“We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” –Franklin D. Roosevelt
Several of my friends had babies in the last year, and at the People of Color Conference this December I found myself wondering more than ever what sort of world they will grow up into. I am struggling, as I did just after September 11th, with what it means to raise children in the United States, a question educators are grappling with as much as parents. I wonder how we’ll make sure our children of color are safe. I worry for immigrant children and the U.S.-born children of immigrants as they encounter threat and marginalization. And I worry about whether schools can do enough to impact not just our students’ sense of safety and belonging inside our buildings, but also in the world outside our schoolhouses, where black boys are shot on their way to the store and the children of immigrants are told to go home to countries where their homes have been bombed and their lives are in danger.
Coming together with other concerned, conscientious educators every year is a lifeline for all of us in this work. As the leaders of the Student Leadership Diversity Conference put it in their welcome message to students this year, the PoCC is like a booster shot for the soul. The one year I missed the conference for financial reasons, I was downright suicidal by February. We need this community; I need this community. It reminds me that the shared world we work for is possible.
But as the challenges grow in our communities, so do my concerns and misgivings, particularly because the people benefiting from all this fear and hatred don’t go to conferences like the PoCC . This year, I’d like to share a few of my main take-aways, the mantras I’ll be hearing in the back of my mind as I facilitate the hard work with teachers trying to create change in their classrooms and schools in 2016 and beyond.
1. We have a responsibility to protect our African-American boys, and to teach them how to keep themselves safe in a society that fears them. Several speakers this year explored the challenges of teaching black boys to keep themselves safe, things like keeping their hands out of their pockets and their hoods off, keeping their hands on the steering wheel when pulled over, not getting out of the car or speaking back or running away. But living safely in the U.S. is not as simple as being polite to cops, particularly for people of color. There’s a deeper problem in our society that requires action, not carefully calculated moves which suggest that our current reality is acceptable. While we want our children to be careful, and to know that quick moves can get them killed, we don’t want them to give in to systematic racism and oppression. That’s a hard line to walk; how does a young person grow up with a strong sense of self if he knows he has to act differently than his white counterparts? How do make sure his safety doesn’t come at the detriment of his identity and sense of self worth?
Listening to Dr. Howard C. Stevenson’s recording of a conversation with his son about a recent police shooting, it was clear he had several goals: to help his son process what had happened, to help him understand that race was a factor, and to help him feel equipped to respond to these forms of oppression while simultaneously protecting himself from similar harm. These conversations are not just important for African-American youth, either; today, anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamaphobia are increasingly rampant in our society, LGBTQ bullying continues, and gun control challenges mean that the haters have firepower at their disposal. We need to keep all of our children safe in an increasingly volatile world. This is not just the job of parents to have these conversations, either; it is a responsibility educators need to share and embrace as well.
2. Children recognize differences and begin to act on social constructs of race and gender much earlier than we think. To say I was stunned by the research Rosetta Lee shared on early childhood and when young kids develop a sense of race and gender would be an understatement, and the findings make me want to dig much deeper. I remember noticing this with my older niece, when she announced one Christmas that she wanted a stationary bicycle with an interactive virtual course but couldn’t have one because it was a “toy for boys.” I think she was about five—and when I dug, it turned out her impressions came from watching tv commercials and only seeing boys on bikes. It also makes me remember a 2nd grader at Town School for Boys, who approached me to let me know he was black when I was visiting his class at the end of a project on Dr. Martin Luther King as a change maker. (I gave him a huge appreciative smile and said, “Yes, you are!” He smiled back.)
We are holding such delicate identities in our hands, especially at an early age, and we have an incredible responsibility to do this well, to help our children see themselves in the world and their community, to help them define—and redefine—their identities as they grow.
3. Poetry can help; communicating matters. As a writer and former English teacher, I resonated with Sarah Kay’s closing keynote. She reminded me of the power of poetry to help students process heavy issues of identity, both in and out of the classroom. I used journals that way in my classroom, and I always allowed students to fold pages that got too personal to be shared with me, so that they knew they had a safe space to process sensitive topics. That said, I also noticed that many students wanted to share what was most painful, that they even seemed to need an audience who could hear and understand them. Over 19 years teaching Creative Writing, I was stunned by how often students shared their real, personal struggles under the guise of fiction and poetry, and I was able to help guide students to counselors and other support people once they’d “outed” their real feelings through a piece of creative writing.
