What proportion of Williams students should come from abroad?  The debate on the relative merits of international candidates is an Ephblog staple, and last week, the topic re-emerged following the publication of a New York Times article on elite Korean prep schools.  The piece detailed the intense academic environment at the Daewon Foreign Language High School in Seoul, which students attend with the goal of eventually gaining acceptance to a prestigious American university.

We, however, have a man on the scene.  Williams graduate Joe Foster teaches at the Daewon School and was quoted in the Times article, testifying to the dedication of his students.  He was kind enough to discuss, via e-mail, his experience at an education institution very different from those we are accustomed to.

Ephblog: How did you wind up at the Daewon School?

Foster: Well, my parents are both teachers and I was raised at a boarding school in California, where my father was a dean, so I’ve been around education all my life. Maybe for that reason I always harbored some resistance to both school and teaching. After the dot-com crash, though, I was ready for a change and some travel, so I came to Seoul. I didn’t have much of a long-term plan, but I got a job teaching SAT prep and really took to it — in fact, I completely fell in love with teaching. I stayed at that job for four and a half years, and the first time I looked for something else I stumbled across the Daewon position. I’ve been at Daewon for just over a year.

The New York Times article indicated you teach writing.  What type of writing, and have you taught any other subjects?

My writing class, by necessity, covers a wide array of writing styles and methods. Daewon students have very little time to catch up to (or, preferably, surpass) their American counterparts, so I take them from the basics of academic writing across disciplines (the course is divided into units based on subject matter) to the rudiments of research methodology and citation standards. Throughout the year I also include occasional lessons focused on timed persuasive essay writing–the kind tested on the SAT–but it’s definitely far from the focus of the class.

The class also includes regular grammar lessons tailored to the students’ needs and weaknesses. I should also note that I share this writing class with Justin Reznick (a UVA alum), and he has a major hand in its construction.

I also teach a Critical Reading course built around non-fiction reading. It’s more of a lecture class. It’s a good class, though, and last year we covered Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, Bruce Cumings’s North Korea, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, and Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink, as well as many shorter readings and excerpts. There’s also an SAT-prep component in this class.

What’s the American teaching presence at the school like?

In the GLP [Ed’s note: GLP stands for Global Leadership Program; it is a distinct program within the school, which only the students intending to attend American colleges enroll] there are nine Americans and a Canadian. The school also has several foreign teachers for English conversation classes. The GLP is completely designed for students intending to go to college in the U.S., and many of the GLP students have lived in the U.S. before, some for as long as six or seven years.

How does the class structure or setting differ from what you experienced?

To my knowledge there is no analog in the U.S. Daewon GLP students have a full Korean curriculum during regular school hours and then a full U.S. college prep curriculum in the evenings three days a week. Because of this grueling schedule, my students are often exhausted, so it’s important that class time be used as efficiently as possible — I keep the class moving and try to draw connections across the curriculum and emphasize practical, useful information. GLP class sizes aren’t too unusual, 25-32, although larger than those at U.S. prep schools. Like U.S. prep schools, however, GLP classes are mostly discussion-based.

The biggest surprise to me, though, was not how motivated and disciplined the kids are — I knew that already–but how lively they are. It’s easy for an American to read the Times article and slot Daewon students into the threadbare Asian-learning-machine stereotype, but there’s a lot more to these kids than that. It never fails to amaze me how few of them really burn out–fewer than at most US prep schools, I expect. It’s true they have less time to pursue other activities, but they make the most of the free time they do have.

Are you involved in any extracurricular activities at the school?

As I was new last year I really just focused on my classes, but I’m getting a little more involved this year. Last year I accompanied a group of kids to the Harvard Model Congress Asia event in Bangkok, and I expect to continue in that role. I’ve also had some interaction with the literary club, but it has formal advisers already, so I’ve just been called on informally to give some guidance about 20th century American poetry (my major focus at Williams). I also play in the annual student-teacher basketball game, a risk that I expect will eventually lead to my death by either humiliation or cardiac arrest.

