Category Archives: Teaching

Learning About Urban Gardening


IMG_1094Recently my school was invited to a professional development day, meaning we were all obligated to pick from a host of seminars to sit in for the day. I passed up the reading and writing related seminars for Urban Gardening and Mindfulness in the Classroom – both of which ended up being great choices.

For the Urban Gardening information session, we were bussed to a neighboring international school (Chadwick) to chat with two teachers there who started the school garden about four years back. They covered the resources they used to set up their garden as well as integrating the garden into various learning standards for the students.

The garden itself was a project designed by students, so the layout of the garden was a learning opportunity. The school also grows the plants from seed rather than buying starters. They said this saves money, but didn’t catch if they use this as curriculum too. I’d imagine this step could be incorporated into an elementary science unit.  Continue reading


TEFL copyWell, after months of having “our fishing lines in many ponds” (as my wife would say), the week came upon us quite suddenly and unexpectedly when we had to make a decision about what to do next year.  This was not only our first big decision as a married couple, but also one of the biggest decisions either of us have ever made in the sense that the outcomes of any of the decisions were quite obviously and radically different.

After months of applying, thinking about possible scenarios, and waiting, we heard from pretty much everywhere within 3 days of each other.  My philosophy with jobs is that I’ll get one when I get to a place.  I never really plan it out before, but just go and find something to do for a while.  Brittany, however, had a few different applications out in the ether, which meant that our possible scenarios were painted from these plans.

After hearing back early from an international school in Kyrgyzstan and a PhD program in Boulder, two of our top options got swept away.  So we had anxiously been waiting to hear from other PhD programs and international schools, when they all came at once.  Brittany was accepted to UC Santa Cruz with $40,000 of funding for the first year only, offered a job at an international school just outside of Seoul, and to top it off, offered a job at her old school in Denver.  So we had 3 very different, very good options, and we had to decide within just a few days, due to the terms of the offers from the international school and university regarding funding.

I’m more of a seat-of-my-pants kind of person, whereas Brittany likes a plan of sorts.  This actually made the decision-making process quite difficult.  Whereas I imagined myself adjusting well to any place, I think Brittany was worried that I would be restless in some situations.  Of course, I wanted to make sure that Brittany was happy and fulfilled in any choice she made.  Then there were separate considerations of making and saving money so that we are in a position to have greater freedom to pursue interests of travel, business, leisure, and adventure (sooner rather than later), and greater ability to see friends and family and to start a family (sooner or later).

That said, nothing covered the entire spectrum.  We love living and traveling in Korea, but we miss friends and family in the States.  The PhD program in Santa Cruz was still pretty far from family and would leave us in considerable debt for some years after, but academia and exploring a topic in depth is attractive to Brittany.  Denver is wonderful and where our hearts often are, but we would have limited travel time and spend more years being a little stressed about money.

Obviously, it’s difficult to weigh any of these matters as being more important than the others (we tried), and then constantly considering and trying to communicate what might make the other happier was a big challenge.  We both saw any of the options as awesome choices for many reasons, but none of them stood out as the absolute right thing to do, not even for one of us.

Our decisions all hit at once, and we had only until the end of the week to make one.  We were able to have a surprisingly logical and well thought out discussion.  It became clear that while going to school in and living in Santa Cruz was an exciting thought, it probably wasn’t the right move for our lives.  Among other things, there was the probability that we would be in quite a bit of debt for many years after.  And we both agree, debt sucks.

While we miss Denver and will probably be back there one day it isn’t quite the right time.  We are happy clams traveling on this side of the world for a while, and doing so for a couple more years gives us plenty of time to travel, and it will set us up well financially to have more adventures and eventually start a family in Denver.


So we’re going with the international school in Korea, which means we better start studying our Korean more intensively^^  We are very excited that Brittany will be working at an international school with a very strong curriculum (the freshman class this year spent a semester analyzing the Odyssey in English and modern works inspired by the Odyssey), beautiful campus, good salary, free housing, and best of all…13 weeks vacation!  Plenty of time to visit friends and family or travel.

For the time being, I am waiting with sparse hope to hear back from the same school regarding a teaching assistant position.  Apparently there are minimum visa requirements and it’s unclear whether or not my experience meets these.  If that doesn’t work, it’ll be kindergarten or hagwon again!  But I would be so jealous of those 13 weeks…


December Flea Market

December Flea Market

Every December, our school holds a “flea market” to advertise the school in the community and reach new students. This flea market didn’t have too much to do with selling used items, but was a mixture of a festival, school store, and epic dance party.

