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.

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.

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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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.