Approaches To #GlobalEd

Keeping It Real in Global PL: Authentic Public Audience

10/14/2012

PictureChris Gauthier’s students engage a global audience

An important element of project-based learning worth looking at closely in the context of global learning is that of public audience.  For largely practical reasons, a public audience in PBL usually includes the parents of students (including extended family), the broader school community (other teachers, administrators, etc.), and maybe the friends and colleagues of students’ parents.  This is by far the easiest approach to gathering an audience, especially in school communities with significant parental involvement.

But there is something inherently inauthentic in using this audience if the topic of the project isn’t connected to the experiences of  the local community.  In fact, if our students are participating in a global project and we are asking them to consider a very different set of cultural perspectives, offering them an inherently western audience only dampens the global nature of their experience.  If student work is only being seen and explored through the lens of local culture, and if feedback only comes from students’ local community, how global is that project, really?

If we broaden our ideas about what a public audience might offer us and our students in a global classroom, we can increase the importance of their role in the project.  Such an audience could include interesting individuals who immigrated to the local community, or local experts who work in an international field which has significantly influenced their world views.  This kind of an audience can be brought in to see student work at key checkpoints, offering professional feedback and helping to ensure high-quality products by the end.

For example, a middle school math class at the Town School for Boys in San Francisco has an incredible project on international micro-loaning, which brings in international organizers and economists who live locally but manage and partner with lending initiatives across the world.  The teacher works closely with the local offices of Kiva.org, and Kiva’s global experts offer feedback on students’ product and marketing plans in order to deepen the reflection and revision students are able to employ (follow their project in 2012 on Kristen Goggin’s blog). This sort of audience quickly becomes an integral part of student growth and development during the course of the project, as much part of the final celebration as the process itself (see the article Kiva published in celebration of Town School’s 2011 micro-financing project).

In order to further globalize our public audience, we need to think beyond those in our immediate physical environment and consider all the voices which e-technologies like social networking and multipoint video conferencing can now offer us as well.  International “experts” come in all shapes and sizes, and I put that word in quotation marks because even the least famous individual can have an incredible impact on the direction of a project by inspiring and informing students in transformative ways.  In fact, if s/he brings passion and purpose into the conversation, even the least-famous, most unknown individual can become the expert your students need to hear from.  There are people all over the planet doing good work to make the world a better place, and they are desperate to see new generations growing up with an interest in what they can contribute to such movements.  These are people with a story to tell–and in many cases, as with refugees in your local community, the chance to tell that story is a true gift.  As a result, it is fairly easy to draw in international speakers throughout a project, individuals who will gladly offer their voices and share their experiences because they live by their commitment to the work they do and the lives they’ve chosen.

Of all the examples I’ve seen of authentic audience in Global PBL, my favorite by far is TakingITGlobal’s environmental protection project, DeforestAction.  In this project, which involves classrooms from a variety of disciplines and grade levels all over the planet, students work together to end deforestation and protect the natural environment by monitoring illegal logging in Borneo.  Classes are assigned portions of land to monitor through satellite technologies, and are taught any variety of 21st century skills and significant content, depending on how teachers approach the project.  English teachers have students compare perspectives on the logging industry and develop their own arguments; math teachers have students measure land area and explore the percentage being logged and protected in the hectares the class is monitoring; science teachers explore the complex environmental impacts of losing native trees and planting of palm oil trees, just to offer a few examples.

Classes develop action plans in response to the problem, from orangutan-friendly product development and fundraising, to truth in labelling campaigns designed to pressure corporations toward public recognition of palm oil use.  My favorite story is of the 5th grade class in Canada which staged a sit-in at their own cafeteria when they realized it used palm oil–without any involvement from the teacher, these students successfully pressured the school administration to change the practices of their lunchroom.  I heard a wonderfully similar story from an elementary teacher in Australia as well, in which students became real crusaders for the end of palm oil use in their own community.  While a somewhat disruptive way to create change, perhaps, there’s no question that these students felt informed, inspired and empowered enough to stand up for what they felt was right.

