Seoul has seen a major increase in in number of international schools over the last decade. Schools like Chadwick School, Dwight School and KIS (Korea International School) have swept into town to challenge the old-league schools like Seoul Foreign School and Seoul International School. They all want a share of the lucrative business of preparing Korean students for Ivy League schools and providing luxurious facilities that make for a seductive environment.
But excellent academics and luxurious facilities are not free. Seoul Foreign School charges around 35,000 USD a year for high school, including a dedicated team for helping high-schoolers prepare for Ivy League college admissions.
Nevertheless, there is one school hidden away in a residential neighborhood near Acha Mountain that offers a real alternative. Although it does not have a swimming pool or a soccer field, it has acquired a loyal following among parents seeking something more than good grades. Some parents of students attending Korea Kent Foreign School even confide that they are happy that the school remains a hidden jewel.
The Chang family founded Kent to provide an education, based on ethical principles, that was affordable for the children of foreigners such as diplomats from developing African and Southeast Asian nations-- a demographic long overlooked by more elite schools. The result was one of the most diverse student bodies of any school in East Asia. In starting the school, the Changs were inspired by their Christian beliefs, but they have expanded the circle to include many faiths. That said, there remains something infinitely spiritual about teaching at Kent and a concern for issues beyond curriculum that sets it apart.
The décor of Kent is understated and practical. There is no soaring stairwell with a row of clerestory windows to impress the visitor. But the small touches are most impressive. For example, one finds a sign hanging on the wall next to the stairwell calls out to the student,
"Hey Stop! Turn the lights off. Do you know what will happen if you keep your lights on when you don't need it? Here are some of the things that can happen: Crop failure; more heat waves; more hurricanes; extinction of animals"
Another sign hanging in the stairwell concerns leaving the lights on and those in the cafeteria implore students not to waste food. In the entrance, the visitor sees a pink poster of the school's character strengths, reminding us that only we choose our attitude toward our circumstances.
Kent is a different sort of a school.
Meet Mr. Edward
Most of the international schools have a headmaster ensconced in an immaculately appointed office, complete with a secretary and leather couch. But Kent's principal, Edward Zrudlo, best known as "Mr. Edward," sits behind a plain desk indistinguishable from any in the administrative offices beehive, where he can see students and parents, and they can find him. He is quick to point out that it's the care and efficiency of the assistant principal and the "amazing" office staff that make things work. Mr. Edward spends the day hacking out plans for educational programs that emphasize character and mindfulness. In place of a secretary, he has a pet turtle that bobs up and down in its tank as he passionately describes the mission of Kent.
In fact, Mr. Edward gets antsy if he sits for too long doing paperwork. He is constantly filling in for teachers in classes. He rushes back to confer with students about their studies and personal concerns, and gives them his insights into the mysteries of human experience. Many schools have some sort of motto, but Mr. Edward brings up the Kent motto in every other sentence. He will not let you forget that the words written beneath the "merlin falcon" on Kent's crest, "Explore, Reflect, Apply," inform every aspect of teaching and student activities at the school.
Kent students do not passively receive information, but rather actively explore the world around us. The student is not encouraged to regurgitate facts, but rather is challenged to reflect on the facts' significance and their implications. Mr. Edwards explains: "Learning must extend beyond examinations to include an awareness of the implications of one's actions for one's neighbors and for the world as a whole." He encourages and helps teachers conceive essential questions so that students will come to essential understandings.
Mr. Edwards's approach to teaching puts emphasis on the brain. He wants students to be aware of the process by which they perceive the world and to understand how their breathing, the flow of their thoughts, can calm the amygdala and permit the prefrontal cortex to function properly, allowing them to organize, articulate and create.
These are not idle words. Kent emphasizes breathing practice in the classroom as a means of increasing student attention and concentration. All students engage in disciplined breathing practice as part of their studies. Mindfulness is at the center of the curriculum.
Kent has developed its own culture as well. As the most diverse school in Korea, Kent has to strive to create an inclusive culture. Mr. Edward elaborates, "We have a truly international community here, and we do not throw away people. This is a hard task because being judgmental is so very easy, almost natural. We must work to overcome learned prejudices. Every student is an essential part of our village."
Although Kent School exists to provide a good, rigorous college preparatory education, the ongoing focus is on character itself. The school's "ten character traits" provide a standard for students to measure themselves against. Teachers use the traits in their daily discipline and guidance of students with such questions as, "What character trait did you not choose?"
Mr. Edward explains why the ethical imperative in teaching is primary:
In the long run, students are not going to remember their high school marks. But they will remember the moments they answered this question: 'What do you stand for?' because it touches something vital. Knowing what you stand for gives you confidence, which means that you can reach out to others without fear.
Mr. Edward elaborates:
"I said to a student recently, "It's easy to be liked. You just tell jokes, make no criticisms, and are just fun to have around. But it's not at all certain you're going to make any long-term friends that way. What you really want from others is respect. Somebody who has character and who stands for something has respect and he or she can make real and enduring friends."
