All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.
Finally, the day arrived to do one of the things I was so much looking forward to doing – visiting a kindergarten class!
After a lot of work from my advisor, sending letters, explanations, my resume, my research proposal and waiting … I spent the day learning what early childhood education is like in many of the public and private schools in Seoul.
Elementary school begins in grade 1 so Kindergarten is not part of the K-12 continuum.
The school I visited is in central Seoul. It is a private Kindergarten, affiliated with a university, or as they call them here, an attached school. I had already visited the elementary school where these students will go in first grade. English language is taught at this elementary school beginning in grade 3.
When I asked to visit the kindergarten, they were surprised since no English is spoken in this school. I explained that I work with kindergarten English learners in the States and that it was important for me to observe what the day was like and get in my students’ shoes. I wanted to feel like many of my students, clueless about the language but doing what my peers are doing!
Since they wanted me to be able to ask questions from the teacher, I was invited to a class of 4 and 5 year olds – a pre-K4 in the States but with a mix of older children here. The kindergarten class that was next door had 5 and 6 year old children and was very similar to the one I was in, both in terms of the curriculum and the expectations.
As I was told in very simple terms, in Kindergarten we do everything through play. And play it was!
9:00 am – left my shoes in the cupboard at the entrance to the building. The children were sitting in a circle on the rug singing the “ hello how are you song” or as they say –안녕하세요-an nyong ha se yo.
First thing that struck me – no student desks, no teacher desks, no large whiteboard, no Smartboards, no charts, not only in this classroom but in every classroom. Tables are set up for snacks, lunch, coloring and playing – some tables are low so children can sit on the floor, some are regular children’s height. Students do not have assigned seating.
When I asked about the teacher’s desk, the answer was simply, This is the children’s classroom, we don’t need a desk here. Our desks are in our office.
What there is plenty of are toys, learning centers, musical instruments, a piano, a large screen TV, books, art supplies, plants and children’s work.
The teacher, a young man with a wide smile, a contagious laugh, a kind and even tone and an amazing voice, introduced me to the class. All the children giggled and bowed – I told them that I teach kindergartners, many who come from Korea and they looked surprised. Then it was time we to learn. Of course, it was easier for me than it is for my English learners as I have lot of background knowledge but I still had to pay close attention to figure out what they were talking about.
The class is made up of 24 students. There is an aide who helps with the snack, lunch and stays in the room when the teacher takes some of the children to the gym. All the other “specials” take place in the classroom as well as lunch. The teacher teaches music and art and is part of the physical education class too.
10:00 am snack-time– two mini-cheese muffins and a glass of milk. It was so quiet and orderly. The students know exactly what to do with their trays and cups. Trays are piled up in one basket, cups piled up in another, garbage in can.
After snack we had PE. Today was a special day – the students were weighed, measured and did some specific exercises to evaluate their physical fitness. Those students who had already done this stayed in the classroom with the aide playing with Legos, in the centers or doing art. They were all very busy.
Back from PE, the teacher decided that instead of doing the read-aloud, the children would be better off going outside. There is no scheduled recess. The Ministry of Education has mandated that all students spend one hour outside playing every day. All toys were put away quickly, the teacher asked only once. Out to the playground for one hour. In between children’s requests, he explained how the day goes. This was the only time we had to chat until the children left at 2:00pm.
Back to the classroom for a read aloud, students talked about the book, asked questions, gave opinions and did what we do in our classrooms. They all sit on the rug or bring a chair if they want to and the teacher reads.There is no turn and talk or partner talk. It is a whole group activity.
Sharing time – the book was about different celebrations so I shared what we do for Thanksgiving and they were fascinated by the fact I cook a big turkey!
Lunchtime – washing hands in the open bathroom and line up to follow the routine: get your spoon, chopsticks, bowl, put everything on the tray, help yourself to kimchi, noodles, dried squid, put the food in each “compartment”, then go to the teacher with your tray and he will serve you the hot food – today’s menu: chicken soup and rice, of course.
Some of the classrooms share one communal bathroom in the middle- some have their own. One thing that I concluded about the way bathrooms are set up, based on my experiences at the jjimjilbang – 찜질방 – or Korean spa, is that children do not have the same sense of privacy here as they do in the States. On my visit to the spa, families are together for the day using the sauna, hot tubs, ice rooms. While the boys are young, they go to the showers with their mothers. When they are older, around 6 years old, they go with their fathers or alone. These places are safe and people are very kind with children.
No words to describe how organized and clean the classrooms and bathrooms are.
Time to brush your teeth – as they finish eating – no rush, they take as long as they need about 45 minutes on average- they walk to the bathroom, pick up their toothbrush and rinsing cup, get the toothpaste and brush their teeth. Once they are done, they put their toothbrushes in a basket – toothbrushes and cups will be washed later by the aide (this is done every single day, the same as with the water cups).
As they are finished, the children go to the rug and play some more, then clean up and are ready for more instruction.
Reading, some writing by the teacher on a small portable whiteboard, more discussions, no partner talk or small group – all together raising their hand when needed, listening to the teacher read and when he stops, time to discuss the text.
Goodbye song – thanked them for a glorious day and told them that I would share everything with the teachers and children in the States!
1:50 pm – time to change our slippers into our street shoes and go home. Some children take the bus home or to the hagwans –private academies for more learning. Others are picked up by their mothers or grandmothers to go home.
Half of the class stays until 5:00pm with another teacher who works with a mixed group of 4, 5 and 6 year olds until the parents come to get them. Long day but they get to nap for one hour!
As for me, homework time – I came home to download photos and begin to write this blog.
The most extraordinary thing I observed today – the children are totally independent – they don’t ask if they can go to the bathroom or get a chair or put it back or color or pour themselves water– they know what they need, where to get it and how to do it and they just do it! As the teacher said and we all know what he means, We practiced our routine a lot in the beginning of the year.
I hope you enjoy reading this entry as much as I enjoyed being in the classroom. It was refreshing and magical – great school, amazing teacher and very happy children.