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How the smartest kid at English camp sees their future

blue dot
Jan 22 2015

Due to doing a good job with the high-level middle school kids at last camp, I got to teach high-level kids again this camp. Doing a good job with the high-level kids is considered important, because high-level kids have high-level parents with influence and vocal opinions.

That’s fine with me, as I love teaching bright kids. Teaching low-level kids can be rewarding, but I love working with kids with smart minds and imaginative ideas and high personal expectations and weird, quick senses of humour. Teaching them has its own challenges, although those challenges usually don’t relate to learning English. For that, you set them difficult but achievable goals, give them honest feedback but not excessive praise, then stand back and watch them do amazing things. Instead, the challenges relate to helping them learn how to navigate their own paths socially, intellectually, and in society.

This time I was teaching elementary kids, rather than middle school kids. There was another difference. Last time, there were only two middle school classes, so I was teaching the top fifty percent of students. But there were nine elementary school classes, and I had the top class, so these kids were the best of the best. In four years in teaching in Korea, I’ve never had a class so highly selected. Usually, even the smartest classes are a mixed bunch. These kids weren’t just good at English; they were fiercely, intimidatingly bright. Even so, one girl stood out as the smartest.

So, what’s the smartest kid at English camp like?

The smartest kid at English camp doesn’t bother trying to crack the cipher in the English puzzle book – she just looks at the word lengths and deduces the correct answer from context in a few seconds, without even looking at the code.

The smartest kid at English camp makes a papier-mache dingo from balloons and cardboard that looks like a real dingo, lying in repose, its tail curled around its body and its head alert and ready for action.

The smartest kid at English camp has never lived overseas, but writes English considerably better than most native speakers her age. I’m not just talking correct grammar – I mean elegant phrasing and insightful, sensitive prose.

The smartest kid at English club finds a cheat sheet that a university student has scrawled on the back of a chair. She copies it onto a piece of scrap paper, then copies it from that into her personal notebook, because it might be useful one day.

The smartest kid at English camp was only second in her year at school, and views it as a brutal personal failure.

The smartest kid at English camp is the worst in the class at the morning word tests, because she translates the words according to her own knowledge, and not according to the “correct” answers they’re supposed to study each day.

The smartest kid at English camp, when asked to complete the textbook sentence, “I don’t have…”, writes “freedom”.

The smartest kid at English camp, when asked to use the future tense to make a comic about their future life, could do a fantastic job of it if she wanted to, but instead does this and slips it on to your desk for you to find the next day:

in the future


Waegukin wrote these 555 words on January 22nd, 2015 | Posted in Teaching |


11 comments on “How the smartest kid at English camp sees their future”

  1. thomas says:

    Sobering reality. It’s sad that this young girl sees her future for what it really is. Never-ending series of tests, rote memorization, hagwons and then more tests. Conform, follow, be obedient and fit into a nicely packaged template of life. I hope it’ll change in the long run. But somehow, I doubt it. Thanks for the post.

  2. Kim Corpse says:

    “Mystery” by its own doesn’t sound like a very good command of English, certainly not on par with a native speaker’s English. Perhaps your Korea-tinted glasses have blinded you?

  3. Waegukin says:

    As a label for the uncompleted rest of the comic, it’s perfect English (they were supposed to complete all eight panels).

    Nice username. Stay classy.

  4. Silver says:

    That’s so sad… 🙁

  5. Rude Boy Abroad says:

    What kind of a mark did you give her? I’m not being snippant; I’d really like to know how you handled that.

  6. Waegukin says:

    It wasn’t an assessment task. If it had been, I suspect she would have done it “properly” and well.

    I sat next to her and asked her if this was hers. She said, “Maybe.” I said, “If you ever feel like this, you can send me a Kakao message,” and she said OK.

    I presented this post fairly neutrally, because I was curious what other people would think, but honestly I don’t think she is very likely to suicide; she’s too driven and competitive. But it’s best not to ignore such things.

    Later, I also talked to her about the traditional Korean path of intense study to get into a good university, get a good job, etc. I told her that she could choose her own path if she wanted, and she said she knew that. I’m not a big believer in that sort of “You can do anything!” rah-rah positivity, but in her case, it’s probably true. I suspect she’ll be fine. I had similar thoughts when I was her age.

  7. Christian says:

    Bullying in school is also reason for committing suicide. @Waegukin: Did you see the 2014 movie “Compassion”? It deals with bullying in school and suicide.

  8. K says:

    In Korea are you supposed to report that like in the U.S.?

  9. Waegukin says:

    K, not that I’ve ever heard, and from my knowledge of Korea, I doubt it. Nor would I, regardless of regulations; it was clearly meant for me only, and wasn’t to be passed on.

    (The student’s doing fine, by the way, and she does in fact send me Kakao messages quite regularly.)

  10. Rude Boy Abroad says:

    Yeah, I agree with you, Waegukin, that she’ll probably be fine in the long run. I too was curious if you had any legal obligation to inform your supervisor(s), but I also feel that doing is often liable to do more harm than good.

    (Also, in my earlier comment I of course meant “flippant,” which, unlike “snippant,” is a word.)

  11. Judith says:

    I’m sorry I didn’t comment here when i first read it, but better late and all that.
    This is the plight of the very gifted all over. I raised a son with an unmeasurable IQ (we tried several times, but he always exceeded the test parameters) and most of his life through middle school was lonely. He rarely found friends, and even though he attended a school specifically for the gifted, he was so far past the “average gifted” kid that he was on another planet, He started threatening suicide at age 7. In high school, he found a few friends who were videogame fans and that carried him or a while But he was still struggling through high school.
    The story ends happily, with him becoming a well paid programmer of video games. 😉
    I can’t even imagine the struggles that a female in a society like Korea will face. I think she will be frustrated a good deal of her life. If she were my student, I would do what I did with my son – acknowledge that she is smarter than most, and have a frank discussion about the difficulties that she will face – and also, how she has the ability to make a difference through her actions, possibly writing, but most of all, awareness. Kids like this know they don’t fit in, but they don’t always know why. And knowing it’s not because there’s something wrong with them is a big deal.
    In the US, severely gifted (this used to be a real diagnostic term)students have a significantly higher rate of dropping out of school and suicide. So I would not dismiss this. But I am talking from an American perspective.

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