The pace of our independent schools makes little room for creative self expression and reflection, yet the arts are where our students most often come to understand themselves and their place in the world. We need to open up more space in our schedules for such expression, for students to grapple not just with math and history but with who they are and the kinds of people they want to be.
4. We need to raise our children to stand up to discrimination even when it’s scary. I remember speaking with a friend years ago, whose first son was born on September 12th, 2001. I asked how she was feeling, about a month after his birth, about raising a child in 21st Century America. Her reply was that the world clearly needed a lot more good people, so her charge was to make sure her son was one of them.
A student in my International Affinity Group talked about being afraid to push back when his school community made a poor choice, as it seemed inevitable that doing so would create more tension and conflict. But the reality is that we can’t get to a better place without that tension and conflict, and leaning into discomfort will take us much further than avoiding the conversation. As Mahzarin Banaji made clear, the biases which put some in danger and others in power are deeply embedded in the human mind, impossible to change until we make them transparent. It’s not easy work, but it’s some of the most important work we’ll ever do.
5. The assumption that race aligns with privilege does not always hold true for people with an international identity, however they define that. I heard rumblings from most of the affinity groups about a graphic shared with all of us this year, called Journeys of Race & Culture: from Racial Inequality to Equity & Inclusion. While it may have sparked some powerful conversation, it was particularly dissonant for most people in the international affinity group. We found ourselves drawing distinctions which didn’t follow racial lines so much as ethnic ones; for example, as a semitic American, I resonated more with the lower half of the graphic, the experience defined as that of People of Color, even though my skin is white. We found ourselves wanting to revise the headings—would we all have responded differently had it been separated into the experiences of “Dominant and Non-Dominant Cultures” instead of “Whites and People of Color?”
None of us intend to diminish what this chart might mean for African Americans, Latin Americans, Asian Americans, or the U.S.-born whites who need to do the work of unpacking their privilege. I’m guessing the conversations triggered by the graphic were important and meaningful for most participants for whom inequity is an issue of race, and I recognize that this conference exists to serve their needs, not mine. My comments are not meant to diminish what is unique about those experiences. But subjugation happens as much on an ethnic level as a racial one, particularly outside of the United States, and issues like socio-economic opportunity and belonging to the dominant culture vs. the non-dominant group resonate more for many of us.
In fact, many educators in the international affinity group went from being part of a privileged, dominant class in their countries of origin, to suddenly being perceived as a minority in the U.S. because of race. Those who can “pass” because of lighter skin have had it easier than those who can’t, and many of my colleagues talked about passing by keeping their mouths shut so they wouldn’t be “outed” by their accents. Frankly, the threats to immigrants’ place in America are getting worse every day, particularly if one looks Arab or is a practicing Muslim. Many of my colleagues expressed fear and a profound sense of exclusion and alienation, particularly over the last year, and several of those individuals are white immigrants, both with and without accents, who are watching as U.S. society turns its back on their endless contributions.
For us, the conversation needed to be about this, the life of the immigrant in the United States, and the graphic triggered a lot for us. I’ll be the first to admit, however, that it also led to some very powerful conversations many of us needed to have about life as it’s experienced by international and “third-culture” individuals, a life which often vacillates between the lower and upper halves of the graphic, depending on where we are standing and how we are perceived. (For more on Third Culture Identities, see “So Where’s Home,” by Adrian Bautista; and Taiye Selasi’s TED Talk, “Don’t Ask Where I’m From, Ask Where I’m a Local.”)
6. The Equity Imperative is more urgent now than ever. The theme of the conference this year was The Equity Imperative, and I can’t begin to express how grateful I am to be part of a community so engaged in such profound dialogue about these topics. What is even harder than dialogue is bringing our ideas into practice, and each year this conference leaves me with new tools and strategies for helping teachers walk the walk, not just talk the talk. I am particularly grateful this year to a Mexican-American woman in my international session, who pointed out that she reframes every problem she faces in her community as an opportunity. As a person who often gets caught up in cynicism and pessimism, I was reminded that optimistic coaching will allow me to reframe the conversation at many schools in more constructive directions.
