Distance learning takes a detour into personal territory

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Distance learning takes a detour into personal territory

Last winter, I decided to skip the English teacher’s ritual of trudging from bedroom to meeting room in the predawn hours to teach business people, and just stay in bed.
I signed up to be a phone teacher. Marching orders were simple: talk to students in 10-minute blocks for a two-hour stretch starting at 6:45 a.m.
As a backup, the manager gave me some conversation starters, a series of books on topics like “Your Community” and “Gender Differences in the Workplace.”
With coffee mug in one hand and phone receiver in the other I began my new job ― unshaven, and in my pajamas.
Last year’s presidential election was in the home stretch, so I figured I would leave the books for another day and ask each of my students who they planned to vote for. The students, a diverse lot in age, background and politics, responded with enthusiasm.
Since that went well, I thought it would not hurt to continue the free conversation for a few more days.
Except for a third-grader, who was on a quest to hammer through the entire textbook series, everyone else relished chatting on their favorite topics. A teenager spelled out her disdain for the Korean testing system geared toward gaining entry to one of the S.K.Y. (Seoul, Korea, Yonsei) universities. An accountant, always on the road, griped about drafty motel rooms and missing his wife’s cooking.
My job was to listen carefully, provide a verbal nod or two and gently coach them on grammar or better phrasing. Ten minutes went by rather quickly, so I tried not to interrupt them much.
Soon enough, the Christmas season was casting a joyful shadow and with all the merry-making I thought, why not wait until after the New Year to pick up the textbook? After all, my students were learning and having fun, and so was I.
By now, snippets of real life started to pop up with growing frequency, like the story of being stood up by friends, the recollection of the previous night’s dream and the woeful tale of a father-in-law battling liver disease.
Was it not seeing me face-to-face, or my being a foreigner, that made the students feel free to speak so openly? Whatever the reason, I worried that without a formal curriculum our conversations might become too serious for me to handle. Either that, or we would just run out of topics. The image of a husband and wife, speechless, staring at each other over the dinner table, came to mind.
So like my students, I made a New Year’s resolution: Starting in January we would stick to the textbooks, except, of course, for “Free Talking Fridays.” And it is a good thing. Otherwise I might not have learned that Venezuelan women are “beauties” or which motels to avoid in Gimjae.

by Joel Levin

Mr. Levin is a Seoul-based editor and writer.
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