Dialogues. – Won-Ji Lee

The progress with most of the Chinese-speaking students is continuing at a steady pace. However, one of the students was in a bad mood and completely shut down on Monday morning. After multiple attempts to get her to start her work, we left her alone for most of the morning; however, towards the afternoon, she bounced back and whizzed through her reading. I realize that even this late into the program, these kinds of phases can happen and that the best thing to do is just leave her be until she is ready to learn.

With the older 4th and 6th grade students, we continued to review the English alphabet, as many of them still get confused over certain ones. Playing games like Bingo and fly swatter, we are hoping to fill in these holes in their English knowledge in a fun and interactive way. We are also gravitating toward a more artistic direction with the students to give them a physical final product before we leave them at the end of our program. We mentioned that we will be leaving them in less than two weeks, and were greeted by some a variety of responses. Half of the class gave us blank stares and the other half were cracking jokes about it with a laugh. I am personally conflicted about this reaction. It is relieving to see the students who were laughing about it, as it hopefully means that saying goodbye will not be as hard. But it is simultaneously saddening because perhaps it means that we as teachers, did not make enough of an effort to reach out and connect with these students. For the kids who gave us blank stares, although we do not know what was going on in their minds, I am also hoping that saying goodbye to them will not be difficult. Towards the end of the day, we had to confront one of the older students about bullying his classmate. As we were playing a game he suddenly threw a younger classmate on the ground for being in his space. After class, we lectured him on the principles of treating others with respect and how important that will be later on in life. The brashly confident 6th grader was a different person when being lectured. His head was down, would not make eye contact, and was dead silent. Although he did not say a word, we are hoping that our words reached him at least a little bit. Even approaching the final days of the program, we are still faced with both new and old problems.

On Wednesday evening, our group attended Dialogue in the Dark. Though unrelated to our work at the school, this was a surprisingly powerful experience. We were able to catch a glimpse of what it means to be blind. For a 90-minute walking tour, we were accompanied by a blind “roadmaster” through pitch blackness. We navigated through simulations of a forest, a busy road, a food market, rode a “motorboat,” and tasted some soft drinks in the absolute darkness. We tried to guess what our soft drinks were, but were corrected by our roadmaster, who could tell the differences between soft drinks by their smell and the size and shape of the can! When we first entered the tour, many of us were nervous and scared, but by the end, our roadmaster’s hearty laugh and reassuring voice made the darkness into something comforting.

The crew at Dialogue in the Dark

The crew at Dialogue in the Dark

Group photo from Dialogue in the Dark

Group photo from Dialogue in the Dark


DESK Week 6: Finding Direction – Jina Yun

In terms of teaching this week, we tried something new!

First, we mixed up the morning group by switching out the members from Team A and Team B.  We made sure to have a fluent Korean and a Chinese speaker in each group, in order to maintain the efficiency of the groups.  On Monday, four of us went in for the morning class with the Chinese speaking students as usual.  Some of us were initially worried that the students might be confused by the new group of teachers, but the students did not seem surprised at all and were just excited to see us again.  The new team of teachers worked well together to support each other in teaching the Chinese speaking students.  However, despite how well the teachers collaborated, the students seemed to be in an off mood.  The two sisters who usually stick together and look out for each other were fighting over a pencil to the point where one of them started crying.  I think it was shocking for most of us to see that kind of scene between the two sisters.  The first day when they arrived at 금강학교, they were both quite shy and innocent and seemed to just want to make new friends.  Back then, we would have never imagined them fighting each other.  This also shed light on how emotionally tolling their time at the school must be.  Being anywhere from 6-14, these students rarely get to see their parents, so it is no surprise to us by now that their moods are unstable and easily affected.  However, we tried our best to make sure that the two sisters made up and that there was peace in the class again.

Second, we tried a role playing lesson in class.  We noticed recently in class that some of the kids bully each other a lot.  The kids are not only still pretty violent with each other, but have a hard time saying please, thank you, and sorry to each other.  While we believed that academics is still important, we thought that learning appropriate mannerisms was a priority for these students, and thus tried to implement this role playing activity.  We started by presenting a scenario that the students commonly see and asking them what the appropriate response would be.  The first time we tried the role playing activity, it was not very successful because we tried to do it right after the students fought with each other.  The students were completely reluctant to play with each other and seemed quite upset at us for lecturing them for their behavior.  However, when we tried it a second time, they were more willing to to participate.  They seemed to find the activity amusing and some of the kids were enthusiastic to act out each scene.  In fact, some of them wanted to try to act out the scenario with some of us, further attesting to how close we have gotten to the students during our time there.  Even though the students might have simply participated because they found it amusing, we thought that this lesson was a good exposure to appropriate responses and behavior.