I hope that every participant this year finds meaningful ways to bring conversations about equity to their communities, and will spark action through that dialogue. Of all the challenges that face us as a human family, our ability to move from conversation to action is perhaps the most severe, to move past the mirror and let our self reflections turn into tangible solutions to all that ails us. The urgency to do so grows more compelling every day. It is our responsibility to teach and protect all children well, and I challenge all educators to find ways to implement our ideologies as good practice in our schoolhouses.
7. There are still plenty of good people in the world, and we can help balance out the bad ones. But our kids need to know how to recognize us amid the haters. Rosetta Lee left me with a lot to think about when someone in her session on Old School Diversity asked how we prepare our children for dealing with the people who don’t understand or value who they are. Her answer stayed in my mind throughout the conference. How do we prepare our children for the haters? We tell them they’ll encounter people who don’t know how to honor and love all that they are, but they’ll also encounter people who see them, appreciate them, and honor every nuance of their identities. Life is about learning to avoid the former and recognize the latter. It’s about knowing how to build allies and networks with the people who get us and see our whole selves, and trying to educate the people who don’t. And according to Gyasi Ross, it’s also about remembering that history matters, and that more of a diversity of experience needs to be honored in the retellings our children explore, so that every child sees his/her experiences reflected in the mirror.
Diversity And Inclusivity
“Great social forces are the accumulation of individual actions. Let the future say of our generation that we sent forth mighty currents of hope, and that we worked together to heal the world.” —Jeffrey D. Sachs
Whatever your views on the Ebola scare as it’s manifesting itself inside of North America, there’s no question that this is a real, deadly epidemic in West Africa. Real people are dying at alarming rates. People I know and care about in Sierra Leone are in real trouble; the schools are closed, the quarantined are starving, the people are afraid to shake hands with their neighbors, and misinformation reigns.
I’ve written about Hindogbae Kposowa before, a young leader in Bumpe, Sierra Leone, who is leading incredible efforts to improve life in his community in partnership with TakingITGlobal and the World Leadership School. I’ve also written about teachers in Bumpe, and the experiences I’ve had working with them on project-based learning and global partnerships. Through Hindo, several schools in North America have been able to partner with schools in the Bumpe community, including The Berkeley Carroll School (Brooklyn, NY) and Town School for Boys (San Francisco, CA). To learn more about one school’s work with Sierra Leone, explore this recent blog from Kristen Goggin at Town School for Boys.
Today, Hindo and his community are all-consumed by efforts to keep the Bumpe Ngao Chiefdom safe from the Ebola virus. Please don’t wait to get your students and community involved.
Build a Project around the Ebola Crisis in West Africa. There is nothing more authentic for inquiry and action than a real crisis in progress, and your students can be more than mere spectators, empowered to understand and support grassroots efforts instead of watching helplessly from the sidelines. Young leaders in Bumpe want to communicate with your kids, and all schools will receive regular updates from local volunteers on the ground. Consider the following driving questions and project ideas, which could easily be adapted for different grade levels:
1. How can we understand the causes of Ebola? Have your kids explore the root causes of Ebola and how it is spread. They could investigate how different countries are trying to manage the spread, looking at why Ebola was well controlled in places like Nigeria, while it has not been well controlled in Liberia or Sierra Leone. For younger kids, this could be woven into lessons about personal health and hygiene. For older students, this could become a powerful project on anything from public health policy to health care systems, and comparisons could include case studies in North America and Europe.
2. How can we determine which solutions to the Ebola spread are most effective? Have your kids explore how different health organizations are trying to stop the epidemic, including UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and the Center for Disease Control. Compare their impact with the strategies and grassroots efforts being used in Bumpe Ngao Chiefdom. This is also an interesting opportunity to explore the best ways to educate communities–through community meetings, theatre, posters, billboards–and have kids create their own educational campaigns.
3. How can we use math to understand the Ebola epidemic? Have your kids do some real world math–on the exponential spread of the disease and the funding needed to stop it, on comparisons to other global epidemics, on the costs involved in the grassroots work being done in Bumpe, and/or the relative successes of bigger and smaller organizations, including their overhead expenses and how much is actually being spent to end the outbreak.
