1. How does your school experience at the age of your students compare to that in Korea?
It’s pretty crazy how different my high school experience was from that of my students. Let’s begin with the fact that my high school, Ethical Culture Fieldston School, is pretty much the antithesis of a Korean public high school. I had a completely unique education, so it’s hard for me to compare my time in high school to that of my students. My high school was far from most typical American public schools. As a progressive school, Fieldston emphasizes learning through doing, and learning for learning’s sake, rather than memorizing random facts for a test and forgetting them the next day. (They don’t offer A.P. classes or testing, because it forces teachers to teach to a test.) We were always encouraged to think critically about the world and express our thoughts through writing or art.
We had a spring “fashion show,” in which various classes of art students had to create outfits using anything but fabric, and then walked down a runway in front of the whole school. There was always someone strumming a guitar in the halls of the school, wearing an obscure costume on the Senior Grass, and teachers decorated their classrooms with Pink Floyd posters. Sounds like a real freak show, huh? It was fun, but very special. Fieldston taught me how to think. I participated in so many extra curricular activities; from Field Hockey, to the Community Service Advisory Board, and a spectacular theater program, my after school hours were filled with excitement and creativity. On the weekends, I went to concerts, hung out with friends, and explored the East Village–my students would go crazy with this type of freedom.
There is nothing that comes close to even resembling these sorts of activities at Sejong High School. At this institution, students spend the majority of their waking hours in school. They arrive at 7:45am and leave school at 9pm. They study for quizzes and midterms in 1st grade (American 10th grade) the same way that I studied for finals in college. They clean the hallway floors and stairways on their hands and knees, not because it needs cleaning but to instill discipline. They are terrified of their principal and give her a deep, 90-degree-angle bow whenever she is near. They run and scream through the halls, and are incredibly cheerful, despite the immense pressure they will face once their classroom doors close and the studying begins.
I never studied the way these kids study in high school. Studying for tests in high school for me meant a few hours of flipping flashcards, rereading book chapters, and talking about the material with classmates. I was constantly writing long essays in high school, a concept about as foreign to Koreans as my curly hair. They will read articles, textbook chapters, or poetry, and must answer questions about its content, but are never really asked to think critically about the topics raised in their literature. My students sit at cubicles in the library for hours, writing factoids and equations over and over, pouring over textbooks, until the wee hours of the morning, struggling to stay awake. They can’t help but fall asleep during class, even when my activities involve watching American music videos. Many of them suffer from extreme amounts of stress and depression, due to the prospect of not acing their tests and therefore living a life of eternal shame. It sounds dramatic, but this the reality of high school in Korea.
Whenever the topic of public education in American comes up, Barack Obama constantly looks to South Korea as a model for successful public schools, due to their high test scores and stellar study skills. But the President needs to take a look at the powerful, negative side effects that this system is producing. South Korea has the highest suicide (click for an excellent BBC article on the topic) rate of teenagers in the world. Not coincidentally, these are the same kids going to high school for 14 hours a day, studying all weekend, and who are subjected to a outrageously high-pressure society.
2. If you had the opportunity to change 5 things at your school, what would they be and why?
I’m going to treat this question as…realistic changes. Of course, I’d love for my students to study less and be more creative, but it’d be impossible to actually impliment those kinds of changes.
1 – Hang up student artwork in the halls of my school.
2 – Talent show! (If they have one, I wasn’t invited, and I would thus change this to: Invite the foreign teacher to the talent show.)
3 – Serve dessert on a more regular basis.
4 – Clubs. I know lots of Korean schools actually have clubs, like school newspaper and theater clubs. I’m pretty sure this doesn’t happen at my school. It might only happen in middle schools.
5 – Free coffee for teachers.