Archive for February, 2013

Portrait of a Filipina Feminist, Part 1

by on Sunday, February 17th, 2013

Sylvia Estrada Claudio is Director of the Center for Women’s Studies at the University of the Philippines and co-founder of Likhaan, a non-governmental organization which provides direct services to women in marginalized communities. This interview provides a glimpse into the history of the Philippines and the reproductive health movement. It is also a story of how one woman is making her contribution as a feminist and a proponent of the Reproductive Health Bill.

I began the interview by mentioning that I’d noticed a big gap between most of the Filipinos I knew and the literati and intelligentsia at the literary festival where we met.

Sylvia’s story

Well, there’s a long history of the educated class in the Philippines being alienated from the general population. The elite of the Philippines has also been typically the group that collaborated with the colonizers. Filipinos had no educational system under Spain, so the only people who could speak Spanish were the Spanish themselves, those who were of Spanish blood born in the Philippines and the very few native Filipinos who served them. The American system just continued the split, with an upper class of people who grew up speaking English and who were educated in elite institutions and then a lot of less educated people without the same grasp of English.

During the U.S. colonial period a very good public education system was put into place, starting with the famous U.S. teachers who came on the USS Thomas [in 1901]. My parent’s generation thought their public school education was better than the education in the private schools. The University of the Philippines [UP] was founded as a counterpoint to the Pontifical University of Santo Tomas, the Catholic bastion of religiosity and non-secular views. The U.S. wanted a secular republic run by a group of essentially democratic-oriented, scientific, technocratic people. So my father’s generation got lots of Fulbright scholarships and scholarships from other programs. My father did his post-graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania. I grew up in the 1950s, 60s and 70s as the child of two UP professors, and we lived on this campus, which seemed very much oriented toward the sciences as taught to our professors in U.S. universities. Nowadays I think there’s not only a split between the more English-speaking elite and the rest of the population, but also a split between those academics who choose to be engaged in social issues and the ivory-tower academics who don’t. Although I do know of pure science nerds who helped in the reproductive health movement even though it had nothing to do with their university work. And I also believe that there are those who do not engage in social issues but still contribute a lot by being excellent scholars working only in academia.

The great belief in technocracy and science and industrialization as the way to Filipino development didn’t really work. In the 70s we had the declaration of martial law and the gutting of social services, including education. The scholarships dried up, so we didn’t have the same opportunities to go abroad. Many people my age went into the anti-dictatorship struggle. I was thirteen years old and a member of a radical Maoist student groups when Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. [This was in September, 1972. In the following month South Korean military dictator Park Chung-hee declared himself President for Life.]

So you take a rebellious thirteen-year-old and tell her that her activities are illegal and she’s an enemy of the state. You use the school authorities to control or frighten her. I just became more rebellious. Who knows why teenagers rebel, anyway? Some have really good reasons, some don’t. I spent the rest of high school doing crazy things, like smoking marijuana, not studying and being impolite to teachers. In my school, students with good grades couldn’t get kicked out. So my friends and I just made sure our grades were good while showing none of the traditional respect for the teachers or the school.

The minute I got into college I was recruited to be a part of a small underground cell at the university. Our biggest task was to run The Philippine Collegian, the student newspaper, which had been allowed to come back in, I think a year before. The student councils were not yet allowed back in, so we were also fighting for a consultative committee for student affairs to be formally allowed in the University. Those were the political tasks given to me as a member of the National Democratic Front which was then and now closely allied to the Communist Party of the Philippines.

I’m very proud of having worked on The Philippine Collegian, which ranks high in the journalistic and literary tradition of the country. It’s always been a radical but good student paper, but at that time it gained national importance because it was the only newspaper telling the truth about the Marcos dictatorship. All the mainstream media were controlled and suppressed. For example, when Marcos had a plebiscite to ask the people whether they would allow him to be president for life, only The Philippine Collegian said vote no. During that period, we covered the very first voters’ strike under martial law. We were printing twice as many copies as the total UP student population. I don’t remember the figures, but if the student population was around 5,000 we were printing 10,000 copies, and we had a pass-on readership of ten times that. People were hungry for news, and this small band of crazy young students was giving it to them. Because of that both the editors were arrested. One of them died as a result of that arrest. He had become very weak and had suffered greatly from asthma, which prison had aggravated. I never got arrested. Both times our offices were raided I was not in the office—just timing, I guess.

