It’s fitting Karen Coss teaches AP Human Geography and World Cultural Geography at Land O’ Lakes High School.
After all, she has visited 16 countries on six continents.
“I like to travel,” said Coss, who also teaches psychology at the high school.
Her most recent international stop came this past summer, in South Korea. The trip was part of a teaching fellowship through the Korean War Legacy Foundation.
Coss was one of just 30 teachers selected for the fellowship, which took place the last week of July.
According to the foundation, the fellowship “focused on building a deeper understanding of the Korean Peninsula’s rich history, its simultaneous achievements of rapid economic development and democratization, and close friendship with the United States” through visits to key historical sites, museums, and conversations with Korean teachers and students.
The trip marked the teacher’s first visit to Asia, and her first fellowship.
“It was a whirlwind, but absolutely amazing, to be able to go,” she said. “They really did get to show us so much of Korea. To do as much as we did in five days was amazing.”
The trip’s high point, for Coss, was visiting the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), a 160-mile border that has divided North and South Korea for more than 60 years since the end of the Korean War.
Fellows were allowed special access to the border area and were able to stand feet away from North Korea near where inter-Korean summits take place.
Coss quipped she actually stepped foot in North Korea — for about 10 minutes. Of course, she and other fellows were safely secured by South Korean guards in the zone’s joint security area.
“It certainly didn’t disappoint,” Coss said, of visiting the border.
“The DMZ was amazing,” she said, adding she’s sure her visit there will figure into future lessons she delivers to her students.
As an educator, Coss also valued the opportunity to meet with Korean teachers and gain some insight into the country’s education system. Her group visited Seoul Digitech High School, a school for gifted students known for its technology and graphic design programs.
While there, fellows tested out a virtual reality video game built by students. They were also given a comic book that students made.
“We knew we were going to meet some teachers in Korea, but we did not know that we were actually going to visit a school, so that was real cool,” Coss said.
During the visit, the Land O’ Lakes teacher discovered school days in South Korea are much longer than in the States, oftentimes from 8 a.m. until as late as 10 p.m., five days a week.
Coss learned that classes in South Korea finish around dinnertime, but most students typically remain at school through the evening to work on various assignments and projects, or get help from teachers.
Fellows, too, were introduced to Korean history and culture across the weeklong trip.
That portion included stops at the National Museum of Korean Contemporary History in Seoul and the Gyeongbokgung Palace, the main royal palace of the Joseon dynasty built in 1395.
They also stayed at a Buddhist temple on Gangwha Island near Incheon — the trip’s “unexpected highlight, by far,” Coss said.
At the temple, fellows learned about a monk’s daily life, practiced meditation and had a special question-and-answer session with the head monk of the monastery.
They dressed in traditional monk garb and made prayer bead bracelets during the stay.
Coss recalled waking at 4 a.m., for morning prayers.
The Buddhist prayers entailed performing prostrations, or bows, 108 consecutive times to show reverence to the Triple Gem (comprising the Buddha, his teachings, and the spiritual community) and other objects of veneration.
Of the prostrations, the teacher proudly noted she “did them all.”
“I did all 108. It was a little rough. I didn’t exactly do them correctly,” she said, with a chuckle.
Another memorable part of the trip: Fellows visited the War Memorial of Korea and were special guests at the United Nations Armistice Day celebration, which was attended by Korean War veterans from several nations and the Prime Minister of Korea, Lee Nak-yeon.
Coss said she found the citizens to be very welcoming to Americans and “anyone who had anything to do with the war.”
“We were like celebrities everywhere we went,” Coss said. “Everything is very pro-U.S. Like, they’re very, ‘Oh, Americans!’ It’s not like going to Europe.”
The entire experience will surely have lasting effects for the high school teacher.
She plans to share what she learned with her students, highlighting some of the cultural differences she observed in South Korea and detailing how the country has developed into the world’s eighth-largest economy since the end of the Korean War.
The fellowship experience also has prompted Coss to help initiate a student club, called ‘Time for Diversity.’
Through some of the teacher’s newfound Korean connections, Land O’ Lakes students in the club will get to Skype and communicate with an all-girls school in southern South Korea every month or so.
Meantime, Coss said she’s going to apply for more teaching fellowships to other countries.
She, too, has several international trips on the docket over the next several years.
She’ll visit the Dominican Republic over winter break and might visit Spain next summer.
She also is organizing student trips in 2020 and 2021, to Ecuador and Japan, respectively.
“There’s so many places to see in the world,” she said.
Published September 26, 2018