Learning from My Pupils: Smiles and Frowns

What’s your sad 😦 story today?” I asked my 12-year-old Korean girl pupil. frown smiley

I don’t read books so my dad scold me,” was her reply. “Oh, your father scolded you for not reading your books today,” I said – and proceeded to repeat her words by reversing the emphasis: My dad scolded me because I did not read my books today.

Not reading is a big deal in many Korean households. Moms buy the books, dads do the scolding. This girl has a big collection of books lined in a shelf, which she hasn’t read all. I remember another girl, 8, telling me that her mom doesn’t get angry. In fact, she always buys her things – from books to accessories and nice school items which are shown to me each time she gets new stuffs. But it’s her ‘monster dad,’ she jests, who gets mad and slaps her on the leg when she doesn’t read her books.

Here, we’re talking about reading as a compulsory activity to learn English as a second language. Right in the home.

smiley  “And your happy 🙂 story?” I asked.

She answered, “Today I don’t go to the math school so I’m happy.” Giving her a wink 😉 I tease her about math, which she always hates – like most people do. Having math lessons makes her sad all the time and getting a break from it brings a smile to her face, like today.

Inspired by Michelle Obama’s Thorns and Roses’ storytelling tradition (which allows her, the President and their girls to talk about the bad and good moments in their everyday life), I introduced this Smile 🙂 and Frown 😦 speaking exercise – yes, using those emoticons as well – to my intermediate online pupils.

Not only does this exercise kick start the class, but helps in encouraging them to speak in English; at the same time takes their mind off from the usual lessons. I get to pick their brain, too, and learn about things Korean – their ways, family life, beliefs and personalities.

Learning becomes a two-way street – as it should be. Because both parties should be constantly motivating each other to do better – one to teach, the other to study.

korean girls with flags     south korean flags

Today I asked the 12-year-old about Independence Day, which her country observed yesterday, the 15th of August. It was her ‘smiley’ day, it being a holiday. She skipped my class without telling me because it was family bonding time outside the home.

The girls were treated to the beauty parlor. She showed me her newly-dyed hair with a nice, timid smile on her face. I assured her she looks prettier with the new hair. That made her smile even more. I was not making false compliments when I said that, that’s for sure. In fact, I liked the brownish color for my hair, too.

I then went on to ask what she understood about Independence Day. “Flag hang on the house,” she said. She meant, of course, hanging the South Korean flag outside her house. I asked her why.

In her thick Korean accent, she said, “Because…independence day give us freedom. We ask Japan freedom.”

Yesterday was the 68th year of Korea’s liberation from 35 years of Japanese colonial rule.

Tell me about special events in yesterday’s occasion. Street parades, concerts, anything,” I said. “Nothing,” she said. Which I repeated. And which she also repeated. Nothing.

I guess where she lives in Jeju, no such visible or audible festivities took place – or nothing that she cared to know (she said there’s also nothing on TV) – except for the flags outside the people’s houses that reminded her it’s Independence Day. Of course, there would have been special presentations for Liberation Day in Seoul and major places in South Korea.

I ventured to get her thoughts on the meaning or importance of that day for her, whether she thought her country should be celebrating Independence Day or not. After explaining the question some more by comparing the value of celebrating or not-celebrating with 1000 won (bill) and 100 won (coins!), respectively, she gave me a “No.”

She said that “people think easy to Independence Day, so they are bad,” which later I understood to mean that for her, many people in her country are being bad citizens for not giving so much importance to this Day, maybe wrongly thinking that it was handed out to them. But no, she said. The Koreans fought to make the Japanese leave, so that they can have their freedom back today.

A piece of wisdom from a 12-year-old who struggled with her English, but she didn’t care. She said in those days, the Japanese asked the Korean people to speak only Japanese . She referred to Japanese suppression of Korean culture, curtailing language and swamping the market with Japanese products.

The Korean-Japanese relations continue to suffer from strain up to now – earning a frown 😦 emoticon from this fifth-grade pupil – likewise from most of the elderly who cannot forget the ruthlessness of the Japanese soldiers during the occupation years.

Teaching English is learning some East Asian history, too, you know.

south korean kids on indy day


Galatians 5:13

English Standard Version (ESV)

13 For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.


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