In medical school I became a member of an underground cell. We formed an organization that brought medical students to poor communities in order to expose them to the realities of those communities, to treat people and to provide services. Even dental, nursing, and physical and occupational therapy students were included. Cells were organized by class, and I’m again very proud. I think never in the history of this kind of organizing in the UP College of Medicine—or in any other medical school—did an underground cell of the National Democratic Front have twenty members. The next biggest had only seven. We did various things. Toward the end, my particular job was to look after high-value, New People’s Army fighters, Communist Party leaders and National Democratic Front leaders who needed medical care. At the UP Philippine General Hospital, I had a network of people to take the patients, give them false charts, send them to specialists who would not question their identities and get them out of the hospital without the authorities’ knowing. In medical school I was invited to become a member of the Communist Party, and I accepted.

So after graduation we—my future husband and I—went to the provinces. We were scheduled to become guerrilla doctors for the New People’s Army, but then we were told that our skills could be put to better use organizing other doctors. I think we were considered to be good at persuading others to join the movement. So we were called back to Manila, and I subsequently founded several organizations which still exist. They were fronts, but they also did the work they were supposed to do. At the same time they were influenced by the Party line, which was both good and bad.

When I was a member of the CPP, I thought I was rather obedient, but I think that in some ways that might not have been true. It’s just that I never considered feminist, personal issues as somehow connected to the struggle of the Party. This made a great deal of sense during the Marcos dictatorship. I had lost a lot of my dearest, closest friends to the military, to savagery and torture. There were massive human rights violations.

I heard stories of comrades who experienced sexism from the Party, like sexual harassment from some of the macho comrades. I wasn’t treated like that. I was living with the man who later became my husband, and I heard, “Why are you living together? That’s a violation of Party rules.” My future husband was a good Catholic, so he said, “Why don’t we just get married?” I didn’t really care, but since he and the Party and the Church wanted us to get married, why not? So in that sense I wasn’t as obedient as I thought. I was happy with the Party until I began to read up on women’s issues and feminism. When you come to work on women’s issues, you have a whole different take on things.

My break with the Party began with “the boycott era” at the time of the Snap Elections which pitted Corazon Aquino against Ferdinand Marcos. The Party came out with our typical Maoist line: it was only a struggle of two factions of the elite, Cory Aquino herself was a big landlord, this was a false belief in empty democracy fostered by U.S. imperialism, the U.S. liked the election and Cory Aquino, but the election wasn’t in the real interest of the masses. At that time I was sitting in the biggest legal formation of our forces. I represented the health sector in that multi-sectoral formation. This included Party members, National Democratic members and ordinary progressive doctors and workers. I told my superiors in the Party that if it came to a vote I wanted to vote yes. In the words of the time, I said, “The masses of the health sector want the election. People deem it worthy of participation. They want to participate. We cannot go against the sentiments of the people. I want to vote for the sentiments of the people I am supposed to represent.” The Party said, “If you vote yes you will be going against party discipline. You’re a Party member first and foremost.” I had no integrity. I voted no. But that was it.

The Party boycotted the election and as a result very much marginalized itself in the EDSA Revolution. As it turned out, the EDSA Revolution was indeed a hodgepodge of various interests. The U.S. wanted a peaceful change  and the U.S. government facilitated that. But even the Party members I knew were very happy when Marcos left. Indeed, Cory Aquino was from the elite and to a certain extent didn’t push for fundamental changes as hard as she could have, but she was a true democrat in the democratic liberal sense. Despite threats to her administration, she established voting and attempted to make human rights a little more respected. She gave up power when she could, and she insisted on changing the constitution [to one which limited the powers of the presidency and established a bicameral legislature]. I really think that as a person she had integrity in the sense that she implemented what she believed in, in fact more integrity than many Party leaders I came to dislike. For example, there were Party purges, which I didn’t participate in.

So Marcos fell, and we had Cory Aquino. I was still hanging on, cynical and doubtful. Then the leaders of the mass organization I was in—it’s called Bayan, and it still exists—started getting assassinated one by one. We didn’t know who was behind it. One theory was that it was a rightwing military group that Cory Aquino couldn’t control. I have no idea. I was in the Bayan leadership. I don’t know where it came from, but according to our New People’s Army counterintelligence group I was one of those scheduled for assassination. There was some verification because a newspaper later published a list of state enemies, called in the military an “order of battle” and I was number 30-something. To this day my friends laugh at me because the price on my head was 20,000 pesos [about $785 at the time]. I was so poor I couldn’t even buy myself. Some people were worth millions. Nonetheless, I was considered worthy of two bodyguards from the sparrow units of the New People’s Army. I lived for a year like that.

