American teachers get lesson in Korean studies at Stanford

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Connie Straub selected a small pink jar from the bottles and utensils scattered on the picnic table. “It’s shrimp – kind of a shrimp paste,” she told her audience, giving the jar a skeptical glance. “But it’s optional, it really doesn’t matter.”

Laughter erupted from the crowd of Koreans and Americans new to their cuisine. Straub, who grew up in Korea, set the jar aside and reached for a bottle of soy sauce – the base, she explained, for a traditional Korean marinade.

The cooking demonstration was part of a national conference that brought nearly two dozen American teachers to Stanford to learn about Korean history, culture, security, and politics from scholars at the university and other schools. Teachers and students from Hana Academy Seoul, a private high school in South Korea, also attended.

Stanford’s Korean Studies Program (KSP) co-sponsored the conference, along with the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE), an organization that works with Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies to develop curricula on international topics for American elementary and secondary school students.

Despite Korea’s growing economic clout and important role in international security, little is taught about Korean history, politics, and culture in American schools. The conference organizers are trying to change that.

“South Korea is an incredibly important U.S. ally and partner,” Gi-Wook Shin, founding director of KSP and a sociology professor, told the conference participants. “And Korean-Americans are becoming a very important part of American society.”

David Straub, the program’s associate director who is married to Connie Straub, said South Korea is significant “not only because of the North Korean division… [and] because it is the world’s eighth-largest trading economy…but also because of its impressive development.”

Since 1979, South Korea’s per-capita GDP has increased more than twentyfold. The country has also undergone sweeping political reform and dramatic social change in the last three decades.

“I don’t know of any other country that’s developed as quickly,” Straub said. “Not only economically, but also socially and culturally.”

SPICE has produced several middle and high school curriculum units focused on Korea. Each teacher attending the conference received a collection of SPICE materials, and SPICE staff also conducted curriculum demonstrations and shared instructional strategies during the event.

SPICE director Gary Mukai said he believes early exposure to the country’s history and culture could inspire students to study Korea in college and beyond.

“Coverage of Korea in U.S. high schools has generally been limited to the Korean War,” he said. “The fact that the coverage is so limited really restricts students’ understanding of a very vibrant country.”

Mukai told visiting teachers that he hoped the conference would lead to “the creation of a community of learners” including both Korean and American teachers.

The teachers appeared to be fulfilling Mukai’s hopes. On the first day of the conference, after a presentation by Hana Academy teachers on the Korean educational system, American and Korean teachers discussed educational policy.

James Covi, who teaches world history at Lakeside High School in Seattle, commented on Korea’s efforts to move away from rigorous standardized testing in secondary education.

“Here in the U.S., we look at [Korean] test scores and we’re quite jealous,” Covi said, laughing. “Maybe there’s some common ground in the middle we’re trying to meet at?”

Covi attended the conference to expand his knowledge of Korea, which he said is insufficient to “teach [Korea] well.” He said he enjoyed learning more about Korean culture, through events such as the cooking demonstration and presentations on the educational system, as well as about the divided peninsula’s history and politics.

American teachers also learned from several visiting Korean students, who delivered short presentations on Korean society. The students also interacted with American teachers during meals and social events, answering questions about academics and daily life in Korean high schools. 

“The concept of coming abroad to meet other people from this country, and to talk about my country, was really exciting,” said Minji Choi, one of the students. “It’s a great opportunity.”

But the best opportunity for cross-cultural engagement may have come in a simpler form, as Connie Straub concluded her demonstration and her audience scattered to nearby tables piled high with traditional Korean food. The spread including several varieties of the fermented and fragrant vegetable dish known as kimchi, often approached with skepticism by the uninitiated.

The American teachers quickly shed their inhibitions – and then their misconceptions. “It’s delicious,” said one, a loaded forkful raised to her mouth. “The cucumber is extraordinary.”