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Korean Culture Lessons Fill Gap for Teachers
In two turns, 63 Los Angeles–area educators got a lesson in Korean drums from UCLA ethnomusicologist Dong Suk Kim last Saturday at the Korean Cultural Center. (Photo by Thomas Shinn)

Korean Culture Lessons Fill Gap for Teachers

Since the teacher education program on Korea got its start in 2004, the UCLA Center for Korean Studies has supported KAFE's model of community engagement, sending renowned faculty members to lead training sessions and helping with programming. By way of a week-long, annual summer institute and other programs, CKS has reached out to roughly 2,000 school administrators and teachers from around the United States in recent years.

Suzanne Holowecky, an audiologist for Los Angeles elementary schools, found out about the Korea Academy for Educators (KAFE) from her co-workers and would have attended its free, day-long workshop on Saturday, Jan. 8, just for the exposure to Korean culture.

"They have thought about every detail so carefully. They're covering not just political issues, but music and food and dance," said Holowecky of the program for 63 local teachers and administrators at the Korean Cultural Center (KCC) on Wilshire Blvd.

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UCLA's Dong Suk Kim demonstrates the 12-string kayagum for K-12 educators at the Korean Cultural Center. He said improvisation comes first in Korea, written music later.

The person most excited about her attending the workshop, however, was one of Holowecky's hearing-disabled students, a proud young Korean American named Daniel.

On Saturday, participants and organizers at the workshop said that KAFE responds to a need for recognition among the more than 300,000 ethnic Koreans in the Los Angeles area — a community that, in spite of the numbers, is invisible to many outsiders and a heritage that is all but lost to some of its younger members.

Since KAFE got its start in 2004, the UCLA Center for Korean Studies has supported its model of community engagement, sending renowned faculty members to lead training sessions and helping with programming. By way of KAFE's week-long, annual summer institute and other programs, which are funded primarily by the KCC, the UCLA center has reached out to roughly 2,000 school administrators and teachers from around the United States in recent years.

As he has done for the last five years, UCLA ethnomusicologist and Music of Korea Ensemble Director Dong Suk Kim on Saturday provided half-hour group lessons in Korean puk drums, in addition to a lecture with demonstrations of the 12-string kayagum, the tanso (flute) and more drums and percussion. CKS Director John Duncan spoke that morning on pre-modern Korean history; other regular KAFE lecturers from the UCLA faculty include Associate Professors Namhee Lee (history) and Kyeyoung Park (anthropology).

Even on the Korean peninsula, Kim told the workshop participants, students have learned more about Western music than their own musical traditions, with some recent improvement.

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Before inviting them to try their hand at drums, Professor Kim leads KAFE participants through a lesson in Korean musical notation for percussion.

The local teachers who come to either of two Saturday workshops held each year don't necessarily have Korean students. Natasha Smith of Metropolitan High School, for example, has none, but she has observed a need for cultural understanding among students who "live in the area at the beginning of Koreatown." In her social studies classes, she asks students to choose projects about a culture they know nothing about.

"A lot of teachers who live within the vicinity of Koreatown have never been to Koreatown," said Helie Lee, an author, performer, UCLA alumna and co-founder of KAFE. Nevertheless, with the program's attention to everything from food to literature, the educators "leave very prepared to go to Korea."

Another teacher at the workshop, Raymond Moser of Dodson Magnet School in Rancho Palos Verdes, studied Japanese history and some Chinese history at the graduate level at UCLA, but says he always felt his lack of a formation in Korean studies.

"This fills a gap for me intellectually," said the seventh-grade world history teacher, who is now also learning to speak Korean. Moser has about 10 Korean American students in class each year.

The KAFE workshops grew out of a conviction that Moser's "gap" is a very common hole in teacher education programs focusing on East Asia and in response to a gulf between the experiences of first- and second-generation Korean Americans, said co-founder Mary Connor.

"When the wave of immigrants came, they didn't want to talk about the past," Connor said. Parents' and children's respective struggles with English and the Korean language also prevented them from conversing in any substantive way about the Japanese occupation of Korea or the division of the nation, Connor said. "My Korean students knew nothing about their culture. I was so shocked by that, that this is what I decided to do when I retired from teaching."

Kim, the UCLA ethnomusicologist, was born in Korea's north and has returned many times to Pyongyang to perform. A graduate of Seoul National University and UCLA, he has been a major advocate of traditional Korean music in America, founding the Korean Classical Music Institute and the Korean Classical Music and Dance Company. Introducing Kim at the workshop, Connor said that he was responsible for more than 5,000 U.S. school performances.

In spite of all his efforts, however, Kim still raises a laugh from audiences of teachers with deadpan delivery of this opening line: "You're all familiar with Korean music. Am I right?"