Part II: Skype in the Classroom

This article originally appeared in the September issue of BiBimBap magazine, an online journal for EFL teachers in Jeollanamdo, South Korea. You can view the ISSUU version here.

In Part I of the this series I outlined the resources, methods and potential best practices for leveraging one kind of information and communication technology in the classroom – Skype Education. In Part II of this series I’d like to share with you my experience using Skype in two of my 6th grade ESL classrooms, one being a recorded video exchange over a couple months and the other a live video class session.  

Whether or not the Skype VOIP service is best for keeping in touch with your friends and family back home is debatable, but there is no doubt that their service offers the richest platform for teachers trying to connect classrooms across the world. And remember, if you have a simple webcam, a monitor and a broadband internet connection in your classroom, like most of us do, you are one simple download away from getting started.

Recorded Skype Exchange

I mentioned in Part I of the series that I had made a connection with a teacher in Florida and a teacher in an American school in northern China. As it turned out, the exchange with the classroom in Florida just did not work out because of a combination of factors; the learning objectives of that classroom teacher and scheduling difficulties. I have come to think that this is the norm when seeking out a Skype in the Classroom partner across the country or across the world. I probably contacted close to ten teachers via the Skype Education platform in my initial search to find a partner teacher whose goals for the Skype exchange and schedule would work with mine. To date, I have successfully collaborated with two of those ten initial teacher contacts. Keep this in mind! Put a lot of hooks in the water and be patient if your schedule doesn’t immediately align with the first teacher that responds to you.

Nevertheless, I did successfully devise a #MysterySkype plan with the 5th grade teacher in an American school outside of Beijing. Ms. Hart’s homeroom class schedule and my schedule teaching five 6th grade English classes on Wednesdays and Thursdays did not initially mesh well, particularly because I had one deserving high-level, hardworking and outgoing 6th grade class in mind for this initial foray into a Skype exchange. Thus, instead of a live lesson, we settled on a recorded weekly video exchange over the course of a few months.

Since we both taught ESL students, we first established a geography-themed vocabulary list to review with the students in preparation of the #MysterySkype questions to come.  It included words like hemisphere, equator, prime meridian, province, and the cardinal directions. I also prepared a Powerpoint presenting the whole idea and purpose of the #MysterySkype game and showing them how the exchange would work with a sample recording on Skype. My co-teacher translated all and fielded many questions in Korean. Our goal was to have all the students fully understanding the process and intention of the activity so that they could focus on the language and not be confused by the strange new activity that was definitely not from the curriculum.

During April, May and June, Ms. Hart’s class and my specially selected 6th grade class went back and forth asking increasingly specific geographic questions in a race to figure out who lived where first. We started with, “Do you live in the northern hemisphere?” and ended with, “Do you live outside of Beijing in the Heibei province?”

In each successive round of question and answer I chose two new students to work with me to craft an answer to the other class’ question along with crafting our own new question for our mystery friends in China. We worked together at lunch time, where I would sometimes have them write the response on a whiteboard to read during the recording, or we would just practice the question and answer repeatedly until they felt confident they had it down pat. Then we recorded the video message on Skype with me leading and introducing the students. We would watch it once through together to assure clear speech and audio, send it on to Ms. Hart’s and then waited for their response. In the last five minutes of every class I would show Ms. Hart’s class’ latest video and it was always highly anticipated. My 6th grade class and their homeroom teacher resoundingly loved the exchange!

Live Skype

I also mentioned in Part I that I had a plan to do a #MysterySkype class with a 6th grade teacher in Hobart, Tasmania. After much scheduling and rescheduling, we finally connected our classes in mid June, this time with a different, yet no less competent, 6th grade class of mine.

Mr. Fitzpatrick’s class was a group of native English speaking Australian 6th graders. Therefore, I requested that Mr. Fitzpatrick’s class ask us questions about our location and limit my ESL 6th graders to simply responding ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to their geography questions. I was admittedly nervous about asking my students to create ever more specific location questions in response to the Hobart students’ answers in real-time in a live Skype session. Instead, I limited my students participation to primarily English listening comprehension as opposed to production. In addition, I leaned heavily on my enthusiastic co-teacher to keep all the students in the loop in Korean regarding the questions being posed.

