Korean Pop Culture, its Dissidents and Authenticity

To the uninitiated, the music scene in Korea can seem a little… well, homogeneous. Especially if you spend your days around middle/high school girls. They literally stand on their chairs and scream if you let them watch a music video of their favorite boy band and cry loudly if you play a group they don’t like.  Which can be confounding, since they. are. all. the. same. The fan culture here in Korea is something I’m unfamiliar with back in the United States, but I’m sure it exists in a similar fashion? I don’t know. Fans in Korea do some very devoted things, like create chants that they yell during a concert that often have nothing to do with the song. They are so choreographed that the chant is as audible and sometimes as clear as the music itself. They are, shall we say, devoted.

Now, I try really hard not to be overly stereotypical. Stereotypes help me categorize and begin to understand new things and experiences (which there are plenty of these days), but at the same time I try to realize that there is a deeper or broader story to be discovered. This is how I have felt about Korean music. I have only been introduced to Korean Pop music and until recently, it seemed that this really was all there was here. I once engaged a friend in a conversation about genres in Korean music and basically got the response that everything is k-pop. They don’t make a distinction like we would in the United States. And after listening to some of the popular music that we might call “rock” or “hip hop”, I kind of agree. It is different, but not so different that I think they need a new genre. Particularly in the style.

“We were recruited for our personalities.”

But still, I felt that it couldn’t be true. Pop culture always has its counter culture. In America these days, the counter culture (which is quickly becoming pop culture) is the Indie scene. The response to big-record label. With the advent of the internet, and social media, it’s never been a better time to be an independent artist. You can get your sound out to the public directly without dealing with the suits back at the office.

The role record-label is another difference between Americans and Koreans. Ask the average American who the big pop star is these days and you’ll get some answers. Stuff like, “Justin beiber, Britney spears(?), Katy Perry” and so on.  Next question, who are the record-labels for these musicians? I don’t know about you, but I have no idea. No clue! And even if I did know one or two of the record labels, I wouldn’t be able to tell you which artists worked for them. Not so in Korea, ask your average fan who their favorite artist sings for and you’ll get a name. JYP, Loen (and some others I don’t know, and don’t care about). Not only will they be able to tell you who the record label is, they will be able to tell you other artists who work for the same label.

For example, the ever-adorable IU sings for the same record label as the Scandalous Ga In (of Brown Eyed Girls). The importance of the record label means that these two very different artists make TV appearances together. It’s still a little confusing to me, an uninitiated, and I try to keep my exasperation to myself. But for awhile, I thought that maybe an Indie culture simply didn’t exist in Korea because of how tightly interwoven the artist and the record label are, not just to the production of music, but to the individual fan.

IU on the left, Ga In on the right

Thankfully, I am wrong. And in reality there is a vibrant Indie scene. So vibrant in fact that many Indie artists are making break-throughs into Pop culture, much like in the USA. Now, depending on how invested you are into the Indie scene, this may be a heresy to sign with a major record label after being indie for so long. My impression is that some will call you a sell-out and others will celebrate your new-found legitimacy and your chance to spread your music even further.

But still, there is a price to be paid when an Independent artist gives up that title and joins forces with the Dark Side. To give a unexaggerated example, Jack Johnson is probably one of the most well known Independent artists. (He owns his own record label, so I guess that gives him some sort of inbetween evil-record-label-but-still-authentic status?) I love Jack Johnson’s sound and even when he does a pop-song-movie-collaboration, like “Upside-Down”, it’s still a good song.

But… something gets me. Have you ever seen the music video for Upside Down? It’s Jack Johnson.. but at the same time.. it’s, something else? It’s other, it’s.. popish. It’s cutesy, it’s adorable, it’s.. not quite Jack.

And at some level, I struggle with this, not because I care if Jack Johnson is a pop star, or if he is going to “sell-out”. But because it suggests to me that to gain wide-spread legitimacy, one must give up their independence and authenticity. At some level, one must be less than ones true self.

Of course, talking about ‘authenticity’ might actually be served better with “air-quotes”.  Being ones true self is most likely an idealistic fantasy. Simply interacting with another human being is a social transaction which necessitates that you act, in some small way, less than truly authentic. Life is a continuous series of accommodations, made to help yourself and others live in harmony and unity. I accept this. With this critique firmly in place, lets make the pop vs counter-pop argument one of degrees. A relative scale. Jack Johnson may be inauthentic while still being an independent artist, but it seems he becomes even more so when he tries or is forced to appeal to a broader audience.

With “Authentic” being our goal, and pop culture being the force pushing against us, what does Pop-culture use to force our obedience?  Well, pop culture often reinforces our social paradigms.  Sure, women wear less and less in the pop culture, but is this anything but a reinforcement of established male/female roles?  How exactly does a woman pushing social modesty boundaries to make herself more attractive from a male perspective do anything to change social perspectives?  Pop-culture does work to push society as well, but I argue that pop culture is powerless to inact real change before it has been generally accepted a priori.  Otherwise it is not “popular” culture by definition.  Those who fight against the social movement of pop culture, are generally the same old guard  who halt movement in any sphere.  All the way from science to religion (and here).

Now– back to some K-indie/k-pop. For one of my lesson plans based on American Culture, I decided to look at Indie Music. I had already done one on Pop music and so I thought it only fair and fitting to do one on the modern counter-pop. But how to describe it? This is how I stumbled upon koreanindie.com. My first gateway into music that isn’t kpop!! My joy is hard to describe!

Upon listening to a lot of the K-indie scene, I wasn’t too impressed (but I’m not all that impressed by a lot of what I hear from American Indie musicians either). There are a lot of people trying to make it the independent route, and some of them just aren’t that good. Some are though, and it was great to see music with strong latin influences, punk rock, and a pretty strong folk scene. One of the bigger groups is called MilkTea. They’ve achieved near-pop status and have a song called “Ramyeon King” that is the anthem for a popular TV show here in Korea.

MilkTea’s Ramyeon King is the perfect example of Pop vs Indie culture because the group made two different music videos to appeal to its two bases. One music video is for the pop culture, those who maybe learned of the song via TV and another for MilkTea’s indie base.

As you can see from the videos, the indie music video is a completely different beast. It is filmed in a park, in some trees, no computer graphics, the dress is noticeably more un-pop culturish. Her hair even attracts less attention. Compare to the Pop music video. The lead singer’s make-up, hair and dress is in the traditional style of pop-icons. Namely, cutesy. (For an extended critique of pop-culture in Korea and women, check here). There are tons of “cute” CG and artwork. Consider even the way she sings, the very first “1, 2” is noticeably different. She is putting on a front of cuteness.

Now… I try to stop myself here before I go off too much. I have my own biases here. Before I demonize the pop-cutesy style too much, I have to recognize that I am biased towards the indie style. I like it more because it feels more authentic- not because it is, in reality, more truly authentic or genuine. And it feels more authentic to me, only in counter to the pop style, which I have decided is inauthentic.

But, I would still make the argument that the indie video is based more in reality, and in being so, it is more authentic. The amount of computer graphics, the type of setting (a green-screen in one, nature in the other) and the level of fantasy in the pop video make me feel valid in this critique. Though I accept a level of inauthenticity in the indie video, it is still a counter-point to the pop culture, even if in the end they both point me away from authenticity.

Because in the end, if we were all truly authentic with each other, could we ever stand to live with one another? To some degree, the fantasy, inauthenticity and exaggerated lifestyle of pop-culture is what binds us together in mutual self-delusion.

