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“Four orcas are in the far east of Russia. They get trapped between ice. People help them.”

My first lesson with my reading club students consisted of reading a basic news article related to orcas. In Russia.

This past weekend, we DESKers took on a new challenge of teaching students of North Korean background at Woorideul School. As this is the first time our program has worked with this school, we were nervous about what to expect. We were told that we will be teaching an older demographic with a wide range of english ability, and were even given an example of reading assignments they typically complete. So, with expectations of a low to medium level of fluency, we began our first day of class.

Boy, were we unprepared.

For first period, each of us were given our own group of students (2-10) to teach for reading club. My group had 8 students varying in age from around 14 to 26 years old. After speaking a little bit of Korean and English, I soon came to realize, thanks to some blank stares, that the majority of my students speak Chinese. Many of them came to South Korea after living in China and were in the process of learning Korean, so while they could understand a little bit of what I was saying, they could only respond in Chinese. Thankfully, one of the older students in the class helped serve as my translator, speaking in both Korean and Chinese.

I decided on giving my students news articles for ESL students because I thought the topics could be relatable and applicable to their lives. In order to pinpoint what their level of fluency was, I prepared three different levels of difficulty. They barely made it through level 1.

For second and third period, the DESKers split up into three groups and received new students to teach in each period. This was far from what we experienced at Jiguchon, where we taught the same students for the duration of the day. Flustered by this, we realized that our individualized lesson plans would not work, and we adjusted by spending the day talking about the students’ goals and interests. Although we did not know what we were doing, the students were thankfully patient and understanding.

We considered the first day to be an experimental trial period of sorts, so after speaking with the vice principal and rethinking our approach to teaching, we began the second day of class with a clearer plan in mind. My reading club went slower and smoother, our co-taught classes had defined lesson plans, and we even helped the school prepare lunch for all of the students. By the end of the week, we had a more coherent understanding of the students’ needs, and were able to utilize that to become better teachers.

In a way, we were the orcas trapped in between the ice. We were stuck in our old habits because of our experiences at Jiguchon, and we weren’t quite prepared to enter unfamiliar waters. However, our students at Woorideul made space for us through their patience and assistance, and we were able to use that room to escape from our habits and navigate the new territory. Hopefully, we will continue to venture out into open waters and learn more from our students along the way.