I did ask a small group of higher level English speakers to prepare a show and tell presentation on Korean culture. The small group and I worked together to prepare a presentation on hanbok, ddeok, the danso flute and janggu drum. They practiced their English presentation three or four times for me before the live version.

The class was an absolute hit and went off without any problems except for, of course, a technical difficulty. Mr. Fitzpatrick and I did not test our VOIP connection on Skype before the actual class. Thus we were left scrambling to fix an unknown connection issue, then a mysterious microphone problem, and had to hang up multiple times until the connection magically strengthened and the audio righted itself via restart. It was frustrating and would have crushed the students and I if it didn’t eventually work out. So my big advice is to run a test Skype video call from the classroom computer you will use during the live session. Otherwise, happy Skypeing!  

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We feel, therefore we learn

This article originally appeared in the July issue of BiBimBap magazine, an online journal for EFL teachers in Jeollanamdo, South Korea. You can view the ISSUU version here.

The Emerging Science of Culture and Emotions in the Classroom

At our orientation in Gwangju, all of us JLP NET’s were introduced to the cultural framework of Geert Hofstede who, according to JLP coordinator Chris Devison, characterized Korea as “collectivist, slightly feminine, having large power distance and a strong avoidance of uncertainty”. Among the many implications that this unique Korean cultural makeup has in our English classrooms, Chris pointed out that, “What your students have learned when learning Korean is part of their identity and eliminating it completely may give the impression of threatening their identity.” Another important implication is that, “Korean students also have a strong avoidance of uncertainty and ambiguity. This causes them to seem quiet and shy as they prefer not to ask about the unknown and even try to avoid it if possible.” At one point or another, we have all found ourselves frustrated with the variety of Korean cultural elements at play in our classrooms.

Indeed, as Western Waygooks we all experience the cultural effects on education in Korea more acutely than the natives. We are able to compare and contrast against what we know of and experienced in our schools back home, as students and/or teachers. In addition to what we intuit about the cultural effect on education systems and learning styles, there is an emerging body of research that confirms and potentially clarifies that effect.

At the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, Professor Mary Helen Immordino-Yang is in the midst of a five year study of Latino, East Asian and bi-cultural students to see how culture affects the social development of the adolescent brain. Half way through the research period, Immordino-Yang claims there are already two big takeaways about learning; first, Immordino-Yang says, “Traditional educational approaches think about emotion the way Descartes did; emotion is interfering with your ability to do well in school, to think rationally. Neuroscience is showing us that that is absolutely not the case—when you take emotion out of thought you have no basis for thought anymore. So we’re trying to understand how socially constructed emotion shapes learning, academic development and identity.”

Second, Immordino-Yang says “There were no differences at all in how much these young adults’ brains were activating when they responded to our emotional stories—and no differences in the strengths of emotions that participants in the different cultural groups reported…But there was a strong cultural difference in how patterns of neural activity corresponded in real-time with participants’ experience—in how people became aware of their emotion.”

In other words, emotions play a big role in how we all learn, regardless of cultural or linguistic backgrounds, and yet those backgrounds do have a differing effect on our awareness and outward expression of those same emotions we all feel.

Based on my background teaching in Latin America, Korea and the U.S., these preliminary results of Immordino-Yang’s research rung true, and so I became interested in hearing how or if this study resonated with some of my fellow English teachers here in Yeosu. So I asked them. What follows is an abbreviated version of some of the highlights of that discussion.

How do you say ‘emotions’ in Korean?

Many of the teachers I interviewed expressed bewilderment at the fact that emotions were once thought to have no role in learning. Most seemed to believe that across cultures emotions play a significant role in learning, but that student emotions in a Korean classroom differ significantly from those in Western classrooms. For example, Alison Pirtle (Nam Elementary), said, “I find that it is more difficult here to identify the students who are experiencing big, emotional issues in Korea, than it is in the U.S. My lack of understanding the Korean language probably has a lot to do with that, but I also think it’s their lack of outward emotions as well. Back in the States, it’s often easy to identify students who are having emotional issues due to personal problems. Here, though, it seems that students internalize their problems so it’s harder to identify a student who really needs emotional support.”

