Kindergarten Goodbye

Last weekend, my students graduated kindergarten–a two-hour ceremony that featured caps and gowns, song and dance acts, and a re-imagined version of The Blind Men and the Elephant, for which I constructed a miniature elephant from cardboard, felt, and packing tape–the same tape I used to seal up the three boxes I shipped home to Canada.

This week, while I begin my travels through India, my students will begin Grade 1 and the start of a long road through Korea’s education system: days in public school, afternoons in hagwons, and evenings spent studying, often until they sleep.

I want to give them backyards to run around in and afternoons off and free time with their friends.  I want to give them a school life that inspires them to form their own ideas about themselves and the world.  I want their little spirits to to thrive and grow and create.  Have fun, I told them, kneeling down to hug each one in our last moment together.  I will miss you.

They have graduated kindergarten, but in my mind they’ll be six years old forever, lined up in coats and boots, handing me colour-paper cards that say Goodbye Courtney Teacher.  I love you.  Please don’t forget me.

I won’t forget you.



ps–I am writing this from Delhi.

Up next: Post #100 on Coco Busan (last one!) with the link to my new blog…


Joe Teacher

A few weeks back, Joe had an extra day off from his teaching gig at Sindo Elementary. Instead of sleeping in while I schlepped to work, mentally preparing to face the noise of my kindie kids after a luxuriously peaceful four-day weekend, he came into school with me.  I tell him stories about my students frequently, brief vignettes from my day along the lines of: “Albert told me he got three points in Taekwondo class yesterday,” or “You’ve gotta meet Charley. He clung to me all the way down the hall during bathroom break today, dragging his little feet behind me and saying, ‘teachuh, you have-uh foh legs.'”

Joe teaches public school, grades 3-6, so his classes are much bigger than mine and he sees each of them just once a week.  My hagwon kindies fill three hours of my morning, five days a week.  I know what they eat for breakfast (rice and soup, mostly) and what they do each weekend (Playground, nintendo, trips to Lotte-mart). I know who wants to be a baseball player and who wants to be a lawyer. (After six-year old Cooper informed me he would follow in his lawyer-father’s footsteps, I asked him, “What do lawyers do?” “Make money,” he said.) And I know who’s got a crush on who: Christina likes Dustin, Sunny likes Ruby, and Louis and Monica have had a thing since day one.  If my Korea life was a book, these kids would be stamped on page one, in permanent, vivid ink.

So Joe’ s been hearing their names for months now.  A while back said he said he thought it would be fun to teach them with me one day.  The day came in September.  The kids played “Teacher Says” and a new version of “Telephone.” They got to pick their own team names (with only 10 seconds to choose) and had to make a line from shortest to tallest without speaking.  When they took their spelling test, which included the words “frog,” “weatherperson,” and “florist,” Joe sat down at one of the little desks and took it with them.

He was a major hit.

Starting the Telephone game...

Lining up for bathroom break...

Give me five, to the side...

Up high...

Down low... (you know the rest)

Have you given any ankle hugs lately?

Best friends after only 30 minutes...

Thanks Joe Teacher!

Chuseok Love…

with the kiddies.

For my readers at home: Chuseok is a three-day Korean holiday that traditionally celebrates the autumn harvest. For us waygooks, it means a four-day weekend. (Asa!) For Koreans, it means returning to their hometowns, paying respect to their ancestors, and sharing a feast.  Many also wear traditional clothes called hanbok.

So at school on Friday, we held a Hanbok Fashion Show so the kids could show off their gear…

It was a pretty big deal.

Monica, Louis, and Jeff--I start each morning with them, grateful that coffee was invented.

My little Charley, pretending to be...a bird?

Albert! Class clown is an understatement...

As you can see.

A few of my girls: Elsa, Ruby, Olivia, and Monica

Christina and Dustin...

First love.

Cooper! The wave in his hair is from a recent perm.

James, Cooper, and Albert, waiting to strut their stuff...

The usual suspects...

Ruby. She's so sweet.

Elsa. Sometimes she gets solemn.

Still together!

Almost show time...

Now that's a red carpet.

Happy Chuseok everyone!

xo ~Coco

In Thinking: Nights with My Korean Uni Class

Hello all–this is Part 2 of “Where Have I Been?”  (If you missed Part 1, click here for a quick read…)

~Coco xo

I kind of want to sum it up.

