Sunday, February 26, 2012

Middle School Memories

Yesterday I went to school. Middle school. I took a placement test for a free Korean language class that's held by the government. I only found out about the test about 2-1/2 weeks ago. My initial plan was to cram for two weeks leading up to the test. However, a number of crisis intervened, including a broken tooth filling and a couple of work projects went into emergency mode. Also, one fellow had advised me, if you cram for a placement test, you might find yourself placed artifically high in the classes, and really struggle. So, crisis, lack of time, and my natural laziness conspired to find me arriving Saturday noon at the testing location woefully unprepared. Not to mention I was without voice due to Karaoke the night before (yes, I know, really poor planning on my part).

Well, the first mishap is that I was nearly killed on the way to the school! It's a lovely day, not too cold. I'm walking leisurely up the hill to the school, taking in the scenery, and suddenly there's a shout from a woman above me! Before I can react, there's a huge crash on the street about 1 meter to my left. When I came to my senses, I saw what had happened. The woman was up on the third floor of a building, and was opening her window. But something went wrong, and her window screen fell to the ground. It wasn't one of these flimsy window screens like I've known in America - it was in a real hefty steel frame, and could have done some serious damage, especially falling from the third floor. If the uphill walk wasn't already quickening my pulse, this certainly did.

On arrival at the school, the scene was slight confusion, but we were processed with minimal fuss and sent to our assigned class rooms. I was told to go to room 2-5 on the fourth floor (note to Korean architects: it's often common practice to include the floor in the room number, for example, room 4-5 on the fourth floor). Adding to the room number confusion was that someone had helpfully prepared paper signs and covered all the original room numbers signs. The read something like "testing classroom 4". Naturally, the fellow downstairs at check-in didn't tell me which "testing classroom" to visit! Fortunately the original room number signs were double-sided, and by walking past the classroom and looking at the back side of the sign, you could read the original number.

This was my first visit to any school in Korea. I don't know what I expected, but it was like stepping into my middle school in the 70's. This school also had some open, outdoor corridors in common with my middle school, adding to the deja-vu feeling. Despite new trends and technology over the decades, I guess the old classroom formula still works, or is still in demand. The room wouldn't have won any interior design awards, but it was very functional, very sturdy, overall appealing to The Stumbling Engineer! One concession to modern times, the chalk was replaced by some type of liquid chalk. It resembled a paint pen. This must be the next generation of chalk boards after the white board. In fact, the board itself looked almost identical to a chalk board. You could probably write on it with chalk, but the texture was a little bit different. I didn't see any high tech equipment, although there was a ceiling-mounted projector (I guess the teacher brings in a computer as-needed). I've heard from my teacher friends how the students clean the classroom themselves, and I noted the mop and broom storage closet in the back of the class. There was even a huge open sink built into the hallway for cleaning their mops (I'm assuming the students don't bathe in the open hallway). I'm going to ask my teacher friends next time how this compares to having a janitor. I'm not sure which results in better and more efficient cleaning - a bunch of energetic kids, or an old man or woman janitor cleaning the school at night.

On the Korean language, I know my ability (not great, maybe low-intermediate), and I know my strengths (good grasp of the grammar) and weaknesses (poor vocabulary with big gaps). I was prepared for my test results to reflect this. What I wasn't prepared for were the instructions - everything was in Korean. In hindsight, this shouldn't have been a surprise. But there were some moments when I was completely lost. Adding to the confusion was simple, but poorly-explained (even on the English instruction sheet) method of filling in the optically scanned test card. Were I giving the instructions in English, I could have said it simply in about three sentences: (1) fill in your answers first with the red pen. (2) the scanner can't read the red pen. (3) at the end of the test, redo your answers using the black pen. These proctors went on and on about this procedure, and frankly I think they caused more confusion than they helped.

I was really doubting my ability after a few minutes in the class room. Most of the students were conversing in Korean, and asking questions in Korean to the teacher with a confidence and speed that I don't have. I was able to understand much of what was said, but it left me feeling even more unprepared than I was. Fortunately a kind fellow from Uzbekistan sat in front of me, and helped translate some of the proctor's instructions to English for me.

We had 50 minutes to complete the test. I would have been more comfortable with an hour, but more than that wouldn't have helped me at all. I felt rushed the last 25% of the test, but then again, with my gaps in vocabulary, and these final questions being the most difficult, I don't think I could have done better. In fact, some of these questions I probably missed because I couldn't understand what they were asking, not because I didn't know the language point being tested. There were several questions which listed four complete sentences, and I was supposed to choose one, based on a criteria which I couldn't understand!

