Approaches To #GlobalEd

Unpacking the Why: Day One at the People of Color Conference

12/8/2016

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In our pre-conference session yesterday, Kapono Ciotti and I shared an interview I did with a young woman I mentored starting at the end of her 5th grade year, when she was given a scholarship to the independent school where I taught.  A Mexican-American raised by a single mother from the state of Durango, she experienced so much “othering” by teachers and tutors that she ultimately dropped out of her NAIS school and went to her neighborhood parish school.  Back among students who looked like her, and among teachers who honored exactly who she was, she thrived.

This young woman’s story is not unique, unfortunately, and her powerful words–as well as the outraged reactions of our workshop participants–have been in my heart and mind all day at the People of Color Conference.  How often do we misperceive our students’ capacities or drive, assume we understand why a student acts as they do, rather than asking the questions that might help us see the world from their perspective?  When we come to the People of Color Conference each year, we come back into a community that gets the importance of students’ sense of power and identity, of their wellbeing in their own skin and their empowerment as learners.  How might we ensure that this happens for all learners in all schools?  How we might ensure that educators engage all students with an asset mindset and try to understand their why?

Our morning keynote Bryan Stevenson explored similar ideas by suggesting that we need to look more closely at the racial divides and challenges around us.  Don’t avoid “bad neighborhoods,” he told us; get closer and try to understand why they exist.  Get proximate to the people, to their day-to-day lives, so you can understand and honor the whybehind what you see.  His stories humanized everyone, from death row inmates to the prison guard whose truck was covered in confederate flags and racist bumperstickers.  He told us of a condemned man who sang of higher ground, fueling Stevenson’s sense of purpose as a result, of how the school-to-prison pipeline exists because of the assumption that some children aren’t children.  “We have to change the narrative,” he told us repeatedly; we have to combat the fear and anger that lie at the heart of oppression so we can see every child as fully human and deserving of a real childhood.  “We have to stay hopeful,” he told us, so that when someone says “these kids can’t…” there’s always someone pushing back to insist that they can.  I found myself thinking again of my student, of how often her teachers assumed they knew her why (she wasn’t trying hard enough, didn’t have the right skills, probably had challenges in her family life), rather than starting from the kinds of questions that might have unearthed what was really going on (she had a very supportive home life but insecurity over who she was and how she fit in, the sense no one honored her as a learner and she needed to get better at everything, and intense discomfort because she knew even the teachers saw her as different).

Rosetta Lee’s sessions on racial and ethnic identity touched on similar themes; in the morning, we did an “Up-Down Exercise” to affirm our own identities, and with each set of identities she unpacked the nuances involved.  In the afternoon, she told us about her own “lunchbox moment” on her first day of school in the United States, when her peers thought her Korean food was gross and she first felt “other.”  She provided us with a sense of the stages we might see students go through as they make sense of their marginalized or privileged identities.  She reminded us that we have to do our own identity work before we can do it with students; otherwise, we run the risk of projecting our baggage onto them.  She talked, too, about the balance we have to set, especially with young children of color, between helping them understand the challenges they may encounter, what she called “protective socialization,” and making them overly scared of a hostile world.  She said that our job is to tell our students how much we love and believe in them as exactly the people they are, but that we can’t promise their identities will always be honored by the society around them.  She unpacked why so many students feel limited by the perceptions of others, particularly by adults in a position of power, and she urged us to try to understand the reasons behind the behaviors we might see in the schoolhouse.  If a student isn’t turning in homework, for example, it might be important to understand why it feels easier to avoid caring at all, rather than caring, trying, and running the risk of failing.

At Mt Vernon Presbyterian School here in Atlanta, one of their community norms is to start from questions.  Today drove home just how important that can be–not just for our students but for our broader society.  When we approach students with assumptions about who they are, we are not engaging with them as fully human–and that can have lasting and traumatic effects on the young people in our care.  Addressing this challenge means unpacking our own baggage, the why behind our own choices and assumptions.  But we also need to remember another MVPS community norm, which is assuming the best intentions.  I would like to believe that most educators want to do right by every child in their care; what they often lack is the training to know how to respond to challenging moments, how to get to the heart of why those challenges have arisen.  Like a gardener, culturally responsive teachers create the conditions for growth and learn to lean into discomfort, to be transparent with their students and model growth.  Each child has gifts and perspectives to offer our classrooms and the world beyond our walls, and educators who approach students with an asset mindset are able to draw those gifts and perspectives to the surface.  Rosetta reminded us today that while different perspectives provide different truths, the most powerful community is one where we recognize that we need each other in order to see the whole truth.

Approaches to #GlobalEd: Understanding and Solving Global Problems

10/6/2013

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“There’s no competitive advantage today in knowing more than the person next to you.  The world doesn’t care what you know.  What the world cares about is what you can do with what you know.” –Tony Wagner

Another essential goal of global education is to help students understand the roots of our most pervasive global problems, and to develop students’ ability to come up with new solutions.  Young people are often told they’re being prepared to lead change in the future, yet youth movements are creating real and immediate change as much as any other grassroots movements on the planet.  The truth is that young people can be catalysts of change now, but to do so they need to understand the history behind and nuances of our most pressing, borderless problems.  Even more importantly, students need their divergent and creative skills developed so that they can learn to ask good questions and ultimately develop innovative new solutions.