Having already taught at 금강학교 for 5 weeks, we now ask ourselves the question: what is our goal?  Before starting the program, we initially wanted to focus on getting to know the students on a deeper level and hearing their stories.  However, when we started talking, the school administrators had another direction in mind, and we ended up focusing more on academics with the students.  Now with two weeks in mind, what do we want the kids to get out of our time here?  What do we want to earn from our time here?  While not forgetting the importance of academics for these students, we still wanted to provide a setting for these students to express themselves. In order to do that, we decided to implement more art lessons such as drawing, crafts, and origami in order for the students to not only have a creative plug, but also for them to have a physical final product.  We hope that by the time of our leave, the students can have gained something from us, for we have already gained so much from them.

DESK Week Five: Moody Monday – Michelle Dang

So far during our time at Geumgang School, we focused on getting to know the students and understanding their personalities and interests. However, it is clear to us now that there are a few students who consistently refuse to focus in class and distract their fellow classmates instead. Furthermore, at times a student may say something insensitive or offensive, but refuse to apologize. As teachers, we have the responsibility to respond accordingly if a student behaves – but we are also unsure of what type of discipline to enforce. On Monday, three incidents occurred that tested our ability to react appropriately to misbehavior.


On Monday morning, Team A worked with the Chinese-speaking students as usual. In the past the mornings have always been very smooth since we can work with the students one on one and keep the students focused. However, one student kept complaining and did something that was offensive to one of us. She knew that what she had done was wrong – but when I told her to apologize to the teacher, she refused and stormed off instead. I ran after her to figure out why she didn’t apologize. Talking to her, I realized that she had no concept of the power of an apology. For her, an apology was just a superficial verbal announcement that had no meaning. On the other hand, we have it drilled in our heads since we were young that if we did something wrong and genuinely apologized, we would be forgiven. After this incident, we realized the students at Geumgang School probably weren’t aware of the importance of apologies, which explained why students find it difficult to resolve arguments they have with each other. Though I was able to eventually convince her to apologize, she only did so halfheartedly.


There is one student who comes in the afternoon who has consistently refused to do the work assigned – instead, she would either distract other students or rest her head on the table and sleep. On Monday, again she came in and simply slept, refusing to participate in the English lesson. We clearly said at the beginning of class that if the students did well we would let them play dodge ball for the next period, so even students who were usually reluctant to participate were attentive. Hence, when the next period began and she was about to leave to play with the other students, we told her to sit silently in the classroom by herself because she didn’t earn the privilege to play. She began crying, but we wanted to be stern so that she realized we were seriously disappointed by her behavior in class. After around 20 minutes, she had to leave for a music lesson.


There is one student in our afternoon class who tends to be a little aggressive when he jokes around with his classmates. Unfortunately, on Monday his joke went too far and he actually hurt another student. The student who was hurt, one of the older Chinese-speaking students, began shouting profanities at him and was close to hitting back. We stepped in before they could actually start a fight, and scolded both of them – the student who was jokingly hitting people should stop being so reckless and realize he was hurting others, but the Chinese-speaking student also retaliated in a way that was inappropriate. Instead of screaming at the perpetrator, which doesn’t resolve the underlying issue, he could have talked to a teacher to help him. We wanted all the students to know that they didn’t have to handle these arguments on their own, and that we were there to support them.


After these three incidents, Team A was exhausted and a little disheartened. However, after a group discussion, we came to the conclusion that perhaps we should change the direction of our teaching – instead of just teaching subjects like English and Mathematics, we could incorporate social learning as well. Next week, we will be hosting a role-play session, during which students will have to consider situations from different standpoints and understand how to resolve problems between friends and classmates. Though this may be very ambitious, we hope that by the end of our time in Korea, the students will have learnt to reconcile with each other using more positive methods.

Progress. – Won-Ji Lee

We had gone into Tuesday with the same openness and optimism to teach the kids, but were a bit disappointed to see that all but the Chinese-speaking students had not come in until around 4:30. The rest of the students apparently have a new after-school program arranged by the Kumgang School and the public school to attend, that helps with their homework. Although the timing of the start of this new program is unfortunate, we have discussed it with the Kumgang teachers, Professor Kim, and Professor Kwon and are hoping to sort out what we can do to maximize the use of our skills. It would be a disappointment if any of the potential manpower of each of our DukeEngage members, goes wasted. With the Chinese-speaking students, however, every period seemed to flow regularly and with relative consistency. It is amazing to think of just how close we have gotten to these kids after just a short week. The sheltered body language and cold, disapproving looks some of us experienced on the first day with the kids, have now dissolved into an openness. We are at the point now where we know the students’ temperaments, natural inclinations, tics, and the best ways to reach them. With every funny face we make, every word taught, and every goading scold, these relationships are becoming more and more real by each day. After continued lessons in English, and even singing One Direction songs, we said our goodbyes for another day. But as we were leaving, we were followed by one of the younger students who came to us in tears. As we picked her up, she explained that she was crying because she missed her mother. We wiped her tears and assured that everything was going to be okay. Personally, it was a hard reminder of just how real these students’ situations and our relationships to them are.