(For the lesson plan associated with this post, check here.)


American Culture – Indie Music

Lesson Plan – Indie Music

Indie music in America is gaining in popularity and is an interesting contrast to pop music. If you were to ask an American who the biggest music stars are, they could probably name a few. However, if you asked who the major record labels were, most Americans would have no idea.  While the music may be similar, the styles between indie music and pop music show some interesting contrasts that offer an opportunity to discuss pop culture and counter-cultures.

Performance Objectives
SWBAT compare and contrast pop music with indie music. Using audio/video clips and interviews from Koreanindie.com, students will compare their knowledge of kpop music to the music of kindie

SWBAT compare and contrast kindie music with American indie music. Using audio/video of American indie bands and music, students will compare their understanding of indie music worldwide.

Youtube videos http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yh_Ng4xdBFs&feature=related http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ePr3OH7xGRY

Print-out interviews and worksheets based on the website koreanindie.com http://www.koreanindie.com/category/interviews/mini-interviews/

Before Class
Make sure you have your videos up and ready. This includes the videos from the last part of the lesson.
Have your interviews for the practice printed-out and ready to be distributed to the groups
Have their questionnaires ready as well.
Set up the internet and projector

Warm-up (5-10 min)
Objective: Get students thinking in categorical ways by brainstorming their favorite artists and which record labels they belong to.

Learning Strategy

Teaching Strategy
Small Group work

Task Description
Organize the students into small groups or pairs. In small groups have the students write down the big three record labels in korea. Under each record label, have them write down as many artists or groups they know of. To help them along, provide some visuals (pictures) of famous Korean singers/groups so that the students can at least guess.

After 2-3 minutes, invite the students to write down their lists on the board. If any of the artists from the visuals are left out or not in the right label, you can correct them if you would like or leave it.

Introduction (3 min)
Objective: Students will be introduced to Korean Indie music. The tasks and objectives for the class will be established.

Learning Strategy
Audio, Visual

Teaching Strategy
Lecture, video

Task description
Introduce your class to a Korean indie artist (like milktea http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yh_Ng4xdBFs&feature=related)

Ask your students if they know which record label Milk Tea goes under? Do they know MilkTea from anywhere? (they did an OST of the song in the link). Introduce to the class the topic of Indie music and the tasks they will complete for that day.

Presentation (20 min)
Objective: Students will compare and contrast Kpop with Kindie music. This will be done by using one music video that was produced for two different audiences (kpop and kindie).

Learning Strategy
Audio, Visual

Teaching Strategy
Lecture, small group work

Task Description
Remind your students of the music video they just saw. Ask them what was different about it? What do music videos usually have in them? (lots of dancing, choreography, special effects,

expensive and exotic costumes). What did the MilkTea video have? (scenery in a park, simple design, normal clothes, no “pretty” or “cutesy” make-up).

Have the students draw a line down a piece of paper. One one side, write “indie music” and on the other “Pop music”. Explain that the class is going to watch the same song again, but a different music video. Ask the students to write down the things that are different about this music video compared to the first. ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ePr3OH7xGRY )

If needed, show the first video again. Give the students 1 minute after the video to write down their thoughts (in Korean and/or English). Have the students get into groups of 2-4 and talk about what was different between the two videos. After 2-3 minutes, have the students write down 2-3 sentences in English that compare the two videos (The first video was in a park, the second was a Cartoon. In the first video, the singer was dressed more casually, in the second she was dressed-up, cutesy).

 Practice (20 min)

Objective: Students will introduce to the class various Kindie stars by using a hand-out of an interview with a K-indie star. They will read the interview and answer basic questions about it.

Learning Strategy
Audio, Visual

Teaching Strategy
Small Group work

Task Description
Using the website koreanindie.com, select several interviews from the “mini-interview” section. http://www.koreanindie.com/category/interviews/mini-interviews/

Print out the interviews and give them to the students along with a questionnaire for them to fill out. Have the read the interviews and answer the questions (Note: some of the interviews have Korean and English, for lower level readers, that might be more accessible.) After the groups fill out their questionnaire, they will introduce the artist to the class and then watch a music clip from that artist.

This task will require the teacher to select which interviews to use and also, based on the interviews, which questions to ask. So make sure to prepare these worksheets before hand.

(Example Interview)

–From koreanindie.com–

I’d been trying to keep track of Lang Lee since learning that she signed with Somoim Records, attempting to read her comics for Your Mind Bookshop, but even so hadn’t really listened to any of her more recent efforts. During my few weeks in Korea this summer I got a fresh copy of her first album in my hands. A few days later my husband and I headed out on a road trip around the country, and though we had plenty of CDs packed we found ourselves returning to 욘욘슨 (Yon Yonson) a number of times. By the second listen it was already a favorite with me and on the second day my husband declared it was destined to become a classic. Curious to learn more about Lang Lee and the work behind the album I approached her with a few questions that were generously rewarded with rich answers.

You’re a musician, illustrator and teacher. How do they all connect to you and each other?

저는 음악을 하고, 일러스트레이터로 일하고, 단편영화를 만들기도 하며 때로 가르치는 일도 하고 있습니다. 제 삶에서 이것들이 진행된 순서는 그림-음악-영화-가르치는 것 입니다. 그림을 그릴 땐 머리와 손을 주로 사용합니다. 저는 종이에 펜, 크레용 때로는 컴퓨터로 그림을 그립니다. 꽤 정적인 일이고, 적은 공간을 사용합니다. 음악을 만들 땐 머리와 양손, 목소리와 박자를 맞추는 몸동작을 씁니다. 흥에 겨우면

춤을 추기도 합니다. 집 안/무대 정도 크기의 공간을 사용합니다. 영화를 만드는 일은 머리는 물론이고 온 몸을 사용해야 합니다. 처음 시나리오 쓰는 과정이 지나면, 이후론 많은 사람들을 만나 대화하고 설득하는 일이기 때문에 움직임의 반경이 아주 큽니다. 가르치는 일은 조금 다른데, 이것은 창조적리고 생산적이라기 보다는 사회에 공헌을 하는 일이라고 느껴집니다. 가르치는 일 외에는 모두 나만의 세계를 창조하는 일입니다. 저는 그림이나, 영화, 음악을 만드는 것으로 스스로 경험한 사회를 재현하고 재해석해 새로운 세계를 보여주려고 합니다. 모두 하나의 목표를 가지고 하는 일이기 때문에 각 장르마다 정신을 분할하여 쓰지는 않지만, 시간은 분할해서 써야 합니다.

I make music and I also do illustrations. I also make short films and these days I started teaching. The drawing came first and then I made songs, and then I shot short films and then through chance teaching jobs came along.

When you draw or paint you only use your hands and your head. It’s a very sedated job. I only use paper, pen and crayons and I sometimes use computers too. The whole process takes up very little space.

When making music you use your head, your hands and your body. Sometimes you dance while you’re actively in the process. You use your whole room when doing this.

When you make a film, you use your whole body as well as your head. Once the scenario is done you meet a lot of people to get the thing going so the physical space you roam about is quite large.

Teaching is quite different. Teaching isn’t as creative or productive but it gives you a sense of ‘giving back’ something to the community.

Apart from teaching, these activities are all something that I do to create a certain world. Through illustration, music and film, I try to recreate the world that I’ve experienced with my own interpretation. And because these are all essentially with the same objective, I do not deliberately divide my mind between different activities. I do however have to divide time to achieve things within these activities.

