At 9 o’clock Monday morning, Team A started off our second week of teaching at the Kumgang school. Our morning proceeded on as usual, as we went through Korean languages exercises with the Chinese-speaking students. However the afternoon greeted us with quite a surprise. 2:40 pm hit and Team B arrived on time, however none of the students had returned from school. 3:00 passed, then 3:30 pm and in that time only two students had returned from the local public school. At 4:00 pm, we figured that rather than waiting for them, it would be better to ask the principal about the students’ whereabouts. Turns out, that she was also surprised that the students had not yet returned from school and so she decided to give the school a call. After inquiring about the situation, the principal explained that the school had started a new program for the North Korean students and that they would be returning late from school throughout the week due to testing. Throughout the week, the students trickled in little by little starting from 3:00 pm, which caused our classes to be overstaffed, often having 2 or 3 teachers to one student, which definitely helped in terms of being able to cater exclusively to each student and controlling the class atmosphere. This week we didn’t end up strictly sticking to our intended lesson plans because of the lack of students, however we found that the lessons that we were able to do, were very successful and were really able to get the kids engaged. It could be that our lessons were particularly good this week or that the students are now starting to feel more comfortable with their new foreign teachers. This week there was a noticeable increase in participation by the students and even in our relationships with the students. As you walk down the main hallway of the school, it’s encouraging to see several animated conversations and inside jokes between students and teachers and the occasional creative handshakes and high fives. In just two weeks, we, as teachers, have learned how to get the kids to pay attention and how to balance serious class time with fun activities. It has also become easier to deal with the random surprises that seem to pop up each day and adjust our plans when necessary. We have been able to learn from the students and the school administration just as much as they are learning from us.
On Friday, for our weekly excursion, we were the granted the opportunity to go to Seoul National University (SNU). It is comprised of sixteen colleges and six professional schools and is considered to be the top university in South Korea and approximately the fourth highest university in all of Asia. The university maintains several undergraduate exchange programs with foreign universities including Harvard, Yale, Duke, Stanford, UPenn, MIT, and Peking University. As we walked through the campus, I was taken aback by the size and beauty of the campus. The landscape was absolutely breathtaking and includes the Gwanaksan mountain as a lovely backdrop, with several ponds and innovative architecture. For the first couple of hours of our trip, we were hosted by the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University (IPUS). The Institute primarily focuses on peace studies around the world and conducts many research projects that will ultimately provide insight into unification issues on the Korean Peninsula. According to SNU, IPUS concentrates on three dimensions: peace through inter-Korean reconciliation, peace through the promotion of cultural and human rights, and peace through ecological civilization. We were able to listen to lectures by three professors that work with IPUS. The first lecture by Professor Philo Kim, a Humanities professor at SNU, talked about Inter-Korean relations. That was followed by Professor Young Hoon Song, a Senior Researcher at IPUS, who discussed the lives of refugees, including their travel routes from North Korea, assimilation into South Korean societies and the status of North Korean refugees in other countries outside of the Korean Peninsula. The last lecture was by Professor Byung-Yeon Kim, Deputy Director and Professor of Economics at SNU (and also the father of one of our classmates at Duke!), who looked at the prospect of unification from an economic viewpoint. We found that all of the lectures provided facts and ideas from a fresh neutral viewpoint, in contrast to the more South Korea-centric lectures that we heard at the Ministry of Unification Education. At the end of the lectures we were able to visit the famous Kyujanggak Archives, which was the royal library of the Joseon Dynasty starting from 1776. Inside were several old documents written by scholars of the Joseon period, on topics ranging from astrology and maps to tools and language studies. We ended the day with a quick trip to Gangnam, a well-known part of Seoul (thanks to the song Gangnam Style by Psy) where we picked up some refreshing bubble teas.