Later that day, we traveled to Ewha University and separated into four different groups to continue our Korean studies with Ewha University students, courtesy of Professor Kim’s “connections.” Our teacher was another Professor Kim, who was a very friendly Ph. D student. We learned some basic grammar and held some basic conversations. In the next weeks, we will be meeting in a classroom at Ewha, learning more Korean, travelling to the Han River, and even trying to learn some different Korean dialects.

Thursday, half of our group went to teach the Chinese-speaking kids for the morning and early afternoon. As I was reading a Korean text along with one of the students about Christopher Columbus, I had one of those mind-boggling moments, pondering the situation I was in. Here I was, a Korean American, translating a Korean text into English, so it could be translated into Chinese, about European history of the colonization of America, to a North Korean student raised in China, now learning in a school in South Korea. It’s amazing how our unthinkably convoluted paths can align for a couple moments in our lives. Other than these kinds of cliché thoughts popping into my mind, the rest of the day consisted of several fights breaking out between the students, ending up with one bursting out the door with tears. After attempting to comfort her in Korean and wiping her tears, we sent her off and had lunch. Later in the afternoon, the Chinese-speaking students continued their curriculum with the other half of our group and we worked on math with a handful of sixth grade students, as all of the other students went to the hospital to receive vaccine shots. With the help of one of the regular math teachers at Kumgang, we were able to help the sixth grade students really focus and hone their skills in long multiplication, long division, and mixed fraction addition.

Later that night, at the group reflection session, we discussed our thoughts this week. We have made great progress with the Chinese-speaking students, as they are consistently at the school when we are, but we are hoping to get the same kind of consistency with the rest of the students next week!

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The Adventure at Kumgang Begins – Drew Korschun and Jina Yun

We said goodbye to our first few days of freedom that we had in simply exploring our new home for the summer, and we also said goodbye to our fascinating journey to Seoul’s Ministry of Unification and the DMZ. It was our first week at Kumgang School (금강 학교) our purpose for traveling to Seoul in the first place. We would no longer be explorers, but residents. No longer passive learners, but active participants.

The only taste of the school we had gotten was a very brief visit to the school we had made the day before (we’re talking ten minutes), where we got to simply look at the campus, greet the principal, and see a group of smiling kids standing in the large room they had to do activities in.

On the first morning, we took the subway early just for precaution, going from Hongdae Station across the Han River to Shindorim Station, transferring to another line and finally ending up at Gaebong Station. By this time we were already accustomed to the subway, so we didn’t end up making fools of ourselves by falling or swaying due to the speed. Dressed up in business casual style, we rode clustered together, anticipating how our first day plans would turn out.

When we arrived at the school, we met one of the teachers at the school, Ms. Ko (Ko seonsaengnim) for the first forty-minute period of the day in order to get better acquainted with the school’s operation before we met the students and in order to ask some of the pressing questions we had. How were we to address them? Were we to use chondetmal (formal language) or panmal (informal language)? What exactly was she and the other people who run the school exactly expecting of us during this seven-week engagement? Ms. Ko let us know that we could speak to the kids informally and address them by their given names. She also said that first things first, we should help the kids with the homework they brought from their regular South Korean public schools, and after that, focus quite a bit on English, Math, and when possible Korean (especially for the kids who know more Chinese than Korean). We took all of this in, and a handful of the group got ready to work with the kids who stay at the school in the morning.