Whereas all of my nieces’ favorite e-games include the monitoring of virtual puppies or fish which are completely imaginary, or the solving of puzzles and problems which are inherently fictitious, DeforestAction asks young people to do real work to contribute to the wellbeing of a real place, where real orangutans and humans are quickly losing the richness of their natural environment and are suffering as a result.  What makes this project so powerful is that it includes a real and authentic audience in the truest sense–the students’ most important audience, beyond the people students educate to change their habits or invest in change, are the people of Borneo whose lives are impacted by the loss of their native trees.

When Australian-Canadian educator Chris Gauthier’s high school math students realized their land was in fact being logged illegally in Borneo, they sounded an alarm which was taken straight to the people of the Ensaid Panjang longhouse community nearby.  Satellite images provided by students allowed the community to stand up against the illegal logging almost immediately, and to pressure key stakeholders toward the protection of their local environment with verifiable proof. (Click here for a video of Chris’s students discussing how this project impacted their world view.) There is no more authentic audience than this: real communities whose lives are improved by the commitment and passion of these young people around the world. It is no surprise that there is talk of starting DeforestAction projects in other parts of the world which need such virtual monitoring of and support for their natural environment.

In the end, the most authentic audiences in Global PBL have the same need to know as the students they interact with, if in a slightly more urgent form.  In the case of DeforestAction, the audience’s lives depend on information which students are able to supply.  And such urgency in the audience, whatever the example, improves the quality of student products naturally.  The more connected students feel to the needs of their authentic audience, the more they want to contribute significantly and do it well–and the more they grow up as young leaders who are contributing to constructive global change already, and will continue to do so throughout their lives because of these early transformative experiences.

Just Call Me JiJi

10/6/2012

Picture

SUNDAY, AUGUST 10, 2008.
Nablus, West Bank
Click here to see Jennifer’s full Palestine blog from 2008“I have found that the land is fragile, and the sea, light; I have learned that language and metaphor are not enough to restore place to a place…. Not having been able to find my place on earth, I have attempted to find it in History, and History cannot be reduced to a compensation for lost geography.”–Mahmoud Darwish, in memoriam, 1942-2008It is our last night in Nablus, and a crowd has gathered at a local hotel for the first poetry reading the city has seen since before the 2nd Intifada in 2002, featuring Saed, Falastine and me (Saed keeps calling us “fugitive poets”). I’m more nervous than I expected to be; I haven’t done a public reading since 1994, and I’m intimidated every time someone refers to me as “the poet.” Saed bustles around while Mark and Michael help set up the LCD projector so we can run RJI’s Poetry of Witness slide show during the break. Falastine, who is giving her very first public reading, hovers close to my elbow and asks about the poems she’s chosen, looking for reassurance. I am spent, tired, and nervous, and I suspect I don’t do much to soothe her.

My nerves are shot, as I’m sure my letters have suggested; after five weeks living in this complex society and oppressive situation, I feel sapped of energy, guilty to be able to walk away, and sad to have to go home. Relationships here have been complicated and have covered every inch of the gray area: young men in my class are attentive and sensitive, making me miss teaching boys after 9 years in all-girls education. Outside on the streets of Nablus, young men around the same age constantly stare and harass us verbally, even though we’ve been so careful to cover ourselves up. Mark, Michael and Mohammad offer comfort and connection but avoid physical contact because of Islamic law; it’s been a month since I’ve had a real hug from a male, as it’s all quick handshakes if they touch me at all. Saed is the only one to break right through this physical isolation, quick to give me high fives and even place a hand on my shoulder when he can tell I’m struggling with something.

The hall is packed when Dr. Nabil begins his introductions, and then I’m doing my thing, talking to the crowd about the power of poetry to bring people together and leap over boundaries of communication and ideology. Mark smiles at me reassuringly, and I can feel myself warming to the crowd. He told me the other day that I seem angry, and he’s right; I’ve felt increasingly angry, especially since my visit to Hebron, and I haven’t been able to snap out of it. Saed told me he thinks I’m not actually a cynic, that I think I’m a pessimist but that I’m actually a heartbroken optimist, heartbroken to encounter so much human badness. This, he says, comes from my intrinsic belief that weare capable of good; otherwise, why would I be so upset about it? But even with his unflagging optimism, Saed hasn’t been able to convince me that people are actually good at heart; even he started talking about cutting people’s hands off when I had my butt pinched a week before our departure. The capacity to avoid violence and act with compassion seems like a fantasy still, a bedtime story we tell our children so they won’t be so scared by the explosions they hear in the night, a naive claim made by Anne Frank right before other humans gassed her.