제가 가장 공을 들이는 일은 영화를 만드는 것입니다. 영화는 창조한 세계를 시각/청각/공감각적으로 가장 확실하게 보여줄 수 있는 일이기 때문입니다. 영화는 또한 만들고 난 후, 관객과 함께 앉아서 감상할 수 있다는 것이 특히 좋습니다. 음악을 공연할 때는 공연하는 것과 감상을 동시에 할 수 없기 때문입니다. 평소 그림을 그리고 음악을 만드는 것이 후에 한 편의 영화를 만드는 데 좋은 연습이 됩니다. 공간세팅, 스토리보드 그리기, 구도 잡기, 색보정, 사운드편집 뿐만 아니라 영화에 쓰일 음악도 스스로 만들 수 있습니다. 저의 정서적인 치유에 가장 도움이 되는 것은 노래를 만드는 일입니다. 그리고 만약 하는 일 중에 하나를 포기해야 한다면 그림을 그리는 것을 포기할 것 입니다. 그림은 제 손목에 너무 많은 무리를 주기 때문입니다.

Where I put my most effort is making films. It’s because it is the form where you can most clearly show people the world you’ve recreated. I also enjoy the fact that you can enjoy your outcome with the audience being seated next to them. One thing that always gets me is that when I play music in front of people, I will never be able to experience my own show as a member of an audience.

Drawing and making music becomes a valuable experience when making films. When you’re doing pre-production artwork or story boards, getting the right angles, getting the sounds and colours right, making nice graphics – it helps. You can also make your own music to your film.

But what comforts me immediately is making songs. If I had to give up one activity of the three, I would give up drawing. It’s bad for my wrist.

Your lyrics all carry somewhat eccentric stories. Where do you find that inspiration?

저는 밤에 잠이 오지 않으면 앉아서 혹은 누워서 하염없이 말을 합니다. 기운이 있으면 기타를 잡고 아무 코드나 치면서 혼잣말을 합니다. 그러다 보면 기타의 반복되는 멜로디에 맞춰 음이 생기고, 내뱉는 말들이 스스로 가사처럼 정리가 되기도 합니다. 제가 잠이 안 올때 주로 하는 말은 연애와 죽음에 관련된

것들입니다. 제겐 이 두 가지가 삶에서 가장 이해가 안 되는 것들입니다. 왜 연애가 잘 되지 않을까? 왜 나는 언젠가 죽어야 되는 걸까?

When I can’t sleep at night, I lay in bed and just talk to my self. I grab my guitar and play any old chord while I talk. After repetition this becomes a song, and the scattered words become lyrics.

그렇게 만든 곡은 ‘이상한 일’, ‘일기’, ‘내가 만약 신이라면’, ‘너의 리듬’ 등이 있습니다. 때때로는 친구에 대해 생각하거나 책이나 영화를 본 것에 대해 생각하고 그것을 혼자 말하다가 노래로 만들기도 합니다. (잘 알지도 못하면서-다자이 오사무<만년>, 하하하-커트 보네거트<고양이 요람>, 욘욘슨-커트 보네거트<제5도살장>, 삐이삐이-영화 <더 코브>)

Perhaps the two most important themes in my life are relationships and death. Why is my relationship going bad? When will I die? These questions I cannot understand. There are also songs where I think about specific friends. There’s also songs that I got the inspiration from books. “Hahaha” was inspired by Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, and “Yon Yonson” was inspired by Slaughterhouse-Five.

What can you tell us about your work on Yon Yonson?

1번과 2번의 질문에서 알 수 있듯이, 나에게 있어서 음악의 가장 근본적인 목적은 (주로 밤에 나타나는) 나의 정서적 문제들을 잠재우는 것 입니다. 또한 음악은 (영화나 그림과 달리)정규 교육의 과정이 있었던 게 아니었으므로, 그것을 만드는 데 있어서 직업/프로 의식으로 임하지 않았습니다. 녹음을 시작하게 된 계기도 ‘만든 곡을 잊어먹지 않기 위해’ 였고, 후에는 스스로 녹음하고 편집하는 과정에 재미가 붙었던 것 뿐이지, 이것이 어떠한 형태로든 사람들에게 알려질 것이라는 의식을 한 적이 없었습니다. 그렇기 때문에 노래를 녹음하기 시작한 2008년부터 현재까지 동일한 방법으로 녹음을 계속해오고 있습니다.

The reason why I make music is because I want to put to rest my emotional difficulties that I have. It does not feel like it is a job, nor did I never approached it as one.

The reason why I started recording songs was because I didn’t want to forget the songs I wrote. I never was conscious about how this would be heard to the wider audience. Therefore I still record the same way I used to since 2008.

장비는 2006년에 산 맥북 한 대와 그 내장 마이크, 그리고 가라지밴드라는 맥북에 기본으로 깔려있는 프로그램을 사용했습니다. 다른 방식의 녹음경험이 거의 없었기 때문에(스타워즈 컴필레이션에 실린 로쿠차 구다사이를 녹음할 때 외: 친구의 녹음실에서 녹음을 했습니다), 처음 이 앨범에 관한 레이블 미팅을 했을 때 레이블은 데모음원을 듣고 재녹음을 하지 않는게 좋겠다고 말했습니다. 나 이외의 청자를 고려하지 않은 녹음방식, 그 어설프지만 올곧은 혹은 잘 몰라서 순수한 느낌이 좋다고 생각했던 것 같습니다. 솔직히 말하면 아직까지도 음악인으로서의 프로의식이 없는 편입니다. 그것이 앞으로 문제가 될 지도 모르겠다고 생각합니다. <욘욘슨>이 발매된 이후 약간의 프레셔를 느끼고 있습니다. 그동안 꾸준한 노래연습과 기타연습을 하며 음악을 만들어 오지 않았기 때문입니다. 공연의 좋은 퀄리티를 위해 앞으로는 연습을 제때제때 해야하나, 생각하는 것만으로 벌써 압박이 느껴집니다.

I used a 2006 MacBook and it’s internal microphone and GarageBand. I didn’t know how else. When I had my initial meetings with my label, they thought that this had an effect that it sounded more original than amateur, so they didn’t want me to be re-recording these songs.

To be honest, I still don’t have that sense of professional-ness. Perhaps that might become a problem from this point on. I do feel a bit of a pressure now after the release of Yon Yonson. I haven’t been practicing constantly as I perhaps ought to, and it makes me wonder whether I should. Even thinking about it gives me a bit of stress.

With Yon Yonson gathering songs that were all written at least two years ago, do you also have plans to release any more recent music?

나는 2008년 초에 처음 만든 곡인 로쿠차 구다사이 이후로 지금까지 20곡이 넘는 노래를 만들어 놓았습니다. 그중에 어떤 곡을 <욘욘슨>에 실을지는 제작자인 소모임 레코드의 김경모가 결정하도록 했습니다. 그는 나름의 기준으로 13곡을 뽑았는데, ‘비슷비슷한 풍의 곡이 중복되지 않도록’ 유의했던 것 같습니다. 또한 최근에 만든 곡들은 거의 제외시켰습니다. 처음 노래를 만들고 녹음하기 시작한, 제일 어설프고 순수한 곡들을 먼저 내보이고 싶은 이유겠거니 하고 생각합니다. 때문에 개인적으로는 당연히 실릴 줄 알았는데 탈락한 곡들도 있었습니다.

Since 2008 I made about 20 songs. I asked Kyoungmo of Somoim Records to pick the songs that would go onYon Yonson. He laid out the sequence of the songs too. He had a certain rule in doing this, and I think it was so that no two songs were too similar, and also to not have the more recently recorded songs on this album. I think this was because he wanted to put out the early recordings first. There are songs that I thought they would make it on the album but didn’t.