This requires a significant shift toward student-driven, inquiry-based pedagogies in the classroom; rather than teaching toward a set of known answers, we now need to foster classrooms where an unusual, unexpected answer is the best answer, and we are preparing students with the habits of mind which will allow them to navigate an uncertain, volatile future.  As teachers, we need to pose questions with many possible answers, and to help students see every answer as valuable and worth considering if it offers a constructive solution to the problems faced by our increasingly interconnected societies.

At the Moses Brown School and the Berkeley Carroll School, students chose from the Millennium Development Goals and worked in teams explore the nature of the problems underlying each goal–where these problems exist, what the repercussions are, and what solutions are being posed and tried by governmental and non-governmental organizations.  Using the platform of TakingITGlobal to connect with organizations and youth around the world, students worked together to analyze solutions, and each team presented on what they believed to be the best solution for their global problem in a particular context.  At Moses Brown School, 9th grade students produced videos and letters designed to persuade their student government to invest in the organization of their choice.  At the Berkeley Carroll School, students put on a global issues fair for their peers, to educate their broader community about a myriad of global issues and solutions.  Please note that both projects will be presented at the annual conferences of the National Council for Social Studies (November, 2013) and the National Association of Independent Schools (February, 2014).

Try this in your classroom:  
Create a “global village” activity in which teams of students are given the roles of different countries–and their share of 100 pennies based on the actual economy of that country.  This can also be adapted to include objects for household use or other resources.  Give the whole class a set of everyday challenges (food for family, education for children, home, health care, clean water, etc.), and have students work in teams to determine how to best spend their limited money (be sure that no team has enough resources to afford everything, so that choices are required).

See an excellent, more developed model of a global simulation with middle schoolers at the Heifer Global Village.  This approach is not just for older students, either; see John Hunter’s extraordinary work with 4th graders through the World Peace Game.

Approaches to #GlobalEd: Exploring Varied Perspectives

9/22/2013

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“The illiterate of the 21st Century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”  –Alvin Toffler

A primary goal of global education is to expose students to a variety of global perspectives, and to help them learn to honor experiences and points of view which are vastly different from their own.  Exploring perspectives includes learning about the cultural and political roots of opinions on any given topic, whether historical or modern, as well as recognizing and celebrating our shared human experience and values.

While this strand of global education has often been considered “fluff curriculum” by traditional educators, developing students’ global pluralism is actually a foundational building block for work in international diplomacy, development, business and politics.  Most global educators will agree that we need to foster students’ empathy for others at a young age—from that empathy comes students’ urge to think critically about how to understand others and contribute to positive change.

It’s important, too, for students to learn how to think about and communicate a critical message when they feel a global practice is harmful, but to be able to balance that critique with respect for the cultural and/or religious roots it comes from.  I used to use Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) as an example in my all-girls high school classroom because it elicited such a strong emotional response from students.  We explored the historical, cultural and religious roots of the practice, tried to trace where it was in practice and why, and explored our own ethical reactions while seeking a deep understanding of why it continues to exist.

These topics bring up important questions for students: How do we collaborate globally when our values and goals are often different?  Who gets to decide what “right” looks like, and are we allowed to enforce that right on others?  How do we ensure that our increasingly globalized world doesn’t destroy the best in individual cultures while we seek to eliminate the worst, and that we can come to see all countries as partners in a common human effort toward growth and improvement, equality and justice?

One of my favorite examples of perspective building in action comes from the collaboration between the Centre for Global Education(Alberta) and TakingITGlobal (Ontario) which has produced Global Encounters, a powerful video conferencing program for young people.  In Global Encounters, students participate in online and in-class discussions and student-driven explorations of a given topic, and then come together in live multi-point events designed to bring students into contact with experts and a network of classrooms.

For example the Middle East in Transition series includes video conferences each year on Peace and Conflict, Poetry of Witness, and Resistance Art.  In all cases, students learn about the perspectives and experiences of young people and experts in the Middle East, but are also invited to explore and express their own perspectives on whether, for example, violence is ever a justified response to oppression–and who gets to decide.  In other programs, such as those focused on climate change and other global challenges, students participate in Model United Nations-style dialogue and resolution building to solve real, relevant global problems.

Try this in Your Classroom:  
Choose a recent event in global news, and have students research online to collect as many different news pieces as they can on that one event, from a wide array of global news sources.  Ask students to identify key points they want to compare (title, tone, who is blamed in conflicts, cultural or other perspectives represented, etc.), and have students chart out their comparisons.  Finish by having students craft a news piece of their own, written or video, which brings at least four divergent perspectives together in one product to honor all views, not dilute them.  In a more complex variation, students can develop a Model UN-style debate in which they represent different countries’ viewpoints on an issue and work together to reach a resolution which benefits as many players as possible.

A Photographic Opportunity in #GlobalEd?