The emerging results of the Immordino-Yang study confirm this anecdotal observation about East Asian students. In a cultural identity test students are asked to monitor their heart rate after performing a simple exercise. “What we find is that among the East-Asian American kids, it’s the kids who are not particularly sensitive to their heartbeats who are saying they strongly hold Asian values, whereas among the Latino kids, it’s those who have a better ability to feel their heartbeats who are saying they strongly hold Latino cultural values,” says Immordino-Yang. In other words, a person’s cultural identity may affect their sensitivity to or awareness of their own physical and emotional state.

One teacher went a step further regarding emotions in our English classrooms and brought it back to us as Western educators and cultural ambassadors in Korea. Melody Peters (Booyeong Elementary) said, “The biggest thing in any classroom in Korea is that to the students we don’t just teach English, we ARE English. We can have the best resources, technology, and curriculum, but if we don’t show up emotionally, if we don’t see ourselves as the biggest asset in their learning, then we offer little chance of the students to emotionally connect with the language.”

The Cultural Elephant in the Room

In the end, Immordino-Yang puts her study’s implications for learning fairly succinctly, “We’re learning that what’s happening on the outside—the same story, the same lesson—can be interpreted differently, experienced differently, by different learners. So we really need to start to unpack the roles of school culture and individual variability when we think about how children learn. We need to understand that the way kids feel matters.”

Not surprisingly, this is where my conversations with my fellow NET’s on this subject got a bit more critical of Korean and Confucian culture. Issues like the singular adolescent pressure of Suneung (수능) were mentioned, large class sizes, the lack of differentiation in instruction and too much rigidity in the curriculum. While the most watched TED Talk of all time is Sir Ken Robinson’s on creativity and schools, John Palmsano (Shinwol Elementary) wrote of Korea, “Creativity isn’t reinforced as much as it is back home. Asking them {students} to be creative with or modify their use of our language is something out of reach of all but the most advanced elementary speakers.”

Lastly, the Confucian undercurrents in modern Korean society are significant. Its emphasis on family and social harmony are evidenced positively here by the Han River Miracle and the high level of personal safety we all feel walking down the street. “It ensures that Korea is a strong society and community by ensuring everyone’s survival and collective success as a people. The teamwork of Korea astounds me as an American,” writes Ryan Hedger (Yeosu Information Science High School). The downsides, as we all know, are rigid social hierarchy, lack of individual identity and one-size-fits all solutions to all sorts of problems ranging from safety to English language acquisition.

In spite of the significant strengths of Korean culture, the questions that the Immordino-Yang study presents for Korean society and education remain. Is that initial progress and success brought about by Korean culture and the education system now being impeded by those same forces? Is it necessary to improve the quality and style of education in Korea in order to leverage student emotion? How can the strong and proud collectivist culture of Korea, which has assured their sovereignty and exported wonders across the globe, accommodate the unique learning needs of individual students in the education system? Should Korea even care about a Western academic study on culture and learning?

My answer to those questions is YES, YES, IDK and definitely! But, of course, I’m the one working in a foreign culture here.

GOOD Magazine on Immordino-Yang – http://magazine.good.is/articles/cultural-literacy?utm_source=thedailygood&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=dailygood

USC Rossier School of Education article – http://rossier.usc.edu/immordino-yang-probes-the-connections-between-emotion-culture-and-learning/

Going Global in Korea with Skype

This article originally appeared in the May issue of BiBimBap magazine, an online journal for EFL teachers in Jeollanamdo, South Korea. You can view the ISSUU version here

Going Global

In 2012 the Korean Education ministry announced it’s ‘SMART Education’ plan, the ‘T’ of which stands for technology. In an effort to create an education system which is less passive, more creative and more adaptive, the plan called for wide scale integration of Information and Communication Technology (ICT). In fact, the plan set 2015 as the deadline for digitizing the entire school curriculum to make it more accessible to 21st Century learners. Yet in spite of the reported 67% of Korean youth ages 5-19 that have smartphones and the widely touted high-speed broadband access in Korea, ICT is not leveraged for learning in most classrooms yet.