Teachers chose different countries and activities for their classrooms. I thought we would match country to activity, but that ended with Mexico and Pinatas.

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In Russia, Ryan decorated with snowflakes and played bingo.

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Ryan set the award for winning Bingo a bit too high at first, giving 15 fake dollars to the winner. To contextualize our mini-economy, kids could generally purchase one piece of food for $1, and their buy-in for Bingo was $1. So Bingo was briefly popular. Kids love gambling. They would roll into my room after winning and buy pancakes for all of their friends. Big spenders.

One of the directors of our academy had to ask him to lower the limit, and after that there were usually only a few players at a time.

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The USA hosted a “K-Pop Star” dance party.

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Psy’s Gangnam Style and Exo’s Growl were repeated on and off throughout the night with wild dance competitions where kids could win fake money to go buy more food and candy. To get a good feel for the background music (and to enjoy a good throwback to music videos reminiscent of the N’Sync Days):

Japan served two traditional Korean dishes, and the kids helped decorate with adorable flowers and kittens throughout the room.

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In the front, a giant spread of topokki  (Korean rice cakes in a spicy sauce) and spaghetti were served by our school directors.

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In Spain, the kids went confetti-crazy while making masks.

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And my classroom was Belgium, decorated with windmills.

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I had a lot of the food in my room, serving cups of candy, tiny pieces of waffle, and pancakes.

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When I started to mix the pancakes, I asked Angela, our school director (who takes care of us like she’s our Korean mom), to help me translate the measurements. She proceeded to dump two bags of pancake mix in a bowl, crack a few eggs, pour random quantities of water and milk, crack a few more eggs, and mix. Something in this technique worked, because I made over 200 pancakes in a 5-hour span, and the teachers and students were raving about my pancake-making ability.

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I had a few helpers, but had to ban the kids after the loss of several pancakes due to poor flipping and my fear of sending a kid home with burns. Jenny was very serious about improving her pancake-making ability, and was sorely disappointed when I had to relieve her of her duty.

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The event was really fun, and we got to meet a few of our students’ parents and their friends from other schools. It was nice to see the kids running around and having fun, and having an afternoon off from their very serious studies.

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Because Halloween is not traditionally celebrated in Korea, Ryan and I were asked to head the planning of Halloween celebrations at our school – the day before Halloween. We scrounged up an assortment of games and activities around Halloween vocabulary (witch, ghost, Frankenstein, haunted house, etc.) and tried to think of creative costumes to wear.

Thus, the hour before school on Halloween found me wrapping Ryan in two rolls of toilet paper to transform him into a mummy. Toilet paper is not all that sturdy, and even with scotch tape and repeated re-wrappings, Ryan’s mummified wrappings were falling off before the kids even arrived. I took an easier route and borrowed a kids’ witch hat and cape that our school manager had bought to supplement Halloween decorations, and just wore all black.

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Our co-workers were highly entertained by Ryan’s impromptu costume. They burst out in fits of laughter every time they saw him, and kept coming back to take more pictures of us.

After the kids arrived for the first class, we walked to a nearby park so the kids could “trick or treat”, which in this case meant running around the park and finding our school managers, who were holding large Styrofoam pieces decorated as doors, and would hand out candy when the kids knocked. Ryan and I were briefed on this plan, but still surprised when we arrived at the public park, one of the Korean teachers gave a few words of directions, and the kids scattered out of sight. The kids are around 6-10 years old, and I could just imagine the parental fury if an activity like this were to take place in the US. The kids were completely out of sight in a public park! Who knows what could happen! Korea is a safe place, and all the kids were back by the time we were going on to our next activity.  We think.  Nobody took attendance.

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The next activity involved Ryan and I acting out Halloween vocabulary and having the kids guess. Thus, I ended up cackling like a witch and flapping my wings like a bat while Ryan stalked some children with devil horns held high above his head.

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After these festivities, and much shouts of trick-or-treat (which the kids now think means “please”, as if it is a magical polite word that conjures candy out of adults’ pockets, as a week later they still try to trick-or-treat), we headed back to school. For the remainder of the day, Ryan and I were saddled with the Korean teachers’ classes on top of our own to play Halloween games. This meant that our normal classes of 5 students increased to a whopping 10 – or sometimes even 15! – students. The horror! The kids were having a lot of fun, but after five classes of managing said fun, we were quite run down.