The writing class, the teaching university experience, the whole three-and-a-half months of carting essays around in my big leather shoulder bag with the worn-out strap, marking them up in green pen on subway rides or lunch breaks or in bed on Saturday mornings, circling letters that should have been capitalized, drawing arrows to potential thesis fragments buried between non-sensical phrases written in a language that attempted to be English.  On Monday and Tuesday nights I spent hours typing up google-doc slides that broke down the essay form into parts, explaining why the hook matters, what I meant by “Be specific!” how to start in the middle, if you had to, and ride your thoughts out to the beginning, how it was okay to discover a new angle halfway through, that you could circle back and re-write, why re-writing was the most important part.

The thing is, the 28 students who stared up at me from their desks on our tenth-floor classroom Wednesday nights as I asked them questions like” Why do YOU think writing matters?” and “Where do ideas come from?” weren’t writing students–their majors were disciplines like International Trade and Law and Engineering and Economics.  One student studied English Lit–a tall young man called Jingan, whose nods from the back of the room as I spoke during those first few classes gave me hope that some form of connection was occurring between the minds in front of me and the words I heard flowing from my mouth.

Two other students: Jae Hak and Junghee, who sat beside each other in the front row, participated readily; they asked questions, they offered responses.  But the others, for the first month, remained mostly silent during the hour-and-a-half lecture; breaking them into smaller groups was the only way to create real discussion.  When I asked for a show of hands at the end of the first class, in response to my “Who here enjoys writing?” an empty pause followed, and then, tentatively, one or two palms lifted into the air.

In my last post, I mentioned three things I’ve been processing from the experience: Korea and how things operate here, writing and how to teach it, and what drives me. None of these are easily summarized; to do each one justice, I’d have to back up to pre-pre-pre-war Korea, include an exploration of ancient poetry and the ongoing human attempt to convey the essence of thought and emotion through the confines of language, and some sort of nature vs. nurture meander, peppered with tidbits from my vivid and rather complicated childhood.  I’ll spare you (and myself!) the hours this would take, and instead offer a few highlights on the themes.  First up:

Korea and How Things Operate Here

The students were exhausted on Wednesday nights. They took back-to-back classes the entire afternoon, and the GLP program was taken on TOP of the courses for their majors, so they were doing double the workload of a typical Korean university student. They lacked free time and sleep.  Their class the period right before mine was “Philosophy of Science,” with no scheduled break between the two.  The pace of their curriculum left such little breathing room they were forced to squeeze their thoughts onto the page during sleepless nights during which they were also studying for exams and completing other assignments. Even if they had been writing students, and wanted to fully engage in the long and tedious process the craft requires,  the program , and the university structure, didn’t allow for it.  What mattered to administration was the letter grades plugged into the system at the end of the term (more on that later)–not what kind of knowledge or insight the students actually gained.

The GLP was in its second year of operation, and had been designed by a Korean professor seemingly interested in western-style education, in which critical thought and class discussion were key components of the classes.  But, I wondered early on, wasn’t critical thinking an inherent part of all universities, western or not?  Wasn’t it…what post-secondary education was BASED on?

The students first assignment was a 400-word essay called “How the GLP is Preparing Me For My Future Career.”  This batch of papers was riddled with grammatical issues, sentence fragments, a lack of punctuation, entire passages that had been fed through some form of online Korean/English translator, and at times indecipherable syntax.  But what was made clear–stressed again and again in multiple essays–was that the students valued the program because its professors were foreign, and taught in the “western style.”

What did this mean, exactly?

A few elaborated in their papers; others spoke up when I asked in class.  The Korean education system, including that of the university, is made up of lectures in which the professors speak and the students take notes.  Period.  Students are not encouraged to ask questions, discuss the topics, offer opinions, or debate.  Tests and assignments are graded on how well a student can memorize and regurgitate the information they’ve been fed.  History isn’t deconstructed, its delivered.  In short, the population of a university, and of the elementary, middle, and high schools that precede it–the population, by extension, of the nation–hasn’t been taught to think.

I must be clear–in no way do I mean by this that Koreans aren’t intelligent; they are, by my observation, extremely so.  I mean that the education system’s failure to encourage the pursuit of individual thought and expression has, I believe, inhibited the society as a whole.  The students in my class disliked the system they’d grown up with. Some had taken semesters in Western countries overseas; others were in their second year of the GLP, so had engaged in this “other style” of teaching.  By comparing the two, they felt their life’s education up to this point was inadequate.  They wanted to go deeper.   But a life of keeping silent in the classroom, hesitating to raise your hand because you believe it makes you look incompetent, and cramming lecture notes and textbook chapters only to spew their information out on exams with no critical thought given to the material doesn’t change overnight.  The students, I realized, wanted to learn differently–they just weren’t quite sure how.