This is where Skype in the Classroom comes in. Most of us have a broadband internet connection, a computer connected to a classroom monitor, a classroom document camera, headphones with a microphone, or, if you are an online “J-Distance” teacher, you have a webcam with a built-in microphone. This is all it takes to get started and begin using the ICT in your classroom to connect your EFL students with native English speakers the world over.

 

Where To Start

If you do not have a Skype account, you should start there. If you already have a Skype account, you can use that as your login for Skype Education. You can create a distinct teacherly profile name, like Mr. Short, add a professional profile pic, enter your location in the world and give a brief description of your aims for using Skype in your classroom.

Next, you can ‘find a lesson’ or ‘find a teacher’. There is a really cool map with classes and teachers pinned all over the world. You can zoom in and out and see more or less teacher pins appear as a result. If you click on a pin it will automatically scroll down to that teacher’s Skype Education profile and from there you can select that person and message them directly.

My suggestion is to ‘find a teacher’ first. I spent some time searching to ‘find a lesson’, I signed up for lessons, and did not get any responses from those teachers. However, when I started searching for teachers in our general timezone, for example, classroom teachers in Australia and New Zealand or International School teachers in Japan and China, I had much more success messaging them directly and proposing a Skype classroom collaboration.

 

A Global Lesson

The trending Skype lesson on Twitter is #MysterySkype. This is billed as a “global guessing game” where students in each class prepare questions, hints, show and tell items, etc. that allow the other class to guess their location. Skype Education recommends that #MysterySkype beginner classes start off playing 20 questions, preparing that set of questions and a few hints to give to the other class. This is ideal for our EFL students because it allows us to pre-teach the target language; questioning, locations, directions, place specific vocabulary and more. You can scaffold the whole process and interaction for your timid Korean students by helping them fully prepare before so they know what language to expect once you are in the Skype call.

There are many more ways that innovative teachers are using this all over the world to support a wide range of content learning. Students are brainstorming conflict resolution strategies via recorded Skype messages across the world and teachers are designing standards-based social studies lessons to compare and contrast their own customs and traditions with that of a foreign culture. The tool can be used as simply as a 21st century version of penpals or as complex as a collaborative research and writing project.

 

My Plan

I am currently planning my first #MysterySkype lesson with a 6th grade teacher in Hobart, Tasmania. For my first lesson I want to give my students the best shot at success, so we have agreed to limit the lesson to the Australian class guessing our location through questioning. This will allow my students to answer questions concerning basic facts about Korea, which they will know. And those questions and answers can be more easily supported by a bilingual Korean co-teacher. I suspect that the creation and translation of questions from Korean to English in order for my students to figure out where in Australia those students are would be very time consuming and possibly discouraging for both parties. At least this first time, I want to be able to scaffold this process so that both parties walk away feeling successful and encouraged.

The other way you can use Skype in your classroom is via a recorded message exchange with another class, similar to the old school pen pal programs. This allows for classes to have an exchange or do #MysterySkype in spite of impossible time zone differences. So, for those of you who know a teacher back home in Canada or the U.S., there is a way to connect with them even though they are in school there while we are asleep here.

I am working with two teachers right now to set up this kind of recorded message exchange, one classroom is located in Florida, U.S.A. and is interested in doing a basic show and tell cultural exchange, while the other classroom is in northern China and wants to do a #MysterySkype lesson over the long-term. In both cases we are planning on recording one short message per week.


Our first message from Ms. Hart’s class in China.

Final Tips

As you can imagine, considering the timidity of many of our Korean students to produce authentic language on demand, planning, preparing and practicing a recorded lesson might lead to a more fruitful exchange than a live Skype lesson. However, there are ways to prepare students for the live chat as well, introducing key vocabulary, sentence stems and making it completely clear in Korean the purpose and goal of the Skype exchange.

