWIN DAY! Some links in honor:

Pharyngula: My favorite evo-related blog!

Talk Origins: The best resource out there. The FAQ break down the most common questions and misconceptions about what evolution is and how it works.

Pocket Darwin: A good, short primer on evolution.

Understanding Evolution: From Berkeley, a wealth of resources for everyone (including teachers) with some interesting topics, such as "How does evolution impact my life?"

Time for work for me.


Sorry, sorry, just a meme.

I don't normally do these, but I didn't have time for a good post yesterday, so this can fill in 'til I get a chance to write about my genius kids tomorrow...and also I love doing memes. Why? Because Richard Dawkins coined the term and I love so very much that it has become netspeak.

1. What time did you get up this morning?
Alarm went off at 9. I'm not really tired yet, but I think it's likely I will be during about the second spelling test today.

2. Diamonds or pearls? I have one piece of jewelry, and it's diamond.

3. What was the last film you saw at the cinema? Blood Diamond, and it was awesome.

4. What is your favorite TV show? Just one? I keep up with NCIS, House, Grey's Anatomy and Battlestar Galactica via download, but right now I'm hopelessly addicted to Stargate Atlantis.

5. What do you usually have for breakfast? Sometimes Oatmeal, more often nothing

6. Favorite restaurant? Memories, this German place in Seoul. My standards for good food are lower in Korea, but...so good.

7. What is your middle name? That sort of thing makes it hard to stay anonymous, doesn't it?

8. What food do you dislike? mushrooms

9. What is your favorite CD at the moment? Kris Delmhorst, Strange Conversations

10. What kind of car do you drive? Toyota Rav 4, when I'm in the US to drive it.

11. Favorite sandwich? Fried egg, lately.

12. What characteristic do you despise? Stupidity, vapidity, willful ignorance

13. Favorite item of clothing? It's kind of cop-out to say my Thrashers jersey, isn't it.

14. If you could go anywhere in the world on vacation, where would you go? Geez, how 'bout home? But no, I'd go back to St. Petersburg.

15. What color is your bathroom? white-ish

16. Favorite brand of clothing? I don't really have a favorite brand.

17. Where would you retire to? I haven't really thought that far ahead, honestly.

18.What was your most recent memorable birthday? My 21st. My sibs, mom and stepmom came to Chapel Hill and we drank a beer in the hotel lobby at midnight, then bloody marys at Sunday brunch the next day.

19. Favorite sport to watch? baseball and hockey

20. Farthest place you are sending this? I wouldn't know.

21. Who do you least expect to do this? Uh. I don't know.

22. Person you are tagging? I'm not compelling anyone else to do this.

23. Favorite saying? Honestly.

24. When is your birthday? 04/10

25. Are you a morning person or a night person? Both.

26. What is your shoe size? 260

27. Pets? 2 dogs of my own (that's them on the sidebar), my family also has a dog and two cats

28. Any new and exciting news you'd like to share with us? CAROLINA 79-DUKE 73

29. What did you want to be when you were little? I went through phases of fireman, vet, roboticist, virologist, aerospace engineer and sport psychologist. Now I'm going to be an evolutionary biologist.

30. How are you today? Very tired, because Korean soju is Not A Good Thing.

31. What is your favorite candy? tictacs, which they don't have in Korea.

32. What is your favorite flower? Don't have one.

33. What is a day on the calendar you are looking forward to? July 24.

34. What church do you attend? Why do we assume I attend a church? I am an atheist, and we don't do organization.

35. What is your full name? JeonjuTarHeel

36. What are you listening to right now? The Thrashers laying a beatdown on the Avs.

37. What was the last thing you ate? Galbi YanTanJip last night.

38. Do you wish on stars? Nope.

39. If you were a crayon, what color would you be? Orange

40. How is the weather right now? 'bout 35 and cloudy

41. Last person you spoke to on the phone? One of my friends

42. Do you like the person who sent this to you? Well, I don't really know the person who's blog I took it from, but sure!