If you’re a celebrity or a politician or the child of a multimillionaire, maybe having bodyguards would make sense. But if you’re just an ordinary activist, daughter of two professors, it didn’t make any sense at all. I was working with a poor NGO that I had set up—that is, I was still getting a salary, but I couldn’t go to the office anymore because that’s where I was likely to get shot. I was also getting these really funny vibes. There’s a valorization of violence and martyrdom in that kind of revolutionary movement. I’d enter a room, and the young people would get excited—not because they knew me or liked me or because in their eyes I’d done something admirable, but because I had two bodyguards and was a target for assassination. There were also two people who’d become egotistical because they had a higher price on their heads and far more bodyguards. That was upsetting.

After a year of living this horrible, constrained life, I asked one of my bodyguards if he would really take a bullet for me. I had a four-year-old son then, and I knew he had a family also. He said, “Yes, I would because your work in the movement is far more important than mine.” I thought, “It doesn’t make any sense that someone else should die for my choices. There can’t possibly be any work in the movement more important than his life.” I decided that was it. I asked for a year’s leave to think things over. I said I needed a leave so that the military would stop breathing down my neck and so Party resources could be put to better use. This was in 1987, so about two years after the boycott. The Party said yes, reluctantly.  Of course there were people who said my inability to stay on and live with this hardship, to take the risk and be brave, was due to my faltering ideological…whatever. That’s very much in the subculture of Maoist politics.

Nowadays I often think of how the religious fundamentalists who are opposed to the Reproductive Health Bill think and sound as humorless and as irrational and as ideological as my former Maoist colleagues. They both have the absolute truth. In both it’s a control issue. Both have very top-down organizations.

So to wrap up the storyline, I left. I had no experience other than studying and doing revolutionary work. I left the NGO and went back to the UP Department of Psychology, where I’d done my undergraduate major. The department chair said, “Well, your grades were good. Why don’t you go into the straight PhD program?” I had no idea what that was, and I didn’t care. I just wanted to study for a semester to consider my options. We had no money, so I moved home with my parents—husband and child in tow.

Teaching in Gangnam, Seoul

by on Saturday, February 2nd, 2013

Walking along the Han River

This map of Gangnam shows Apgujeong-dong in orange.

Yes, this is the affluent, entertainment-oriented, newly developed urban area south of the Han River (Gangnam, or Kangnam, means “south of the river”) parodied in Psy’s video. The Apgujeong District, or Apgujeong-dong, is the part of Gangnam considered to have the best public schools in South Korea. In this 2013 interview, my friend Thady shares his experience teaching middle school during the regular school year and the winter vacation program. He also talks about the master’s degree program in Teaching English as a Second Language from the University of Birmingham, which once employed me as a local tutor. Thanks to Thady for the great photos.

The grammar-translation method he refers to was developed in the Middle Ages to teach Latin.  I learned Latin that was in the 1950s, but when I started teaching in 1966 it had been replaced by the audio-lingual method, which concentrated on the spoken target language.


Thady’s story

As soon as you mention “Gangnam Style” in the classroom, at least one student will get up and do the horse-riding dance. The students love doing that.

I started teaching middle school in Korea about two and a half years ago. I first came to Korea in 2004. My initial plan was to travel to Korea first, then move to Japan, learn Japanese, travel to South America and return to England with Japanese language skills on my résumé. But when I went to Japan for my work visa, I hated it. I fell in love with Korea. From 2004 to 2009 I didn’t go back to England. Then about three years ago I had a motorcycle accident which almost killed me. I went back to England for nine months to recuperate. My family had thought it would take an accident like that to get me back, which was exactly what happened. I thought about Korea every day. So after about three months I started looking for a job where I could work during the day and have my evenings free. I wanted to be in Seoul, not out on the outskirts or in the middle of nowhere. Universities weren’t really an option. The best salaries available were in the Gangnam public schools. So that’s what got me where I am now.

The attraction? I was born in England, but my family all came over from Ireland because of poverty—for jobs—as did many people from the same area. They were neighbors back in Ireland, and they became neighbors in England. In this community there’s a strong feeling of togetherness. People are always joking, very warm. They’re also very kind. People who don’t have that kindness and warmth tend to get ostracized. When I went to university and found the same values weren’t part of my social group, I felt lost. In Korea I immediately I found the same values and the same joking. Korea felt like home almost immediately.

For example, when I first arrived, a friend of mine and I were living in Chulsan. He went out on a date with a local girl, and she brought her brother along to protect her honor. That’s like the Irish thing I was brought up with, having pride in the name and not letting the family down. Another example is Children’s Day. People adore and worship children here, but the elderly are also held very high in society here. In England, it’s unfortunate, but when people reach a certain age, they’ve had their use in society, they get put into a home and they get only occasional visits from their children. Here people live with their grandparents, and the families stay very close together, like the Irish family units I grew up in.

