Christmas at a Hagwon in Korea

Its Christmas Eve, my first one in South Korea, first one away from my family and my first one at a hagwon here in Seoul.  I’ll leave out the administrative shortcomings in this post since Christmas is a day to be happy and celebrate the good times.  (don’t worry the anecdotes about how crazy my hagwon continues to be will come out in the next few days.)  We had a big party today (Tuesday) for Christmas Eve, no school on Christmas and a Christmas concert Thursday!

Today’s events were a ton of fun for the kids!  Our schedule which was overemphasized in Monday’s meeting changed at least twice without any warning but you’ve gotta be able to go with the flow in the states too right?  We started the day with a sentence on the board to get them in the spirit.  “Today is Christmas Eve!”  Normally I’d never use a word as big as Christmas but they all figured it out pretty easily.  When they finished they had some playtime and snack time as usual.

We were slated to go to Santa for presents after snack but my principal came to let us know we were starting late.  We practiced our concert routine and were about to start again when the phone rang.

Our Santa had a black and white Ramones t-shirt on beneath his baggy costume.  He smelled of cigarettes and reminded me of my last hangover.  Even so, the kids were super excited as he called each one up by name and gave them a present!  It was a really cute ceremony but after a few minutes they noticed his hair didn’t match the beard and the shirt kept popping out.  They kept saying “사기꾼 (sagiggun)” so I asked my coteacher what it meant, she laughed and “fake.”


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Two months that flew by

I can’t believe I’m already into my third month here in Seoul!  It feels like only yesterday that I was sitting at Forte’s pizzeria eating my favorite two slices, Bacon Chicken Ranch and Caeser Chicken Salad pizza.  Man those would be delicious right now.  I mean the food here is out of this world; both in tastes and “creativity?” but in many ways it doesn’t compare to what we have back home.

I’ve tried creepy meals and dined with new friends, sang my heart out at 3am in a Noraebong, danced until the subway started running again at 5:30am, hiked to 4 different peaks in Bukhansan National Park, visited Buddhist temples and 3 Royal PalacesI fenced my heart out and beat up a bunch of Koreans, enjoyed my brother’s visit with hikes, great food and learned about the Korean war while crossing into the DMZ.  The list goes on and on.  Its all been a great 2 months and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

I’m already feeling like I’m going to stay on for at least a 2nd year although I am pretty certain I want to find an international school instead of a hagwon.  We’ll see what happens with my new administration in the next few weeks; so far I met the new director and she can speak English at least ten times better than Mrs. Yi; she also seems to be much more knowledgeable about what an ESL classroom really needs like oh I don’t know, phonics?

My apartment is mostly set up but I am still looking for a few things.  I’m hopeful that today’s paycheck will arrive  before I leave for the day so I can start scouring what the expats are leaving behind on craigslist as they leave this lovely country.  I figured out how to use a “dehydration” cycle on my washing machine that cuts down drying time from 3 days on the rack to about a day and started cooking my own meals too!

So far I mostly just eat cereal for breakfast & make omelets.  I’ve got some frozen dumplings & bulgogi burgers that I’ll throw together with ramen.  I’ve learned how to make a few Korean dishes by teaching Cooking class in school and will start expanding my palate at home.

My after school classes are going well.  Clinic on Mondays just got a new student so I’ve gotta revamp the lessons a little; my Tues/Thurs book club finished their 4th book and I’m helping them with their writing and studying techniques before we start Judy Blume’s Fudge-a-Mania & Doublefudge.  Its a little odd that I asked for more advanced books in September and was given 2 easier Magic School Bus chapter books for October and then jumped 3 grade levels to the fudge series for November.  It’ll be way more challenging but I think they are up for it!

My Wed/Fri clinic is a lot of fun.  I’ve got 2 K-7 kids who are really enjoying the lessons we do and they are actually excited about getting homework!  We do a lot of conversation and just started talking about comparative adjectives.  My “shy” student is coming out of her shell as she realizes she has a better grasp of English grammar than my “bossy” student who keeps trying to cheat at phonics hangman.  All in all I really enjoy all my students I just wish I didn’t have to teach 2 hours everyday after a full day of Kindergarten.

Speaking of the full day Kindergarten they are reading & writing better already!  We put up a sight word wall, a phonics wall and have been working on creating our own sentences rather than just copying from the board.  They love centers which I do 3x a week and even my girl who is ran away from me in the beginning of the year will laugh and smile with me.

