dal niente

Month: December, 2007

Return to SK

It’s strange but I never quite thought that I’d consider South Korea to be home, considering, of all people, I’m neither Korean, nor have I ever really had so much of an attachment to Asia.


I spent the last week with T and my cousins in Taiwan.  The whole idea of the vacation was to get some shopping done, and stock my belly full of Chinese food since it’s so scarce in Korea.

I’ve got a good number of pictures, and I’ll get crunching on that once I get back to my apartment in SK. 


Reminders to self:

  • weapons on the plane (for less than 450 TWD a piece!)
  • The Warlords (and I am Legend)
  • 40 kids in a class
  • Taiwanese popcorn technology
  • roaches
  • language deafness
  • writing
  • the hopistable old lady who didn’t all the police
  • hack and slash universal sign language
  • Canada vs Korea vs Taiwan pricing
  • Close quarters
  • “Home”


Schedule is tight… back to work on January 2nd!

Merry Christmas!

I’ve been in Taiwan for the past week so I haven’t had any computer access in a while, but I just wanted to wish everyone a Merry Christmas.  I hope all is well with everybody and they’re all taking advantage of the much needed rest from your crazy exams or workplaces.


I’ll catch up with you all when I get back to SK!

End of Semester

It’s been a busy week.  I just finished doing about 50 report cards yesterday, and correcting a slew of essays.  Essay corrections really didn’t take all that long because frankly, my kids are too busy with their regular shchool exams to really have time to be writing anything for me.

As to the subject of Lisa,

nothing happened. I mean that, in some creepy strange way, by the time the counsellors got to interrogate Lisa and all her bullies, they all just said “nothing is wrong”.  I don’t beleive that, mind you.  The counselor feels that their stories were all a little too similar, in the sense that, it actually feels as if they rehearsed what they would say to the counsellor.  The general conclusion of this little episode is that everyone is being nice to everyone again.  “Nothing was ever wrong.”

Which is really… really … REALLY odd, considering the intensity of the notes.

So this story ends rather anticlimactically.

… the End?

To Lisa, age 10

We do not like you.

  1. You are a 뺘쟈
  2. You betray and make us look bad you 씨 발
  3. No writing on board
  4. No answering [Jinryu] question
  5. Kelly hates you
  6. Amy hates you
  7. Jennifer hates you
  8. Lucy 장꺈하 게  지내지 양기

etc et etc.

Imagine this.  Put yourselves in the shoes of a ten year old girl.  You’re not so great at making friends because you’re really shy.  When the teacher asks the class a question, your hand is one of the first to go up.  You always do your homework, you always show up in class with a bright smile and every now and then, you bring an extra cookie for your teacher.  When you write your answer on the board, you sign your name and draw anime hearts and teddy bears around it.  Your teacher gives you attention because he sees that you’re struggling with the vocabulary, more than the other kids– when it comes time for a vocabulary quiz, by the time all the other students are finished, you’ve only got 4 or 5 out of 10 answers down.  The teacher tells the rest of the class to be quiet when they get rowdy and restless, because you’re not finished your test yet. 

Even though the rest of the class is constantly poking fun at you, you still lend them your pencil or your pen or your eraser when they ask.  You just want to fit in– you don’t say anything bad about anyone, and you try to smile whenever you can.  Your name is Lisa, you are ten years old.  You are a student in my Junior 1 class.

And it happens one day that there’s crackdown– the whole class, being full of ten year olds, is totally out of control and as a means of disciplining the kids, the teacher puts in a rule that anyone who scores less than 7 on a very easy vocabulary test is going to have to go to the counter and speak to the counselor (the equivalent of being sent to the principle’s office in Western schools).  Sessions with the counselor are usually brutal, and leave lasting impressions on children– they’re often up to five minutes of the hotseat.

So on this particular day, anyone who gets less than 7 is going to the counter to be asked “why are you here?”  The teacher [I, Jinryu], is doing this because in less than a week level tests will begin.  While it may seem difficult to set a 70% passing average, the fact is that all the words on the vocabulary test are reviewed in class as we read the story, and just prior to the test, I put all the words and definintions on the board.  It is very easy to get 10 on 10, if you’re paying attention.  Many kids can and do.  But sometimes, they don’t.

