July 10, Last Debate Class of Spring Semester

Boy 3, sensitive and clever and consequentially my favorite student, pulled up an image to aid his scriptless presentation of an artwork.

“This is The Scream by Edvard Munch.”

This is why I like him.

“I first saw it in kindergarten,” he started.

Excuse me?

He clarified: he had seen it at his kindergarten where the painting had been hung on the wall. I cannot think of a less appropriate painting for a school of five year olds.

He said that it made him scared then and while it doesn’t scare him now, he still has dreams about the screaming bald subject.

Jennie asked him if there’s anything in his life that has made him feel like the person in the painting.

“Well I broke up with my girlfriend,” he started, and I immediately became concerned. He was the boy who said that his favorite person was his girlfriend, that love was most important to him. He also wore a couple ring every day, though it was absent today.

He quickly tacked on that exams last week were hard and Jennie, having seemed to miss the first utterance, asked if he hadn’t studied.

I could see that he took long to answer, probably trying to steady his voice, and his eyes started to shine.

Oh no. I’ve seen this look a hundred times from my fifth grade boys when they lose a game or when their classmates unfairly berate them. The study of stages of crying boys is not a subject I expected to learn in elementary school but alas, here I am.

In any case, I was not about to let him cry while standing in front of the class, albeit small, and quickly jumped on the first thought I had.

“You know, we say he’s scared looking in this painting but really to me he looks mesmerized by the sunset colors. Maybe we’re all the weird ones for thinking this character is afraid.”

Jennie chimed in and had the girls discuss what had them feeling frustrated. They all got the lowest grades of their student careers this semester. I thought about Boy 3 and how a breakup in the middle of exams could devastate his term grades.

Being a student is not easy.

At the end of the debate class, Jennie asked them what they had liked. Predictably, they were silent, so I expected criticism: it was too hard, it wasn’t enjoyable, I can’t do this…

But eventually they answered it was fun and they had a nice time, even though they were nervous.

I was surprised; in an earlier period one girl, her first time coming, asked if she could just present her chosen artwork in Korean.

You elected to come to a voluntary English debate class for English, and you’re really asking that? I had to keep the offense off my face. Lucky for the mask.

Aside from Boy 3, all the girls had written their presentation in Korean and then clearly run the paragraphs of text through an online translator.

It was frustrating, and part of the root why they can’t string a sentence together without either help from me or Papago. The reliance on an aid is far too much.

I understand the realities of English education in Korea. But that doesn’t stop my frustration with kids who’ve had seven years of English class being unable to answer a question that my sixth graders can without being given 30 seconds or more to think. The high schoolers often had to whip out phone dictionaries just to tell me an ultimately unimpressive sentence like “art makes you feel many things”.

I wish this was a conversation class instead of a debate class. They really need to practice responding on the fly.

I asked the class before they headed out for the weekend if they were nervous. They all said yes. I asked if they were frustrated. They stared at me. I asked in Korean if they were frustrated. They all said no. I was confused but elected to parse their responses later.

When I was their age, I studied Spanish and attended language competitions. I could have full discourse with my teacher and classmates. The judges at one competition asked if I was mistaken and should actually be in the “native speaker” category.

I want my kids to do their best, but our starting points are so vastly different. I want to see them every week and mold them into confident speakers. I want them to put nearly a decade of English study to practical use. I want high school to actually practice speaking.

But the system is rigged for test prep and I don’t have the time or opportunity to impart the importance of language as communication. I’ll just have to give them good memories and hope they don’t fear English in the future when they inevitably have to overwrite years of test prep to relearn conversation from the basics, as many of my adult Korean friends and coworkers have had to do.

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