4. How can we help end the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone? Whatever the academic focus of your broader engagement, encourage your kids to plan and run a fundraiser or educational campaign about Ebola and how to get involved in stopping its spread. Student presentations could include skits like those being used to educate communities in Bumpe, as well as artistic expression, writing, film, or other creative products designed to educate and inspire others to get involved. Once a classroom or individual has gotten involved in Bumpe’s grassroots prevention work, you will receive regular updates from young leaders in Bumpe, which can be shared with your students and broader community.
5. What can we learn by connecting with young people in Sierra Leone that we can’t learn from the news? The Centre for Global Education plans to run a multi-point videoconference with young leaders in Bumpe soon; please contact me for more information (Jennifer@principledlearning.org). Young leaders are also willing to Skype into classrooms on an individual basis, to answer students’ questions and talk about their efforts. Please note that there are significant costs involved in having the electricity and internet necessary for such a connection on Bumpe’s end, so we do ask that your classroom make a donation to the project if you want a private Skype call.
Please reach out to me if I can help support your involvement in this important work (Jennifer@principledlearning.org). Your kids don’t want to be spectators to global disasters–they are emerging change makers who want to be part of the solution. Please don’t wait to get them involved.
–Adrienne RichA rusty metal car bumper hung from a tree next to the primary school; each morning, I was woken up between 5:00 and 6:00 am by some diligent community time keeper who rang it repeatedly by hitting it with something. Instead of my regular routine before a teacher workshop, which includes lousy hotel coffee and a quick, often confusing drive across some unfamiliar city in a rental car, this day began with the ringing of the bumper. I ate fried Spam and eggs for breakfast and walked the short, dusty road to the school. It took us 15 minutes to figure out how to get the chalk boards to stand up straight, another 10 to reorganize the desks, which had been placed in rows, into a circle with plastic picnic chairs behind them. Children gathered in the windows and doorways, greeting me in Mende through the bars: “Boa Jenny-fah!” They giggled uncontrollably at my poorly pronounced replies.I started the workshop with a driving question for the 16 teachers who were invited to attend from Bumpe High School and the three local elementary schools: How can we best prepare our students to be successful people and innovative leaders in our communities and beyond? Everyone politely copied down everything I wrote on the board.I told them what I’d discovered through interviewing students in town all week, that the older the students, the less of an answer they had when I asked what they were curious about. The 1st graders had answers, and so did the 2nd graders; even the kindergarteners had answers once they understood what I was asking. But the high school kids all stared with confusion when asked what I thought was one of the best questions posed for them by Ashley Miller’s kindergarten students at Town School for Boys in San Francisco. What had happened between 1st grade and 10th, I asked? They’d been educated in a system where students sat in rows and copied down what their teachers told them to know, just as every teacher in the room was doing now.
In the schools of Bumpe, I quickly discovered, Paolo Freire’s notion of “banking education” is the norm. Students obediently write down everything the teachers say. When asked what they think, only the most mature offer answers beyond those modeled first by the teachers. One of the participants in my workshop, a Peace Corps volunteer halfway through his second year teaching English Literature, told me that the students are either misbehaving or learning passively most of the time; it is rare to see them engaged and curious. The exams they face every year ask for no independent thought and require no skills beyond test taking and rote retention. It’s no wonder that Freire resonated for so many of the teachers in my workshop–very few had studied his work, but everyone saw parallels to Socrates immediately, whom it seemed all had studied at some point in an educational system originally conceived by British colonists. Socrates and Freire had similar ideas about educating independent thinkers, suggesting that the best philosophers and educators ask questions, have dialogue, and encourage risk taking in their students–they don’t offer answers but equip students instead to look for answers themselves.Context can’t be underestimated, given Sierra Leone’s painful history. As recently as the 1990s, rebels were destroying everything they touched in this region of the world, and “Bumpe Town” appears several times in public documents from the Special Court for Sierra Leone. According to the Special Court, many individuals in the region were captured, tortured, and had limbs amputated. Community members who resisted were beheaded, and their heads were displayed in the town center to discourage resistance. According to the stories I heard during my visit, community members were raped and killed; children were executed in front of their parents; entire families were burned alive inside their homes. I don’t know whether the culture of passive education pre-dates the rebel war, but it’s certainly not surprising that Sierra Leone’s post-conflict educational culture includes so much obedience and so little independent thought, given the consequences they faced when they thought for themselves during the 1990s.