아직 다음 앨범에 관한 이야기를 한 번도 하질 않았기 때문에 어떻게 될지는 모르겠지만. <욘욘슨>에는 실리지 못했지만 공연 때 자주 부르는 곡들, 개인적으로 앨범에 못 실려서 안타까운 곡들이 있기 때문에 만들겠다는 마음만 있으면 뭐든 나오게 할 수는 있을 것 같습니다. 여전히 잠 못 이루는 밤에는 2번에서 설명한 방식으로 노래를 만들어 부르고 있습니다. 이십대 후반이 되어서 인지 지금에 부르는 노래들은 더욱 슬픈 이야기만 담고 있습니다. 로쿠차 구다사이 같은 발랄한 곡은 앞으로 다시는 나오지 않을 것 같습니다.

We haven’t discussed about our next album so I’m not sure what will happen. But there are songs that I sing on stage that didn’t make it on Yon Yonson, and also songs that I do want to put out so, I think we can make it happen in the near future somehow.

I still write songs as how I described earlier. And as I’m getting older the lyrics are getting a little more sadder, so I don’t think there will be something light-hearted as “Rokucha Kudasai” again I’m afraid to say.


1) Yang Lee is a musician, what else does she do besides make music?

2) Where does she find inspiration for her music?

3) How did she first record her music?

4) What are her plans for future music?

American Culture – Thanksgiving

–It has been awhile since I have uploaded anything and so I thought I would share a little of what I have been working on.  The great “American Culture Project of 2012” has been, mostly, a disappointment.  The great opportunity for research and epic lesson planning has turned into a mad-dash to meet a deadline (which was yesterday! haha.. ha.. ahhh… shit).   The deadling kept getting moved up and up and up until I really didn’t have a chance to change my gameplan, it’ll be finished today; half-assed.  Oh well.

What follows is my entry for Thanksgiving.  It begins with a short essay on Thanksgiving, followed by a lesson plan based on understanding multi-culturalism.  To be honest, the lesson plan that I developed here is so general as to work for *any* cultural event or idea.  Maybe that’s a good thing.–

–American Culture – Thanksgiving–
The thanksgiving holiday is one of the most beloved celebrations in the United States and Canada (though distinct, separate events in each country, both culturally and historically).  Thanksgiving has remained a traditional holiday and avoided much of the commercialization that is found in other holidays, like Christmas or Valentine’s day in the United States.  Thanksgiving is rooted in the very origins of the colonizing of the American continent by England.  And although the factual history of the original event is almost completely unknown, Thanksgiving has been standardized and nationalized by hundreds of years of celebration.

The American thanksgiving has its roots in the Puritans (a sect of Christianity) who were religiously persecuted in their home of England.  Because they would not follow some of the laws in England in regards to religion, the Puritans were given permission to leave England and settle in the America’s.  This journey has become something of an Origin Myth for the United States, and many of the fundamental beliefs of Americans about themselves and their culture stem from the Puritans leaving England, seeking religious freedom.  A common theme of public discourse in America to this day.

Upon landing in Virginia, the Puritans and the others who came with them began settling the land. In 1621, in order to give thanks for a good harvest, a day of thanksgiving was observed.  This thanksgiving celebration was different from what the Puritans usual celebrated as a religious “day of thanksgiving”, though the 1621 event is certainly influenced by the Puritans Christianity.  It was, nevertheless, a celebration that was different than a usual Puritan “thanksgiving” celebration.  To begin, the feast lasted over three days, which was unusual for a Puritan “thanksgiving” celebration.  In addition, the puritans had come in contact with the Wampanoag Native Americans, who were also invited to participate in the celebration with the Puritans.

The Wampanoag helped the new colonists establish themselves in America by showing them how to fish for eel, and how to grow produce, like corn.  This was done mostly through the efforts of a few Native Americans who had learned English when they were enslaved by Europeans, but who had made their way back to America.

Because the Puritans did not celebrate annual holidays (such as Christmas or Easter), this “first” thanksgiving was not made an annual event for another 40 years.  By the 1660s however, the colonists of early America had established two annual celebrations, one to celebrate the harvest in the fall (thanksgiving) and another day of fasting after the winter had ended and the spring planting was to begin.  Since 1660 however, the celebration of Thanksgiving has been annually celebrated and the traditions associated with Thanksgiving have remained largely the same.

In modern times, part of what makes Thanksgiving such a beloved holiday is that it is not celebrated publically like other holidays like the 4th of July (independence day) or even Christmas.  Thanksgiving, while a national holiday, is observed by individual families centered around a meal.  In remembrance of the Puritans first thanksgiving, most American families will have a traditional meal that consists of foods that are supposed to have been part of the first thanksgiving.  Namely: potatoes, bread, corn, cranberries and as the centerpiece, a turkey (which are indigenous to the American continent).  Ham is also sometimes served in addition, or as a replacement of turkey.  A bread dish called “stuffing” is also traditionally served and comes in a variety of types.

Because Thanksgiving is focused on the family, what the family traditionally serves on thanksgiving can and does change significantly.  Some families may not eat any of the traditional foods, this is not seen as a disgrace to the holiday in part because thanksgiving is focused inwardly, on the family, and not outwardly, on the public or nation.

In addition to the dinner, Thanksgiving is a time of remembering what good things the family has experienced over the last year, giving thanks for those things.  Religiously, many families say a prayer, expressing gratitude to their deity.  Secular families may express what they are thankful for over the dinner table, either in a formal fashion (i.e. before the dinner begins, each participant says something they are thankful for) or informally, as a normal discussion while eating.

While Thanksgiving is inwardly focused on the family, there are some national events that occur on thanksgiving that are very popular.  The most prominent celebration is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, held in New York City.  The parade is a simply a celebration which includes many different kinds of floats, most famously their balloon floats of various pop culture icons.  Marching bands from high schools and universities are invited to play at the parade and various pop culture stars sing and perform.  It can be difficult to see the connection between the parade and thanksgiving itself, which has led to the saying that the parade is, “on thanksgiving but not of thanksgiving.”  Indeed, much of the parade is focused more on the upcoming Christmas season, often featuring at least one appearance of the mythical “Santa Claus”.

Another cultural event associated with thanksgiving, though not necessarily in the spirit of Thanksgiving, is American Football.  Traditionally, at least one game is played on Thanksgiving in the National Football League (NFL) by the Dallas Cowboys and some other opponent, often the Washington Redskins (a key rival of the Cowboys) or the Miami Dolphins.  The tradition of playing on thanksgiving was started, however, with the Detroit Lions.  Because these games are held on Thanksgiving, they are called the “Turkey Bowl”, a reference both to the traditional dish (the turkey) of Thanksgiving and the Super Bowl, the national championship game of the NFL.

Thanksgiving is not celebrated by all Americans however.  In particular, many Native American tribes view the Thanksgiving holiday as a European celebration of the destruction and genocide of many Native American tribes.  While the first thanksgiving in 1621 was a friendly event between the Native Americans and the European Puritans, it did not take long for the westward expansion and settlement by the colonists pushed the Native Americans off their lands.  This was done by many means, most notably by means of warfare and also by means of disease.  European diseases decimated thousands of Native American tribes, which left many weakened and easily dominated by colonists.  Native Americans were often put on forced marches across thousands of miles, other were systematically killed in what we would call today, a genocide. The most famous event of this type is call, “The Trail of Tears”, which thousands of Native Americans were forcibly marched thousands of miles in the middle of the winter.  Thousands died.

