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30@30 Specialist Joan Kang Shin Reflects on Engaging Learners Through Song in K-12 Education

“It is my passion to work with teachers, and especially to make their classrooms more engaging for young learners.”

In the fifteen years since Dr. Joan Kang Shin took her first English Language Specialist assignment in Saudi
Arabia, she has developed teacher training workshops in Morocco, Libya, and Russia, among other
locales. Her extensive involvement in the program stems from its commitment to K-12 education. “The
interest and enthusiasm around the world for teaching English at increasingly younger ages has grown
rapidly, and teachers need help to be better prepared to teach children. As a result, most of my
assignments as a Specialist have been focused on helping those teachers learn how to teach children. It
is my passion to work with teachers, and especially to make their classrooms more engaging for young

30@30 Specialist Joan Kang Shin with young participants

Over the years, Shin has encountered changing educational systems, particularly resulting from lowering
the age of English education to primary school levels, and a need for professional development in the
countries she has visited through the Specialist program. She’s experienced a paradigm shift in her own
approach, away from teacher training per se to teacher development, which she sees as essentially
different. “When we continue to call programs ‘teacher training,’ it puts teachers in the wrong mindset
from the get-go. We are not prescribing what teachers should do each lesson but showing new ways of
teaching and learning and encouraging teachers to reflect on how to apply these to their own
classrooms. It’s really about developing yourself as a professional.”

“The work I was doing as a Specialist opened my mind to the ways that people from other cultures come together through song, even singing our traditional songs in different ways.”

In her work with teachers of young English learners globally, Shin has identified another issue that
teachers–and parents–are facing: engaging children within the virtual learning environment created by
the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. “Imagine what kids normally see on a screen, on a TV or a computer
or your cell phone. What are the things that they are looking at that entertain them? You’re competing
with that in addition to whatever other distractions are happening around a child.”
The remedy to this obstacle is not only well-suited to current COVID circumstances but was informed
directly by her work as a Specialist. Early on in her career, Shin had a memorable experience teaching
Libyan teachers how to use traditional American songs to teach English. After a workshop focused on
using songs to teach English, she was delighted to find the teachers wanted to perform the same songs
for her, but using locally relevant harmonies and rhythms. “The work I was doing as a Specialist opened
my mind to the ways that people from other cultures come together through song, even singing our
traditional songs in different ways,” she says. “What we as humans have in common within our cultures
is that we are engaging kids in developmentally appropriate ways to teach them about the world around
them using things like songs.” She says that singing songs with children and reading aloud to them
through teleconferencing software such as Zoom are great ways to engage them in language learning,
particularly when using fun features such as the ability to put the presenter into the shared screen to
make these activities come alive.

30@30 Specialist Joan Kang Shin with participants

Her experiences in the Specialist program have informed much of her current work with National
Geographic Learning, where she’s a co-series editor and co-author for the Welcome to Our World course
books for young English language learners at the preprimary level. Following on the success she’s had
with similar approaches through her work as a Specialist, using international children’s songs from
around the world is a major feature of the series. “Because I was getting to know so much about what
was happening in so many different countries through my Teaching English to Young Learners Global
Online Course (through the U.S. Department of State’s OPEN Program) and through visiting many
countries with the Specialist program, I was better able to develop materials as a series editor for my
National Geographic Learning series,” she says.
For Shin, the benefits of life as a Specialist go far beyond professional development, however. Cultural
exchange is a way of opening one’s mind to the diversity in other countries, as she found on a trip to
Elista, Russia, that put her directly in contact with the region’s considerable ethnic Korean community.
Of the experience, she recalls that “It was fascinating to see how diverse Russia is, and that even though
I was going there as a Specialist to represent the United States, it was my ethnic background that really
caught the attention of this community, and they really wanted to reach out.”
With this in mind, Shin’s advice to educators is to take the opportunity to join this prestigious program
if given the chance. “Being part of an exchange like this is a great way to advance the ways in which
we’re teaching English around the world and represent perspectives from the U.S. We’re a very large
country, with diverse people, diverse points of view and differing perspectives. I think the program is a
wonderful way to make that person-to-person cultural exchange through education. No matter what
you do later, in my case as a professor and teacher educator, there will be so many ways that the
experiences you have in the Specialist program will inform the future work that you do.”

30@30 Specialist Joan Kang Shin

Joan Kang Shin, Ph.D. is Associate Professor of Education at George Mason University. Dr. Shin specializes in teaching ESL/EFL to young learners and has provided professional development programs both in-person and online to English language teachers in over 100 countries. In 2016, Dr. Shin was named one of the 30 Up and Coming Leaders of TESOL by TESOL International Association. She is an award-winning author and series editor for National Geographic Learning. Her titles include Teaching Young Learners English, Our World, and Impact. As an English Language Specialist for the U.S. Department of State, Dr. Shin has conducted EFL teacher training programs with hundreds of teachers in Brazil, Cambodia, Costa Rica, Egypt, Guatemala, Laos, Libya, Morocco, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Serbia, South Korea, Thailand, Turkey, Venezuela, Vietnam, and the U.A.E.

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