Using small talk to transform your students
Story and Photos by: Steve Lemlek
Monday. 2pm. A handful of elementary school students have just finished a full day of learning at their public school. As soon as they’re let out, they run to the local bus stop to catch a tiny rural 10-seater to my hagwon.
They bust through my front door, bowing to the Korean employees, and awkwardly half-waving half-bowing to me. With barely a few minutes to spare between public school and my English class, each of these adolescent monsters has managed to cram as many snacks into their hands as they can from the local convenience store. Jenny, my star student in my 3pm class, usually pounds down a cup of buldalk bokkeum myun (“spicy fire noodles”) next to the small trashcan near the door.
No food is allowed in any of the classrooms, and all the rugrats know it. So they’ll devour whatever they can get in their mitts at the threshold of the hagwon. Jenny’s four other classmates mimic her. Between gummy worms, chocolate, and ramen… by the time these kids get ready to learn in my class, they’ll be in that weird dichotomous place between physical exhaustion and a sugar-fueled high.
This is my part-time job. I’ve transitioned into teaching adults at my main school, but I moonlight here to support my restaurant addiction (yashik is my vice, for those of you who know it). And, if I’m being completely honest, I enjoy teaching children.
I burned myself out on the full-time elementary and middle school gigs a long, long time ago. Children are vacuums. They require a lot of energy and a lot of patience. After all those years, I’m all but drained. But if I can get away with teaching them just a few hours a week… well, that’s the perfect dose.
After binging on their convenience store snacks, Jenny and her friends will hurry into class. They all take a seat. I ask Jenny to stand up. Today’s her turn.
“Jenny, what are my rules?”. She hastily writes onto the whiteboard “No Korean, No Touching, No Shouting”.
“Jenny, please ask everyone’s names.”
Jenny looks at her classmates, and one-by-one prompts them with “What’s your name?”
Anytime I start a new job, with new kids, they’re deathly afraid to speak to me. They avoid conversations. If I dare to ask them a question, they’ll look at me with a blank face and say “Molla”, terrified of answering in front of their judging peers. They retreat into speaking in their native language.
But they’ll change. This group of kids only took two weeks to convert to English conversation. When I first started, they couldn’t even answer “What’s your name?” without sheepishly looking at their friends for support. Of course they understood me, but their confidence was in the dumps. Now that they’re used to me, and my program, they’re killing it. Often times, these small interactions at the beginning of class will evolve into short conversations, playful banter, and sometimes arguments. But I don’t care. As long as they’re speaking in English, I wouldn’t care if they’re knocking over a liquor store in Albuquerque. They’re speaking English! And that’s my goal.
As long as they’re speaking in English, I wouldn’t care if they’re knocking over a liquor store in Albuquerque. They’re speaking English! And that’s my goal.
“Jenny, it’s time for small talk. Can you make one big table out of the small ones?”
Like a construction yard foreman, she orders her friends to rearrange the classroom. Jenny’s been a great pupil so far. I’ve only been teaching this group for a few short months, but Jenny’s managed to become a leader in her class. Although she’s not beyond reproach. She frequently sneaks Jell-O cups to her classmates when I’m not looking. She has a little prison-yard racket in our academy, but since she’s such a passionate student, I’ve decided to allow her little Shawshank-esque business continue as long as she supports our goal: speaking English
Every day, before we begin our lessons, my kids have 10 minutes of small talk. I’m convinced that the best English experience that Korean students can have with their native English instructor isn’t from a book, but from holding real conversations in the classroom. That’s hard to do with the mass-produced and downright mediocre curriculum many of us are forced to instruct from. So I’ve made a book with 20 different topics, touching upon weekend plans, food, music, movies, and a few more. For each topic, I’ve written down 10-20 questions and I’ve gone ahead and translated them into Korean. You don’t need to get as crazy as I did with it, but set aside 20 minutes before class to make some creative topics with some interesting questions. If you want to translate it, you could always bribe a Korean co-worker with free lunch.
I’m convinced that the best English experience that Korean students can have with their native English instructor isn’t from a book, but from holding real conversations in the classroom
I ask Jenny, “Which topic should we discuss?”
“Food.” Of course Jenny would say that.
So, I separate them into pairs. If I have an odd number of folks, then one lucky member gets Steve Teacher. I use my smartphone to set a timer for 2 minutes. We then have a discussion about food for 2 minutes. I encourage the students to make up their own questions regarding the topic, but if that’s too difficult, then they have my small talk book.
When time’s up, I ask each of these ramen-eating machines what they’ve learned about their partner.
“Jenny, what did you learn about Steve?”
“I learned that Steve Teacher loves to eat gopchang, makchang, and chicken feet! But he hates odeng”
Once I’ve finished this round of feedback, I reassign partners, and we start again. Rinse and repeat until 10 minutes has passed. And time passes quickly, which is an added perk for those of you who struggle with filling up class time.
I know this might sound simple. It is. But it’s amazing. I’ve taught in Seoul. I’ve taught at public schools in the Paju countryside. I’ve taught at universities along Line 1, where my students have been too shy to answer “Hi, what are your plans this weekend?” So when I see my 12-year-old girls asking questions like “Why don’t you like spicy food? Aren’t you Korean?”, I feel so invigorated. That’s a question more complex than a lot of my university learners can ask. And all of my girls can do that.
Small talk is essential for Korean students. It’s an easy, barrier-free form of English that a participant of any level can freely discuss. It’s not concerned with grammar or rote memorization. It’s conversation in its truest form. And secretly, while we teach small talk to improve their English ability, we’re also teaching them about Western culture.
In order to be successful in a Western environment, they must confidently have small conversations with new people ALL THE TIME. It’s a core cultural trait that we possess that Korean people don’t. Their own manners and etiquette are so ingrained in their culture, but native English teachers never inform them about Western ones. I’ve surprised many students by criticizing their interaction with foreigners. They were shocked to learn that it’s downright rude to meekly say “Hi, how are you?” and then retreat back into your shell because you’re shy. That demure disposition is part of Korean culture during introductions but is completely unacceptable in the West. After learning small talk, my students will talk your ears off.
Steve Lemlek is the handsome (and beautifully bearded) half of “Hal & Steve English,” an English education startup trying to change how English is taught in Korea.