With this history in context, many Native Americans today have a separate celebration on Thanksgiving, which they call “A National Day of Mourning”.  Those that participate in the National Day of Mourning organize peaceful protests of government spaces and famously hold a meeting on the island of Alcatraz, an old prison off the coast of California.  These meetings include speeches and traditional dances and ceremonies performed by the tribes.  The goals of those who participate in the National Day of Mourning are to educate others on Native American history, which is often not adequately taught in public schools.

Lesson Plan – Thanksgiving


The Thanksgiving holiday can be a good opportunity to invite your students to think about what it means to live with and respect people of very different cultures.  This lesson fits well with grammar focused on comparatives, but can work well within any grammatical feature the students are working on (present and past participles, conjunctions, etc).  Be creative and adapt your students grammatical content to fit a broader discussion about multiculturalism.

Performance Objectives

Students will be able to (SWBAT) compare and contrast the American thanksgiving with similar cultural events around the world.  Using what the students know (like Chu-seok), students will acquire new vocabulary to comprehend and speak about the American thanksgiving.

SWBAT synthesize the information given in two audio visual short videos.  Using small groups, students will divide the responsibility for answering several questions that will explain the American Thanksgiving.

SWBAT use a Venn diagram to organize their knowledge of thanksgiving in America, compared with Chu-seok in Korea.


Powerpoint presentation


Venn Diagram Maker


Before class

Set up the powerpoint so that it is ready for the class.  Prepare the videos and use them as you wish. (you can search Youtube for other videos as well.  Key words like “the real thanksgiving” are helpful for finding funny or informative videos.

Have the venn diagrams ready to be distributed.

 Warm-up (5-10 min)

Objective: Students will be introduced and will activate their prior knowledge of thanksgiving-like festivals around the world.

Learning Strategy:

Visual, audio

Teaching Strategy:

Small group work

Task Description:

Following the powerpoint (link given above), introduce the many different cultural thanksgivings from around the world.  Have students write down everything they know, all the words they know, to describe Chu-seok.  Ask students why they think so many cultures have a holiday like Chu-seok/thanksgiving.

Introduction (1 min)

Objective: Introduce to the students the topic of the class and the what the plan, or the objectives, are for that day.

Learning strategy

Audio, visual

Teaching Strategy


Task Description:

Introduce to the class the main topic of the lesson, which will focus on vocabulary for talking about Thankgiving dinner in America, followed by some videos that talk about thanksgiving.

Presentation (15 min)

Objective: Students will acquire new language needed to talk about how Americans celebrate Thanksgiving Dinner.

Learning strategy

Audio, visual

Teaching Strategy


 Task Description:

Follow the powerpoint.  Hand out the Venn diagrams.  Ask the students the different questions as they come up and follow the pictures as it explains the different side-dishes and main-dishes involved in thanksgiving.  For each new vocabulary word, have the students write them in either the “American only” circle, or in the middle circle if it is a food that you would also eat in Korea for a holiday like Thanksgiving.

After going through the vocabulary, have the students compare their venn diagrams with each other.  Do they have different answers? Why? If students disagree on whether or not an item is something they eat for Chu-seok, it can be an opportunity to talk about how different people within a single country (like Korea) may celebrate holidays differently.

Activity 2

Objective: Students will watch two videos and synthesize the information in small group work.

Learning Strategy:

Audio, visual

Teaching Strategy:

Small group work, whole class work

Task description:

Follow the powerpoint.  Introduce the two videos that will go over some history of the first American Thanksgiving.  Assign the students into groups using numbers (1, 2, 3, 4), each of which will pay attention and answer one question about the video (change the difficulty or complexity of the questions based on your own students needs and your preferences).  After watching the video and answering the questions to both videos, have the groups work together to add to their venn diagram.  What things are unique to the American Thanksgiving based on the videos? What do they share in common with Chu-seok, if anything.

After the groups have done this, have all the 1’s get together (and 2’s and 3’s and so on).  Have them talk even more about the venn diagram.  Each person in these new groups will have focused on a different part of the videos and can help their group have a more complete view of the American Thanksgiving.

Evaluation (15 min)

Objective: Students will demonstrate their understanding of American culture and also their ability to recall and use the target language of the class.

Learning Strategy:


Teaching strategy:


After students complete their venn diagram, have a class discussion talking about and using the venn diagram to compare the American Thanksgiving with Chu-seok.  Draw a venn diagram on the board and have the students share their answers.  (Depending on the level of the students and what grammatical features they have learned, they can use comparatives, or simple structures like past or present tense).

Giving directions – “How to draw a Chibi”

I’ve been wanting to document some of my better attempts at teaching by providing the basic lesson plans in this space. Some of my more elaborate plans are still in the writing stages, but I had a sort of impromptu lesson that turned out very well that I thought I would share the details of:

 Chapter 9 Lesson Plan

Fun Cartoons – giving/hearing directions

grade level 1 (7th graders)

Class Background:

Students have been in chapter 9 for about a week. The first lessons were focused on giving spatial directions via egocentric vocabulary (left, right, ahead, behind). Students performed listening comprehension tasks via Drill Downs, production tasks by giving directions to various locations in the school. Students were introduced to how to draw cartoons in a previous lesson that was provided by the book.

Materials Needed:
Internet, projector, whiteboards (sufficient for groups of 4), markers, erasers

Performance Objectives:
SWBAT follow the directions of a cartoon-drawing tutorial found on YouTube. They will both hear and see the drawing and will follow along, drawing the cartoon themselves with the video.

SWBAT produce oral directions for drawing the cartoon using language useful for directions (First, next, and then). Students will work in groups of 4 to organize a complete set of instructions for drawing the cartoon by writing down their instructions on a whiteboard.

Before Class:
Have the projector ready, youtube loaded and whiteboards are easy access.

Warm-up: (5 min)
Because this was a somewhat impromptu class, I did not have a well-planned out “warm-up” that would have helped the students perform the tasks. If I were to add a warm-up, it would look something like performing a short drill down, in which the students themselves do the directing or some such activity. Haven’t really thought this one through yet!

Presentation: (10 min)
Objectives: Students will be prepared to hear directions by introducing language useful in “how to” direction-giving exercises. This includes language like, “next, and then, finally”. This will be accomplished by assisting the video that will be used throughout the lesson.

A. Instructional Strategy:
Class lecture

B. Sensory Learning Style:
Audio, visual

C. Task Description:
Explain first to the students that they will be watching a “how to” video that will show them how to draw a simple Manga character called a “chibi”. (protip: don’t talk about ‘manga’ with the Korean kids as they might go off on a “booo Japan!” rant). Explain that you will write down the directions together for the first part (the drawing of the head). Perform a quick comprehension check asking, “What are going to watch? What are we going to do while we watch?”

As you stop the video to write down directions, introduce the language, “first, next, and then, finally”. Draw students attention to this introductory words. As you progress, leave draw a line and ask the students to fill it in. By the end of this section (the drawing of the head) the students should be able to give the last couple of instructions in their entirety.

Practice: (20 min)
Objectives: Students will be able draw and complete their instruction list by watching the video (from the beginning to the end). In groups, the students will collaborate to finalize a list which will be synthesized in a class comprehension check at the end.