At the moment I’m feeling really thankful both for my school and for where I’m living. At first I lived right next to my school in Apgujeong-dong, which was convenient, but I was coming north of the river every day to see friends who live close to Itaewǒn. Every morning I walk to school along the Han River, which takes two hours. It’s such a brilliant way to start the day. Then I get to school, do my preparation for classes and I teach between two and four 45-minute classes per day. I have a big touch-screen TV in my classroom to use as a teaching aid. When you’re teaching twenty-eight students you need something to keep their attention. I find that the animations, videos and other materials I use are very useful for teaching classes of that size.

It’s really a privilege to teach these students. Middle-school students are aged between twelve and sixteen. My English department consists of four Korean teachers and me. I’m very happy with the faculty I’m working with. We all teach from the same textbook, so we’re all essentially on the same page. They teach the grammar, reading and listening and I teach the conversation. The book is either at the right level for the students, a little high for the students or completely below the students. With the lower level students I use some scaffolding tools to make the lessons easier, with the mid-level students I use lessons pretty much as they are in the book or the teacher’s guide, and with the advanced students I push them to produce their own language on a similar theme.

Sixty percent of my advanced students are fluent in English—many on a native-speaker level—which is unusual for a Korean public school. So I give them a topic, we have a brainstorming session of vocabulary and grammar structures that will be used and then I have them produce their own dialogue, while I mingle around to interact with them and see if they want to ask questions or need guidance on grammar structures or cultural things. At the end of class they act it out their dialogues. I let them write however they want. They love bringing in a comical theme and trying to make the other students laugh.  That’s quite rewarding. It doesn’t feel like they’re being taught. It feels like fun.

Mine are conversation classes so I concentrate on getting students writing the spoken word. Particularly in the lower level, they’re better at reading and writing than they are at listening and speaking, so by focusing on dialogue I’m getting them to transpose skills they already have to speaking. Conversation classes I believe should have lots of role play and lots of dialogue.

Class size is as small as twelve students per class, which give me a lot more one-on-one time with each student and which makes the class much more manageable. My advanced classes with twenty-eight students are almost first language classes. I do have a Korean co-teacher who never has to translate or intervene. The students understand all of my comprehension-checking questions and pick up on whatever I say to them.

It’s really rewarding to watch the students role play the scenes they have worked out. I’m doing a camp over the winter break. I showed the class a Youtube clip of somebody booking a hotel room, and I put them in pairs and asked them to write their own scripts of booking hotel rooms. What things would they have to ask, like how much for a single room for these dates. After they wrote and practiced their dialogue, I got some students to call a hotel in Australia on Skype and actually put into practice what they’d learned. It was really rewarding to give them real life examples of what they can use their language for.

I’m doing a master’s degree in TESL now at the University of Birmingham. I’m very happy with the course. They give students all the pointers and then get us to do our own research. I’ve got a tutor I can phone on Skype whenever I have questions. The first goal of the course is to learn about teaching English, but I think the second is to get us writing academic papers to a publishable standard. Every four months I have to turn in a 4,000 word paper. And I have to write a 15,000 word dissertation [master’s thesis] at the end of that. Then hopefully I’ll have an MA in TESL. After the first year I’ll get a Postgraduate Certificate in Education and after the second year a Postgraduate Diploma in Education. The PGCE is required for teaching in schools in England. Once I’ve got that I’ll be able to teach in international schools as well. There’s a Dulwich College, a British public school, in Seoul. Dulwich has schools in other major Asian cities. I looked at the Shanghai package, and the salaries were absolutely phenomenal. So maybe that’s the direction I’ll go in. I’m thinking of writing my dissertation on my classroom management system or on a reading program if one comes to fruition. I’m beginning to really enjoy academic writing, and I’ve noticed that not only am I getting a lot from it but I can also put something back into academia with the observations I’m making in my classroom.

At the school where I’m teaching I’m pushing a reading program. As part of my Birmingham degree, I’m finding out about reading. Krashen [Stephen Krashen of The Natural Approach] is a huge fan of having students develop good reading habits to improve vocabulary, grammar and spelling. I find that the material they have had taught directly at them and drilled into them at their hagwǒn [for‑profit cram school] becomes a lot easier if they’ve got a reading habit. When I first started this job, I noticed some of my first-year students were always carrying English books with them. It was no coincidence that by the time they reached third year those were the students whose English levels absolutely skyrocketed, even compared to the kids who had been to the States to study. The ones with reading habits always came out on top, and some of them had never left Korea in their lives. So it’s like Krashen’s “i +1 theory,” the more input you put into yourself the more you’re going to be able to produce.

