We Laughed, Then We Cried – Yehdahm Kweon and Rebecca Kim

Our last few days in Korea have been bittersweet. There have been many goodbyes, hugs, and well wishes. It is hard to believe that two full months have gone by. Looking back, we have come a very long way and made lots of progress. Our last day at KumKang was on Thursday. We had a slideshow of the pictures that were taken over the past two months, and had a small pizza party with the students. It is amazing how close we have gotten with the kids; we were even able to see some students blossom from shy to energetic and excited. There was lots of energy at KumKang School that day. Many of the students do not have much stability or consistency in their day to day lives. Even in the short time that we have been there, we have seen multiple forms of volunteers come in and out of the school. Although a relatively short volunteer program will not solve the entire issue of the reunification of the Korean Peninsula, it is one small step in understanding the situation in depth, and spreading awareness about it. In the case of Kum Kang School, some volunteers place a label on the students as “North Korean Refugee Children” which ultimately sounds like a charity case. However, a big lesson that we all learned during our time here is that these children are just like any other kids. They throw tantrums, play games, and can be better actors than professional athletes.

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And though we’ve said our goodbyes, it certainly doesn’t mean it is the end. What we established in the two months of learning and working with these students is the very first of hopefully many meetings between Duke students and KumKang School. Perhaps the program will develop to have a structure penpal system so that the students and the student-teachers can keep in touch. And maybe the difficulties faced and mistakes made in this first trial will be fixed in joint effort in coming years. We leave with high hopes for the following summer and the incredible experience of learning from the students as much as they learned from us.

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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.

Week Four: Touch and Go and Something More – Rebecca Kim and Yehdahm Kweon

This week marks the halfway point for our Duke Engage experience. To be sure there have been plenty of ups and downs. For the most part, we’ve gotten used to the unpredictability of the school’s schedule and have begun to adjust appropriately on the go. And, getting comfortable and learning to problem-solve quickly gave us the opportunity to understand the students on a personal level.

Many of them, as mentioned before, spend most of the year away from parents and family without the affection or care that come with family and support. So, seeing these students brighten up or enjoy our presence was both rewarding and worrying. More than anything, these students really seemed to want attention, whether through encouraging comments on completing worksheets or asking curious questions. Many of them started to share parts of their day or their emotions that they felt even without prompting. Slowly I felt like I was familiar with their dislikes and likes, idiosyncrasies, and other traits that we couldn’t pick up earlier in our interactions. At the same time I didn’t know what our roles were really supposed to be here at Kumkang. We wanted to be supportive emotionally and pragmatically— in the academic aspects of the teaching— but kids could very much become attached. With some of the students, we spend close to eight hours together. The others as well, the more we share and communicate and listen, begin to ask if we are leaving, if we are coming back, when we will be coming back and so on. Even if the program continues, the same group of Duke Engagers will not be coming back to the school. These students’ questions have really made me question what our impact will be and what might be both the products and consequences left behind.

As we continue to teach and try our best to carry out the tangible goals week by week, we came across another difficult issue. Some of the students are very much receptive to the lessons and subjects, both math and English. And others, a few regularly dissatisfied students, refuse to participate. They do everything from crying, to throwing tantrums, to sitting silently and staring blankly until the break periods come around. This is both disruptive and severely inhibiting for the class progress, since we try and coax all of the students to participate. In some moments the pause that occurs while one of us tries to nudge one student to participate is enough to make another student lose interest. It isn’t that the students are always averse to learning, but that on some days they have dark moods, or are tired and decide not to participate, or particularly dislike the subject. When persuaded or engaged enough, each and every one of them are definitely willing to learn. But, with four inexperienced student-teachers to twelve to fifteen students, it can get hectic or slow in pace when three or four students don’t want to participate that day. While we want to cater to the student’s personal needs, time passes and the students fall further behind in comparison to the normative set in a South Korean school standard. Do we isolate the students who want to learn from those who are unwilling so that the few who do can make progress, at the expense of the learning of students who are less willing? Sometimes, we reach a point where the class just has to proceed even if some of the students sit with their heads down through the entire period.

Despite that, we have periods that all the students are engaged. We started small artistic exercises at the end of each week that are not necessarily academic but are just as important. The students are given blank paper and a prompt— perhaps ‘create an animal that doesn’t exist,’ or ‘describe your dream,’ or ‘imagine a universe of your own’— and given time to draw. At times, the students try and do the bare minimum. But once asked a few questions, it’s amazing to see how much imagination and human emotion they can bring into the things they create. Moreover, these exercises really seem to bring out the personal sides of the students, their interests, their dreams, and their story. They pull at us and call us over with ‘teacher, look at this’ or ‘teacher, look at what I drew!’ and describe to us every detail and the reasons why they made something in some way. Because of these moments, I wonder by the end of the week that maybe what we leave behind doesn’t have to be academic or pragmatic but something more. Maybe we could leave behind an understanding of self for the students with situations and personal histories that allowed little interest for their identities from both themselves and others around them.

After a week of teaching, we headed to Sokcho, a city northeast of Seoul that is known for its delicious sashimi and natural environment. We were warmly greeted by professors from Kyung Dong University, who showed us around the campus and presented lectures on the Sokcho region, which borders the eastern portion of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Despite the painful memories it may bring back, or the historical “scar” it may be, the unoccupied DMZ region is home a rich ecological system, and helps to promote organismal diversity. Furthermore, it preserves the beauty of nature in something that symbolizes division and hostility.

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During our trip, we were able to visit the border to view North Korea from afar. The actual trip itself was a lengthy process, and we had to go clear multiple security checks to drive to the viewing point.

Looking out toward the DMZ along the beach

Looking out toward the DMZ along the beach

We also visited the DMZ Museum, which houses artifacts from the Korean War and provides a thorough history on the division between North and South Korea. Despite the modern, luxurious face that South Korea may present, there are still many underlying political issues to be solved. As each year passes and Korea continues to move forward with technology and society, it is difficult to remember that Korea is technically still at war.

An exhibit from the DMZ museum

An exhibit from the DMZ museum

Learning more about the history of division helps us to get a better idea of the situation at hand, and brings up lots of questions in regards to community service. The issues of reunification and resettlement are not ones that can be solved overnight, or even within a year. But, it is interesting to learn and experience this on multiple scales, from tutoring refugee children to visiting the border that represents a painful past and continues to divide a nation. The frustrations we may encounter at Kumkang School are not problems that are easily fixable. But, taking a step back and observing helps us to realize that we aren’t here to make drastic changes. Rather, our community service is made piece by piece in little ways, such as providing encouragement and confidence or inspiring a mind to reach further. We’re getting there, slowly but surely. In the spirit of the World Cup, here’s to a fantastic second half!

Go Team Korea!

Hiking at Seoraksan

Hiking at Seoraksan

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