So, we finished the test and handed in our papers. Then we were told to just sit and wait until it was our turn for the next portion of the test. I really didn't know what this "next portion" was. I had read various accounts online, that it was an "interview" or that it was a "reading test", or that you actually read aloud. I wasn't particulary comfortable with any of these, the reading aloud especially (too bad they didn't ask us to SING some Korean out loud, I would have made perfect marks). I probably could have done a self-introduction and interview the best, but alas, that wasn't in the cards. In fact, NOTHING was in the cards for almost three hours of waiting.

I should explain that the test started at 1pm. We were told to report at 12:30pm. Now in Seoul, from my experience, most people's lunch time starts at 12:30pm. I had eaten a large breakfast, so I wasn't hungry. But after an hour or so, many of the folks were complaining. Some quite vocally. I'm surprised nobody thought to order delivery food, it being so common in Korea. I almost suggested that myself, but I was so embarassed about my Korean I kept my mouth shut. The delay was due to Part II of the test. They took groups of 5 people into a room, and sat them in front of two Korean teachers. This process took about 10 minutes per group. They started this testing at "testing classroom 1", and my class was #6 I think (and there were one or two more behind us). Our classroom held about 30 people, so you can do the math. It was a long wait (hence my newfound detailed knowledge of the Korean middle school classroom).

Finally, around 4pm, it was my turn. Five of us were taken to sit outside the exam room, where we waited a few minutes until we were ushered in. My Uzbekistan classmate peered in the windows, and reported there were actually two tables of two teachers. One pair of teachers appeared to be very cheerful ladies, and the other table had one lady and one very serious, stern man. Alas, we were finally sent inside to be seated at Mr. Sternface's table. The beginning wasn't too bad. There was a short story about the four seasons in Korea, and some of the typical characteristics of each season (it's hot in summer, flowers bloom in spring...) Starting at one end of the table, we each read a few sentences of the story. I read my few sentences, thus ending the story for the 2nd time. I guess my voice was really shot, because she asked me to start the story again for a third time. Despite my voice, and despite my being the most afraid of sight reading, this was really not very hard. It was still awkward, but they had us read the story silently at first, and it helps that the story was pretty simple and I actually understood it (as opposed to just sounding out words without knowing what they mean).

For me, the test went downhill from there. They started asking us questions, and she started with me. And this is where my poor vocabulary really "shined". She asked me "how many seasons" are there, but I didn't recognize the word for "season". I had to reply that I didn't know - surely this made me look quite foolish. She let me save face by asking a follow-on question which was much simpler, to which I was able to stutter a hopefully-understandable answer. I was nervous coming into this part of the test, I was doubly so now. So she started asking other students various questions. What messed me up several times was she would ask the same question 2 or 3 times. I would understand the questions and the students replies, and was following along pretty well. One such question, for example, "In the hot summer, in Korea we often eat ice cold noodles. In your country, are there any special foods you eat in the summer?" So my brain was thinking about that topic, and I was fully prepared to give my answer. But when she got to me, she would switch up the question and catch me off-guard. This happened several times, and was quite frustrating. I wanted to scream "let me answer his question"... I did manage to answer a couple of her questions with what I believe were a few coherent sentences, as opposed to one-word or short phrases. But it was discouraging to hear some of the other students smooth, flowing and coherent answers. Especially when I know I can also speak like that, if the discussion centers on a topic for which I have the vocabulary, like food.

The test mercifully ended, and I breathed a deep sigh of relief. On the way out, I congratulated Mr. Uzbek and wished him a high score. He clearly had a good command of Korean, and I'm sure he'll do well. He was also more observant than me - across from us, Mr. Sternface, who never once asked us any questions, was busily marking our scores on the grading chart. Mr. Uzbek methodically noticed the scores we received! He told me that he got a 4 in every category, and noticed that I got all threes. But some of the other ladies in our group were graded even lower, one lady getting all ones! I'm surprised I even got as high as all threes, and even more surprised to know I wasn't the worst in the group. As best as I could understand, the scores will be posted online next week.

Being an engineer with a problem-solving mind, I kept wondering how they could have better structured the test to avoid the long wait. I'm not sure it would be possible, short of staggering the arrivals in groups - that would probably be too much trouble. On the other hand, this long wait could have been handled better, if only the length of the wait had been explained in advance. People could have made sure to eat their lunch before arriving. Or they could have brought a lunch/snack with them. They could have suggested ordering delivery food to the students, maybe have some nearby restaurant menus available? Maybe just scheduling the test just a little later, to make sure everyone ate first? As for me, I didn't mind the wait itself, it was just the anticipation of the test which bothered me. Had we done the oral test first, then waited for the written test, I would have been much more comfortable. Oh well, all said, it wasn't that bad, and I would give the organizers a B+ for their efforts.