3/15/2013

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I recently discovered the “360Cities” project online; in this fascinating project and application, people are taking 360 degree photos around the world and are uploading them into a common space.  Once loaded, viewers on a web browser can use keystrokes to explore the image in all directions, and the mobile app actually has motion sensors which allow you to feel you’re inside of the photograph.  The mobile app also walks participants through photographing a 360 degree image, which makes it ideal for schools with iPads and other mobile technologies in use to contribute their own photos.  Students can also search for photos via an integrated mapping tool, based on the places they’re studying in school–check out this photo, for example, taken inside Notre Dame in Paris (when viewed on the mobile app, you can actually look up and down as well).

While most of the photos posted so far are by adult photographers and tourists, I see great educational potential here–what if teachers around the world had their students adding photos to 360Cities?  Talk about constructing knowledge–I can only imagine the kinds of vibrant images we might see from students all over the globe.  For $1.99, this app is a worthwhile addition to any global educator’s toolbox.

Favorite #GlobalEd Resources this Week

3/8/2013

Excellent resources for globally-minded educators cross my desk fairly often these days, so I’m going to make an effort to share my favorites every few weeks.  This week, I’d like to share three new favorites.Picture #1:  Barefoot World Atlas is an incredible application for elementary-age students to explore the world.  While it is only available for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, it provides an incredibly interactive and compelling way of exploring the world.  Incorporating music, culture, animals, history, geography and MUCH more, this is a must-try for any iPad classrooms or homes trying to go global.  I certainly know that my nieces can’t put it down once they get started exploring the world!


Picture#2:  If It Were My Home is an awesome tool which allows students to compare countries and understand economic and social differences.  This very kid-friendly site offers endless classroom applications for many grade levels, and can really help our students understand how much the “accident of birth” impacts our experiences.


#3:  We Found Love is a compelling, moving glimpse of the way music allows us to connect across cultures in authentic and powerful ways.  As a child of the arts myself, I find these kinds of resources not only serve to give kids an authentic sense of people and places around the world, but will also stir their hearts, connecting them emotionally to the larger human experience.

 

Transforming Teachers, Transforming Classrooms: Driving School Change through Professional Development Travel

2/24/2013

PictureA French-Canadian teacher navigates Quechua in Patacancha, Peru

As teachers, we spend the bulk of our careers playing the expert, whether we want to or not.  It makes perfect sense–we need our students to see us as people whoalready know and therefore have something to teach, and that expert persona often becomes the key to disciplining students and warding off skeptical parents.  That said, teachers know that life-long learning is the heart of good education, and that we are not immune ourselves to the human need to admit our weaknesses and grow beyond them.  It is powerful–fun, even–to turn off the persona and allow ourselves to take the position of learners, to admit what we don’t know and immerse ourselves with the kind of naïve, enthusiastic curiosity we so want to inspire in our students.

Professional development travel does exactly this; it puts someone else in charge of the daily workings of life, and it allows teachers to take off their caps and gowns and immerse themselves in learning and exploring with as much innocence and curiosity as they hope their students will bring to travel.

Amazing things begin to happen the moment teachers let go of the need to have all the answers and direct the experience.  From this comes a sort of surrendering to the experience, and with surrender comes a flurry of questions and new insights, a deluge of creativity and imagination.  The more the teachers are nudged out of their comfort zones by a very real on-the-ground, developing world experience, the more they realize what they’re really made of–and as their resilience and flexibility are tested, their comfort zones expand as well.  Many participants experience an overwhelming fear of the unknown (yes, even among adults), coupled with a need to find their own courage and discover the real limits of their mettle, their ability to adapt to new and uncontrollable circumstances.

And this is where the learning curve reaches its zenith–just as it does for students, service learning in the developing world shows teachers that they’re capable of handling far more than they’ve ever realized, and that they too can develop “global grit” by absorbing, engaging, and asking good questions.

Bringing Global PBL to Life: Lessons for Inclusivity in the Schoolhouse

Just as authentic project-based learning uses an “entry event” to grab the attention and curiosity of students, driving their inquiry and fostering their “need to know” throughout the given unit or project, any professional development experience should include an entry event as well.  On World Leadership School’s faculty development trips, teachers are asked to participate in a Scavenger Hunt, ideally on their first morning in-country.  In the activity, teachers are asked to gather information about their host community–from the most surface-level questions, which can be answered cursorily by pure observation, to the most profound community questions, which can only be answered if one has the language and cross-cultural skills to engage in dialogue with community members.

This activity immediately brings out teachers’ fears and tests the limits of their inter-cultural skills, just as it does for students on WLS trips.  For teachers, however, there are additional insights, particularly for those who work with an international or otherwise diverse student body: an authentic understanding of how hard it is to navigate a foreign environment for many of their students, whether for geographic, socio-economic or myriad other reasons; an authentic recognition of how exhausting it is to navigate a new culture and use a foreign language for even 90 minutes, much less all day; and an authentic understanding of how hard it is to dig beneath the surface of anything as a cultural outsider.