Mr. Edward faces an uphill battle in Korea, a society that tends to believe that school grades determine a career. "I do my best to convince parents that a well-balanced student with clear character strengths will be more successful and better able to adjust and thrive, not just in a university, but in life.
We want to make high school a four-year community of character development," he explains.
Mr. Edward believes that in order to thrive in this world, students need a strong character that is capable of standing up to unfair comments, deceptions, temptations and distractions. Without the character traits of integrity, self-control, spark, grit, curiosity, courage, confidence, empathy, gratitude and optimism that the Kent school stresses, students will struggle more than is necessary at the difficult intersections of life.
The school has a clear ethos based on values. Mr. Edward is unambiguous:
"Character comes first. Academics follow naturally. It's not the other way around. Emphasize academics alone and you will have students who are marks-grubbers who will later become money-grubbers. Character is about understanding that the numbers, whether grades or income, are not the critical points in life. "
The ultimate question is: 'who are you?' If you don't embrace character traits and discern your character strengths, you are in danger of falling into a materialist pit, seeing the world as a pie that is only so big. If you think that you have to get as big a piece of the pie as possible because everyone else is competing against you, then you will not really live a meaningful, purpose-filled life.
Life is hard, says Mr. Edward, and it's your character, your character strengths, and the choices you make with them that will largely determine who you are, not your grades. He believes that a school is essentially about teaching students how to be their best selves.
Social Studies as a window on the soul
Matthew Katein's desk on the third floor of Kent is piled with books on American history that stress alternative traditions. I did not come across Howard Zinn's classic story of American history from the perspective of the working class, A People's History of the United States, until I was in graduate school. But Mr. Katein pushes his students to wrestle with complex social issues from early on. His students are challenged to think seriously about how society works and consider what the political and economic forces are that run beneath the surface.
Mr. Katein has found considerable support for his approach to teaching at Kent. He notes:
The culture of Kent is something that I have not experienced at other schools. Kent has so many different cultures, ethnicities, and experiences that our student body supports a balanced and profound inquiry. Our students are remarkably accepting of one another and the ethnic divisions that we find in many schools are not so prevalent.
Mr. Katein also senses that Kent is not dominated by the cliques that one finds in many schools. "Everyone is on friendly terms and there is not a single dominant culture," he explains.
But there is more to it than that. "Kent has a certain seriousness to it," he notes, "After a few weeks of teaching, I noticed that I did not have to constantly wander the room and make sure that my students were on task. Their independence and focus was something I had not experienced before."
Mr. Katein is most drawn to the sharing culture at Kent which encourages students to help each other out. Much of his classes involve collaboration. He teaches history in an engaging manner that draws the students in, and the content of the class is constantly evolving.
He notes, "The goal of our class is to improve the reading and writing skills of the students, to teach them to think critically and express themselves creatively. The historical information we read is the content for the debate on human experience, and not the primary purpose of the course." Towards this goal he employs many supplementary materials including primary sources, interviews, group projects, gallery walks, videos, documentaries and inquiry projects.
The exploratory approach is balanced in his class by careful readings that emphasize a rigorous historical approach. He explains, "I want students to write like historians on most days and although we employ a wide variety of learning styles, I also want to make sure that students also have structured textbook/lecture style lessons that emphasize form and rigor."
A classroom filled with artifacts
Sporting a red beard, Sam Gray has a disarmingly relaxed manner that draws you in. But once he starts talking about his fifth graders, you immediately sense a tremendous intensity. You need only look at the walls of his classroom to see the nature of his participatory teaching. His students have made elaborate maps of Africa and have collected assorted numerous artifacts in the course of their research projects about the world around them.
One half of the classroom forms a cozy circle defined by a couch, a table, an easy chair, and a fluffy carpet where students can gather to brainstorm and to be themselves, while wrestling with complex questions. In the middle of the space lies an object, what Mr. Gray calls a "provocation." A 'provocation' is an artifact or tool that challenges the students to explore their world more profoundly.
Mr. Gray explains:
I do not tell my students exactly what the provocation is, but I give them clues to get them interested. For example, I put out measuring tapes when we were working with fractions. I had them measure things and figure out exact distances in whole centimeters, and in factions. When we entered into the content in the textbook, fractions were not abstractions for the students.
This approach to learning comes back to Mr. Gray's belief that learning through the five senses makes information stick. He elaborates:
You are encoding the information in multiple ways in the brain. It is particularly true about going outside to learn the reality of what is taught through experience. When we converted fractions to decimals I had them go outside and measure trees. The fractions did not come from a textbook; they came from the world around us.