I still have so much to explore around Seoul and about Korean culture.  I’m planning on heading to the east coast this weekend to go hiking in Seoraksan National Park in the last few days of fall foliage.  I am excited to try the winter sports out here as it gets colder and still need to find a gym & jingabong (Korean Bath House).  I start my language exchange classes in the next few weeks and am excited to be able have more Korean than simply being able to order a meal!

I can’t wait to start traveling around the region and taking weekend trips outside of the city too.  Japan & Hong Kong sound like they are affordable & worth taking a weekend to and I just started planning a longer trip into Vietnam.  I was accepted into the beta for a crowd funding travel website,, and am putting together a team to try and get a sponsored tour of the amazing country, including Son Doong Cave.  I’m looking forward to my trip to Boracay for New Years and joined another website called to connect with like minded travel enthusiasts who will help me experience life like a local wherever I go.

Thanks for following my journey these past few months.  I hope you’ve enjoyed the updates and I will certainly keep them coming!  Keep reading, commenting and enjoying as I keep living, learning, traveling & teaching.

A welcome surprise

At our Monday morning meeting we finally got some answers. My principal went through the routine weekly minutes; bus duty, a few due dates and upcoming events. There was a confusing schedule about parent teacher conferences with a field trip at the end of the month but at the end my principal Jane had a surprise announcement.  At the end of November, 2 administrators will be leaving; Soo Jen, who tried to leave the past two months but her replacement kept quitting beforehand and Mrs. Yi.

Mrs. Yi?  The principal?  That was a surprise that got the gossip going.  Her arrival a little over a year ago seems to have been the root of all the anxiety that the foreign teachers here have been experiencing.  I’m hopeful about meeting the replacement this week and there were certainly a lot more smiles than usually accompany an announcement of this sort  . A couple of the foreigners joked about having a “party” while we all secretly did a little happy dance.

Questions immediately started going around: Was she fired? Did she quit? Will her replacement be better? What does this mean for us? Over the next few weeks we hope to have some more honesty and answers coming from our administration; this news coupled with the handful of new students we’ve had over the last 2 weeks bode well for the longevity of this hagwon.

“If I had asked…

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” ― Henry Ford

Innovation is a spectacular thing.  It has led to great inventions like cars, computers, phones and amazing medical treatments..  Without thinking outside the box we’d still be cutting people’s heads open to alleviate headaches,  bloodletting our sick and offering heroin and mercury as sound medicine. 

I could go into the US’s current debacle in congress and the ACA but seeing as how my current residence is already at an international standard of affordable healthcare I’ll relate this to teaching instead.

Teachers are often forced to think outside of the box and find new creative ways to bestow knowledge on our youngsters.

Teaching ESL is in some ways more straightforward than teaching back home.  The main thing for Kindergarteners is to get them speaking in my native tongue.  We do a lot of choral response and I have some resources through the school.  I don’t agree with all the workbooks and supplement our loose curriculum but it all comes naturally.  That being said there are certainly times when I need to get creative, and I don’t just mean with my next art class.

Its not just about reading and speaking; the kids need to connect the words with their meaning.  We do a lot of role playing and games that help elaborate on the words.  Plus its Kindergarten so we always need to get creative to maintain their focus.  Outside of that I’ve got a few extra special students who work best in a less traditional setting.

I haven’t invented anything new or come up with anything as profound the Model A.  In fact most of what I’m using are lessons borrowed from another teacher or my experiences in classrooms back in the states.  I HAVE done things with my classroom that my administration couldn’t have thought of and parents didn’t ask for.  We’ve turned bland lessons provided by my syllabus into exciting games.  I’ve incorporated slideshows, music and more into everyday math, science and phonics lessons.  Lastly, I’ve recreated lessons I observed and implemented back in New Jersey.

As a result of not just giving this school a “faster horse” the students are becoming more fluent in English speaking and writing.  It really is enjoyable when a kid who a month ago could barely read English letters is able to decode new words and is going nuts of his new sight words!

Chuseok – Korean Thanksgiving

Lucky me, a 5-day weekend already!  Today is Chuseok, althoug perhaps best known for the awful traffic that accompanies nearly half the population of Seoul leaving for their hometown, Chuseok is actually a harvest holiday full of family gatherings and festivities.  I’m looking forward to having some time to explore the city and visit Bukhansan National Park.  The rest of Korea is busy traveling; if they aren’t going home then they are taking advantage of this 5-day weekend and flying somewhere for vacation.  I have students who are going to Singapore, Japan, China, Thailand and even Australia.  Others are staying in Korea and going to Gwanju, Busan or Jeju Island.  Either way it means no work until Monday!

