Coventry social studies teacher hopes his Korea visit will pay dividends for his students

01:00 AM EDT on Thursday, June 26, 2008

By Lisa Vernon-Sparks

Journal Staff Writer

Ted Mitchell, who heads the social studies department at Coventry’s Alan Shawn Feinstein Middle School, is part of a contingent of American educators who flew yesterday to South Korea for a workshop program aimed at enhancing cultural understanding. Above, he works with student Josh Williams on a project.

The Providence Journal / Kathy Borchers

COVENTRY — How do you say “video game” or “pop music” in Korean?

Ted Mitchell, a social studies teacher at Alan Shawn Feinstein Middle School, doesn’t know yet — but if finding out will help get his students more interested in ancient Korean history, he’s all for learning it.

Rather than studying it in a book, Mitchell left for Seoul, South Korea, yesterday to experience it firsthand.

He is part of a contingent of American educators participating in a Korean studies workshop sponsored by the Korea Foundation and Yonsei University, in Seoul. The program, in its third year, is also supported by the nation’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It seeks to enhance understanding between Koreans and Americans using knowledge gained in the classroom and community.

Mitchell, who is the curriculum coordinator and social studies department chairman at Feinstein Middle School, is one of 100 educators selected from a pool of 400 applicants. There are two groups of 50 teachers attending the two-week workshop. Mitchell, who is scheduled to return on July 9, is the only Rhode Island teacher going this year.

The school recently revamped its social studies curriculum. There is a big push to teach ancient world history, from early human civilizations to the Renaissance period, touching as many countries as possible, in a chronological progression to get students ready for high school social studies lessons.

The challenge is to make ancient history interesting. It’s not something on the to-do list for most adolescents. Mitchell hopes his trip to Korea will help.

“Middle school kids are incredibly honest. Kids don’t care what happened back then. They look at ancient China, [or Korea] and even our [U.S.] history and they kind of go, that’s boring,” he said. “You try to cater to the kids’ interest. As a teacher, I’m trying to make it more … interesting and show why it’s important to the present day.”

The Institute of International Education, in Washington, D.C., coordinates the recruitment for the program.

“What we are looking for are teachers and schools who will benefit from the experience in engaging in a mutually crosscultural experience,” said Christopher Powell, the director of abroad programs at the institute. He said educators from around the country review the applications according to published criteria and make the selections.

Mitchell took a similar educational trip to China in 2006. Back then he took hundreds of digital photos and created a slide show, with his written narrative, and brought back other materials to help link one culture with the other.

“I’m using real pictures and video and I can tie that to the past. I can show them current pop music and CDs and play some of that, so they can see it’s similar. And then you go back and ask what kind of music did people listen to a thousand years ago,” he said. “In order to get them to care about long-ago history, you have to tie them to it and then they get it. It becomes much more effective.”

He reviewed his itinerary on Tuesday and said a typical day may start with a morning lecture, followed by a field trip in the afternoon to, for example, a Buddhist temple or an ancient palace, or the famous 38th Parallel and the demilitarized zone from the Korean War, he said, or other places where they can learn about Korean history, economics and culture.

The educators will also have an opportunity to visit with students and teachers from the Goyang Foreign Language High School to learn about the Korean education system. The trip wraps up with a trip to the historical capital of Gyeongju.

“I will put all this stuff online, that’s the ultimate goal. You shouldn’t keep things to yourself; you should share it with everyone,” Mitchell said.