I was welcomed to Bumpe with celebrations and smiles, but there was no way I could forget the past each of these educators had lived through; even if there hadn’t been chickens roosting in our workshop room and we’d been in a North American workshop space with plumbing and electricity, I’d have been constantly and keenly aware of the horrors these teachers had undergone, the experiences that every Sierra Leonean under 20 remembers well enough to be left with layers of pervasive trauma. Bumpe’s schools and homes were looted and burned to the ground. I knew that these teachers had fled with their families, that they had tried to keep Bumpe’s schools going even as they’d fled from village to village in search of safety from the rebels. They’d taught out of remaining schoolhouses in other communities during off hours, moving again and again as the conflict required. There were teachers in the room who had lost family members, who had been captured and tortured themselves. Each of the teachers in my workshop had chosen to return to their town, to continue the work of educating their community, in spite of the fact that it was the site of unspeakable horror for every one of them. I couldn’t help but feel the weight of this history on every teacher in the room; it clung to us like a dusty haze, though no one spoke about the past directly.
I spent the whole day overwhelmingly conscious of the dangers of acting out some dreadful imperialist or colonialist paradigm by suggesting I had anything to teach these educators, individuals who had borne–and survived–so much I couldn’t imagine myself enduring. They had come back to a ravaged village to rebuild their communities and schools, were doing the best they could with almost no resources. How could I possibly know what it means to be an educator during and since times of war and atrocity, to work with the children of a generation of deeply scarred and traumatized adults? How was I going to talk about global enrichment when most of their students would never see the world beyond their direct environment and didn’t have enough to eat? How could I encourage collaboration with students around the world when the local schools had no electricity or running water, much less computers or internet connectivity? Many of the teachers in my workshop hadn’t been paid in years, and all of them struggled to put food on the table; who was I to teach them anything? Who was I to think that a summer teaching poetry in the West Bank qualified me to walk alongside these educators?
But when we worked together to craft a sense of our ideal global graduate, the challenges and distances between us melted away. It was the same list I’ve seen generated by teachers in schools across North America, what every educator wants for their students–and their communities–no matter where in the world they might be: that our students feel loved and know how to love others, that they have a sense of purpose and feel the urge to be engaged in creating change, that they be collaborative and creative problem solvers who know how to communicate their vision to others. It reminded me of the first time I heard Sting’s “The Russians Love their Children Too,” just after I left Israel/Palestine in 1985; it reminded me that wherever we live and whatever we experience, our hopes for our children are the same–and that those hopes have everything to do with our youth thriving and becoming good people, and nothing to do with their succeeding on standardized exams.
So no, I didn’t have enough time to take my teachers on a deep journey into all of the nuances of Project-Based Learning, but I didn’t need to try–all I needed to do was open a few new ideas about what student-centered teaching looks like, and they got it. Each teacher explored how the Buck Institute for Education’s Eight Essential Elements of Project-Based Learning might be incorporated into their teaching strategies; each teacher chose at least three elements as goals for growth of practice. In the developing world, where so many traditional paradigms of rote learning and teacher-centered education prevail–perhaps in part because of poverty and conflict–it is enough to increase student choice, to develop students’ 21st Century Skills, to allow learning to be born from a deeper sense of passion and purpose. We did the same with global competency matrices from Asia Society and World Savvy, and they loved the idea of Asia Society’s matrix providing a design strategy for classroom experiences–several teachers even came up with interesting ways to focus units on investigating the world, recognizing perspectives, communicating ideas, and taking action.
My favorite moment came during Building Utopia, a critical-thinking and collaboration activity I developed for World Leadership School, which asks teachers to organize the targets of the Millenium Development Goals into an order of priority, whatever that means to them. We were walking around after the exercise, listening to each group present what they’d prioritized and why, when an argumentative high school social studies teacher asked if listeners were allowed to disagree with presenters. In the shouting which followed, one voice rang straight through: Mr. Samba, the oldest teacher in the room, insisted loudly that all answers were correct, and within seconds the rest were echoing his sentiment loudly, wagging index fingers at the one who wanted to argue politics and pushing him back from the table. I nearly wept, both from laughter and joy, as this incredible group of educators demonstrated that they’d understood and were embodying the heart of student-centered learning in just under four hours.