Let’s get back to the first person.  I don’t care if kids don’t like me.  The fact is, almost none of them hate me– I have a 99% success ratio, in that department, in the sense that perhaps 25% of them are indifferent, and 74% of them like me.  The remaining 1% though, they jump in and out with their loyalties.

The only thing I ask is that they don’t waste their opportunity.  I mean that, really.  I will fight with kids, sometimes literally, and I don’t mind taking the extra hits if in some way it gets them motivated to pay attention to their work more.

The second thing is that they don’t ruin an opportunity for anyone else.

Being a student in my class costs upwards of 2500$ USD/CAD per month, for 6 hours of instruction per week.  It is not cheap.  Especially considering that the minimum wage in Korea is about 3.50$ per hour, you get an idea of the standard of living and how much these kids’ parents are paying, perhaps even risking, by sending them to my classrooms.

But it has nothing to do with the parents really.  Whether the parent genuinely wants their kids to learn english, or if they’re treating my classroom like a high class babysitter, it doesn’t matter to me– the kids get the same treatment.  You walk in the door, you speak only English, and you do your best.

On the day when I set the 70% bar on my vocabulary test, Lisa failed.  She got a 5.  It’s not that bad, all things considered– she usually gets between 5 and 8 on her tests, simply because I don’t have enough class time to give her to finish since she takes more time than other kids.  Out of principle, she was sent to the counter, along with 6 out of 13 of my other students who didn’t make the cut.  In my note to the counselor, I mentioned that Lisa was the only one of the bunch who was genuinely struggling.  “Please be lenient with her, I am only sending her with the same group to maintain fairness but really, she is already trying her hardest to ignore the others who are troublemakers.”

When Lisa came back from the counselors to my classroom, she was crying.

And she was crucified for it by the others.  The basic order of events is the other girls, even if they cried (and they all did), managed to dry up their tears before coming back into class.  Since Lisa was the only one who came into class crying, they made fun of her for it. 

And suddenly, a week later, I intercept five pages of looseleaf of letters in Korean.  Most of the girls in class are writing notes to her.  I can’t read it, so I bring these notes to my S5 class of seniors.  Foremerly, the S5 class was the biggest group of delinquints– but now, they’re like my rogue squadron, a bunch of hard criminals who have turned to my side.   I ask them for translations, and they spare me no details.

They explain the letters of my Junior 1 class in as much detail as they can.  Five pages, four of my S5 students on the board, each one translating one page of the messages into english.  By the end of it, 20 minutes later, they’re walking me through an explanation of a 6×20 foot board full of swear words, threats, and insults.

All directed at one little girl.

In the letters, they give her a list of 11 things to do to stay out of their way.  Among them, Lisa isn’t allowed to answer any of my questions in class, or go to the board to write any of her answers; this explains why Lisa has lately not been involved in any of the classwork.  They also challenged her to fights.  There’s a list, petition style, of girls who don’t like Lisa and reasons why.  They accuse her of being a rat, a weasel, and they pepper the pages with swearwords.

My Senior 5 codebreaks add that many of the swearwords are even misspelt, which suggests that though they are so young that they can’t even spell in Korean properly, they are certainly old enough to be totally monstrous to Lisa.

“Teacher,” Brian, says one of my S5 kids, “Lisa is in much unhappy.  It says here, ‘my heart is very weakened, not good and sad, because of hating.  I is no want to fight.’  Teacher, she sounds very sad.  Many bad things messages in, teacher, many bad words that no english meaning.

How does this story end?

Since I only had the translations done at the end of my last class yesterday, I need to talk to my counselors once they get in.  Updates will follow.

It’s saturday, but there is a remedial class today.  The Junior 1 class is my first class.


Not being able to use the internet from the comfort of my own home is really troublesome.  It’s been 2 weeks now that through various hookups, configurations and wirings, and my internet service is still not quite working.  For some reason, the network doesn’t seem to want to assign me an IP address.  What’s odd about that is that I know that it works with DHCP enabled– it’s worked before in the past, and even though I’m  sharing on a router via 30m of ethernet, when it did work (for about a day or two) I was able to download at speeds in excess of 900KB/s .  I don’t know what’s going on right now that for some reason, I can’t connect to the router anymore.  We’ve tried rehooking the cables and all that, resetting everyting… I even tried entering all the IP address, gateway and dns information manually.