I didn’t know how to bridge the gap either.  But their desire to cross it inspired me to try. Teaching them how to write required me to back up to where the process begins–in thinking.

Where Have I Been? (Part 1)

First off–hello everyone!

I’m back on the blog after an unintended month-long hiatus.  I wish I could say I’ve been away somewhere exotic or tropical or both, but the truth is I’ve been working–teaching my kindies, doing freelance marketing, and wrapping up the end of my three-month stint teaching university on the side, which took up more hours of my life than I care to count. The uni experience has given me a lot to process–about Korea and how things operate here, about writing and how to teach it, about what drives me.  So, I’ve decided to write a few separate posts to describe this recent chapter–the first is here for you below, with a to-be-continued…

Also–you’re probably noticing the Coco Busan site looks different–I’ve switched over to a new theme. In the mood for change these days…gotta keep things fresh!  Hope you like:)

I always love hearing your comments, everybody–keep them coming!  Hope summer is treating you all well.


So, where have I been?  Hanging out with these guys.  Essays.  The five-paragraph kind–complete with hook, background info, thesis, topic sentences, supporting details, concluding sentences, counter arguments, and conclusions.  Or attempts at conclusions.  Though all writing, I suppose–is an attempt, isn’t it?  At saying what you mean.  Which makes the entire tedious and beautiful process revolve around figuring out what you mean, or think, or at least think you mean, so you can write it down.

The course began in March, and I was hired to teach it by an American anthropologist called George.  He leads a program at Dong-A-University called The Global Leaders Program, and was looking for a writing instructor.  A  mutual friend connected us via email on a Friday morning; by lunchtime we were discussing specifics over the phone.  George explained that GLP courses were all taught in English by a foreign faculty, with an emphasis on critical thought and in-class discussion.  The writing teacher they’d lined up for the semester had backed out, and the course was due to begin in five days.

While George and I spoke, my kindergarten students stacked blocks and counted stickers in the classrooms down the hall.  I was on lunch break, taking the call from my hagwon.  I’d been teaching elementary-aged children for exactly one year, wishing my days were spent writing instead of deconstructing short and long vowel sounds, but there was no better opportunity to squelch the student-loan debt that had parked like a semi-truck in the driveway of my life than teaching in Korea, so here I was doing it, trying my best not to resent the tiny creatures who, despite the impact of their voices on my ear drums (at what age does the noise dial begin to self-monitor?!) I cared about deeply.  I held their little hands as we strode down the hallway during bathroom breaks; I decorated their classroom walls with sunrays and tulips.  I just wished persuading them to stop dropping their pencils on the floor while I attempted to explain the rules of past and present tense didn’t mean 40 hours a week not writing–160 hours a month not doing the thing I wanted to do.  

Teaching at a Korean university, however, came with the shiny-gold benefit of four months vacation time per year.  Four months!  Off!  Paid!  The job I was being offered was, albeit, just one course–not a full-time gig.  And it would be taught on TOP of my full-time hagwon position.  But it was teaching writing. To adults.  And maybe–maybe!– it would lead to the carrot I could see dangling in the distance.

“How many students?” I asked George.

“Oh,” he said.  “About twelve, maybe fifteen.”  I agreed to meet with his office assistant that weekend, and we hung up. The job was mine.

On the tenth floor of the Dong-A building where GLP is taught, an office overlooks the stacked homes of Toseong, a neighbourhood one stop past the Jagalchi fish market.  It isn’t much different from any other Korean neighbourhood–the underground stairs ascend to a concrete sidewalk, the streets are jammed with cars and Koreans; windows reveal the insides of coffeeshops and raw fish restaurants blinking with television light.  But when you turn the corner to the campus entrance, your feet are met with cobblestone steps.  Hills rise up behind a tall glass building, the day’s newspapers are displayed open on wooden stands in a big foyer alongside a tall clock, and young Korean men are playing basketball in the middle of an outdoor square.   Dong-A, like universities across the globe, has the distinct air of possibility–the sense that minds are at work.

