Dispatch from South Korea: Hwasun High School Festival


Editor's Note: This is a series of dispatches from Luke Zeller, who graduated in June with a bachelor of science in secondary education (English and communications) from the College of Education. A Schreyer Scholar, he earned a Fulbright Scholarship to teach English as a foreign language in South Korea. He arrived in early July, and spent the first six weeks in an intensive Korean language and culture orientation at Kangwon University in Chuncheon. Afterwards, he was placed with a host family to begin his teaching at a community school until July 2009.


November 28


Anyang is a friendly greeting amongst friends. The students laugh when I smile and say, "Anyang!"

This week was a pretty amazing time to share with my students. I have given you all a sense of the kind of pressure that my students are under in this super-competitive, test-oriented schooling life. This week, however, I was able to see another side to my students, a side of them beyond their school uniforms, their pile of textbooks on their desk, and their sometimes contempt for English. We celebrated the biannual Hwasun High School Festival on Thursday night and Friday. It was incredible.

I did not know exactly what to expect, but I began to get a sense for it on Wednesday. If I had tried to teach, it would have been like trying to calm a small circus act. All of my classes were in complete festival-focus. Each class had a performance that they put together by themselves, and they needed to practice. It was the teacher's choice whether or not they would have class, and most did not try. I was happy just to watch them practice and offer words of encouragement.  One class was very nervous about their choreography. They were looking at each other in an eerie silence. One student walked up to me and grievingly told me, "We will need a miracle." It is very funny to hear the English that my students actually do know.

Most of them did dances to the most recent pop songs, some did fashion show performances, and one class put on a play. There was a lot of cross-dressing throughout. To give you a sense of the kind of preparation that went into all of this, the class who put on the play asked me to play a small part in their play…the first week I was at school! This is back in August!

Of course, I acquiesced and volunteered to help out with their play. I said about three words and threw some candy into the audience, and I was a hit. The students really, really appreciated it. It meant so much to them. One girl, the class captain who was also the director, was bawling her eyes out before the performance when we could not find the candy that I was supposed to throw into the audience. The candy turned up and everything worked out. Another girl, who is particularly sweet, kept grabbing my hands and screaming, "I believe you!" It was the closest English she could come up with in her state of euphoria to thank me.

I came to Korea with a certain stereotype for Koreans and Asians: as quiet, studious, science or math oriented students who were not very outgoing. That stereotype was sometimes reinforced by the realities of their focus on school and studying, but it was steadily losing its grounding since I came here and began meeting Koreans and watching the TV. After the festival, however, this stereotype bubble officially burst. My students were dancing and singing in all sorts of colors and fashions with genuine enthusiasm and support for each other. It was fun to watch and to be a part of. As a teacher, I never demonize students who may not happen to like my class or my subject. We are still humans and can get along. (I do expect that they show me the common respect that I show, but that is another story.) It is during times like the festival that I am so glad that I have this approach. I was able to genuinely support my students and take part in their happiness without the distance of someone who had berated them in a class context.

It was so nice to see my students as happy as they were. It gives me a lot of hope for them and for the future that I share with them as a teacher and friend.

The picture is of me on stage with my students bowing after our performance.


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Last Updated November 18, 2010