My school does this thing. It’s a pretty cool thing. Roughly once a month, my all-girls high school has a video-conferencing (VC) class with an all-boys middle school in Australia.
Woah, you might say, that sounds like a lot of hormones. Can your students handle that?
And the answer is no. Not most of the time. Until we have class and they realize that middle school students still have baby faces and not all of their voices have dropped. But it’s still exciting.
In all seriousness though, it’s a great program.
When I’d arrived at Yeongdo Girls High School last August (2015), the school had recently began their program. Their second VC class was on my second week of school, meaning I worked a lot of overtime in those first couple weeks. Initially I was really fascinated with this class, but eventually it became just another thing I do at school. I usually forget how unique this program is until I’m telling other people about it.
The overarching program is called Asia ConneXions. I’ve heard there’s only one other high school in Busan that has an exchange class like this, so the regional education office has their eye (and their money) on us. It’s an especially great opportunity for our students because we’re not located in a particularly well-off area and don’t typically get a lot of funding. Students’ English levels aren’t particularly high either; it’s a lot of work for them to pull off this class. But they really prepare and practice hard to make it happen (as do the coordinating teachers, I should note). This is our school’s second year participating in the program, and it’s been the source of much stress upon many an English teacher at my school.
Fortunately, this year classes have gone increasingly smoother, with little to no technology fails (a big issue on both our end and the Australian school last year), a more streamlined preparation process, and just an overall sense of now-we-know-what-we’re-doing. The classes were good last year, but this year I look forward to them with a lot less worry. Here’s how a class usually goes.
A Typical Class
A different second year (11th grade) homeroom participates in the VC class each time. Around 6-9 students are chosen or volunteer to give presentations in the class, resulting in three presentation groups each covering a different but related topic.
At least a month in advance, these students are informed of their topic and begin preparations. They gather content for their topic, which has ranged from light subjects like K-pop and youth culture, to more difficult prompts such as “the historical connection between South Korea and Australia,” or economics and trade.
Next is the script-writing, which happens mostly in Korean and is then translated into English. Their speeches go through several rounds of edits, first going through their Korean English teachers and afterward through me.
Finally, students memorize their speeches (something I’ve found to be really common in Korea – but still impressive!) and practice, Practice, PRACTICE. The week of the VC class, they stay at school late to practice. I join them the night before the video class, where all the presenters rehearse and we test the technology.
This usually involves me taking sneaky pictures. And helping students with pronunciation and public speaking tips too.
How Do I Help?
In Korea I’ve often been put into the position of helping students improve their pronunciation. The first time I was asked to do this, I was honestly at a loss. Obviously I could tell them when they’d mispronounced a word, but helping pronunciation actually felt pretty foreign to me. I’ve since some to realize that what I’m needed for is a long list of additional things like intonation, stress and rhythm.
And on top of it all, these need to be explained in a way that students will understand. I find myself explaining that a word should go “up” or “down,” or that this part of a word should be stronger or to put more focus here, instead of making articulate points about tone and inflection. It would probably comical for an outsider to watch how I give explanations to my students.
Finally, the day of the VC class arrives! The night before one class, we’d worked with students so much that my coteacher (the class coordinator) and I both dreamed about the class.
The entire homeroom class for that day gathers in the classroom, which echoes really loudly. Unfortunately, their role is mostly just to listen, although a few of them are picked to ask or answer questions to/from the Australian class.
I’m there mostly in the background, often times taking sneaky pictures again. If my coteacher needs any clarification or help understanding the Australian teacher’s accent, I step in.
Comparisons and Reflections
The first year, both the coordinating teachers and I had high expectations, wanting students to interact with each other in a spontaneous and natural manner. However we’d barely get through presentations from each class and time would be up. Students almost never got to ask each other questions, and so we (the other teachers and I) felt the class was somewhat staged and not living up to its full potential.
This year, interestingly, not much has changed in the class itself – except no technology fails and therefore enough time in class to comfortably get through all the student presentations. The class structure and content is nearly identical, but this year’s VC class feels more successful. Because my standards are lower?
Maybe. But our students are doing what they are able to handle. It’s still a challenge to produce a script entirely in English with relevant, interesting content (and sometimes they need quite a bit of help from the coordinating teacher). It takes a lot of work especially for students who otherwise would never have gone out of their way to find an opportunity to practice their English in an authentic way. And at the end of the day, I think they can feel proud of a successful class, rather than agonize over mistakes made or questions unasked.
Maybe the difference is that I see this now.