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June 1999 - Issue No. #35 (p.12 - 13)

The Banyan Tree:

Volunteer Teaching to Korean Orphans

by Wade Nichols

Banyan Education, Denver, Colorado, USA

"McLearning" in Korea

For three years they came tumbling into my EFL classrooms - upper middle class ruffian midgets sporting shoes with blinking lights, backpacks shaped like little animals, and attitudes more than twice their size - jabbering away in Korean. I lived in an entirely new city in Korea populated exclusively by the nouveau rich. Still, I endowed these kids with the innocent properties which must be afforded to any child who is a product of their surroundings, and I did my best to teach them English in an entertaining, involving, productive way.

I did my time in the franchised private English language institutes famous in Korea. "McLearning" we called it - every 40 minutes a new batch of spoiled elementary schoolers came in, five minutes between classes to go downstairs and get a new set of teaching materials, then back into another classroom for another 40 minutes (like so many hamburgers in the lunch hour). On many days I did this ten times. With practice I even found I was good at it.

Starved for that warm rewarding feeling promised to Western educators in exchange for miserable salaries, however, I decided to find an investor and open my own private English institute for kids. Having literally worked my fingers bloody at my school and still not having found the satisfaction of really impacting my students' lives, I went to work designing curricula and supervising teachers for a national franchise - still no rewards except for a nice paycheck. I soon resigned.

Whose Children are These Anyway?

And then I found it - a haven for teachers. A place where the students are attentive, eager, appreciative, and respectful. A place where children have nothing, yet are far richer than any I'd taught before. A place where teachers can feel so rewarded as to be moved to tears. So whose children are these anyway? Well, they're nobody's children, yet everybody's. They're the orphans at the Dong Myoung Children's Home in Seoul, Korea.

You see, these children had never been spoilt. They had no parents to spend 30% of the family income on private schools in addition to their public education. They were just left to fall behind in large classes of 40, even 60 students. Here, I could really make a difference, giving these children the gift of English so that they could compete with their peers at school and on into their adult lives.

In previous years, I had assembled hundreds of EFL teaching activities into categories, intending them to eventually become a book. These were games and activities for teaching English that I knew worked as I'd tried them with the most discerning, spoiled children in all Korea. And when I pulled out this bag of tricks at the orphanage, I became a sort of demigod. The children's excitement and eagerness to keep doing an activity was only tempered by my enthusiasm to try the next one on them. And so it was, twice a week, for almost ten months.

EFL for Orphans on National TV

My new employer, Oxford University Press, donated textbooks. An English-fluent Korean friend volunteered to assist me. Then, the television cameras came, my EFL program for orphans appeared on national TV, and from that came a small flood of donations that were used to set up a real classroom at the orphanage rather than us being huddled on the floor of the institution's chapel. Guests came to observe classes, throw Halloween and Christmas parties, and just to be with these magical children. And magical they were! At last, my expatriate life felt complete - no, more than complete, full. Very full.

Then, late in 1997, my ideal little world was torn apart. The collapse of the Korean economy meant I'd either have to leave Korea or lose my home in the United States because my salary, paid in Korean currency, would no longer cover my mortgage payments. After a long deliberation, I tearfully told my children that I was to leave for my home country. There has been no sadder night in my life except, perhaps, for my last night with them which was filled with a farewell I will never forget - the children all sang songs, performed dances, and presented the most valuable gifts I have ever received. Then, they all cried and clung to my arms as long as they could until I finally passed through the orphanage gates.

It took me about a month to answer the question "How can I keep giving to them?" This is where you come in.

An Appeal to Volunteer

I know you're out there. You're likely involved in the ESL/EFL community in some corner of the world, and in your corner of the world, I guarantee you, there are orphans. I am pleading with you to seek them out and to do as I did. Teach them. Teach them, and you will be inordinately rewarded.

My part is to make it easy for you to do this. I now work in the US for an Internet development firm. I took the job knowing little about how web sites are built, so I decided to build one to teach myself. My site is being created to help ESL/EFL teachers around the world by offering a wealth of teaching ideas (from my book-to-be). I hope to attract teachers from around the globe to the web site for the free information on teaching activities. Then, while they're there, I'll encourage them to volunteer their time with orphans. I also hope teachers will share their teaching ideas with others. There are forms on the website for you to contribute.

You'll also find additional information for ESL/EFL teachers. I call the project "Banyan Tree". For those who don't know, banyan trees are famous for sending out branches which then dip to the ground and establish other trees nearby. Our motto is "branching out to the world". Come visit us at (inactive link)

You can also help me by doing some research. I would like to post on the web site the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of orphanages around the world. I already have a good list of Korean orphanages. On the web site, we will encourage teachers to find an orphanage in their host country where they can voluntarily teach a class of orphans a couple of times a week. Please start asking the locals in your host country for help.

Return to the Orphanage

Last October, I flew back to Korea to give presentations at the KoTESOL conference in Seoul. The real reason I went, however, was to see those thirteen little smiling faces again. We didn't study much, the kids and I, but we certainly had a great time. Of course I took with me pumpkins, candles, and candy so that we could again celebrate that strange Western holiday, Halloween. The children loved it.

In the Holiday season this winter, I began an e-mail drive among my friends and relatives to send Christmas gifts to the children at the orphanage. As usual, the donations of gifts and cash flowed in. We sent over two hundred gifts to the Dong Myoung Children's Home at the end of 1998. Now, I realize I will always be a part of their lives and they a part of mine.

Sadly, there are many more children at the orphanage I was unable to help, and many more orphanages round the world we've yet to reach. Please help us reach out to the world!


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Kip A. Cates, Tottori University, Koyama, Tottori City, JAPAN 680-8551
E-mail: Work Tel/Fax: 0857-31-5650