There were only two students at Kumgang in the morning, though there were usually four who stayed back at the school so that they could catch up in learning Korean so that they could soon join regular Korean public schools. As we were told earlier in the year, most of these North Korean refugees have come to South Korea by route of China, so many of them have spent the majority of their lives in China, speaking Chinese the most fluently and sometimes even feeling nationally Chinese rather than Korean. Since Michelle speaks Chinese fluently and I can get by in conversational Chinese, we both went into the reading room where two Chinese-speaking boys, one eleven years old and the other, fourteen, were sitting expectantly. Jina also accompanied us, and later as did most of the other DESKalators (a self-chosen denomyn for those in Duke Engage South Korea). We mainly worked on Korean passages with the boys, and so we were equally dependent on the Korean-speaking DESKalators for understanding the material and on the Chinese speakers for conveying the information to them so they’d understand. It was not easy material for the students, and it wasn’t easy material to teach either. I hope that we were an encouraging force for them though, able to make them excited about learning new things (or even the same things but with a different language-paradigm). Since these students are now residents of South Korea, and by some strange twist of fate, China can no longer be their country and they must adopt this new one and become familiar with its ways. I’m never against encouraging foreign languages, but it does seem quite a pity that foreign language learning for countless refugees and migrants around the world has to come in the context of being thrown into the unfamiliar and having to unlearn what they’ve already spent their lives learning and making progress in. I hope that these students all learn to love the Korean language for its beauty, complex and simple, as well as the peninsula that language is spoken in, and I will do by best to speak to them in Korean when possible. But of course, it is priceless to see little eyes widen in wonder and joy when they learn that some of their new teachers can converse with them in their heart language.

After working in a very individual-focused manner until around 2:30, the rest of the kids at Kumgang came back from their public schools, and for the rest of the day, it was, to be quite frank, chaotic. The students, I’m sure, were wary of us as outsiders coming in to volunteer for the summer (as many have already experienced South Korean and American students coming in to volunteer before), but they were also very excited to meet us, and we DESKalators were more than excited to meet all of them. In that first period, we did an ice breaker game in the large upstairs room, which was certainly a way for the kids to channel their abundant energy. In the game, everyone made a circle and someone had to say “I love [something],” and if other people in the circle love that something, they had to switch places, and whoever didn’t have a pair of shoes to stand in front of had to go next and say something they love.

I think the energy levels were certainly a surprise for most of us. Some kids would slam the door and say “Merong” (a kind of “nanny nanny boo boo”), run and yell, and on the other hand, some would choose not to participate in activities. There were also a lot of violent tendencies that we noted: hair-pulling, casual pretending to choke each other, and sometimes slapping. We wonder how much of their past trauma in the family realm and in the realm of international migration has affection their lives today – their mood, outlook, levels of trust with certain people, and their need for attention. Kumgang is essentially a boarding school, and while majority of the kids seemingly get to see their parents on the weekend, some of the kids rarely have the opportunity to see their parents (some only get to see them two days out of the year). Learning facts like this is tough, but it also puts things into perspective when it comes to dealing with behavioral issues and giving them the attention that they need and deserve. Throughout the days, we also wondered what exactly was the purpose of our volunteering at the school. Is learning material like English and Math really the big take-away for these kids this summer? It would definitely be great if the students were able to have a portfolio or a project to explore their identities and their dreams, and I’m sure that would be a great thing, created by the students themselves, to leave behind But maybe the attention we give them during the school week will be equally important.

Some things about us as the teachers, though, inevitably threw up some barriers. First and foremost, language greatly affected our interactions with the kids. Only two of us speak Chinese, and most of us speak Korean on a very wide spectrum of ability. But honestly, a lot of the time, speaking feels like bumbling around, especially for me. I’m trying my best to communicate, but sometimes the language ability barrier makes me sound awkward and unconfident – something I will have to improve on through the weeks, and which I am sure will naturally get better by just interacting with the students every day.

Secondly, for many students, people of different races was a huge novelty. For example, when Anna walked into one classroom, one boy asked her if she had eaten too much chocolate, and if that was why her skin looked different. A lot of the students are also very eager to feel my arm hair and ask if my legs look the same (since white people tend to have more body hair…). All of the students are really sweet and are very accepting of us, however, despite some differences. I think that it’s an exciting experience for them, but it’s equally exciting for us teachers to learn from all of the kids, who vary a lot in personality, age, language, interests, and more.

A difficulty we encountered on this first day was that it seemed that none of the kids had any homework that they had brought from their public Korean schools. As well, many of the kids different greatly in level, and we found out that age does not necessarily correspond with grade level. We would have to come up with ways to engage everybody’s interest and learning while also catering to different levels. A balancing act between group learning and one-on-one help would be necessary.

Overall, the second day went much more smoothly than the first. We were starting to remember a majority of the students’ names, and we were much more confident in what we were to expect from the school day. We had prepared concrete lessons and worksheets for the students, and we found that doling out very specific assignments was a great way to keep the students engaged, diligent, and free from rowdiness. However, we also started to learn that balancing the more fun subjects with the harder, not as dynamic ones was important for keeping the students engaged and channeling their energy when it started to show up more.