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By 7 PM, our boss was very insistent that Ryan and I come to the back room. She seemed a little hurried, and we thought we might have done something wrong. The kids were quite out of hand. But Angela, kind and motherly boss that she is, had made us a plate of songpyeon (traditional Korean treats), rice cake, and a Starbucks Frapaccino to split. “You look tired”, she said, and watched our classes while we had a brief snack.

Halloween was fun, but exhausting. The next day, Angela bought us pizza because she could tell we were still run down. So Halloween left us tired, with desk drawers and pockets stuffed with dum-dums, but certainly well-fed.

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Observations from Sun and Earth Class


Brittany’s Classroom

Going from teaching full-time in public schools to teaching at a private academy in a foreign school has illuminated some interesting differences.  In Korea, kids attend public school as American kids would, and then go to private academies. Educating children is very expensive here. By middle school children are not only attending public school until 3 or 4 PM, but then attending multiple academies. One student said that throughout the week he attends English academy, Korean academy, World History academy, PE academy, and Music academy, but on average it looks like most kids attend 2-3 academies a week, which adds up to about 12-15 extra hours of being in educational institutions.  Frankly, this sounds awful to me, but then again, these kids are much smarter than me.  They’re also largely pretty happy to be there- at least the little ones- and make teaching really fun.

Middle school culture here is highly intense. For the entire month of September, middle school students prepared for exams. The class schedule at our academy increased, and some of the teachers were teaching classes until 10 PM. Some of my middle school students – 13 year old kids – come to class at 8 PM and chug energy drinks (despite my protestations). All of the academy teachers are required to give homework, so on top of their 9 AM to 9 PM school schedules, our students have loads of homework when they get home. It’s crazy seeing 11, 12, and 13 year old kids working so hard.

In the last couple years of teaching, particularly pushed by TFA’s “no excuses” classroom culture model, I had adopted a very strict mode of teaching. My first year teaching, I started with 30-35 kids in a classroom. In order to reign in the (seriously scary) chaos, my classroom became highly structured. Now, with my classes shrunk to between 2-8 students and English language, this type of structure is not only unnecessary but would be very silly.

I was surprised when I started teaching through TFA at the behavior management plans put in place for high school students. I marveled at the structure that they expected us to use in the schools we were in. The structure, I recalled, was not what was used or necessary in my high school. Why use such a different mode of teaching? But with so much chaos in my class, structures and behavior plans (i.e. “three strikes you’re out” and the like) and incentives (i.e. candy and prizes) for high schoolers did work, and did help me keep my head above water. I relied on them through two years of teaching, and now it’s a hard habit to break. When I ask a question to my middle schoolers in an 8:00 PM class and no one answers, it’s strange because it’s very hard for me to not get frustrated because my expectations really are higher than that, but it’s also hard for me to realistically expect their brains to still be functioning at any level after the day they have had of academic preparation.

Another huge difference is in teaching strategies and curriculum. Here, we are supposed to stick to the book. We walk through listening, speaking, and writing activities, in the order the book provides them. In the beginning of each month, we give the school a pacing guide for the month and a homework schedule. We are not to do games or activities not found in the book. After two years of being highly sensitive to that moment when students’ eyes glaze over and you know you’ve lost them, it’s hard for me to trudge through with an ineffective curriculum. No wonder they’re bored; I get bored. But because the school has drawn such a hard line, my feelings of ineffectiveness and guilt are fairly confusing. Every TFA advisor I my first year teaching said that when administration wanted you to do something that doesn’t help your kids, you smile, nod, and do whatever works for your students anyway. I lucked out my second year with an administration that encouraged more innovation in the classroom and listened and considered teacher input on his/her classroom way more frequently than my previous administrators. But here, with a job in a foreign country and immersed in an entirely new culture, I feel like the best line to take would not be disobeying their specific instructions to follow the book. So here I am, fighting all my good teacher instincts and trying to make the book a tad bit more entertaining.

I also have to comment on how ridiculously good at drawing all of our students are.  If we gave grades for drawing (or grades at all really) almost everyone would receive high honors for their artistic abilities.


teaching vocabulary!

Because our school is a private school, they are very fixated on increasing and maintaining enrollment, because enrollment=money. Ryan and I were surprised when, in our interview, the director of the academy was very, very, VERY pleased with our pictures and how we looked.  In fact, this was really all she cared about, saying that after seeing our pictures she was 99% sure she wanted to hire us, and our classroom qualifications and experience made up the other 1%. In our first meeting after classroom observations, the most positive thing they had to say to me was how beautiful I am, and they often compliment Ryan on his “movie star face.”