This is true, on-the-ground project-based learning; this initial inquiry sets the tone of an entire trip, setting into motion a process of self- and other-exploration which ultimately leads to more globally vibrant, authentically collaborative classrooms.  Participants figure out who their language speakers are in the group, and the questions begin.  They realize who their most brave and culturally savvy are in the group, and the dynamic shifts.  In other words, through this entry event, teachers learn to navigate a new and different situation collaboratively, making constructive use of every gift across the team–the goal of global learning in our classrooms as well.

Recognizing the challenges involved in authentic global exploration can help educators become far more sensitive to the social-emotional needs of students inside their schoolhouses, particularly their international and second- or third-culture kids.  Whether those students are navigating a new country, a new school culture, socio-economic differences or some other form of diversity, what teachers can accidentally perceive as a lack of core knowledge and academic skill usually comes down to a language or cultural difference.  When we grade students based on their intake and delivery of information in a non-native language, it is far harder than we realize for our students to demonstrate what they know.  And then we criticize international and ethnically diverse student groups for sitting together at lunch, when really we are all exhausted by being immersed 24/7 in a stream we don’t really understand.

There is comfort in a common language, a mother tongue, and we can’t lose sight of that as western educators–we can strive for dialogue and diversity in the classroom, but it may be culturally nearsighted–and even egotistical–to impose that idea of diversity, to assume that a “diverse” student body needs to include a rainbow of colors at every lunchroom table.  A powerful global experience helps teachers understand this better, largely because they are suddenly living their students’ experience.  Teacher groups tend to bond deeply on professional development trips, particularly if the teachers come from the same school; as with students, their fears make teachers seek out support, and being an outsider is balanced by the comfort of belonging to a group.  Recognizing our own social-emotional needs always makes us better teachers, more able to help students feel good about who they are and embrace the world on their own terms.

Developing the Urge to Inspire Change

On a WLS Faculty Development Trip to Peru in the summer of 2012, young non-profit manager Kennedy Leavens spoke to teachers from Ontario, Canada about the weaving cooperative she founded in her 20s, Awamaki.  As she does with student groups, Kennedy traced the growth of her organization and the challenges she’s faced as a local leader in the rural communities in and around Ollantaytambo.   But she also told teachers of her first trip to Peru in high school, and of the teacher who led that trip and first inspired her to want to create change in the world.

Walking back to our rooms after the conversation, I reminded the group that every one of their classrooms was filled with potential Kennedies, the next generation of change makers, and that every one of us had the potential to inspire the young people in our lives, just as Kennedy had been inspired to step up and make a difference in the world.  I’ve never seen a group of adults fall so silent.

This experience moved several teachers in my group very deeply.  One teacher found it initially astonishing that Kennedy had given up bigger career opportunities in the U.S. to run a tiny non-profit in Peru, but ended the conversation just as willing to give up his big-city life as she was, as he captured her passion for the people in how she explained why she’d stayed.  Another teacher told us at the close of the trip that Kennedy had inspired him to be a better teacher, to become the kind of teacher who could inspire his students to be the next generation of agents of change.

These are moments of great transformation–the moments when we recognize our need to grow as educators and humans, our want to be consistently better at what we do, our hope to make a positive impact in the world through the work of our classrooms.  When we are transformed by the world as teachers, we never teach the same way again–we never live the same way again.

When we seek out global experiences which change us as individuals and members of the human family, which remind us of our good fortune and our obligations to the rest of humanity, our classrooms become more global, more vibrant, more a place of inspiration, growth, and constructive change.

Boycott the Test: Why It’s Time for Teachers to Take Back Education

2/4/2013

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“Everybody is born with innate curiosities.  It’s a school’s job to cultivate them and not to kill them.” –Nikhil Goyal

I have tried to resist the temptation to use this blog as a soapbox to shout from–and those of you who know me personally know that I have in fact been controlling myself.  But I can’t remain silent now, as I finally see educators building a movement against standardized testing.  Thank you, Seattle teachers, for standing up for education.  It’s about time.

I have long believed that educators are the only ones who can turn this ship around and head it back toward the heart of real education.  For far too long, educators have been bullied into complying with the assumption that policy makers know what good education looks like–and can measure it better than we can from the trenches.  Afraid to lose our jobs and our livelihoods, most teachers have done the best we could–but most teach to the test a little more each year, even though we recognize that this isn’t education (and certainly isn’t why we went into education to begin with).

I am an activist at heart, and I believe it’s time to worry less about our jobs and more about our students.  Whether you’re a private school teacher with an internal exam system which keeps you locked into the game of getting every kid into Harvard, or a public school teacher facing school report cards and government-mandated exams, we all know that this is a game of accountability, not an example of education at its best and most vibrant.  We know what good education looks like and why we’ve decided to care–and we know why young teachers today are fleeing the field in droves after only 2-3 years in the classroom.  It’s time to do something about the rise of testing and the death of education.

Five Reasons Why Teachers Should Boycott Tests this Year:

1.  We know what excellent education looks and feels like. 
In my experience, good teachers go back into their memories of childhood and teach from the best practices they experienced themselves.  We can recognize when a kid doesn’t understand something, and we read a lot more than test scores to understand where a student’s strengths and weaknesses lie.  We learn–through teacher education, instincts and practice–to know what kinds of remediation students need from us.  We get to know our kids so well that we notice even the slightest flinch of confusion, recognize even the subtlest moments of student growth and success.