We also learned that the students are in love with certain K-pop groups (*cough* EXO *cough*) as well as American animation (*cough* Frozen *cough*), so engaging them in their own interests, we found, was crucial. We had a great time teaching some of the English lyrics to “Let it Go” from Frozen, and letting them partake in creative assignments such as one in which they were able to create and draw their very own animal and tell the class about where it lives, what it eats, and why they wanted to create it. However, the week at Kumgang teaching and getting to know these students has definitely shown the flaws of the glitzy world of Hallyu (the Korean pop culture wave) in not being representative with the reality of Korea’s people of diverse backgrounds. While fun to engage in music and culture, it is always a good idea to question what kind of image of Korea it props up and what type of Korean person it promotes (in terms of beauty, wealth, ethnicity, language, and so on). I am beyond excited to keep on moving throughout the weeks here in Seoul, on the streets and in the school. I know that there are great plans ahead of us, even if they are foggy at the moment, and we DESKalators will do our best to carpe the diem and live haru-haru (day by day).

Similar to Tuesday, we only taught in the afternoon on Wednesday. We used the same teaching strategies from the day before and tried to plan a lesson or an activity for each period while separating into two smaller classes. Even though the kids were willing to participate and pay attention on Tuesday, they were oddly in a bad mood on Wednesday. It seemed as though that if one of them was in a bad mood, it brought down the mood of all the other kids in the class. This really heightened their slightly violent behavior and most of them had a harder time focusing and staying motivated to learn. A lot of the kids tried to either leave or sleep instead of participating in class. We were a bit confused and unsure about the source of this mood swing, but we suspect that a lot of this is because they are not allowed to leave the school during most of the day. Furthermore, we made the grand mistake of having the two classes play at different times. When one class was playing, the other class that was having a lesson was chaotic because the kids were complaining that they did not get to play as well. We definitely learned it the hard way that playtime should be at the same time for both classes.

We faced another obstacle later in the day when the principal brought in two new students who cannot speak a word of Korean. We were quite unprepared because we were never told about these new students, but we handled the situation with grace by separating one of the classes into two smaller classes and having one class that focused on learning Korean for these Chinese-speaking students. We quickly got a sense of their skill levels and made worksheets for them on the spot for them to start learning with the other students.
It was pretty clear during the past couple days that communication with the principal was lacking and inefficient. In order to solve this problem, a couple of us went to speak to her about our concerns regarding this issue. Even though we expected some positive responses, we were disappointed by her reaction. It was clear that they had numerous administrative difficulties, confusion about details, lack of knowledge about the kids. But despite this incident, we continued to remain professional and positive towards our relation with them, because in the end, we are here for the kids.

Besides a couple difficulties throughout the day, it was definitely clear that we were all improving in controlling the kids in the class, teaching the classes, and handling unexpected situations. The kids also seemed to be growing fonder of all of us. There was definitely a gap between the kids and us on the first day of teaching, but the kids were now hanging on our arms, playing with our hair, and giving us drawings of us. Even though it was only our third day with the kids, it was amazing how much we were able to reach out to them.

For Thursday, our last teaching day of the week, Professor Kim joined us! It was initially very confusing because we thought that we would only be teaching the Chinese-speaking kids in the morning and the regular class in the afternoon, we found out that all the kids were going to be in the school all day. We split up the morning into two classes where a group of us taught the Chinese-speaking kids Korean and the other kids played together and worked on the computer. For the Chinese-speaking kids, we focused on more one-on-one time for personal attention and help, which we found to be very valuable. The kids not only were more open to learning, but also were able to focus better. In the afternoon, we had regular lessons like we did before. The kids seemed to be a lot better about paying attention, maybe because they were able to release a lot of their energy by playing in the morning. We tried to teach them English by singing “Let It Go” from Frozen. The class was quite successful! The kids really loved it and were mostly willing to participate. Through this class, the kids opened up more even more to us and some were even sad that we were not going to be coming on Friday.

We started our Friday with a North Korean food workshop. We learned how to make potato dumplings (감자 만두) and tofu rice (두부밥). Potato dumplings are famous in 함경도, a region in North Korea while tofu rice is a traditional food, in some ways North Korean version of South Korea’s 떡볶이. We had the chance to learn about the foods, learn how to make them, and even make it ourselves! After our food workshop, we headed to 인사동where we walked around and explored the streets. Next, we went to 남산타워 by taking a cable car to the top of the mountain. We were able to see the locks that people put on the fences and saw beautiful night lights once the sun set. It was a busy and a tiring day, but a valuable experience filled with exciting events where we were able to learn more about the Korean culture.