The love stick that motivates

Confusion and concern rushes through me whenever I hear comments like these:

I know my teacher cared because he hit us with his stick when we didn’t get the answer right.

If I fail a quiz, my teacher hits me with a stick. I don’t mind this because it makes me think of what I’ve done wrong.

Although I didn’t like it at the time, when I look back, I know he hit me because he loved me and wanted me to learn. This is how he motivated me.

Both Korean teachers and students have shared such stories with me, and each time I hear them, I’m left baffled. I have a hard time wrapping my head around the equations: hitting=love and hitting=learning. 

Maybe I react this way because I put myself in the shoes of the student being threatened or hit. There is no way that my 12 year old self would understand these equations. I’m pretty confident that 16 year old Josette would rage with hatred if that stick of love came down on her palms. And I’m equally sure that 10 year old Josette would cry home in shame.

I also realize that not everyone would react like me. For the sake of trying to understand, I’ll set aside my prejudices for a moment. What if students want to this type of punishment? It seems some believe they do.  But what about the Josettes in the class? If my intention is to show care, I would need to make sure that my students respond to this kind of care. Would teachers need to get feedback from students to determine if they need the “stick of love” discipline? It surely would make for an interesting needs assessment:

Circle the answers that match your needs.

I want to be hit with the stick of love when I make a mistake or fail a quiz/test.

  • Yes
  • No

If you want to be hit, how many times do you want to be hit with the stick of love?

  • 5 strokes
  • 10 strokes
  • 20 strokes

If you want to be hit with the stick of love, where do you want to be hit?

  • posterior
  • back of the legs
  • palms
  • soles of the feet

I don’t think this kind of feedback is being collected.

My intention isn’t to make light of this. I know it’s a sticky subject and will conjure up plenty of mixed feelings. I just needed to write this out of concern for students who don’t respond positively to the love stick (so hard to write that sentence. I can’t imagine anyone truly responding positively. What about the long-term consequences? What does this do to their spirit? “Squelch it” comes to mind.) And of course the question comes up, even if they think they need the stick, are they capable of making a rational decision at this point? I know students out there who don’t want to be hit. They want love. They want warmth. They want to feel safe.

I have a hard time believing this boy would respond well to the stick.
* image from “Korean Students Speak” at

I also know that there are teachers out there who just don’t think they have an alternative. I have heard many times that this is part of the their tradition. This is how Korean teachers have been motivating students for centuries. They can’t imagine another way to encourage students to study. Plus, taking away the stick means giving the stick to students. Check out PRI: The World for more on this point: South Korea debates students discipline.

I think there is an alternative. I think it involves listening to students. I realize there is a lot in that sentence. What does it mean to listen to 30 students who don’t want to be in English class? What does it mean to listen to students when they are depressed, and you are exhausted because you have far too much paper work to do and still need to monitor students until midnight?

How do we listen? It’ll take a major shift in the system, but I think it can happen. It needs to happen. Too many students are in pain. Too many students are chronically depressed. Too many students are dying.

The stick of love won’t suffice. I think teachers and administrators need to learn about the power of compassion and understanding. They need to be trained how to listen compassionately. They need to learn how to see students as human beings. More counselors are needed whose only job is listening and caring. Of course, a lot more than this needs to happen (maybe a complete overhaul of the system), but this could be a start.

I think everyone in the Korean educational system could benefit from being heard. I think everyone could benefit from a little more love…minus the stick.

Other article related to this topic:

A Joyful Transition

“That was fun!”, sighed a participant as she sat down after presenting her group’s diamante poem.

I heard a similar exclamation from a participant in another class. What teacher doesn’t like knowing her students enjoyed a lesson, but to have that joy exclaimed without any probing from me is a pleasant bonus. My intention was simply to help them process their transition between sessions.

After seeing their smiles and hearing their laughter, I asked why they enjoyed making their diamantes. They explained that they felt a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. They also loved the creative factor of putting their poems on construction paper, and then reading their colleagues’ poems during a gallery walk.

