[Viewpoint]Creative ways to avoid cram schoolsI wrote a column last month with the title “Indigo Revolution.” It was a story about Heo A-ram, who had been running a reading club in Busan for the past 16 years. I received many telephone calls and letters from readers who mostly asked me to let them know Mr. Heo’s contact number or mailing address. Maybe they were parents of students who sympathized with Mr. Heo over the problem of our public education system which neglects to teach essay writing. The one I welcomed most was a letter from a student who studied law at a university. He wrote that he would run to the social welfare center in his neighborhood right away and try to organize a reading club there. He asked me for moral support so that many students would join his reading club. That is what I really wanted to see. I hope to see the second and third Heo A-ram appear in our major cities, one after another. If things go that way, I think, hopefully there will be no need for our students to go to cram schools to be taught how to write stereotyped model answers.
At a time when I was looking for any more signs of encouragement, I was asked to write a review of the book, “I am a Pencil.” Incidentally, I found another example in it. It is the diary of an American teacher and writer of a children’s book, who volunteered to work as an assistant teacher for essay-writing.
The first question writer Sam Swope asked his students was simple. “Write down a story, whatever it may be. Not something that you saw on television, but another that you, yourself, have figured out. Try to write something that has not already struck the minds of others.”
He also played the role of encouraging them to use all of their imagination.
“What stories shall we write?”
“I have no idea.”
“Shall we write mysteries? Or shall we write an adventure or a fairy tale?”
“I don’t know.”
“What about animal stories? You like animals, don’t you?”
“There is a rat in our apartment.”
“Is that so, then shall we write on rats?”
“Let’s write on elephants!”
In the beginning, some of the writings did not make sense. For example:
“Dr. Dentil went back to his canoe. After 99 days, he landed on North America and went straight to a jewelry shop. When he showed off his truck, the manager said. Really, this is nice! So the manager gave him $3,000. Dr. Dentil went straight to a store and bought a lot of food. So, he will never go hungry again.”
Still, he never spared his students compliments or encouragement. “Wow, it is indeed a great story,” he said and then he dramatized the story and staged it with the students. It is a far cry from the cram schools that snub students by asking them about a knotty topic in the beginning to give them poor grades. Maybe the students would keep going to the cram school class because they were frightened by the weaknesses in their writing, but that style of teaching could also make primary school pupils lose interest in writing. Of course, a cram school that teaches essay writing in preparation for university entrance examinations cannot imitate the teaching method of Mr. Swope.
This is what I want to say in this column. We have to teach creative writing, starting in the primary school years. Right now, primary school pupils are asked to draw what they did during the day and write a few lines from their diary under the drawing. But that is not anywhere near enough.
Mr. Swope’s 10-day long writing class was extended to three years, from grade 3 to the students’ graduation from primary school. The essays written by grade 5 students, which described their observations about the growth of trees in Central Park, were even published in a book. Children with runny noses became authors before they entered middle school.
It was not only writing the students learned. Most of them were children from poor immigrant families. If they were not lucky enough to meet Mr. Swope, they could have ended up as failures after going to higher educational institutes in their neighborhood.
But they learned how to plan their lives by writing. It is said that the traces of one’s life are melted down in writing. While polishing their writing, the students can overcome the restraints and obstacles of their lives one by one. Among students who are now in grade 10, one student is at the top of the list of graduates of his middle school and was admitted to one of the most prestigious high schools in the United States.
There is no reason that we cannot provide such an education to our students. I am confident there must be writers willing to provide a free education service to our students, as Mr. Swope has done for American students. Even if there aren’t any volunteers, there are other sources from which we can get help. I don’t think the education foundation recently launched by the Samsung Group is a place for providing jobs for retired civil servants to maintain their dignity and enjoy their retired life. Something must be done before our children are forced to go to cram schools where they are trained to imitate stereotyped model answers.
*The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Lee Hoon-beom