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.
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
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
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