The planning and preparation will generally require significant buy-in from your Korean co-teacher, which I know may be a tall order for many of you. You may have to put significant effort into identifying your curriculum’s target language that will be used authentically in the Skype lesson. You may also need to start with a baby step like recording a simple message for another class one time, and then checking in with the co-teacher about the possibility of an ongoing exchange. It is probably obvious to you that the value of the lesson and the time it will take to schedule and plan it may not be immediately understood and committed to by your co-teacher.

Lastly, it is important to strategically choose a class you feel has the makeup to do well and get something out of this kind of global live lesson. You know your students best and you know the ones who are outgoing and who try and chat in English with you all the time. The first few times you experiment with this kind of lesson, you should lean on those students and those classes, if you have them.

I will check back in with more info and tips once I get a few Skype lessons under my belt.

Links:

https://education.skype.com/

https://education.skype.com/collections/skype-guides?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=newsletter_2015_jan_literacy

https://www.edsurge.com/n/2014-12-11-how-you-can-actually-teach-beyond-your-classroom-s-walls

http://genproedu.com/paper/2013-01/full_003-009.pdf

Twitter:

@mysteryskype

@SkypeClassroom

#skype2learn

South Korea Education in the News

Lately, there have been a few trending education articles in the U.S that have mentioned the South Korean education system, comparing it favorably to that of the American K-12 ed system. These references to Korean education, and other Asian education exemplars, Hong Kong, Shanghai, etc, follow the usual U.S. media narrative of marvel, favorable comparison and limited perspective. There are certainly many aspects of the Han River Miracle which can be attributed to praiseworthy aspects of the Korean education system. And I would always acknowledge the value in observing and taking note of the strengths and innovations of foreign education systems. However, in my opinion and with few exceptions, U.S. educators, policy makers and journalists tend to selectively cite the Korean education system, ignorant to a few key realities here. As a Native English Teacher currently teaching in a public elementary school in the Jeollanamdo Province of South Korea, I’d like to make a few observations in response to a couple recent headline-making ed articles in the US.

 

OECD Instructional Hours

First, in a widely-read guest post on Valerie Strauss’ blog in The Washington Post, Ellie Herman makes a compelling argument on the extreme challenges that result in high rates of teacher burnout in inner-city, high-poverty American schools. I want to first say that I do not for one minute doubt the veracity of her burnout story, as I have seen it happen first-hand with my classroom teacher colleagues in a Title I public school in Seattle that I worked at before coming to Korea. I know that teachers in these challenging, high-poverty schools in the U.S. operate in “executive function overload” for most, if not all, of the school year. Part of the problem certainly is disproportionate amount of instructional time versus planning time in the US. Herman also writes about the other major problem, that teacher “planning time” is either so structured and prescribed by district mandates, Common Core trainings, staff meetings, or Professional Learning Communities (PLC’s) that it cannot seriously be considered planning time. Or, teachers have many parents to contact, an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) meeting to attend to discuss the special needs of one student, a School Improvement Team (SIT) meeting to attend to discuss the behavior of one student, nevermind a leadership team or union meeting to help further an innovative school or professional initiative. For me, there is no question that in most Title I schools in the U.S. there is little to no time during a long work day to actually plan relevant, differentiated lessons. That kind of lesson planning requires time to reflect, time to create materials and time with a brain that is not in a constant state of emergency.

That being said, there is one statistic cited in Herman’s piece that I had to question and feeds into the rosy and incomplete picture of the Korean education system that many Americans most likely have. Herman writes that according to the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development, the research and policy organization of the developed world, “the average secondary school teacher in the U.S. puts in 1,051 instructional hours per year” while the average Korean teacher puts in 609 hours. Admittedly, I am not sure where that Korean instructional hours number comes from exactly, how it was calculated or what report Herman found it in. This is what I do know, the average Korean homeroom teacher on the elementary level spends at least four hours a day in front of students according to my own Korean colleagues in my school. That means that in a single school year, which lasts 220 days here versus 180 days in the US, the average homeroom teacher would teach 880 hours. From what I know the same estimation would be true for secondary teachers here in Korea, and this is a conservative estimate for both. Even if you estimate an average of four instructional hours a day over a 180 day school year, Korean teachers would still teach 720 instructional hours per year on average.