We also know what the most magical moments in education feel like.  We are moved as individuals when we see our kids grasp something new and engage in real learning, when we see that light in their eyes which says that we’ve hooked into a place of inherent curiosity and life-long learning.   And while there may be a few lazy souls and bad apples in the mix, the assumption that school buildings are filled with teachers trying to shirk their responsibility is absurd.  I know of no field in which people hold themselves more fully accountable than teaching.  Teachers are people who do hundreds of extra hours of unpaid work, who give up their evenings and weekends to grade and tutor, who show up for athletic games and student performances outside of their regular demands–not because it’s part of the job description, but because they love to see their students succeed.

2.  We know what our students really need.
Teachers don’t go into this work because of market forces or governmental policies–we go into education because we care about children.  We find our ideal age group–often the age group we most resemble ourselves–and we offer them far more than just our knowledge.  While students are in our care, teachers recognize and embrace the idea that we are en loco parentis, that we are parenting as much as teaching.  We are not accountable because of the test; we are accountable because we love our students and want them to be full, happy, healthy human beings with a constructive role in the world.  We want to help them find their passion and purpose, to develop their gifts and work on their weaknesses.  Schoolhouses across the world are filled with adults who do care, who yearn for and work toward the success of every child, who stay in this work in spite of standardized tests, not because they believe testing has anything to do with the heart of education.

3.  We know that testing doesn’t foster creativity or innovation, 
and that testing is not actually a reflection of the way the world works.  
Only in academia is one judged on the ability to take tests and offer back knowledge on command.  In the real world, our students will encounter messy, complex problems, not multiple choice questions.  They will use a variety of skills and a plethora of knowledge in concert to find new solutions to the world’s pressing problems, rather than being asked to simply demonstrate knowledge.  The long-standing belief that academic “rigor” will lead to a successful life may actually be a myth–particularly in schools where the push for rigor comes alongside the assumption that every problem has only one right answer.  Just fill in the right bubble with the right #2 pencil enough times, and you’ll be set for life.

But the truth is that life doesn’t actually work this way, and being good at taking tests only helps you navigate the current educational system until you’re in your mid-20s–after that, it’s not useful in many other contexts.  Just as the doctor develops a diagnosis by investigating the patient’s signs and symptoms, assisted by both the skill to notice and knowledge about what she’s seeing, so our students will apply a complex combination of skills and knowledge in their professional lives.  And education isn’t just about the more “academic” subjects, either.  Our students need to develop the ability to recognize beauty and create meaning out of chaos, skills fostered by exploring poetry, music, art, theatre, dance, and other subjects which never even appear on standardized tests to begin with (and are therefore being dropped by schools around the world).

There is no great culture on this planet which has flourished without the contributions of creative thinkers and innovators, and right now our educational culture is crushing most of that out of students before they graduate from elementary school.

4.  We have better ways of providing evidence of student learning, many of which provide a much more complete and authentic picture of student growth than standardized tests can ever offer. 
In fact, most teachers have already been trained in more authentic forms of assessment, particularly portfolios and the kinds of student products and performances which project-based learning has become famous for.  The problem isn’t whether we have other ways to gather information about student growth and performance–we do have alternatives, and most teachers would prefer to be using them.  The more important problem is that we’ve ended up with a system which trusts exams designed by policy makers more than assessments run by the teachers themselves.

The most important problem is that we’ve let education stay this way for so long.  We know better than to let the system keep telling us there is only one way to measure learning.  It’s time for us to take back the reins and fight for recognition–teachers are the ones actually in the classroom with those children, and there is no one we can trust more to assess our children’s growth and report on their behalf.

5.  We are the only ones who have the power to stop the tests, 
and we are accountable to children before we’re accountable to the government.
Just as we stood up in Texas and California in the 1970s and ‘80s, respectively, and refused to ban the children of illegal immigrants from our classrooms, educators need to stand up now.  Thousands of teachers across the world, whether they know it or not, have already acted as conscientious objectors any time the law has directly contradicted their calling as educators and their sense of what children really need.  Just as doctors agree to the Hippocratic oath, so teachers are sworn to do right by children, if only figuratively.

This is not a matter of law; it is a matter of conscience, and it is time to do the right thing.  It is time to take back education, to take it out of the hands of policy makers and put it back in the hands of educators.  We know better, and we know what our students need.

It’s time to stop talking so much about rigor and start bringing vigor back into our schools.

Portrait of an Outsider: Lamentations on Growing Up Jewish in the American Melting Pot

12/27/2012

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This satirical piece was written for my mother in 2004; I’m sharing it again now because the People of Color Conference and the holiday season inspired me to reexamine where I come from.