Why do you think getting into the top American colleges has become such an obsession, to use the U.S. ambassador’s term, for so many of these kids?

Simply (reductively?), they want the best, and the impression, not just in Korea, is that the U.S. has the best colleges. A more thorough answer, though, would probably involve tracing back to a centuries-old cultural practice of privileging education above almost all else. Of more immediate concern, the contemporary Korean job market is extremely competitive — almost all Koreans go to college — so a respected diploma can be a valuable edge. In addition, many aspects of Korean society have been, for better or for worse, shaped by U.S. involvement in the Korean War and ensuing post-war rebuilding, and a U.S. military presence and political influence that continues to this day.

Most Koreans, my students included, are able to think critically about this, and many Korean responses to the Times article have bemoaned the pressure-cooker environment and the obsession with foreign name-brand education. I certainly hope the dialog continues and is used to strengthen Korea’s domestic universities and education policies.

The focus on academics at Daewon was portrayed in the Times piece as pretty all-consuming, seemingly at the expense of social development.  Do you find that to be the case, or was that aspect of the school overstated?

No, it’s not overstated at all. Students do community service and other activities, but that’s not really considered an important part of their school life: it truly is extracurricular. Saying that the academic rigor is “at the expense of” social concerns, however, is applying an American expectation to a Korean circumstance. Korean schools in general aren’t expected to provide social development (dating, sports, partying, senior pranks, etc.), at least not intentionally. That said, all students take a course in Korean Ethics (도덕, or “Dodeok”) — Korean schools are concerned with raising good citizens.

I don’t have a well-developed opinion on how important it is for schools to include explicit social development, in fact I veer back and forth, but most commentary and criticism I’ve encountered has been woefully under-informed and/or insensitive to cultural differences.

In which case, on the whole, do you think the school does a good job preparing its students for American university life?

Absolutely. Of course, Daewon students are much better prepared academically than socially, but my experience at Williams showed me that many American first-years are in the same boat (and few are better prepared academically, I can honestly say).

Williams wasn’t mentioned in the article — do kids from Daewon know about us?  Do you steer any of your students toward Williamstown?

Yes, Daewon students know and admire Williams — there’s a Daewon alumnus in the Williams class of 2011. In fact, there seems to be a recent trend toward the top liberal arts colleges, as Korean parents and college advisers are becoming more savvy and better-informed. I haven’t personally steered students to Williams (that’s unnecessary, Daewon students are aware of Williams’s many virtues), but I’ve occasionally spoken to students about my experiences there, and I rock my coffee in a Williams mug in every class I teach.

Given your experience at Williams, what would be the challenges for a student from Daewon, or the big adjustments he or she would have to make?

It depends, of course, on the student, but the typical Daewon alum would definitely need to adjust to the social life (drinking, lack of supervision) at Williams (or any other U.S. college). Other than that, though, the challenges would probably be similar to those most U.S. first-years face — learning to manage their own time without frequent external pressure, finding a way to distinguish themselves among very talented classmates, dealing with roommates and cafeteria food, trying to find dates, avoiding winter ennui, etc. For Koreans, I guess, there may be some added homesickness, since I don’t think there’s a Korean restaurant in or near Billsville!

Anything else related to the school you think we should know?

There’s really only one thing I want to add, and it relates to one important fact about Daewon. People who read the Times article were universally struck by the demanding schedule our students follow. I think it’s important that people understand that the schedule is largely due to government education policies, and I’m quite sure Daewon’s administration would like to find a way to eliminate redundancies and decrease this burden. The new president, Myung-bak Lee, has announced that he intends to reform the restrictions on the foreign language high schools, but specifics haven’t been revealed. I’m excited and cautiously optimistic that reform will be beneficial and that Daewon’s administration will react wisely. I believe I teach at one of the best high schools in the world, but I also believe it could be a lot better.

[Thanks again to Joe for taking the time for this interview.]

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