A. Instructional Strategy:
Small group work

B. Sensory Learning Style:
Audio, visual, textile

C. Task Description:
Explain that we will watch the video from the beginning again. The students are invited to finish their lists if they want, or to follow along drawing the chibi on their own papers. Stop the video when it begins the drawing of the body. Tell the students they should focus on writing directions for the body and that after they will get into groups to talk about a final list of instructions for the body. Perform a comprehension check to ensure understanding. Walk around during the activity to reinforce comprehension, in the case the students get distracted, or forget the goal.

After the video finishes, have the students get into their groups with their whiteboards to write up a list of instructions, making explicit the use of “first, second, next, and then, finally’ to link their instructions together. Circulate to reinforce directives and keep students on track. At the end, bring the students together and ask the class to provide their answers. They will diverge from step to step, make this explicit that there is more than one way to direct the drawing (some features can be draw before others and vice versa). Reinforce the idea of “no one all-perfect correct way”. Evaluate the students ability to use the new vocabulary, but do not interrupt fluency to correct or draw attention to it. Let the students speak and speak to them authentically. Use the evaluation to understand how much more the students need to direct instruction.

I actually did this activity along with the students, drawing and writing down directions as I circulated.  I cheated and practiced beforehand, but I wanted the students to feel like they had an example of the “correct” way of doing the activity, in case they still didn’t understand and were too afraid to say anything.

Evaluation: (5 min)
Objectives: Students will be given a new “how to” to perform as homework.

A. Instructional Strategy:
Individual work

B. Sensory Learning Style:
Audio, visual, textile

C. Task Description:
Using QR readers, the students will be given a new assignment to watch a How To video about how to fold a paper airplane. Students will follow the directions to fold an airplane and then write down all the instructions, like the lesson. Students will bring both their instructions and airplane to class for the next lesson.

I have no application for this lesson in particular. But the driving goal for the multi-lesson task is to have the students present a self-directed “how to” either in writing, video, audio or class demonstration.

— What I really liked about this particular lesson, even though it doesn’t adequately cover the methodological bases that should move the students towards acquisition, is that it focused the students, unbeknownst to them, on language.  While following along with the video, the students would ask questions like, “what is a half circle?” “what do you call this (eyebrows, blush, etc..).  This is gives me an opportunity to engage the students in reflective questioning.  They asked me, the “expert” and then I would reflect the question back to the class.  Inevitably, the class has almost all the answers that I, the “expert”, would have.  The only thing the class seems to lack there is the confidence to know this is the case.

In addition to this, I got an opportunity to teach a bit of spelling.  Spelling is not my favorite aspect of language.  I don’t feel the same affinity for written language as I do for spoken language.  But in teaching, I’ve found that my students are extremely fearful of making errors.  That’s not a good thing for education in general, but particularly in language learning, taking risks and making errors needs to be a celebrated part of learning.  With the fear of mistakes fully engrained in their heads, whenever I give a task that requires writing (as a secondary task to the main, communicative, task), I usually get inundated with, “teacher! How do you spell ____??” for 20 minutes.

I taught the kids the concept of “guessing”, but more in the style of hypothesizing.  And everytime they ask me to spell something, I tell them, “guess.”  They usually scowl at this, but they don’t protest anymore.  During this lesson, one student asked how to spell “eyebrow”.  Their struggle  was particularly with the “brow” part of the word, and in that part, the struggle was with the vowel-glide, ‘ow’.  I told her to guess and then after I finished with the main task (getting the class consensus for how to draw the character), I told the class that there was a spelling question.  The dialogue is pretty lengthy, but the essential idea is that I ask the students all the possible ways to spell ‘eyebrow’.  They gave me ‘eyebrow’, ‘eyebrou’, and ‘eyebrau’.  So they were pretty close, and those three spellings can overlap in some pronunciations, or at least come so close that an ESL learner would not perceive the difference.  I asked the students to give me other words that use ‘au’, ‘ou’, and ‘ow’.  They came up with, “mouse, wow, now, our”.  They had a hard time with ‘au’ so I gave them ‘caught’ (and showed them it was the past tense of catch, “I caught the ball, yesterday.”).  And added ‘ought’ to make the ‘ou’ more obvious.

I then had the students say the words in order, adding ‘brow’ after each spelling.  ‘mouse, our, brow’, ‘wow, now, brow’, ‘caught, brow’.  This was done without *my* speech being the focus.  They said the words themselves and I would repeat it back after them.  They quickly realized that ‘au’ didn’t seem to work, but they were a little conflicted on ‘ou’.  This is where I introduced, ‘ought’.  With that word, they knew pretty quickly the correct spelling, but more importantly, they spent time trying to discern between vowels and glides that they may not spend much time thinking about.  Which in my opinion is the real linguistic benefit of the exercise.  In addition, they are given a tool for figuring out spelling on their own, a flawed tool, to be sure (comparing ‘caught’ and ‘ought’ for some dialects, like mine, would make it hard to tell why there is a spelling difference), but one that can at least make them feel more comfortable guessing.  We’ll see if it catches on.

The Altruism Paradox

[Nearly every Thursday night for the last two years, a few of my friends and myself would go out to eat and talk.  It was a social experiment of sorts, but it became for me a place of refuge where I could talk, listen and learn.  The Thursday Night group was small, and has recently been on a break since a few of us have left the country.  I know those still back home are trying to keep it going in some fashion.  So in their honor, I will try to have something posted on Thursday nights.  I am hoping to discuss things outside of the main emphasis of this blog (ESL education).  This inaugural post will discuss Altruism and Empathy.]

During the first few weeks here in South Korea, while I was going through the very normal stages of culture shock, I would ride the metro as a way to get relief from my nerves, frustration and anger.  It sounds a little strange now, but sitting in an enclosed space with hundreds of other people was comforting.  It allowed me to engage with the “natives” without being asked to really be a part of a social exchange, I could just watch.

There was another reason it was comforting.  Riding the bus and metro gave me the opportunity to perform what I consider small acts of service by giving up my seat to someone else.  The first time I did it was simply my reaction to seeing a woman standing in front of me on the metro, so I gave her my seat.  But it was then that I realized that it felt really good.

I’m sure the internetz just did a collective facepalm.  Of course it felt good you moron! Doing nice things for other people is supposed to feel good!  I remember hearing from leaders growing up this little ditty all the time, “if your lot in life seems empty, build a service station!”  I would also like to note that I’m not exactly a stranger to service, I may not be the most volunteer-oriented person; but I’m ok.  That’s what made this feeling I had riding the metro a little… disconcerting.

You see, it was the first time that I realized I was deriving real pleasure from this act of service.  And that I wanted to do more of that kind of thing, not for the empathic, altruistic motives that I had always attached to service.  I wanted to give up my seat on the metro just as much as I wanted to down a 64 oz mountain dew and slam a couple of double pastrami burgers and play video games allll night.  I wanted to do it because it felt good for me.  I think the fact that I was clinging to any sort of happiness during that time made me hyper aware of my own feelings.

I suppose the fact that it did another person some good makes it better than the other types of pleasure I compared it to, but nonetheless, it was a thought that stuck with me; and it started to bother me.

I have a hard time with the cold, “survival of the fittest” evolution, where the strongest beat down the weak and that’s just how it is.  So I was really excited to hear about evolutionary research into altruism and empathy.  It makes me happy to know that humans seem to come hardwired for feeling empathy.  Babies will instinctively cry when they hear another baby crying.  And we react to movies and drama with real emotion because our brain seems to register what we are experiencing as happening to us in reality.  I like this empathic human.