Perhaps the ethernet cable can’t withstand the cold?  The cable is running outside my balcony because the person who I’m sharing with is two apartments away.  Maybe somehow the weather is affecting the cable itself?  The other thing is that perhaps my laptop itself may be having a hardware failure.  As a test, I went to my friend’s room and hooked up directly to his router with a shorter cable, and still: “You have limited or no connectivity.”  That leads me to suspect that it might not be the 30m cable at all– it might be my laptop itself.  My laptop has a history of electrical problems (adapter’s shorted twice, and the battery causes crashes when it’s plugged in) so I wonder if it’s affected the internal ethernet card.  I can’t tell for sure, but if that’s the case, I’m internet disabled no matter what I do.

Is it time to put the Acer to rest…?

I’m going to try and get my own DSL hooked up directly next week, and if that doesn’t work then I’m going to need to get a new rig.

Honorary EBA

I just beat Elite Beat Agents and, on the whole, I really loved this game.  On a DS, it’s a great game to have to be able to bring around school… the kids get a kick out of playing it or watching me playing it and it’s even got it’s own storyline.  I mean… storyline.  For those of you who have played it, you may wonder if the episodal comic-strip styled mini-characterizations of the main players really means anything at all, but on the whole– Elite Beat Agents is a great game from top to bottom.

The basic idea of the game, for those of you who have never played it, is that you’re the groove of the Elite Beat Agents, a trio of singers/musicians/dancers who go and root for anyone needs help.  Whether it’s a washout baseball player past his prime who just wants to save his biggest fan, or a weatherwoman who wants push back the rain clouds so she can spend her one weekend off with her son, or a corporate heir who’s trying to save his family’s business with ninjutsu, Elite Beat Agents spans the globe rocks out to fix the world with song.

Gameplay is excellent.  Though on the harder levels, you’ll probably never finish a song on the first try, practice makes perfect as you chisel your beats to be sharp and your brain starts to adjust to the techniques and patterns.  The soundtrack is also excellent.

I just unlocked “Sweatin’ Mode” so I’ll give that a shot now.

It’s an awesome game that anyone with a DS should pick up this game.

8-Bit Roots

The first gaming system I ever got to try was the Commodore 64.  Wizard of Wor, Burgertime, Pipeline, Karateka… a single button joystick, and a 5 minute load time either from a 5 1/2 inch floppy or from a cassette drive (which took even longer) was the way it went. 

It was only years later that I got to try a Nintendo Entertainment System… the original NES.  My cousin Jeffery from Toronto brought his system over from Toronto back around 1989, and he’d stay over during summer and Christmas breaks.  Then we’d play the classics– the original Super Mario Brothers, Duck Hunt… then we worked our way up to Contra and Double Dragon as our skills developed.

I’ve got Jeffery to thank for videogames.  He was the ‘rich cousin’– I don’t think my own family had much money to spare back then for a game system.  We barely had money in the family to get a television, so a NES was a top order luxury at the time.  But it progressed from there on.  Him being older than me, he was always better than me at the games. 

A few years after that, somewhere around 1992, I was introduced by Jeff to a game that would change everything– Street Fighter II: Champion Edition.

From that point on, Jeff’s family came to visit less since they had moved a bit further to the West.  My parents bought me a NES of my own  for a birthday.  I remember that I cried on that birthday because my uncle got me some Nintendo games– Spy Hunter and Mega Man 3– and I said something along the lines of “but I don’t have a Nintendo!” Minutes later, after they calmed me down, I opened a wrapping that turned out to be just that– my own NES, with the Light Gun.

From then on, I’ve had a long history of gaming.  I’d moved up from Nintendo to Super Nintendo.  Around the same time, I got a 486dx computer and started gaming there as well, and it was around that time that Mortal Kombats started coming out. From then on, I upgraded systems.  Pentiums came out, and then it was on to RTS games begining with Warcraft and moving on to Command & Conquer.  When I moved on to a Playtation, Dualshock technology had already come out.  The PSX was a christmas gift from my parents in late highschool.  Gameplay became the highlight as my old friend Capcom and Square took over my life with the Resident Evil serieses, as well as Final Fantasies and Xenogears.