The office assistant was a young Korean woman called Young-hyun.  We went over some basic paperwork, and upon my request, she showed me a course list for the GLP.    “What is the name of the course I am teaching?” I asked.  I felt a twinge of bewilderment that I had to ask for this detail–shouldn’t the course title be a primary piece of information for a newly-hired teacher?  I would soon learn that what I believed should or shouldn’t occur in a university setting didn’t apply in Korea–the Western form of logic was a non-existent piece in the puzzle I had stepped into.

Young hyun pointed to a title at the bottom of the page. The Advanced English Essay, it read.  The class was scheduled for 8:30 pm on Wednesdays.  Because I was unavailable to teach Friday afternoons, she explained, two classes had now been combined into one.  “So how many students in total?” I asked.  She checked a computer file.


“Twenty-eight?”  I recalled George’s estimate of 12-15 students.  This new figure would mean twice the amount of marking.  “Will I be paid for the amount of two classes?”

“No,” she said.  “You give lecture one time each week.  So, payment is for one class.”  I sat there, absorbing.

“You need to choose textbook for students,” she said.

I glanced around the room.  “Are there textbooks here to choose from?”

“No,” she said.  “You must find at a bookstore.  Email to me title please by Monday.”

I spent the rest of the afternoon combing the shelves of three different bookstores in two different neighbourhoods, finally kneeling on the carpet of Seomyeon’s Kyobo Books as it grew dark outside, flipping through a soft-cover called Effective Academic Writing 3.  It was the beginning of the end of my free time.  The textbook was chosen.  Now all I had to do was plan the course.  In three days.

Cheerleader Dinosaur Love

You never imagined the words “kindergarten” and “teacher” would attach themselves to your name, become a part of your identity, appear on your resume beside the unexpected year of 2010.  But you wake up one morning in Korea, draw eyeliner whiskers on your cheeks, and walk into a classroom full of pirates, vampires, and a six-year old cheerleader called Sunny.



Who sits beside a dinosaur called Thomas.


You’re a kindergarten teacher.  You hear a voice rising from your throat each day that says things like “Who can sit nicely?”, “Be, be QUIET!” and “hands in lap,” over and over again, above the sound of feet tapping and pencils dropping and fingers drumming pretend piano keys on wooden desks.  You’ve served pasta in Victoria.  You’ve sold real estate in Edmonton.  You’ve poured 5 a.m. cocktails in Greece and scrubbed glass-bottom boats in Israel.  You think about the future and another year of teaching.  You think about the year after that, about your life and the things that still remain.  Sunny clutches your hand in the Halloween parade and Thomas jumps on your back, his dinosaur arms circling your neck as you cross the Busan street, cat ears pointing to the sun, knowing that teacher, too, is a temporary title, a two-year moment infused with the kind of love that children exude, unfettered by past griefs, open and awake to the new afternoon, where everything possible exists and will lie waiting. 




First (love) Triangle

My first crush struck in the fourth grade, in Miss Vanderee’s class, on a boy called Steven Costa.  He wasn’t the smartest or the funniest or the most charismatic; I think his part in the class play consisted of doling out props to the lead roles.  But he had dark hair and dark eyes and exuded a quiet sort of energy, in that intriguing makes-you-wonder-what-goes-on-in-his-head kind of way.  

My friend Karley Shraeder liked him too.  Neither of us ever confessed our feelings to the boy, but spent many recess breaks gazing at him from a distance on the field behind the school.  Back then it was okay for two girlfriends to daydream about the same boy.  When your age is still a single digit, stakes of the heart just aren’t as high.

So it is in Cornell Class, where among the flashcards and eraser bits, phonics lessons and lunchtime chopsticks, a triangle has formed.



Some of you may remember Little Love–an April post in which I mentioned Julia’s bold story-time move, where she suddenly and quite seemlessly slid her hand around Eric’s during story time.



For a while, the romance appeared to progress, at least for Julia.  She doodled hearts on little pieces of paper, then folded and stored them in a pocket in her backpack.  She started sporting pigtails instead of her standard lone ponytail. During phonics she grew distracted, and when it was time to line up for bathroom break, she’d slip into the space beside Eric and tuck her arm into his. 


Then Lucy came along.



And the girls realized they shared a common interest…





                                                          in Eric. 

                             Which, luckily, has only brought them closer.




Sometimes he gets a little overwhelmed by the attention…



and just wants to hang out with the guys.



After all, decisions are tough.



             At least for now, it doesn’t look as though anyone has to choose.



If only it could always be this simple.