In the winter, no verbs to be conjugatedLate nights. Students too sleepy to stay up. Cases full of sharpened pencils. Having once taught at a hagwon in Seoul, I had those images in my mind aboard a train to Daejeon last January. Along with a young woman from Indiana, I had signed on to teach an English winter camp for middle-schoolers.
I steeled myself for four intense days of teaching conversation to students who had little or no exposure to foreigners. We’d have to run plenty of drills, I figured, to ensure the children went home armed with new phrases to impress Mom and Dad back home.
The setting turned out to be more, well, camp-like than I’d imagined; it was a youth hostel in the countryside, with a basketball court and vistas of snowcapped mountains.
We had hardly exited the taxi when a short man in a suit, whom I presumed to be the manager, smiled at the sight of the blonde, blue-eyed woman from Indiana. “You got a good one,” he said to our recruiter, who nodded her head approvingly.
As we carried out level tests, the kids took no time unearthing their Gameboys or played tag in the drafty hallways. Then, we were handed the course material.
For four days of classes, I expected a serious textbook with a name like “English in Focus.” But this slender, spiral-bound booklet was full of nothing but skits of American children’s tales like “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Rumpelstiltskin” ― with more spelling errors than Swiss cheese has holes. I worried how we’d stretch this over three and a half days. We’d have to toil over our lunch breaks to put together drills, vocabulary lists, even an exam or two.
The hours and days flowed faster, and were a lot more playful, than I had guessed. There were leisurely lunches, followed by play time in the chilly outdoors. What remained was more of an after-school drama class. We started out by reading our chosen play together a few times, before choosing parts. The kids wanted tryouts for the lead roles! Another morning, we reviewed stage positions and motions, before putting in serious class time fashioning costumes and props. It was during these periods that the more outgoing kids lobbed questions at me about my hometown or girlfriends. The last half-day was all but taken up with the two final performances, before we sent them on home with these cute handmade awards, certifying they had tackled the rigors of English camp. They may have not learned how to conjugate verbs, but I was satisfied knowing they’d feel a bit more comfortable using English from now on.
by Joel Levin