Bumpe isn’t a big place, and every teacher I saw after the workshop told me enthusiastically about the changes they were already making in their classrooms. They weren’t developing huge projects, but they were already working toward the goals they’d set at the workshop: they were finding small ways to offer more choice, to ask questions more than offer answers, to talk less and listen more, to move away from the “sage on the stage” and toward the “guide on the side” as educators. Many of them expressed concern over how unsafe their national exams make it for kids to “fail forward” and learn from trial and error, and they were eager to continue the dialogue about how to lower risk aversion inside the classroom and get kids to try new things without fear of connected grades destroying their academic futures. The teachers were excited to share what they’d learned with colleagues–so excited that they actually fought ferociously over my left-over materials at the end of the workshop.
It was no accident that I chose to start from Freire; young people in Sierra Leone need to develop their own conscientização–the personal conscience that leads to innovation, liberation and change–and that can only happen through student-centered learning. Bumpe Town will probably never do a total flip to inquiry-driven, student-centered learning, but a few inspired young leaders will emerge from this beautiful part of the world, as they do wherever young people are encouraged to think for themselves, to collaborate with others, and to find new solutions to their communities’ challenges. Just as my host Hindogbae Kposowa has been fostered as a community leader through his work with international organizations like TakingITGlobal and World Leadership School, so all young people deserve to have constructive support as they develop their talents and passions. I don’t do this work because I think I have the right answers, but because I believe that every community in the world contains young people who might, particularly if their answers are fostered in classrooms which honor their voices and capacity for innovation.If my experience running a workshop with students in Bumpe is any indicator, these emerging leaders will find ways to rebuild and protect the future of their communities and country in ways their teachers and I have yet to even imagine.
It’s interesting how long I’ve held strong opinions about global women’s rights without ever really confronting the realities of practices I’ve criticized. Perhaps this is innately human, to assume we know without knowing, to assume we have a read on other people’s realities. It’s disconcerting to be reminded of how little I know–not just because I like to think I know a lot, but because the complexities and nuances of life around the globe are so intense that they render me speechless sometimes.
For years, I taught about women’s rights in Africa through Mariama Ba’s So Long a Letter, a brilliant novela which explores the experiences of women in a changing society in Senegal. My students did deep explorations and debates on polygamy and female genital mutilation, among other topics. While I always suggested that students take on the challenge of arguing the pro side, providing well-researched opposition myself to increase the authenticity and depth of argument on both sides, I have to admit that I always did have a right answer in my head (which I’m guessing my students realized the whole time). Clearly polygamy was an atrocious practice which disempowered women. Clearly no little girl should ever have her sexual organs cut, sewn up or removed. As a student-centered teacher, I wanted my kids to explore the issues for themselves… but I’ve realized recently that I actually wanted them to come to my own conclusions the whole time.
Walking through the rural southern village of Bumpe in Sierra Leone, an old man told me proudly that he has three wives. “Do they do that in America?” he asked me. I nodded and told him of small pockets of polygamous communities in the U.S. I said nothing critical, smiled a lot and asked if he was taking good care of all of his wives, as the Koran orders. His answer astonished me slightly: “They take care of me and I couldn’t exist without all three of them,” he told me. He pointed to the cook fire. “I am that pot over on the fire, held up by three stones. If you remove one of them, I will fall.”
My host has uncles and aunts spread all over the village—and the world. The explanation? His grandfather had 30 wives, and multiple children with each. It’s extreme enough to bring back memories of old testament classes and my confusion over Solomon’s harem of wives. But who am I to question thousands of years of communal traditions in a culture so much older than my own? I think of my ex-husband in Costa Rica, whose grandmother bore 20 children with an alcoholic husband–can I really say it would have been worse to have multiple mothers raising those children so they might have been better nurtured? Certainly questions of population and economics apply, and small families are easier to maintain, but how different is the polygamous family from the socialist communities of Israel or other parts of the world, where it is believed that it takes a village to raise a child? The single father is the only difference, I’m coming to realize–beyond that, the issue is more a moral one. And if a puritan moral mindset claims that marriage must be between one man and one woman, then yes, it deserves to be questioned not just for LGBTQ couples, but for anyone else who defines marriage differently.