As you can see, my rudimentary calculations confuse the OECD findings for me. I speculate that the Korea number and the U.S. number are skewed, Korea to the lower end and the U.S. to the higher end. In Korea they hire many contract teachers, a category of teacher we do not have in the American public schools system. These contract teachers may teach a specific subject like art, music or English and have a defined amount of weekly instructional hours that may average out to 3 hours or less per day. In contrast, in the U.S. we do have some 0.5 FTE teachers, but usually we bring their status up to 1.0 by combining part-time positions, or the teacher has full-time instructional hours cobbled together at multiple schools. Thus, these contract teachers may skew the number downward for Korea, while the hiring and funding systems of the U.S. produce more teachers with full-time instructional hour schedules.

 

OECD Homework Hours

Another OECD education statistic which confused me this last week came from a Vox.com article on the amount of time students spend on homework in developed countries. Again, I am unsure of the methods that the OECD used to collect this homework data, nor I am sure of what specific OECD education report Vox is referencing. In any case, the article displays the following graph which shows that Korea is second only to Finland in how few hours students spend on homework per week.

Homework Hours

This statistic absolutely shocked me as a teacher currently working in Korea. Unless the Korean education system has significantly ramped up the amount of homework given to students since 2012, and did so without regard for the already outstanding PISA results of their students, then I am baffled as to how this number was tabulated. I have no hard data on the amount of homework my elementary students or secondary students in general in Korea undertake each week, but within the country the workload of Korean students is notoriously and proudly high. Parents and educators are not ashamed to say that students should spend long, hard hours studying. For example, most of the students at my school attend the famous or infamous hagwons or after-school academies where they sometimes get even more rigorous instruction in STEM subjects, English as a Second Language, or the arts as they do in their regular homeroom. More to the point, students receive homework from their hagwon on top of the homework they get from school. I would assume that most of my elementary students do more than OECD number of three hours per week in homework just from their regular school studies. And from what they tell me, and what I see after school, they are doing much more than that when you include their hagwon workload. I’m talking about 3rd and 4th graders here!

 

Korean Education Realities

In the past few weeks there have been two realities that have been revealed to me about the Korean education system, which I somehow suspect will never make it into a Washington Post international education policy article. These facts of the Korean education system are completely unrelated to each other, but they both add some complexity to the discourse about the merits and shortcomings of the Korean and American systems.

The first is an allegedly atrocious act by a Korean hagwon teacher here in Yeosu, my town of residence. The police have taken into custody a teacher who allegedly beat a 6th grade student with a Kendo stick causing her to fall, hit her head and die. The police are investigating, but there are reports that the girl stole something from the unregistered, illegal hagwon and at the request of her parents she was corporally punished by the hagwon teacher, leading to her death. Corporal punishment was essentially outlawed in schools in 2012, but there is a significant legacy here and it is not without it’s proponents in the current teacher ranks in Korea.

Second, in my teacher certification program we were asked to identify the primary objectives of the district in which we work so that we could align our unit and lesson planning to meet both the district objectives and the educational standards. I worked with my wonderful Korean co-teacher to translate the Jeollanamdo Office of Education objectives into English. The one that stood out was this, “Reduce the workload of teachers.” I think most teachers in the U.S. would consider this an unfathomable objective to propose in a district strategic planning meeting, even if they thought it to be a good and reasonable idea that would net better outcomes for students.

I mention these two things because they add some nuance to the perception of the Korean education system. Like most things, the system here is not black and white, it is not all academic gains and happy students, nor is it all rigorous teaching based on extensive planning time. There are significant systemic problems here too. These problems are functions of the local culture and context, just as many of the strengths of the Korean education system result from the specific socioeconomic and cultural situation of the country. I think Ellie Herman makes a strong case for more unstructured planning time for U.S. teachers and I also think there is significant research that says that, depending on the developmental stage of a student, a certain amount of homework can start to do more harm than good. Considering our unique makeup in America, Korea and Finland will not always show us the way educationally speaking, and these statistical comparisons can act as red herrings. If the logic and the research are there, lets rely more heavily on those arguments. If we are going to use international comparisons to boost our policy point, lets be more rigorous in our acknowledgement of the nuance unique to each educational system.