The mindfulness curriculum at Kent has tremendous appeal for Mr. Gray. He makes sure to sound a tuneful bell at the beginning of every class and to have all students gather on the floor, or on chairs, and breathe deeply for five minutes, taking note of how breathing impacts our emotions. "The students have become more reflective, and less impulsive, as a result of the breathing practice," he explains, "I see that taking the time allows them to develop more self-control and their responses in class are more insightful."
Mr. Gray's fifth-grade class treats larger subjects as part of an organic whole. He works alongside students as the subjects of English language, history, and geography are applied to these larger investigations. He demands plenty of careful writing and thinking, but that writing always comes back to the larger topic.
Because of Kent School's diversity, a project about food and culture was a natural topic. Mr. Gray asked the students to talk about their own cultural identity, their country, and their habits. Each student picked a dish that he or she thought represented his or her culture. The students learned how to make that dish, and they interviewed their parents about the dishes and about the cultures that surround the dishes. The project ended with a multinational buffet in which the students presented their dishes and talked about their cultures to the other students.
The human experience of migration that makes up history is another topic that engages the students, Mr. Gray says. "We discussed who moves and why they move. We focused in on the case of refugees and their plight today. But we situated that event within the historical context of human migration. We also talked about how animals migrate."
Because art is a passion of his, Mr. Gray engages his students in the nature of creativity and what can be done through the arts. The students look at what we can learn about a culture by looking at its art forms. The students are encouraged to think about the nature of creativity and its role in our society.
This approach is enhanced by the diversity at Kent. "We don't just talk about diversity," Gray notes,
We have a truly diverse population from countries around the world. I learn from my students and the students learn from each other. The diversity in the classroom is palpable. When we talk about Africa, we have students with us who grew up there so student diversity plays a vital role in the learning process. Kent offers a global education, not just pictures in a book. I use the students as part of the curriculum. We talk about differences in culture, in religions, and in thinking to draw the students into the discussion.
Making math fun
Kaleena Carter is the most energetic math teacher I have met. She is constantly engaged with her students in class and after class. In addition to her teaching, she organizes events to introduce colleges to seniors.
Her classes are carefully organized and there is no ambiguity as to what students are expected to learn. At the same time, she wants to engage the students in projects, creating a cooperative learning environment that involves visuals and PowerPoint presentations. Students are asked to form teams, or "pods."
Ms. Carter makes math a combination of individual effort and group projects. This is no accident. She wants to break down the Korean assumption that students are competing against other students and instead wants to create a collaborative environment. "If the whole table doesn't produce the answer to a student's question, then I will come in to help," she explains, "But I try to promote the idea that they should be working with their peers because they're going to be working with them in their careers later."
One student may be really effective at figuring out the contextual clues about how to solve the problem, whereas another student might be better at doing computations. So I try to build them up so they can promote their strengths in the classroom. Not everybody is going to be a human calculator. Not everybody is going to remember all the algorithms. And that's okay. The real question is: 'Can you work together and solve a problem?
Ms. Carter sometimes has students in front of the classroom. The classroom is not supposed to be "teacher-driven," but rather "student-driven." She elaborates:
I'm helping them, but they're teaching each other when they are at the front of the class. They gain confidence to use the correct lexicon or whatever concept we're learning and they explore alternative ways to solve a problem. They are not just practicing to take the SAT; they are developing a cognitive skill set that can be used in any discipline.
Like other teachers, Ms.Carter is drawn to the village character of Kent. She explains, "I think the size of the classes at Kent helps a lot. There's more of a family feeling in the relationships between the kids. So you're able to get to know the students on a much deeper level. And the small class size pushes the teacher to be multifaceted. You're not just a math teacher."
Teachers have started volunteer groups, clubs, and sports teams with the students. Ms. Carter has launched a cheerleading team that is immensely popular with the girls.
A school with a purpose
Kent is an ongoing experiment that excites and challenges students and teachers alike. The highest priority is encouraging a more complete comprehension of what makes individuals and events significant, what principles underlie natural and historical phenomena, how we can analyze logically, and apply knowledge in an ethical manner. Mr. Edward has made a real contribution by recognizing that knowledge is emotional, not just rational, and its purpose is essential to our brain retaining information. Our brain perceives things emotionally therefor our character traits, which are essentially emotional, are critical.
The spaces within the school where students work and play have their own traditions, values and ideals that inspire. The students were involved in the creation of new houses for affiliation, giving them the chance to play a role in creating a new tradition.
To create a healthy sense of group identity and of positive competition, Kent students are placed in one of four houses from the first year. The concept harkens back to Harry Potter, but the house names were chosen by the students. The four houses feature flying animals that are in keeping with the school symbol of the Merlin falcon. The Houses are: Thunderbird, Dove, Hornet and Phoenix. Although each house's mascot remains the same, each year the students create a new House T-shirt with a design reinterpreting their house symbol.
Kent stands out because of the creative manner in which students and teachers strive together to constantly improve the school while embracing it most fundamental value of character-driven learning. It is an island in a desert of over-priced international schools offering education as a product for consumption.