But when I listened to the Radiolab episode, “The Good Show”, I was disconcerted all over again.  It goes through and talks about many of the altruistic aspects of evolution and eventually lands on the story of George Price.  The man who wrote the mathematical formula for altruism.  It’s a great and sad story and incredibly powerful.  What is so amazing about it is that, once we realize that evolution has built into us a desire to be altruistic, that it would be an evolutionary trait to save your family before you save yourself; we face an uncomfortable idea.  If it is in your species best interest that you self-sacrifice, then it is fundamentally selfish and there is no true altruism.  When we do acts of kindness or service, or when we do things that we call “self-less” we are covering up the darkside of those acts.  That at the heart of all our service, is a core of selfishness.

Confronting this idea for the first time is sad.  It is uncomfortable and I still don’t like it.  But I think that by acknowledging my own selfishness in my service, I can in a strange way make my service more selfless.

Recognizing your selfishness is important in other ways as well.  First, I believe it builds empathy.  I think we are all familiar with the “Golden Rule”.  Do unto others as you would have done unto you.  I am going to submit that this rule is service without acknowledging your selfishness.  Notice that the golden rule is all about you.  This makes the Golden Rule very easily applicable.  Most everyone can hear this rule and say, “why, yes, I wouldn’t like to be discriminated against because of my race/gender/sexuality”.  But the Golden Rule preserves an Us vs Them dichotomy that is not overcome.

Better, in my opinion (and also what I think the Golden Rule was meant to convey), is what is known as the Platinum rule: Do unto others as they would have done unto themselves. (not to be confused with the Platinum rule of How I Met Your Mother fame) Notice that the platinum rule is inherently other-oriented.  Implicit is the idea that what we may want for ourselves, may not be what other people want for themselves. The platinum rule shifts the perspective of “us vs them” towards a more “us” perspective.  The platinum rule is inherently empathic:  before you can even apply the platinum rule you have to know what the other person wants.  You have to listen to them, hear their side of things.

Another aspect of the Platinum rule that I’ve been thinking about recently is the selfish side.  Back to my bus/metro seat-giving anecdote.  The real problem with my “service” was actually that there are different expectations in Korea than there are in America.  Back home, I would give my seat to a woman without hesitation, age not really being a factor there.  The constraint in my cereberal make-up is against having a woman standing on the metro/bus.  Not so in Korea.  Often when I try to get women to take my seat they refuse to take it, even after multiple offers or insistences.  After awhile I started just getting up, effectively forcing them to take it.

I noticed an interesting effect of this.  The woman would then feel a great burden to find another person more deserving to have the seat.  This usually ended up being the first person to take advantage of the offer, often some teenage/ young adult.  The problem is, I approached my service from the perspective of what I thought people should want, not what they wanted themselves.

There is another perspective on this that I think is informative, though I’m not quite sure how to codify things. One way to help everyone “save face” and practice empathy and selfishness is to provide some way for the person you have given service, to serve you.  An example:  An old lady got on my bus the other day and there were no seats left.  I instinctively got up and she sat down without a fight (she was old).  What happened next is that she asked if she could hold my shoulder-bag for the rest of the ride.

Even though the old lady had other things with her, I let her hold my bag and when I got off the bus I said, “thank you” and she said “thank you” back.  We left the situation with both of our selfish and selfless needs fulfilled.

And it is there that I think the problem lies when you won’t allow yourself to be served.  By giving up your seat you have put the other person in a position in which they need to save face and by denying them a reciprocation,  you deny them their face.  The result is often an awkward feeling in the stomach of the person standing there not the person sitting.  That is my experience anyway.  The reason, I believe is that your service did not recognize its own selfishness.

This is essence of my problem with what I have labeled the “culture of deference” in Utah (and I’m sure many other places) is this phenomenon.  People refuse to be selfish and worse still, they think that is a virtue.  When in reality it is the cause of problems like the person refusing to let another person reciprocate kindness.  My sister taught me this through the idea of “accepting gifts”.  The basic idea, its just as important to let people serve you as it is to serve others.  I truly think this harmony is a requirement for anything like real altruism or empathy to be a reality.

The Classroom Management Charade

Back at the beginning of October, I spent three days being oriented to teaching in Korea at a nice little conference resort place…thingy.  I’m not going to go into details about the event, suffice it to say there were a lot of Americans, Canadians, South Africans, English and Irish.  We got to know one another and we spent about 24 hours listening to lectures on our roles as Native English Teachers (NETs).

Even though each speaker was given specific topics, the topic of how to control your students and managing the classroom was a common topic throughout the conference.   The first tip usually given in classroom management almost always focuses on “be fun”!  It seems (and maybe rightly so) that as NETs, our role is to be fun! Be Funny! And never boring.  So, to start lessons or the “warm-up” as I’ve been taught, should be something light, fun and funny.  I guess I’m ok with this.

The next topic was straight into discipline.  Here are the two main categories: 1) Token Economies and 2) Negative Discipline.  We’ll leave negative discipline out this time, maybe I’ll do a part two in the future.

Token Economies

What this seemed to come down to, to me, was candy.  Candy, candy, candy.  Motivate your students through their sweet-tooths.  You give candy for correct answers and good behavior.  The biggest problem seems to be that, you end up spending money on candy which over time, sounds awful.  But, in addition, the bribe model, while perhaps effective in some way, doesn’t seem to be the kind of motivation that is fundamentally required to meet the goals of the class.  I also don’t think candy is going to decrease bad behavior.  The “trouble-makers” may from time to time value candy over their social-place (and the maintenance that is required therein), but I can’t imagine this being a long-term motivator for them.  Perhaps the solution could be in making the candy a community based reward, where no one gets candy unless the class reaches a threshold of good behavior/meeting class objectives/etc..

Community-based rewards might actually work in a society, like Korea.  However, I’m not sure I could actually pit the students against themselves.  It may create conformity in the direction that I feel I want, but it may also create resentment, entrenchment and, worst of all, a continued feeling that learning is another form of punishment.

Other token economies include using classroom “money”, which allows you to conserve your actual rewards (and maybe even make them better) but suffers, fundamentally, from the same problems as noted above.  Also mentioned was the idea of “leveling up”.  This is the idea of gamification and  I actually like this idea the best, as it creates a system of progress that the students can track and follow (albeit arbitrary and not necessarily relatable to their progress as English speakers).  At the basic level, this economy is based on climbing a latter of “titles”.  There were some good ideas presented in the conference that involved this kind of classroom economy.  Beyond giving titles, with such a system you can also designate new responsibilities, with certain privileges.

Gamifying my classroom sounds very attractive  but I’ll admit to a great deal of hesitance as well.  I think this video from a DICE conference might help show why it scares me a little.  In the beginning of the presentation, the presenter cracks some jokes about traditional gaming, talks about Facebook and then starts talking about why Facebook games are so successful.  Essentially it comes down to “achievements” and authenticity.  The older gamer notion of “I play games to escape reality” is going out the window and games are making their way back to the real world via social networks etc.  Throughout the presentation, I felt more and more excited about the idea of gamification, however, when the presenter gives his idea of the “future”, I lost my appetite   You can just skip to the end of the talk and listen yourself; what he says is that he “sees a future” where everything you do is motivated by competition with your social network.  Brushing your teeth; social network game with ranks/rewards.  Eating breakfast? play the game on the back of the box and get points to show your friends you’re the best at corn flakes.

Who pays for this? Well the tooth paste companies for one.  A game that gives you plus points for brushing more often and for longer periods? That benefits corporations invested in toothbrushes and toothpaste.  That particular example isn’t so frightening, but it doesn’t take much to realize that making everything a competition is going to get invasive pretty fast, not to mention straining on relationships.