Female cutting (also known as female genital mutilation or female circumcision) is a tougher issue for me to wrap my head around still, and I haven’t been able to get anyone to talk about it. What I know is this: Sierra Leone has one of the highest rates of female excision (removal of the clitoris and labia) in Africa, and the practice is tied to the poros, secret societies which use excision as part of initiation. When I asked my host about it, he said that most Sierra Leoneans belong to poros; he was initiated into one in his teens and he speaks of it with nothing but pride. He warned me against asking any of the women in his village or family about their own initiation experiences. But the question lingers–if most members of this community belong to poros, then that means most of the girls and women have undergone cutting.
The guide book in my pack tells me that initiation generally takes place during a young person’s teens, that men as much as women bear some sort of scar from their initiation process. There are questions raised about how safe and hygenic these practices generally are, but the book suggests that most Sierra Leoneans won’t talk about excision with foreigners because they know the west sees it as bad and they don’t want to get embroiled in arguments about a practice they are proud of.
I didn’t realize how much this underlying question was bothering me until I started interviewing teenage students at the high school. I found myself wondering briefly about the initiation scars the boys might carry, but each time I found myself talking to girls, I was gripped by the realization that most of them have probably had their sexual organs excised. Sitting with my host’s mother, who I have come to adore, I am deeply pained to think that she has gone through such a practice. The two young nieces who run around the house and dance for me will undergo it one day.
My own Jewish culture has circumcised baby boys for thousands of years, but female cutting feels different still, and that confuses me. I’ve seen documentaries on indigenous initiations rites for teenagers which usually include incredibly painful rituals. Things like this happen all over the world, a sort of pain-based transformation from teen to adult. Some of those young people have the choice to walk away; others don’t. Who am I to judge female cutting as apart from these rituals, as something inherently wrong, given the pride with which my host speaks of his own initiation?
I am left with more questions than answers. Does being a constructive and engaged global citizen mean I work to end practices I think are wrong around the world? I know my first goal should always be to understand why the practices exist and where they come from. Should my next goal be to accept them or to change them? I used to ask my students to come up with their own answers about where the line was for them: When is a cultural practice something we should try to end, and when should we accept it for its cultural importance to others? But the more I explore the world, the less sure I am that I have the right to judge anyone else’s choices.
“…it is quite enough if [educational exchange] contributes to the feeling of a common humanity, to an emotional awareness that other countries are populated not by doctrines that we fear but by people with the same capacity for pleasure and pain, for cruelty and kindness, as the people we were brought up with in our own countries.” –Senator J. William Fulbright
Teachers trying to globalize their practice often ask me how to develop a successful, socially responsible collaboration with a teacher, classroom or sister school elsewhere in the world. To be honest, I’ve been frustrated by how many potentially excellent partnerships I’ve seen tank over the last few years, so I no longer promise anything beyond making introductions and sharing strategies. There is no magic wand in this work–there is a lot of trial and error, a lot of struggling and risk, and a lot of work involved in building a successful global educational partnership.
But there’s also no question that students are moved by real human connections more than anything else we do in our increasingly global classrooms, so it’s worth trying to bring authentic partnerships into that mix. In this article, I’ll explore a few strategies which I hope might help educators build their own partnerships successfully, though I hesitate to suggest that I’ve figured out the perfect formula–I hope readers will share their insights in the comments as well.
Look first to existing networks, relationships and organizations for your ideal global partner. Finding a good partner teacher, classroom and even sister school community can be much more of a crap shoot than most global educators would like to admit. Even wonderful, established organizations like iEARN and TakingITGlobal–and well-developed programs for partnership like Flat Classroom, Challenge 20/20 and Global Partners Junior–have plenty of train wrecks in their track record. The bottom line is that it’s hard to develop a deep and collaborative relationship with colleagues in our own buildings, much less with unknown strangers across the planet.