My students are nurturing healthy reading habits, they’re even reading when they’re waiting for class to start, which I’m delighted about. They used to play games on their smart phones.

For this winter camp I’ve ordered leveled readers of all the classics, writers like Edgar Allen Poe and Hemmingway, books like Moby Dick, 1984 and Oliver Twist. These are very thin books, about 4,000 words in each book. I’m getting them to read two books a week, but they can pick up as many as they like. If I get one student reading habit then I’m happy. Everything else will fall into place. I keep trying to explain that when I was a kid and we got stressed and irritated or bored we picked up a book. That was all we had. We didn’t have Smartphones or Internet or computer games which kill your brain cells. A book will expand your mind. Some of the kids are really gung-ho and fascinated by it. With others I think it’s falling on deaf ears. They don’t want to be at camp at all, but their parents forced them. I’ve told them that reading will help them get really high scores on the tests, and that was a big motivation.

Abigail, my very diligent student, is checking out 17 books to read this weekend. She’s determined to win the prize for reading the most books.

Abigail’s book report

My classroom management system was videotaped by the Gangnam public schools for use in the training program. So I was thinking of using it for my dissertation. With a class of twenty-eight students, I put them into seven teams of four students each. I give them points for answering questions in order to get involvement and interaction in the lessons. They get positive reinforcement by asking questions. If they do something bad they lose a point for their team. At the end of class, the team with the highest score at the end of class get a prize—candy or something. The team with the lowest score have to clean the classroom. Sometimes I let the winning team choose who cleans the classroom, and that makes it really fun as well. With students who really don’t get involved, I don’t want to punish the whole team. I put the student’s name on the board, I speak to the form tutor [homeroom teacher], and have the student sent back to my classroom at the end of school to scrub desks.

During the regular school year I get to see each class once for 45 minutes a week, so it’s difficult to do projects where we have to come back and pick up where they left off the previous week.  But at this winter camp I have the same class of nine students every day. So I’m getting them reading a leveled reader of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. I want them to write simpler scenes but in modern, everyday language—use their own ideas to write what might happen in inside particular scenes to change the outcome.

Yes, of course there are some negative things. Students have a very long work day. After school they go to a maths hagwǒn, a Korean hagwǒn hagwon and an English hagwǒn. One of my students says he gets home at 11:00 at night, his mom cooks him dinner, then he does his homework. He gets to bed at 1:00 a.m. and gets up at five or six to do some homework before school.

My lessons are all about getting students to use English in the classroom, concentrating on second language use and banning first language unless it can be beneficial. But my Korean co-teachers are still using the grammar- translation method.  This involves long vocabulary lists, memorizing grammar rules and translating texts. The way Korean society is, I don’t think this will change until there’s a change in the way we test students. All research and all of the books written by great Western and Korean TESL researchers and professors won’t do it. For example, the use of English definite and indefinite articles is taught via Korean, which does not have that feature. Why give them repetitive drills in translation techniques for something that does not exist in their language, you know? I tell my students, don’t worry about making errors like in the use of articles. You’re not going to be accurate all the time. If you want to correct errors like that, get excited about reading.

It’s disheartening to see my co-teachers using a method that was used in the nineteenth century, but I don’t have any control over that. What I can do is give them 45 minutes a week where they do learn something and it’s a kind of pleasurable experience. I absolutely adore my students. I’ve got students who’ve graduated and come back to visit me, and that’s a really big thing. The respect Korea students have for teachers and for education is a big thing. It makes me feel really appreciated and makes me enjoy my job a lot more.

My sister is deputy head, which is a vice-principal, in an English elementary school. She told me about the mother of a foreign student, a Romanian student whose mother brought a letter to the school on a Monday apologizing because her daughter had a hospital appointment on Wednesday and would be absent. “Please, can this be agreeable? If not we will make other arrangements.” My sister was absolutely gobsmacked at the respect mother and daughter were showing the teacher and education. She said if it had been one of the English kids the first she would have heard about the kid’s going to hospital would have been when she didn’t show up for class.

That’s what I see in Korea. Most of the kids have got fantastic attitudes. On good days I’m amazed that I’m getting paid to do what I’m doing.

For more on the use of reading—plus television and film—as a vehicle for language learning, please see This is an interview with a former student of mine.

For more on Korea as “the Ireland of the Orient,” please see