Bring me your tired, your poor 
Your huddled masses yearning to be free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shores

The American melting pot has long been assumed a positive component to American culture; after all, what could be bad about a culture that allows people to come together from every corner of the world?  Only in the last few decades has it become acceptable to criticize the belief that people of varied ethnicities come to America to blend into some sort of goopy mass we can all be proud of.  I never liked the image of the melting pot; I always found myself puzzled by the conundrum of a blended culture where everyone got to follow their individual beliefs.  How could that even be possible?  As a child I could already tell there was a problem inherent to the concept–how could one country both blend cultures into one melting pot and still maintain and cherish the diversity of individual cultures?  And which was I expected to do, by my family, my peers, or my school?  This predicament permeated my childhood; on the one hand, I wanted to be able to celebrate what was unique and special about my Jewish upbringing.  On the other, like any kid in America or otherwise, I just wanted to fit in.

Sadly, I almost never did, especially when it came to “American holidays,” by which I mean predominantly Christian holidays.  As a friend put it once, the dominant narratives of America are Christian-based, no matter how inclusive our society tries to be.  As a Jewish kid growing up way to the intellectual left of mainstream America, holidays felt like they were about not measuring up.  Deck the halls and be merry?  Yeah, right.  While all the other kids in my school showed off piles of Christmas presents in December and stuffed their faces with chocolate each Easter, the holiday spirit was something I got to sit out and watch.  After all, who can compare the bland matzoh crackers and bitter herbs of Passover with the creamy, chocolaty delicacies of Easter?  Especially when you’re a kid, comparisons only make things worse.

My mother tried to help–and mind you, she really thought she was helping.  As is so often the case, however, reality turned out to be ironic.  The more my mother tried to make me feel included, the more I felt like an outsider.  I still remember bitterly the day she talked to my principal about the elementary school lunch menu in third grade.  Well meaning enough, my mother pointed out that the little Santa figures decorating December made me feel like I wasn’t a part of my community.  Mind you, I hadn’t consciously felt excluded until my mother put it that way.  I still have a strong visual memory of the lunch menu in question. I remember looking at October and wondering whether that meant they’d have to take off the jack ‘o lanterns, too, or the cute little bunnies around the sloppy joes and grilled cheese sandwiches of April, and I remember thinking it would be my fault if they did.

Mom did the same thing over lots of language uses: Christmas Break needed to be Winter Break, and Easter Holidays were Spring Break.  To my mom, I mean.  No one else seemed to care in that pre-PC era, though everyone got more careful when I was around.  Instead of making me feel protected and included, however, this attention to language made people uncomfortable.  Like whites hesitant to use the word “black,” my friends and teachers started pausing uncomfortably while they struggled to find the words that included me most.  Much as that should have been encouraging, what it did was make me feel like a leper.  The more the politically-correct movement grew, the more my feeling that I was being included because they had to grew as well.  I can recognize now that a good part of the problem was my own inferiority complex, but that still didn’t mean anyone really cared about the difference between wishing me a Merry Christmas or a Happy Hanukkah.

Mom tried through a lot of means to make our holidays as exciting as Christmas and Easter seemed to be from an outsider’s perspective.  She always cooked great meals around the Jewish holidays, and we had no shortage of desserts.  However, my mom was famous for her belief that sugar requirements could generally be cut by at least half.  She was, and still is, a health-food nut, both the cause of my relatively healthful habits and of my mild obsession with junk foods like plastic-wrapped cheese slices and nacho cheese dips made of everything but cheese.  So while my friends followed Christmas by telling stories of sweet, rich, whipped-cream- laden desserts and chocolates, my sister and I had to satisfy ourselves with Mom’s under-sweetened St. Charles cherry cobbler, which I swear used to wrinkle the insides of our mouths and pucker us permanently, it was so sour.  She wasn’t particularly liberal with the vanilla ice cream either, so it provided small relief.  Don’t get me wrong; my mouth still waters when I remember that cobbler, but as a kid it just didn’t measure up to the sugary decadence of Christmas.

Mom actually brought an early version of the diversity movement to my schools, and however embarassed I was at the time, I can’t help thinking she really did open some minds with what might now be called a “glocal experience” for my peers.  She brought an electric fryer to school at Hanukkah and made latkes for everyone; she taught the kids to play the dreydel game and lit the candles for my class every year until I reached adolecense and stopped letting her.  She told them about the light that burned for eight days, but anyone could tell that one eternal flame wasn’t as exciting as a shiny, sparkly Christmas tree.  She brought matzoh and charoset at Passover, told the stories of Moses and the exile from Egypt.  But no matter how much this was meant to make me feel like I was a part of things, like what I had to share mattered, it mostly did the opposite.  It felt like my differences were on display–and no kid likes that feeling.  Ironically, I heard from an old friend recently that my mom’s presentations made her wish she celebrated my holidays instead of her own.  But this is small consolation now, after such a long childhood cluttered with wishing I could run away and join a family that had a Christmas tree and believed in the Easter bunny.  Besides, my friends were wrong to think we got more presents than they did just because we had eight days of Hanukkah; at least in my family, the majority of the days were filled with practical gifts like socks, and we got one significant gift each year.  Not that I’m complaining–it just doesn’t stack up to your average American Christmas, where the quality of the holiday spirit seems to be measured by the number of presents under the tree.