I also noticed that they had very little anxiety about explaining their poems to the other participants during the gallery walk. The fact that they were feeling positive about their experience may have influenced the lowered affective filter. This helped them jump into their impromptu presentations.

T.T refers to Team-teaching, but it suspiciously also resembles the crying emoticon

I feel satisfied that my goal was met. I helped them process their transition into a new session. Now they feel a bit more connected to their new classmates, and they also know that many of these classmates share the same fears and aspirations.  The added bonus is that this transition has now been punctuated with a little fun.

Learning No. 2: Motivation & Meaning & Vice Versa

The following is a little story of why the power of meaningful motivation is one of my top 5 learnings for 2010:

Scaffolding posterThe book Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl came to me in three curious ways. Listening to a podcast on a trip home to Canada, I heard the speakers discussing Frankl’s work on the topic of living a meaningful life. As a teacher trainer, a language instructor, and an enthusiast of purposeful human connections, I often consider how meaning functions in our lives.

Then during one of my cherished trips to the used clothing and bookstore, Guy’s Frenchys, the bright blue title Man’s Search for Meaning popped up from the wooden bin of books for a loonie. Snatching it up from between the forgotten detective and romance novels, Frankl’s book followed me to South Korea where it lay on my shelf until three days ago.

During my daily walk on the mountain path behind my house, I listened to Daniel Pink‘s audio book, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future, which my good friend Hailey Tallman, an art therapist in the making, had recommended years ago. In addition to explaining how right-brain features such as inventiveness and empathy will direct the future, he also writes about how meaning is developing a greater presence in the lives of people today. It is at this stage of the audio book that he mentioned Viktor Frankl. Frankl had found me once again, and this is when I realized that this book, waiting for me on my shelf, connected to my experiences as a teacher.


Training Korean EFL Teachers

I had an inkling that training teachers might be rewarding, but so far reality is exceeding my expectations. I’m currently teaching an intensive TESOL (TEFL) teacher training course. Here we teach Korean EFL teachers skills and methods so that they will be able to teach using English-only and also so that they will be able to teach for communicative competence. The enrolled teachers come from all over this province, Gyeong-sang-buk-do. They have taken a month away from their children, husbands, wives and lives in order to improve their teaching and English language skills . Their desire to improve, despite their perceived shortcomings, has been motivating to say the least.

Although the teachers have a deep need to learn, they are also facing personal and professional obstacles.  Many of the teachers arrive to the program with low self-confidence when it comes to teaching English; even if some of them have been teaching the subject for over fifteen years.  Their lack of confidence arises from their limited practical training in teaching English for communicative purposes.  The Korean education system encourages teachers to teach for the test, which is limited to grammar translation and reading decontextualized texts.  In this kind of system there is no need for teaching communication skills. Another obstacle is that some of these teachers haven’t often used English to communicate. They themselves have only had to use English in order to pass the grade and achieve their goal of becoming a teacher. Once a teacher, the need or the chance to use English to communicate has almost been null. With such an education system and experiences against them, it is hard to understand how the light of communication still shines within them.

Regardless of the limitations, the desire to communicate exists. I feel their desire when they are all ears during my lessons and when I have to ask them to stop their discussions in order to move on to the next task. It is a language teacher’s dream to have a class of students who talk too much in the target language. I also see the desire when at the end of my lessons they thank me for all the work I put into preparing. When my students are motivated, I’m inspired to plan a great lesson. Their gratitude and determination has helped me realize that motivation is contagious. It also makes for a substantial teaching bonus.

KITT TEFL Training Winter 2010

Do you have an alibi? – Good Cop/Bad Cop

First intermediate class of the week – Mixed years (Freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors); Mixed majors; mixed levels; mixed feeling; Unit 3 – Interests, Breakthrough

Every time I enter this class I feel like I just need to dive in head-first and not worry about the water.  I have students in here who have spent years studying abroad, and I have some who barely know the present tense.  Luckily the majority is in between these levels. I also feel lucky that it’s a mixed aged class.  You see, in Korea the older students tend to take a leader/support role with the younger ones. At least that’s how it’s working out in this class.  I’m also lucky that those older students have the most advanced English abilities, so they can quickly explain what I am talking about.