In a recent faculty meeting, while discussing ways to increase enrollment, someone suggested creating more fun, creative curriculum, such as teaching phonics and then reinforcing with activities building and modeling with sand. One of the teachers was very against this new turn, and while the conversation switched to Korean (as it usually does about five minutes into the meetings), the end result was that in order to increase enrollment, we should create new flyers advertising the native teachers – us.

So we dressed up for new photos on Monday. One of the directors brought in eight of her own blazers for me to wear, and they had me put on one after the other, asking Ryan, “Aren’t you so happy you have a beautiful wife?” I put on seen different blazers, and they took pictures of me in every one of them. On top of that, the assistant taking the pictures had her camera turned on continuous mode, so each time she took one picture of me in a blazer, it was really about ten. Equaling about a hundred pictures in each blazer. I wonder what will become of all of these. At least half our importance to our school is as a marketing tool.  So it goes.

Our coworkers are all pretty awesome.  They are a very supportive, funny, diverse, and interesting bunch, and pretty damn good teachers who seem to genuinely enjoy their work, which is more than I can say for some of the overworked, overstretched, and overstressed teachers I know.  Pressure, however, on the Korean teachers is pretty high, as half of them are not salaried but paid by the class instead, so losing kids means losing some much needed money, and they are in a constant battle to keep students and parents happy.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, as with anywhere, there are, from my perspective, many shortcomings and difficulties at our school, but the teaching life here really is great.  We are lucky to have such wonderful students and a bunch of good teachers around us everyday.

Welcome to Earth

Last week we went to our school to meet with our director and get set up in a hotel to begin training for school. To our surprise, we were immediately escorted to our apartment- our dust-encrusted, yellow-linoleum, furniture-packed apartment. We spent a few days of intense cleaning, as the apartment couldn’t have been cleaned for at least a year. After shoving a coffee table, huge outdated tv, and table and chair set into the corner of our apartment to clear some space, the apartment was feeling a little more like home.

We started training with the teachers we were replacing the next day. This was no more than sitting in classes to observe how each of the books were taught. We each have about 8 different books that we teach from, and with the books switching over as the new semester begins, it took us all week just to figure out which book we should be teaching to which class. The school is disorganized in a lot of ways, but the kids have been nice so far and all of the teachers friendly and helpful.

As we’ve begun to settle in and stop moving around so rapidly, a lot of differences have started to stand out. Culture shock is a little harder to catch when you’re moving every three days, but now that we have a home that we’ll be living in for the next year, we’ve started to notice some differences between back home and our new neighborhood.

-Huge military airplanes flying over our neighborhood at low altitudes a few times a day. After hearing and seeing them for a few days, we discovered that the Seoul Air Force Base is in the city directly south of us. Even thought it’s very common, it’s still startling.

F-15 Fighter Jet

This is not my picture. The planes are impossible to get pictures of. We just included this picture to give you a proper idea of this occurrence.

-Soldiers in camouflage with rifles chillin’ on intersection street corners at 9 PM on a Tuesday like it’s no big deal. (this was just a training exercise, but took us by surprise)

-Taking off your shoes immediately when entering a living space or restaurant

-Really ugly, dirty, awful entrances, hallways, and staircases to very nice, beautiful apartments.

-Buildings that have stores/offices/schools/churches all on different floors, so you walk up to the fifth or sixth floor sometimes to get where your going. Often, the entrance to the staircase for the building seems to be hidden and/or nonexistent. We haven’t figured out how to get to many of them yet.


-Really awesome English t-shirts and signs. This one deserves its own post once we collect enough, but one of Brittany’s favorites that is everywhere is “Oh, baby in car!”

Oh, baby

-Deboning a chicken with chopsticks.

And then there’s differences in work. After we both spent time working in Title I schools the last one or two years, there’s a stark difference to our Korean private academy experience this year.

-Class size of 2-8 kids

-Working 6.5 hours a day and having almost no work to do at home.

-Working in the afternoons, meaning we can sleep in, eat a relaxed breakfast, do an hour of yoga, meditate, go to the gym, and eat a good lunch before starting work.  Our days feel way more relaxed.

Every classroom in our school is named after a body in the Milky Way; Ryan is Earth and Brittany is Sun. The kids were wonderful enough to draw cards, pictures, and posters welcoming us to the school. All of Ryan’s cards said “Ryan teacher! Welcome to Earth!” An apt welcome for our adventure in a new corner of the world.