International Insights: An Interview With Yoonjung Choi

| September 15, 2011

Yoonjung Choi earned her B.A. and M.A. in Social Studies Education from Ewha Woman’s University, Korea, and is currently a 5th year doctoral student in Program in Social Studies at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research interests include social studies curriculum, culturally relevant pedagogies, teaching immigrants and English language learners, and teacher education. She is writing a dissertation titled “Are they ‘American’ enough to teach social studies?: Korean American teachers’ experiences of teaching social studies.” She has been working as a consultant for professional development curriculum development at The Korea Society. In her free time, she enjoys drawing, photography, and traveling.

Sandy Pope: To start, will you tell us where you’re from and how you came to TC?

Yoonjung Choi: I’m from Korea. I’ve studied Social Studies since undergrad. I was certified there and I taught for a short time the middle level, seven to ninth grade, but I applied here and got accepted.

One thing that brought me here is that I want to learn more about multicultural education. I came here in 2006-2007, and Korea’s societies change a lot, a lot of migration, newcomers came to the society, and people started to think about, what should we do in terms of education? Nobody really knew that. I came to US as an exchange student when I was in college, so I started working here, in Pennsylvania, so I thought diversity, multiculturalism, would be interesting to study. In Korea, that sort of a social issue came up, and I thought it would be interesting, especially as a Social Studies teacher, to study, learn, here.

SP: So do you plan to go back to Korea when you’re done here?

YC: I would say that depends on jobs! I want to stay. My husband loves to work here. He’s a computer software developer. I keep thinking, if I wanted to go back, I might study the Korean case for my dissertation. That makes more sense, if I want to go back then I need to study their situation, their case more. But I thought the race issues, the topic I chose for my dissertation, that came to me as more meaningful. So I think doing research here, studying here, and then maybe teaching here would be more interesting and then good for my family.

SP: So would you describe a little bit more where you are in the dissertation process?

YC: I’m doing data collection. I am following four teachers, three teachers are in-service teachers, and then one is actually a pre-service teacher. But the dissertation focus will be the three in-service teachers. Two teachers are second-generation Korean Americans, so they are basically American, I would say. Yah, they can barely speak Korean at all.  They were born and raised here. One teacher is a Korean immigrant woman. I’m observing their classrooms and they’re so different!

SP: So are you liking the research process?

YC: Oh yeah, I do. The data and the observations are sort of overwhelming, it’s a lot. But I really like it. We usually say, “I learn a lot from teachers observation” —but I really do! They teach me a lot, and I feel like I go back to high school! Sitting in the Global History classroom twice a day. I learn a lot from the teachers, and a lot from the process of the research.

SP: What are the differences you see between being a student or a teacher in Korea, versus being a student or a teacher in the United States?

YC: Well, I would say the biggest difference, for me, is that Korea has more centralized government. National standards and national curriculum. Especially history, we follow one textbook from the government. Recently, there are more choices, but when I taught there and when I was a student there, there was only one textbook. There’s nothing like a curriculum developed by individual teachers. Teachers can develop lesson plans, but curriculum, big pictures, they cannot touch that.

In terms of pedagogy, teachers can do whatever they want to do, but the basic idea is, History is not considered as an interpretation. It’s more like a fact, and you should all know about X, Y and Z. I think that’s especially the relationship between North Korea and South Korea, because South Korea should keep it as a democratic society. But that means that South Korean education is more about anti-communist, like 50s in America, very strong notions of anti-communist.

SP: Has that been a difficult switch for you then?

YC: Definitely. Because I never heard the curriculum, semester-long, year-long curriculums developed by teachers. I thought maybe diverse pedagogy, I thought about how to make it more interesting to my students, but in a big picture, curriculum is always given to me. But here it’s not.

SP: So has that changed the parts you’re interested in?

YC: Definitely. The multicultural issue, also a diversity issue. Because teachers in Korea never really thought about it.