Getting caught

Getting caught

The fluency activity I had planned was Alibi. To set up the context I told the students that someone broke into my house last night between 8pm and 9pm. They took all my things and broke the window.  Someone in the class did it and I need to find out.  I group students into groups of five according to their ability/fluency level.  Two are cops and three are suspects. I hand out example cop questions to all the students.  This is intended to guide the police officers in their questioning, and help the suspects create their alibi. I tell the suspects that one of them is the criminal and they decide amongst themselves. The cops are in another room thinking of questions they can ask. After a few minutes they come in and start interrogating.  For three of the four groups, the suspects are sitting next to each other. One group decides to break up the suspects and question them separately.  They think this will help them catch the suspects in a lie.  One group of cops seems to be doing a good job of catching the suspects in a lie. They think they know who did it.  I ask them to keep going to make sure they’re right.  The two other groups aren’t successful. They have no idea who may have stolen my things.   This continues for the rest of the activity. At the end the group that split up the suspects was wrong about the criminal. The group who thought they guessed, guessed correctly.  The other groups felt that maybe they hadn’t played the game correctly.  We discovered that those groups hadn’t tried to catch the suspects in a lie. They hadn’t planned their questions as traps as the other groups had.  For example, the group who guessed correctly asked one suspect where he was between 8 and 9. He said he was watching TV. Then the cop asked another suspect what they watched. He said “1 Night 2 Days (1박2일)”. Then they asked the last suspect, “On what floor was the movie theater?” He said, “The 5th floor.” Obviously there was a liar. 1 night 2 days

This activity took about 40 minutes.  I think I could have shortened it so that they took turns being suspect and cops.

To set up this activity as a past tense lesson, I used the vocabulary/lexical chunk section in Unit 3.  Together we went through the past tense verbs and practiced using the dialogue activity.  I told the advanced students that they could create their own dialogues if they wanted. These students just need time to practice their speaking skills. They are already fluent with the material we covered today.  After this activity I handed them a pictured list of irregular past tense verbs. I told them that they could use these verbs in the alibi activity. That was it for the list.

I feel like I didn’t know how to handle the list because of the different levels.  I know most students knew the words, but I gave the list for the ones who were less advanced.  For those students I feel like I didn’t help them learn the verbs. I think next time I would go through an activity that helps them identify with some of the verbs.  For example I might do a chain story activity, “it was a dark and stormy night…” where the students need to keep the story going by using one verb on the list.  By doing this the other students listening at least notice the verb meaning.  I think I would do this in small groups since there are 20 students in class.

I was happy to see the less advanced students interacted in the activity.  Even though they didn’t talk much, they listened to the more advanced and tried to participate.  The more advanced students included them in the activity by translating. I feel that at least this promoted noticing.

Luckily I taught two more intermediate classes the following week.  So after reflecting on what could be improved for the Alibi activity, I made a few changes.  In relation to helping students get a grasp on how to question and catch the suspect, this is what I did:

I thought that it would be helpful to help the suspects create an alibi. So before I separated the suspects and the cops, I asked them to analyze the vocabulary/lexical chunk pictures in the textbook and think of some activities that go with the picture.  For example, one picture had the lexical chunk “watch a concert”. In their groups of five, students had to think of what can happen at a concert, and they had to make sure it was in the past tense.  I felt that this would help them create an alibi.

The interrogation

The interrogation

Then I told the cops that they should use the question sheet I gave them only as a guide.  Some of the questions on there did not work for the context they were facing.  For example, if the suspects’ alibi was that they were at a concert, they couldn’t ask the question “was the waiter handsome?”

By creating this new flow to the alibi activity, the suspects were better prepared to answer questions, and the cops had a better idea of what kind of questions to ask.  All in all, this was a successful activity, because it encouraged students to create their own questions, and answer accordingly. There was a lot of smiling, which is great when you’re trying to battle low motivation :)