Two years ago, Ruben Hernandez didn’t know what the Korean boy band BTS was.

But his students at the Los Angeles Academy Middle School in South Los Angeles surely did. They asked him to play the band’s songs over speakers at lunchtime.

“When I put on the songs, I could hear the screaming,” said Hernandez, the school’s principal.

The student body of 1,246 is more than 90% Hispanic; only one person identified as Asian, according to 2018 state data.

But Hernandez wanted to tap into the students’ fandom over BTS and K-Pop. The students craved to learn more about those traditional Korean dresses, or hanbok, BTS wore. They wanted to know more about the Korean foods the band members were eating.

So, Hernandez, this fall, jumped at the opportunity to have his school be the first in the country to offer a Korean American Culture and Society course. The program, taught in English, will educate students about Korean culture: from etiquette such as bowing to K-Pop and Korean dramas.

By having a course focused on Korean culture rather than language, educators said, they can work around the lack of teachers credentialed to teach the language, often the biggest stumbling block for school districts that want to teach Korean.

And they hope the course can create opportunities for those from different cultures to interact with one another.

“This really bridges cultures,” said Chiae Byun-Kitayama, a Los Angeles Unified School District official who helped Hernandez bring the course to L.A. Academy Middle. “Even though we are so diverse, we don’t crash with one another until opportunities are given.”

Developed by the nonprofit International Korean Educators Network, the Korean American Culture and Society course could be offered for credit in up to eight middle schools next year, including those in Los Angeles, Glendale, Cedarlane Academy in Hacienda Heights and Oxford Academy in Cypress.

“We want to make sure we have a diverse, inclusive curriculum,” said Renae Bryant, the director of English learner and multilingual services at Anaheim Union High School District which runs Oxford Academy. But also, “we don’t have to convince them to learn Korean culture because it’s part of their life already. They love BTS. They love Korean music and Korean drama.”

In a recent class at L.A. Academy Middle, students presented 3-D replicas of Korean palaces. Seventh-grader Kimberly Garay painted creases in an open Big Mac box to illustrate a Korean palace’s ridged roofs.

Garay said she didn’t know much about Korea before taking the course; she just wanted to learn about a different culture. But she began watching a Korean drama soon after beginning the course, she said.

“It’s surprising how talented the actors in Korean drama are,” she quipped. “I fell in love with it.”

The students also were assigned a research project on famous Korean Americans, such as Dosan Ahn Chang Ho who helped organize the first Korean American settlement in the U.S.

Seventh-grader Ashley Villa opened her Chromebook, glanced at a photo of BTS she uses as her laptop’s wallpaper, and got to work. She said she began listening to the band in December and wanted to learn more about what they are wearing and doing.

“I wanted to learn more about their culture,” she said.

International Korean Educators Network has developed the basic curriculum and supporting materials, such as videos on Korean holidays and PowerPoint presentations on Korean food. The nonprofit also hosts a website where educators can share their lesson plans, IKEN President Sung Kim said.

But the curriculum is flexible, depending on who’s teaching and taking the course.

For schools with a large Korean American population, the course can be designed with a greater emphasis on Korean American history to help second-generation students learn more about their heritage. For other schools, it can be more about Korean traditional and popular culture, Byun-Kitayama said.

“If you strictly talk about history, it’s not really relevant to them,” she said.

For Hernandez, the sky’s the limit. He envisions a trip to Koreatown, or even to Seoul. Students could make Korean food together, learn a K-Pop dance move or two, or practice Taekwondo.

“You remember anything out of the ordinary,” he said. “Those are experiences the kids need.”

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