The world outside of school and family didn’t help any of this in the slightest; if anything, popular American culture just reinforced the sensation that everyone else belonged to a club genetics didn’t allow me to join.  Splattered across television, billboards and every mall I entered, I saw what was cool, what was popular, and it sure wasn’t singing “Dreydel, dreydel, dreydel, I made it out of clay.”  Cool was getting everything you wanted for Christmas; cool was being able to relate even mildly to the slew of Santa, reindeer and drummer-boy movies my peers went on and on about.  Mind you, my sister and I weren’t even allowed to watch cartoons or network shows beyond PBS and “Little House on the Prairie,” so being able to relate to singing snowmen and joyful forest animals wasn’t likely anyhow.  But seasonal programs were so Christmas-oriented that it was completely impossible for us to enjoy them.  I only recently managed to see and appreciate the original cartoon of Dr. Seuss’s “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” and the only reason I enjoyed it was because I can see myself in the character now that I’m old enough to have a little perspective.  Seasonal programs in America are not designed for inclusion, but for entertaining the majority–so even if my great-grandparents were the “tired and poor” the Statue of Liberty welcomed to Ellis Island, I still wasn’t going to find anything I could relate to on tv during December, April, or any other month with a significant Christian holiday in it.

One year, Mom decided that instead of celebrating differences, she should try to make us feel like we fit in from withinthe structure of the Jewish holidays.  Among other things, I recall an attempt to make Passover feel more like Easter by buying us chocolate.  And the idea was a good one; after all, the main thing we coveted about Easter were the sweets.  Anyone could tell that the stories of slavery, plagues, exile from Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea were quite a bit more interesting than the loose connection between Christ’s death and a giant bunny rabbit–really, it was all about the sugar.  And Israeli chocolate is to die for, while Passover is all about sparsity and sacrifice–it’s no wonder Easter looked so much better.  So Mom’s idea was a good one, but for some reason I think she figured it would be more “Jewish” somehow, more acceptable perhaps if she got candy with a less Easter-driven shape.  So my mom bought us giant Jewish star lollypops, made entirely of chocolate.  They had Hebrew writing in their centers, and were so big it took us almost a week to eat them.  Delicious?  Yes, certainly.  Embarassing?  Let’s just say those lollipops didn’t come out after lunch at school, amid the eggs and rabbits everyone else had.  My sister and I nibbled away on those giant chocolate stars in the privacy of our home, and we made each other promise no one would find out about them.  So much for helping connect us with our peers.

I learned a lot from my mom, even if it took four decades for me to get it.  My mother grew up in a very Jewish community in 1930s and ’40s Boston, but was unable to practice Judaism to the degree she wished because she was a girl; for her, it was the finest gift she could give to educate her daughters in Judaism and try to make it a meaningful part of their lives.  But my sister and I grew up in a different era and a different world–we had few Jewish peers in our mostly-secular neighborhoods and schools, so what for my mom was celebration quickly became separation for us.  But she meant well, this I’ve realized, and she was right to try to help me find meaning in my cultural and genetic roots.  The bigger problem wasn’t Mom, it was the melting pot–it was the persistent American belief that adaptation and assimilation provide a reasonable, acceptable road to success.  No matter how good my mother’s intentions, or those of any parent trying to preserve family cultures and traditions in America, the melting pot makes it hard to appreciate what makes us different, especially when we’re young.

Ultimately, I think I got lucky.  It turned out to be ok to be different, and my identity as “the outsider” even became a badge of honor through various periods of my life.  I eventually found schools and communities where being a nonconformist was exactly why I fit in, communities where America was viewed as a giant salad which mixed but never blended its myriad ingredients.  I’ve even learned to smile when people wish me a Merry Christmas.  And if I still haven’t quite developed a full appreciation for Judaism or American holidays, at least I know that my mom contributes her part to the American salad, and that I contribute my own.

I like to think I’m the olives.

Our Messy World: Learning From and With, Not About

11/26/2012

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“No one can be authentically human while he prevents others from being so.”  
–Paolo Freire, from Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Anyone who knows me knows I’m not in the habit of quoting the U.S. military, but I have to admit that I love the way they describe the current state of the world as “VUCA.”  This deceptively simple acronym captures a world filled with Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity, and in doing so actually offers us a roadmap for how we might engage students with the very real, very messy world in ways which challenge our need to simplify global problems into something we can teach in 45-minute periods.  The truth is that our kids want to understand the mess, want to see the world and their knowledge as less compartmentalized and simplified, want to develop the skills needed to navigate true complexity.  In fact, research suggests that the brains of our young “digital natives” may be better able to handle such chaos because they are adept at managing multiple sources of information and experience simultaneously.

