Saturday, July 16, 2011

US geographers take story of Korea back home

Every rock has its own story. A lonely island in the East Sea is no exception.

Dokdo, a cluster of rocky islets off South Korea’s east coast, will finally have its unrequited story put into words correctly in foreign geography textbooks.

Dokdo and the East Sea have been wrongly identified as Takeshima and the Sea of Japan in many world maps and foreign school textbooks.

To shed light on its long-unrecognized story, involving the wrong notation of their names, a group of geographers and cartographers held the 2nd International Conference on Territorial and Geographic Education here from June 30 to July 1.

Participants who teach and write textbooks in the United States plan to reflect what they have learned about Korea when updating American textbooks.

“I’m going to go back and talk about how Korea educates her people and the importance of sensitivities about what we heard and try to get that improved,” said Celeste Fraser, president of the Geographic Society of Chicago, who has authored geography and social studies materials for textbook publishers such as Prentice Hall.

The conference, co-hosted by the Northeast Asian History Foundation (NAHF) and the Korean Geographical Society (KGS), aimed to improve American geographers’ knowledge of Korea and share knowledge about geographic education in the two countries. Ten American geography teachers and authors of geography textbooks from 10 different states and 20 of their South Korean counterparts attended the conference.

Learning about Korea

But the conference was just the beginning to learning not only about Dokdo and the East Sea, but about Korea as a whole.

They also went on field trips to historical and cultural sites.

“In a way the conference prepped us for the field study because we’ve heard a lot of things in the conference we’ve been able to observe in the field study,” said Joseph Stoltman, professor of Geography and Science Education at Western Michigan University and former president of the National Council for Geographic Education.

On the field trip which started in Icheon, located in Gyeonggi Province, participants saw how Korean traditional celadon was made. At Andong Hahoe Folk Village located in North Gyeongsang Province, participants experienced the traditional Korean way of life.

Hahoe village, a UNESCO World Heritage, well conserves traditional living culture and architectural styles. From the tree of “sam-sin,” three grandmother ghosts to whom people prayed for a child, to the mask museum where they could see how people enjoyed recreational activities, the participants could get a glimpse of how Koreans used to live in the past.

In Gyeongju, a city located in North Gyeongsang Province, participants visited Bulguk Temple, and Sukgulam, a cave temple with a large stone statue of Buddha, another UNESCO World Heritage.

“This trip has really helped me get a sense of diversity of landscapes of Korea from the urban to the rural. I have been able to see much more in terms of the agriculture, livelihood and food. It has really broadened my awareness.” said Alyson Greiner, associate professor of Geography at Oklahoma State University and author of a college-level textbook, “Visualizing Human Geography: At Home in a Diverse World.”

At the beach in front of the underwater tomb of King Munmu of Silla who finished his mission of unifying the three kingdoms (Goguryeo, Baekje and Silla), the geographers each collected a variety of stones to take back home in memory of the trip.

“I’m going to write ‘East Sea Rock’ on this. If I give kids something to hold, they’re going to remember it. If I write down something to identify them, they’ll remember better,” said Shagufta Ellam who teaches world geography at McNeil High School in Austin, Texas.

Although the 10 American geographers could breathe the air of the East Sea, the original plan was to actually set foot on Dokdo and see and feel the geographic vicinity of them to the mainland. The plan was cancelled due to poor weather conditions.

“I was a little disappointed indeed not to be able to visit Dokdo. But considering the time limitations and weather conditions, I understand it would not have been practical to visit the islets,” said Dan Page, a social studies teacher at Woodstock High School and an adjunct professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia. “But I have created a lesson activity for my upcoming classes dealing with the Dokdo issue. Before the end of this school year, I will be an authority on Dokdo and so will my students.”

Taking Korea to the world

Being educators, the geographers were keen to take what they have learned back home and teach their American students.

“We would love to be able to teach about Korea and Asia but we need help,” said Celeste Fraser. “The problem with our education system is that geography is not a required course. So although we do teach about Korea in World Geography class, if students don’t take the class, they wouldn’t learn about Korea. Even in the textbooks, however, Korea is only covered briefly. If there are four pages about China, there is only one about Korea.”

Many of them knew about Korea and have taught about it but have never been to the country. For many, the trip was their first time in Asia, let alone Korea.

“We knew about Korea but we only heard of its economic development, its position in the Four Asian Tigers,” said Alyson Greiner. “We’ve heard more about North Korea and its dictatorship than we have about South Korea.”

The conference and the trip were eye-openers for these American educators who saw, heard and felt Korean society, culture, its history and geography.

“Learning about the geographical naming dispute on the East Sea has actually given me a face and the whole emotion behind it, especially with the field study,” said Shagufta Ellam.

The legacies from the trip will live on, said Joseph Stoltman. “What we can make out of this experience is projecting out to the future to the greater benefit of Korea and the U.S. We’ll try to get some things in the publications that will reflect upon this experience.”

During the trip, he had picked up a rock from each place he visited. “Every rock has its own story,” Stoltman had said.

The East Sea rocks the 10 geographers took back will now tell the stories of Korea — each in their own state.

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