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Feb 5, 2009

Teaching and Learning Far from Home

Elementary school students in north Big Horn County and elsewhere in Wyoming are getting a first-hand look at Korean culture while welcoming teachers visiting from South Korea into their classrooms this month.

Moonhee Kim and Hyunkyung Eom have been teaching at Lovell Elementary School since Jan. 5 and will continue until the end of February. The two teachers said they are having a great time in Lovell and learning a lot as they rotate from class to class and through all grade levels teaching, observing and assisting teachers.

While working with a kindergarten class, Kim said reading a book to students had her practicing her English pronunciation over and over at night to prepare. She was frustrated at first as many students couldn’t understand her accent, but the practice is paying off and she said her skills are getting better every day. 

“They asked many questions as I read,” Kim said, laughing. “I couldn’t cover all the questions while reading.”

She said she was impressed by how well a Lovell kindergarten teacher handled the energetic kids.

As the visiting teachers rotated to the upper elementary classes, they more often assumed the role of a student. While teaching English is the focus of the teachers’ visit, Kim said math and science classes were also beneficial and interesting.

“When I entered the fourth-grade class, I studied with the students,” Kim said. “It was a special experience for me.”

Eom noted the many differences between American and Korean teaching styles, such as in working out math problems and reading music. She said the music department at Incheon stresses teaching music by assigning a word to each pitch: do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti, do. At LES, Eom noted, students are taught to recognize a major chord first. She said there are advantages to each method, but said there are many interesting differences in teaching between the two cultures. She said she liked that American schools employ many different types of teachers, specializing in speech, reading and special education.

A few miles down the road at Rocky Mountain Elementary School, Seunghye Jeon and Yousang Jeon have been working with teachers and students. They reside just miles away from the other teachers in Incheon, South Korea, a city of nearly 2.5 million people on the west coast and near the country’s capitol, Seoul.
Though they both have the same last name, Seunghye said the teachers are unrelated and happen to share one of many common Korean names.

Seunghye and Yousang spent part of last week making personalized Korean style bookmarks to give to the RMES students and staff when they depart in about a month. They came to learn and to teach and they have been giving presentations about Korean culture while visiting the many elementary classrooms.

“The kids enjoyed the lesson, learning to count in Korean one to 10,” Yousang said.

When their schools’ education departments asked them to travel to the U.S. and participate in an English teaching course, Seunghye and Yousang were happy to go. With the demand for proficient English teachers in South Korea, they will have heightened skills to offer when they return home to teach. By participating, the teachers are obligated to spend four years teaching in Incheon.

The program was organized by Eleutian Technology, a Big Horn Basin based company that employs teachers in the U.S. to teach English to students overseas, mostly in South Korea.

The program is coordinated with Northwest College in Powell, where the teachers spent about five months enrolled learning about English, American culture and visiting some of the area’s natural attractions. After their education at NWC, the 30 teachers were sent out to different school districts for a practicum.

While they share cultural lessons and assist students in the classroom in all subjects, the visiting teachers said they’re learning just as much from students and staff as they are teaching them. Yousang said using English in everyday life has taught her phonics and the American accent and her reading has improved.

“I am impressed by the reading program,” Yousang said, adding that the many exceptions found in the English language can be tough. “Teachers teach basic rules, it is useful.”

The teachers attended Family Fun Night at RMES last Thursday and said it made them feel “more like a family.”

All of the teachers said they enjoy recess just hanging out with the students. Kim and Oem said they have taught the LES students some traditional Korean games, which they have enjoyed playing together. She said she found that some popular games are present in both cultures – skunk tag in the U.S. is similar to Korea’s frozen water game. The teachers said soccer is the biggest sport in Korea, but Korean children also enjoy baseball, basketball and Taekwondo. They noted that recess is more supervised by teachers on American playgrounds.

The Korean teachers said they were impressed with the kind students, teachers and everyone else they have met while on their journey in the U.S., and the the mutual respect between young and old people. Several of the teachers had a chance to visit Big Horn Canyon and the Big Horn Mountains with their host families, and they said the views were wonderful. Kim said she expected a desolate landscape after researching Wyoming on the Internet, but she found it to be beautiful instead, visiting Yellowstone Park, Cody, Powell and Lovell. The teachers agreed that the sky is beautiful in Wyoming.