Too much of the time, global learning feels like seeing a new city through the windows of a tour bus–we can tell we’re someplace new, seeing something we haven’t before, but we are merely observers, onlookers who are unengaged in the real day-to-day life of the place we’re seeing.  In the best-case scenario, we develop a distant, flavorless sense of what the city contains; in the worst-case scenario, we become imperialistic voyeurs to the world’s most significant problems.  If we extend the metaphor, it becomes clear that our best solution is to get off the tour bus and into the chaos of real streets and homes, into the community we’ve come to learn from–and I mean we need to do this inside our classrooms, not just during international travel experiences.  Our students are hungry for it, for the unchaperoned wanderings through foreign cities which will build their curiosity and engagement, for the uncontrollable experiences which will foster their ability to navigate that VUCA world, for the messiness of real human experiences and interactions.  If we want any of the 21st Century Skills fostered in the classroom to transfer into the world, we have to stop protecting students from the complexity and teach them to meet and manage global chaos instead.

I am increasingly concerned by our natural tendency as educators to try to simplify the world into a well-designed classroom experience which serves our curricular demands.  Certainly, the world and its problems are messy, and there are layers of complexity which are beyond many students to understand, but keeping global learning clean and easy to fit into the scope and sequence of our curricula often means offering less-than-authentic experiences for our students.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think we do this on purpose–our lives as educators are filled with demands and pressures, expectations and limitations.  So when we try to bring the world into our classrooms, we want the experience to fit within those demands.  But in doing so, we’re actually suggesting that the world should be willing to bend to the deadlines on our calendars, willing to help us fulfill our standards neatly and cleanly, even willing to put itself on display so that we can meet our educational goals.

It’s also a natural tendency to want our global partners to have the same equipment and stuff we have, with only subtle variance of decoration in our classrooms.  It’s a natural urge for parity, I think: We want our partner classroom to connect using the technologies our own school is using most, we want them to read the books we’ve selected and consider the discussion questions we’ve crafted.  We hope our partner teachers will be willing to teach our themes and follow our schedules, and we push for age and academic parity in a nuanced world which can rarely provide both simultaneously.  We don’t even realize we’re being culturally-biased in how we approach the partnership–it is quite natural, after all, for humans to see “reality” according to the constraints and pressures of their own experiences.

That said, teachers who strive to build global classrooms in the developed world need to realize that such an approach to partnerships just exacerbates the impression that we are exploiting classrooms across the developing world for the sake of our own students. Our pressures and demands do count in the partnership, but so do the needs and demands of the other classroom.  And rather than seeing disparity and complexity as an impediment to collaborative learning, we have the opportunity to teach students to meet others where they are and to build an authentic relationship with others as they are, rather than seeking a mirror for ourselves.

In our efforts to simplify global learning experiences, most educators still think of “Cross-Cultural Competency” as the goal when they strive to improve students’ ability to communicate and collaborate across cultural differences.  I find myself increasingly concerned that this painful oversimplification is so often how we describe the work of global education.  The word “cross” implies the crossing of one boundary between two cultures, yet when we try to imagine the professional lives our students will live, their work will rarely take them across just one such border at a time, whether those borders are physical, cultural, socio-economic or political.  More than likely, their work in almost any field will include the real, practical need for Inter-Cultural Competencies, for the messy, complicated work of communicating and collaborating across various cultures and languages, of creating agreement and direction among multiple global stakeholders with varying needs and demands.

Model United Nations and similar educational structures offer one way to create that more nuanced inter-cultural experience for students.  In MUN-style simulations, discussion is focused on relevant current events from multilateral perspectives, and students represent a variety of nations.  Instead of following the traditional “fight until one side wins” paradigm of traditional debate, MUN asks students to collaborate multinationally to develop and pass resolutions which address the needs of all stakeholders.  Whenever I start to worry about the state of the world, judging a Model UN conference always snaps me back into a state of general hopefulness–even if the topic is as seemingly far-fetched as how the UN Security Council would respond to an alien invasion, it is inspiring to watch students navigate the needs of all constituencies and strive for better solutions.

If we truly want students to embrace the idea that all constituencies matter, then we have to provide a model for that way of living and teaching.  What if we approached our own global partnerships as we ask students to approach a Model UN conference, with the goal of true collaboration toward the wellbeing of all?  What if we let students drive the tour bus, as it were, rather than needing to contain and control the experience for them?  We could even hand over the keys entirely and create a space where our students get to decide what constructive global collaboration should look like.  If we clean away the messiness, we’re cleaning away what kids will really confront in the world–and, frankly, we’re taking away their chance to practice dealing with that complexity, demonstrating instead the all-too-common adult practice of avoiding that which feels too complex to solve.

I loved how Honor Moorman put it in a webinar we did together for Asia Society in October: she said we tend to approach global education as an exercise in learning about others more than learning from and with them.  In my view, this is a mistake as big as the West’s bloody history of exploring and developing the world rather than engaging with and learning from it.  We may not mean to do it, but we can become mindful about changing the paradigm by coming to any global experience with more questions than answers, more curiosity and flexibility than rigid demands and expectations.  By doing so, we have an opportunity to foster listeners and learners through our classrooms, students who draw out other people’s stories more than they share their own, who seek to understand what others bring to the table rather than assuming that their own agendas should rule the experience.  We have a chance to develop a new way of thinking about how we all interact with the world, and to start seeking the kind of dialogue Paolo Freire hoped was possible, in which all perspectives are valued and all constituencies are recognized as fully human.