Anyway, back to token economies, some other potential problems with such a system is that you still maintain a “have/have not” classroom management style.  It would be necessary to make sure all students had equal access to progression, regardless of their proficiency in English.  Some students simply will not progress in their English, and it isn’t always because they are bad students, lazy, un-motivated or stupid.  In fact, I would say those reasons are unlikely.  A short anecdote: A few weeks ago, I did an activity with my 9th graders that had them asking their fellow students what they expected to be doing in one year, five years, ten years etc..  I have one student in particular who is not usually very interested in learning.  I don’t know too much about him just yet, but based on superficial things, he seems like a leader, he seems poor, his clothes are messier than his peers and he is, in general, more of a “this shit doesn’t matter” kind of kid.  I think I would call him Authentic, in a certain way.  Most kids have a bull-shit detector, but his is well-tuned.

As usual, his participation in the activity was minimal, so I walked over and asked him the questions (I was filling out a worksheet just like they were).  His answers were enlightening.  I asked “where are you going to be in five years?”

“I don’t know.”


“Because I have no future.”

The classroom was loud, students were moving around, but my heart was breaking.  This boy wasn’t joking around.  He wasn’t laughing.  He also wasn’t crying about it.  He was just telling me the facts.  Thinking about five years into the future wasn’t exactly exciting for him, because it’s already been decided.  In the worst kind way, this boy has created a self-fullfilling prophecy about his future.  Because he believes it to be already decided (and the result is bad), he need not worry about something so useless, so upper-class and so wasteful as learning English.  What use would he have of it?  To guide tourist around his town? (This sounds a little crass, but I’m just trying to think from his position).

The point is this: this boy’s perceived “bad behavior” is just as likely to be based in his world-view that he has no future (for whatever reason, I haven’t gotten that far into his story) as it is that he is simply a “bad student” that he is “lazy” or “just not smart”. /end anecdote

So, back to the leveling up token economy—how would such a system include students as illustrated in a fair manner?  And, while we are considering the “bad” students, how do we maintain the motivating factor for the students who do use the system in a traditional way?  (i.e. answering questions correctly and behaving “well”).  What happens when the quiet student who participates in class in traditionally appropriate ways is leveling up at maybe the same rate as the student who is disruptive in a traditionally defined way?

Perhaps it’s not actually an issue.  Maybe this is over-thinking it, and the practicality of the matter demands a solution, even if it doesn’t address all or even most of these problems.  That’s as far as I’m willing to address the issue at this time.  My conclusion as far as Token Economies goes is that I remain underwhelmed.  That they address the symptom of the problem while ignoring the sickness itself.  Like a doctor trying to simply treat symptoms without having a diagnosis; you may be able to control the symptoms, but you won’t know if you’re moving the patient towards real recovery.

So what is the take-home message here?  And why am I calling this whole thing a Charade?  I’m calling it a charade because, while I was sitting through these presentations with a raised eyebrow and confused look, most everyone around me seemed to lapping up the kool-aid.  It seems classroom management is a real problem for most of the teachers doing this gig.  As NET’s, we have a unique situation that lends less authority and also less ability to perform traditional forms of discipline and so it seems that many of us flounder, myself included.  So while it may look like I am still out there drowning while everyone else has latched onto a life-tube of token economies and negative discipline, I can’t help but wonder where this boat is going to take them?

Granted.  Many of the NET’s aren’t actually interested in teaching.  They are here for the experience, the fun, the

ESL teacher can know grammarz?

what have you.  Getting too deep into one’s self as a teacher isn’t what they signed up for, so this stuff may all work for them.  For me, I am trying to understand who I am as a teacher.  I’m trying to figure out whether or not classroom management in this form is applicable for me in the long term.  These token economies, negative discipline: they have to be something I can do as a teacher for decades and not come out the other end hating myself, my students and my profession.  And when I look down that telescope, I don’t see good results.

Fundamentally, I feel there is something else missing in these approaches to managing a classroom.  Certainly the ideas in this post are of a pragmatic, practical nature.  But they have their own roots in an approach, a theory of how learning is accomplished; and I’m just not certain I share those same beliefs fundamentally.  Perhaps the charade is not what everyone else is doing, but is instead, how I approach it all.  That’s how it feels right now anyway, like a charade.

Always Present

Everyday, I take a 30 minute bus ride from my small town, Jeongok, north to an even smaller town called Daegwang.  The ride is pleasant enough and barring any delay in the schedule, the buses don’t get to packed with people.  The area is very rural, and you’ll find garden plots everywhere.  Seriously everywhere.  Even in my small town, which is the “most developed” town in the area (the quotes are from my co-teacher).  Most of the 30 minutes is spent looking at giant fields of rice, barns and the forested mountains that surround us.

It is a very beautiful place and only gets more beautiful with each changing season (so far anyway).  Late summer had stretches of the road lined with flowers, autumn has the changing leaves.  And with so many trees, it really is a beautiful place.

There are some constants with all this beauty.  Like the fact that at times it feels like my town is populated solely by teenage school girls and 70 year old women.  Another, the constant coming and going of Korean soldiers.  I was complaining (shocker) to a friend the other day that while it is lonely in my town (I’m ok with that) it can be unbearable on the weekends because my town is flooded with soldiers and their girlfriends.  No one is more aware of the importance of intimacy, as someone who isn’t getting any of it.

Half-joking aside, the soldiers fascinate me in other ways.  Speaking as an American, our soldiers are pretty visible  throughout the world and in our hometowns.  I’ve seen a lot of military types and equipment.  The mere presence of the military isn’t the interesting thing, instead what keeps me interested is a feeling.  As a civilian, it is one thing to see a soldier; it is another to see a group of them emerge from the forest in full battle-gear, faces painted.  It’s one thing to see the military, even a tank, in a parade; it is completely another thing to see an actual military convoy of fifteen tanks and artillery.  The feeling is very different.  There is a seriousness to it, an awareness, a reminder that is more than hopefulness or pride.

I think the daily reminder of the military presence that gets me the most is one I hear at my school everyday.  My school is located about half a mile from an army camp where they do rifle practice.  Everyday around 2pm I hear the familiar “ting” of rifle fire.  Again, it’s one thing to go out with your Gun-enthusiast uncle and shoot a large caliber weapon, it is another to hear soldiers practicing.  But it’s not just the military aspect.  It’s something else.  I guess it’s the image that it brings to mind.  Back in America, soldiers doing rifle practice may bring to mind a number of things to any given person, I don’t really know.  But here, a Korean soldier shooting a target? Well that brings to mind the ever-present conflict just a few miles up the road.  It might remind you of contingency plans, of the past, perhaps the future.

One day, I got off the bus later in the evening and the first thing I saw was two soldiers on the sidewalk.  Normal.  They had their full gear on, helmets strapped on and, abnormally, they had their rifles in their hands.  I froze, but only for a moment.  I suppose I had for one second thought something was wrong.  My naivete made me fearful.  No one else had stopped, no one seemed to be paying attention to the two soldiers.  They weren’t doing anything in particular that would cause alarm.  No, it was just a feeling.  And maybe it passes.

video – Rifle practice outside school

I hope so.  I hope for the sake of all these good people that they don’t feel that tinge of fear when confronted with the ever-present military.  No one deserves to live with such a feeling their whole lives.  Living with the conflict itself is enough.  The always present feeling, I hope it fades for them.