Training teachers as a springboard for cross-cultural awareness

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Standing upright, then slowly clasping both hands and drawing them up to shoulder height, Kevin Won next kneeled on the floor. Bending forward, he bowed his head toward his silent audience.

Won’s demonstration of the Sebae, a traditional bow performed for elders during South Korea’s lunar new year, may have seemed out of place during a warm, sunny day on Stanford’s campus. But the intricate display was in perfect context during a cross-cultural conference for secondary school teachers from the United States to learn about Korean society, as well as providing a forum to directly engage with Korean teachers and students.

Despite Korea’s growing relevance worldwide, there has been little development of Korean studies below university-level, leaving a vacuum for misunderstanding, including stereotypes, to form at an early age. The conference – now in its third year – aims to shift this reality.

For three days in late July, twenty-four teachers from across America participated in a variety of activities and seminars intended to give them new perspectives and teaching strategies.

Gary Mukai, director of SPICE, welcomes participants.

The conference was co-organized by the Korean Studies Program (KSP) at the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) and the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE), both in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. The two groups work together to convert research on Asia into material that is suitable for younger students.

“Our mission is to make Stanford scholarship accessible to all,” said SPICE director Gary Mukai, who has been with SPICE for over 26 years. SPICE and Shorenstein APARC, under the direction of Gi-Wook Shin, a professor of sociology, have coordinated curriculum development for key projects on Korean history and perceptions of wartime history in Northeast Asia. 

A cadre of scholars and practitioners from Stanford and other universities and organizations offered talking points and actionable ideas for instruction. Among them was David Straub, the associate director of KSP, who lived in Korea for eight years as a senior U.S. diplomat. 

The United States and Korea have a very close relationship, but lack equal dialogue, explained Straub. America is still “number one” for Koreans, as such, Koreans know more about the United States than Americans know about Korea. This imbalance can lead to misunderstanding. Straub took the teachers through the recent history of U.S.-Korea relations, which is often narrowed to the context of the Korean War. 

Two teachers work together on a curriculum exercise comparing political cartoons.

Since 1945, South Korea overcame extreme poverty and effectively established a democratic society, a transition that was uncommonly quick and relatively smooth, and one that now supports a global powerhouse of trade and culture.

Throughout the conference, SPICE staff demonstrated ways for educators to bring Korea, and greater Northeast Asia, into their classrooms. They gave the teachers a chance to practice student lessons. In one exercise, the teachers deciphered sets of political cartoons and compared news headlines from Japan, China and Korea, using material from SPICE instructional materials. 

Each activity was carefully prepared to guide teachers to examine their own preconceptions. Greater cultural awareness can come when both teachers and students are “more critical consumers of information,” said Rylan Sekiguchi, a SPICE curriculum specialist, in his presentation.

While curriculum is important, establishing rapport seemed an essential part of the conference. A key component to a successful cross-cultural workshop is creating a community, “and looking around the room, I think we’ve done that here,” said Mukai, in an address to participants at a reception.

Also in attendance was a delegation of 11 Korean teachers and students from Hana Academy Seoul, a private high school in Korea with a unique structure and curriculum. The school’s name comes from the Hana Financial Group, which established the school in 2010, and is also the supporter of the Stanford conference. The Korean students gave presentations that covered a wide range of topics, including an analysis of teenage life and the public education system in Korea.

(Left to right): Students Nayoon Kim, Kevin Won, Seung-hyun Kim and Sarah Chey presented on Korean culture and society.

Six students from Hana Academy Seoul performed Samulnori, one of Korea’s most popular genres of music. The musical group, known as Da-Seu-Reum, showcased their talents while wearing traditional, brightly colored outfits. Afterward, the students became the teachers – when they invited the American teachers to come up and play the instruments. 

Three students were also honored for their research and participation in the Sejong Korean Scholars Program (SKSP), a distance-learning opportunity for 25 high school students across the United States to engage in an intensive study of Korea for a semester. SKSP is dually led by SPICE and Shorenstein APARC, and sponsored by the Korea Foundation.

“I feel very honored to attend, and have learned a lot about U.S.-Korea relations,” said Won, who is from Korea and attends The Taft School in Connecticut. “But mostly, I am just glad my presentation went well.” 

Won, a relative newcomer to public speaking, explained Korean holidays and how to perform a traditional bow. After demonstrating the correct posture and sequence to the audience, he asked for, and easily received, teacher participation. 

Kelly McKee, a teacher from Illinois, tries playing the Buk, a drum used in Samulnori, with direction from a Hana Academy Seoul student.

“From the impeccably credentialed presenters to the wonderful pacing of the presentations, I thoroughly enjoyed my three days here,” said Eladio “Lalo” Martin, a humanities teacher at Cesar Chavez Middle School in Watsonville.

“This conference, by far, is the best I’ve ever attended,” he added. Martin has been teaching for more than 18 years, and says he looks forward to returning to Stanford.

“The speakers have been fantastic,” said Kelly McKee, a social studies teacher. “They’ve shared in-depth expertise on topics like Korea’s special economic zones and North Korea – areas you can’t find in professional development workshops elsewhere.”

McKee, who works at Lake Forest High School in Illinois and is a leader of a student exchange program to Shanghai, says she plans to supplement her Korea unit with what she has learned. As the availability of Asian studies curriculum continues to grow, she says the future certainly looks bright.