Tuesday at school we celebrated Chuseok with a full day of festivities.  I’ve been teaching harvest & farming lessons for the past few weeks and comparing Chuseok to America’s Thanksgiving.  The kids enjoyed my lessons but definitely liked the games and traditions on Tuesday better.  We started with some traditional Korean games.  Tuho is a game where they thrown 50-60 cm long darts at a bucket.  It was a hit even though most of my little munchkins could barely sink 1 of their 5 darts.  After a few rounds they got better and I even had one little girl hit 4 out of 5!


After Tuho we went over to Sabangchigi.  This is pretty much the same as the hopscotch I grew up with; the board is slightly different with more triangles where I was used to squares and rectangles but in the end its the same game.  My kids had fun jumping around but always forgot to pick up the bean bag and didn’t quite have the motor control to hop from one foot to both feet.  Either way they had fun.


After these games we went back to the classroom to make songpyeon.  They are little rice cakes which we’ve had a few times for snack;  it starts with a ball of dough. You dig a little hole into and fill with premixed spices and sugar.  Well I always thought they were rice cakes but maybe its a rice dough because we didn’t actually add rice to the center.  You close them up similarly to a dumpling but as my principal, Mrs. Yi, pointed out they are not dumplings.  She popped in and demonstrated for us explaining that they should be like a half moon shape and are much smaller than dumplings.  We loaded our raw songpyeon into a tray and sent them up to the kitchen; next up we make jegichagis!



These are really fun to make.  Its a little craft that turns out to be basically a hackey sack.  We made ours with strips of colored paper and a bottle cap filled with coins to give it some weight.  The kids really enjoyed ripping the strips to give it a little more flair.  I even got to make my own!



Before lunch we had an arm wrestling session.  Their competitive side came out and the screams of strength and encouragement were suprising from these little guys.  With a broad grin the winners moved on in a mini-tournament.  Everyone had a good time and we declared Brandon my class’ champion.  We did a few more matches when Mary came in to inform me that our champion was going to face another classroom’s winner.


This is where the cheering really went nuts.  It was nearly 5 minutes of hooting and hollering and whenever Doyun (from the other class) looked like he was about to win, Brandon would let out an anime style scream and bring their arms back to center.  It was hilarious and amazing at the same time.  Eventually Brandon couldn’t muster the strength anymore and Doyun was able to pin him.

After lunch we got to bring our new jegis up to the roof and play some jegichagi.  I kept trying to show the kids how to get more than 1 kick out of it but they preferred to just kick it as far as they could.  While on the roof we danced Ganggangsullae, a traditional Chuseok circle dance.  We had some music while chanting “gang-gang-sullae.”  My coteacher told me it was a meaningless phrase but helped bring in a bountiful harvest. Meaningless or not the kids loved jumping around on the roof.  I took a break from the circle to snap a few pictures and take in the skyline around us.


After our dance we had some time for gijisijuldarigi aka tug-of-war.  Traditionally the game is all about teamwork and working together.  It symbolizes the hard work required to bring in a bountiful harvest.  Koreans would work together to make the rope out of rice straws.  Lucky us there was an actual rope waiting and my students went absolutely bonkers over it.  I’m not sure they really know what they were doing but they are ultra-competitive and I let them do a few rounds switching up the teams.  After a quick break I decided to see if I could face all of them at once.  Its only 10 of them and I was pretty sure I had more strength in my little pinky than they did combined; plus half of them got distracted and let go or ran to a different spot on the rope.  I kept it going for a while pulling them back to center and laughing all the while.  They loved it and the activities were done for the day so I dragged it out for as long as I could.  Eventually I gave in and pretended to fall down; after winning they decided to pile on me screaming “Mike Teacher.”  We all laughed and played on the roof for a little longer before heading down to the classroom for a quick Super Why video and “home time.”

One aspect of Chuseok that I really enjoyed is the gift giving.  This is in many ways like the way we celebrate Christmas & Hannukah (Christmas here is apparently more of a couples holiday so most people don’t give gifts).  In the days preceding Chuseok I was lucky enough to get a few gifts from my students.  I got some expensive rice cakes and other snacks, a gorgeous silver chopstick & spoon set and bottle of cologne.  I gave hugs and thank you’s for all and bought ice cream for my after school students missed out on our morning festivities.