And then I feel something shift in the air around me. The call to evening prayer begins to echo through the empty streets outside and enters our event like a perfect background melody, and the room feels resonant suddenly, everyone pensive and watching as I read the hardest piece I’ve chosen, my angriest piece in years, “Another Endless Road.” Mark told me the poem suggested the Israelis had won a huge victory if I so connected Judaism with Israeli statehood, and I feel mildly ashamed as my anger settles on the crowd and reverberates in the air around us, as I let myself realize how right Mark is. My “no amount of prayer can erase the stench of us” weaves in the air with the call to evening prayer, and I feel sorry I still can’t believe, moved as I am by other people’s faith.

But then my turn is over, and I get to sit and be the proud teacher, watching Falastine read like she’s been at it all her life, and then we all laugh over Saed’s yearly love disasters and cry with him over his lost mother and his many scars. It still hurts him to laugh since the appendectomy, but when Habib starts playing the aud, it’s all we can do to keep Saed from dancing. Everyone starts singing and clapping; even Falastine’s father, who came only begrudgingly and told Falastine last week that there was no point to her pursuits in poetry, is smiling and singing along. She and I hold hands and this is what I want to remember; this one moment is Nablus at its best. Then Saed starts singing to me by the nickname he’s used since the day we met: Jiji. Within minutes, the whole crowd is singing along to the “Jiji” lyrics Saed and Qais made up the other night in the car, and I’m blushing and laughing and even crying a little.

And there is something good and right in this moment, in this life, in taking a step outside of my own life to feel angry with and for the good people I’ve met in this community. There is hope in this room, all of its inhabitants singing and clapping and feeling the possibilities, what Denise Levertov called “the deep intelligence living at peace would have.” We have come together in the face of war and occupation to use language together, and the energy the air carries is charged with potential. Poetry is not enough; it won’t feed children whose parents spend three hours at checkpoints trying to make it to jobs in towns 10 miles away. It’s not going to fix life for the students who can’t attend this reading because they can’t get home through checkpoints if they leave Nablus too late. Poetry won’t erase the days An-Najah’s campus is empty because no one can get through. Poetry is little consolation for a difficult life. But I can also tell that we’ve started something this city needs: the opportunity to come together and celebrate, bear witness, and share a powerful moment in solidarity with one another, a moment of hope.

It hurts to leave this place that embraced me as “the poet from abroad.” Ahmed, my most loyal student, looks like he’s been crying when he gives me a small gift and dashes for the door after the singing is over. He wrote his first poem ever in my course this summer; perhaps there is a peaceful future to be built even in small successes. People are still gathered, talking and laughing, long after the event is over. There is hope in the air, creativity. Potential.

These are the things I will remember most: the sunsets watched over strong coffee and good conversation on Saed’s porch; the teddy bear he needed to be able to laugh after surgery; planting flowers on his mother’s grave; the late Mahmoud Darwish’s white tulips; the enthusiasm, insights and metaphors of young poets; being offered tea by everyone we met; seeing a falling meteor up close; talking theatre and philosophy with Qais, goodbye hugs from Saed and Mohammad; and the five times a day that the call to prayer reminded me to be a better person, less angry and more peaceful.

These are the things I will try to forget, even though it’s what people need to hear about the most: brothers at war with each other; women made tough and mean by life; religion used to justify violence; the sound of gunshots at night; the biggest wall I’ve ever seen; friends bearing the scars of torture; children throwing stones; young soldiers always walking with a finger on the trigger; being herded through checkpoints like farm animals to slaughter; failures of coexistence where so much was possible. Maybe Saed is right: I am wounded because I am so hopeful, want so badly to believe that we know how to be better humans and can strive to behave that way.

As e.e.cummings wrote, I write to Nablus: “i carry your heart with me (i carry it in my heart).” Just as you fought obstacles to let us all the way into your lives and work, we will fight on your behalf to tell the world how we found love and kindness, friendship and welcome in Nablus. Poetry will never be enough, but it’s a start. May the world be a more peaceful place to live when we see each other again.

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

-William Carlos Williams