It was also around that time that my gaming in the “Caves” began– that meant arcades, and that meant coin-ops were taking up more of my daytime than my classes.  I spent, and this is no joke, more time in the arcades than I did in class.  This had it’s ups and downs– good things and bad, in the sense that I failed many classes.  It got to the point where I enlisted the help of friends to try and keep me away from the arcades, because I was officially an addict.

By that time, I had also just recently quit kickboxing, after having a few months earlier quit Jeet Kune Do and so was no longer in formal training for any martial arts.  So there was a period where martial arts was able to fill up the void– and that might sound odd that martial arts would fill up the void considering that I wasn’t taking any lessons, but in fact, that’s exactly why it filled the void.  Because I was learning things on my own.  Or rather, I was learning, with my friends, and since we were all around the same level that meant that there was no one to hand us the information.  We’d have to figure things out on our own.

I made a return– the ‘second season’ of me playing video games, both in arcades, on PC and on consoles– and this time around, with the mechanics I’d learned from martial arts resonated with what I thought about gaming– that it was all about creativity, discipline, passion and willpower.  The second time around, I was actually a better gamer because through martial arts I had come to learn what it meant to make sacrifices to improve as a person.

By the time I got a PS2, I was winning east cost Halo tournaments (though I played Starcraft and Warcrafts, I never really got into those games as much as Halo).  PS2 brought brought me Metal Gear Solid 2 and 3, and a whole slew of Capcom serieses like the Resident Evils and the Onimushas.  Of course, there were also mre Final Fantasies.

There were many years that I spent on games and with a lot of consistency, pretty much anyone who wasn’t a gamer thought that gaming was just a hobby, a silly thing to do.  I sort of swallowed this sort of criticism with a grain of salt… games meant a lot to me, and not just for having fun, but because of the way they taught me to think.

It’s years down the line and I told myself that because I was pursuing other goals, gaming would have to take a backseat to other experiments.   And yet, as a teacher, it is without a doubt through gaming that I can be the teacher I am today.

Don’t get me wrong– gaming doesn’t make a teacher from start to finish.  There are a lot of departments where I simply am a bad teacher.  Class discipline is one problem I have.  But when it comes to educating someone about how to become l33t, gaming isn’t a backdoor access it’s a red carpet greeting from the kids.

To that end (and for purely selfish reasons) I’ve decided to pursue gaming once again.  Though I’m prety decently versed in pre 2005 gameplay, the introduction of the DS and Wii have significantly changed the gaming paradigm– everything from gaming technique to gameplay itself has changed.  I need to get up to date again.  While it’s good to have grown up with the development of gaming, sort of like how a coder is all the better for understanding machine language, one needs to stay current with emerging technologies otherwise one is just a legacy gamer past his prime. 

While a PS3 or XBOX 360 are both out of budget, I opted instead for a Nintendo DS.  The new season begins with Brain Age, Elite Beat Agents, Heroes of Mana and Final Fantasy 3.

Any recommendations?

Versus the Legions

There’s a bit of jargon at the workplace.  We have this verb “to turn” which means, sort of, to turn a bad student around.  This could mean that a troublemaker becomes a good student, that a disinterested student becomes active, that a failing student starts getting good marks, or that a class outcast becomes integrated.

I’m not sure if the term was around before I started using it, but it’s pretty commonplace nowadays and I used it mostly in reference to “turning the undead.”  It comes mostly from oldschool Dungeons and Dragons.

That’s what kids are like sometimes.  Like undead.  They thrive on blood and violence and gore.  They show very little ability to communicate.  They are driven by urges rather than rational thoughts.  And sometimes, they just look like they’re suffering.

I guess what I’m getting at is a last bit of self-promotion for The Valley– it’s that one of the other teachers told me “Dude, when I used your game, I managed to turn like a quarter of my class!”

That makes me feel good when I go to bed at night.

Into The Valley

At a workshop of the combined 26 teachers on December 30th, I presented my game The Valley to the other teachers.  I was the last person to present (thanks to alphabetical order, and my last name starting with a “Y”).  That meant it was the 26th presentation in 5 weeks (we did about 5 presentations each week) and people were getting quite tired.  The concept was very well received and teachers were actually asking questions about gameplay at the end.

“Crowd control is a key issue, especially if you have a class over 6 people,” I explained.  “If your class is higher than S3 writing level, you might consider replacing the spoken English commands with a written English component.  Give each team a sheet of essay paper and have them write down a list of their turns actions.  For some kids this works and for some it doesn’t.  The advantage of the listed commands is that, for one thing, it keeps the game orderly when it comes to receiving command, and two, it introduces a new element to the game: fog of war.  That means that the turn based element now happens simultaneously for both teams, with neither team knowing what the other is in the process of doing.  This forces teams to pay more attention to their environment.”

“Are you always the one operating the board?”

“Yes.  You must under no circumstances let a student write on the board– once they start doing that, they’ll get into the habit of drawing their instructions out rather than speaking or writing them, then most of the educational value of the game goes down the hole.”

The game’s presentation went on for about 5 minutes, with another 5 minutes where I was giving additional supplementary ideas or answering questions, which was a big contrast to all the other games presented which took around a minute each.   The Valley was the only game that took more than 5 minutes to play. 

By Monday, 4 of my coworkers had playtested The Valley in class.  By Monday night, I was getting the feedback.  And it all made my day.

“When the bell rang, my kids actually didn’t want to leave class for break– they wanted to finish their command lists instead!”

By Thursday, I was getting questions from other teachers who had heard of the success of the game in other classes, and wanted to ask about some specifics as to how it would operate with different class configurations. 

It is the only educational game to date played at our campus that can take over one hour to play.  It is also the only game that kids want to play again, forcing teachers to bring in digital cameras to ‘save their progress’.  And ‘saving their progress’ is a major advance in the traditional paradigm of educational games as far as what I’ve seen played so far.  Normally, the games takes a direct delivery approach to teaching kids.  That means that if grammar, comprehension or vocabulary is the objective of the game, the game specifically targets that requirement and sits right in the middle of the game.  This usually means that gameplay comes second.  In most cases, what drives children isn’t the lesson– it’s competitiveness, it’s the glory of winning.  When a game lacks gameplay, that means that the mechanics of winning aren’t intuitive, and that’s what frustrates most kids and causes them to lose attention in the game.  Once attention for the game is gone, all hope of lesson delivery is useless.

The Valley changes that by making gameplay the priority, with an indirect delivery system.  The whole advance of “do you want to save?” is that it gives the kids time to think about the game during their off time.  And I have seen the difference– the seniors and middleschoolers have actually started applying what was previously a useless geography or science lesson into their game.  I have boys who, having learned from the agricultural model of Israel, installed a drip irrigation system to minimize the dependence on imported water.  I have girls who, learning from the mistakes of Kenya, have installed a fish hatchery and greenhouses to continuously produce enough food to be self sufficient during the winter.  Boys tell me things like “we upgrade cabins with bulletproof windows so sunlight can come it.  Standard of living goes up.”  Girls tell me “Outside wall is metal, inside is brick with air holes so that insulate better against cold.”

Saving progress means that when a student comes back, he or she can build and learn from past mistakes.  We don’t just reinvent the lightbulb every day– we move on and become increasingly industrious.

There are these two girls in my Junior 1 class who really are the source of all my troubles in that class.

Though not all teachers play the game, it has been used to great success in 12 classes so far out of the approximately 150 classes taught at my school. Not all classes can play the game because it’s too complicated for Basics or Juniors, but that’s really not that bad, all things considered.

It has even been suggested that the school form a “Games Development Workshop,” since The Valley is the first game that’s ever been made specifically targetting our school’s senior and middleschooler cirriculum from the angles of spoken, written and comprehension angles all at once.  All other games are things just sorta ripped off from Dave’s ESL Cafe and need to be retrofitted to fit our cirriculum, but the problem with that, as I mentioned, is that gameplay suffers during the conversion process because typical ESL games try too hard to use direct delivery to achieve an objective. 

Yeah, okay.  I’m done showing off now.


…Xanga ate the post I was working on for the last half hour.