I’ve found that the best partnerships come from existing connections in the teacher’s life and extended community. Have any of your former colleagues moved to work in schools in other parts of the world? Did any college friends end up doing unusual work globally? Have current colleagues taught abroad or do they know people who are doing so now? These questions can lead to much more personal, individualized connections–and are more likely to succeed because they will more likely spring from the vested interest of both educators.
I also know plenty of educators who have found good partners by advertising under the #globaled and #globalclassroom hash tags on Twitter, however–my point is just that deep collaboration requires full investment on both sides, and this isn’t easy to find. In terms of finding like-minded educators, I love the yearly online Global Education Conference, and its year-round community network hosted by Lucy Gray and Steve Hargadon. The conference community functions as a Professional Learning Network, offering a forum throughout the year for seeking global partners and sharing project ideas, and the conference itself often leads to new connections and collaborations (recordings of previous years’ sessions are available on the community pages). Similarly, international webinars and e-courses such as the one I teach for TakingITGlobal for Educators can be an ideal forum for developing projects, getting feedback on project ideas, and finding a global partner with similar interests.
Establish your partnership based on socially responsible and culturally responsive foundations. One of my biggest concerns about global education is the tendency of educators in the developed world to see the rest of the world as something to be explored for the sake of their own curriculum. There’s a level of exploitation suggested in this common paradigm, if not intended, which leaves one partner classroom working for the benefit of the other. Mutual benefit and opportunity is key to a socially responsible and culturally responsive partnership, and this requires that both educators come to the table with an empty plate. What I mean is that educators need to approach their partners as equals, with a willingness to start the conversation without too much of their own personal agenda, with a curiosity about the needs and interests of the other teacher. The best partnerships grow out of collaborative, equal dialogue between educators–and students. Furthermore, mutually beneficial projects, such as having both communities work on a problem they share, can go a long way to helping our students see that global education isn’t about saving or even helping others so much as collaborating toward a better world for everyone through the gifts each person brings to the table.
Educational consultant and friend Tim Kubik and I wrote on the topic of avoiding exploitative, even imperialistic forms of global partnering in a simultaneous blog posting in Fall 2012. We agreed that the biggest danger of global education is the emerging paradigm of developed schools exploiting less-developed communities for their educational advantage in a way which dehumanizes the less developed by suggesting they don’t have as much to offer a global collaboration (see Tim’s “Global Education as THE Dialogue Among Civilizations” and my “Our Messy World: Learning From and With, Not About”). If we want students to stop “othering” and start seeing the world’s cultures as possessing a richness and history we can learn from and engage with, we have to start by making the global relationships themselves more important than any educational or curricular agenda.
Partner your classroom for the sake of authentic connection over “exotic” cultural differences or distance. It’s important to notice–and avoid–an “exoticism” mentality if it starts to emerge. I often work with educators, for example, who insist on finding a global partner from the most distant and/or culturally different country possible, usually in the developing world–not because it’s relevant to their curriculum but because it feels more exotic or “gritty” than partnering with a Canadian school, for example. However, this mentality can often exacerbate social inequalities rather than combatting ideas about “the West and the Rest,” and in doing so can end in projects which go directly against the equal partnership goals of responsible global education.
Global educators can’t be blamed for wanting to develop something unique and far reaching for their students, but it’s also important that students learn about poverty and difficulty in our own societies. The “glocal” education movement asks us to consider important global questions on a local level: Could your students learn as much about collaborating to end poverty by partnering with a food bank in your own city? Could they connect to ancient cultures and reach the same level of inter-cultural skills and relationships through a trip to the American Southwest as much as a trip to Peru? Most of our challenges are shared, borderless challenges, and understanding that helps students stop abstracting issues like poverty and conflict into something which only happens outside of North America–and in doing so opens new avenues of action and engagement in global change at home.
Don’t expect immediate success–deep, constructive global relationships require a marathon, not a sprint. The challenges of global partnerships are many, and teachers have to develop the same inter-cultural skills as they hope to foster in their students in order to be successful. The learning curve can be long–and that means global partnerships are rarely efficient, easy to organize, or completely successful the first time around. The worst thing you can do, however, is jump from partner to partner in search of the “perfect” pairing–the best partnerships are rarely perfect to begin with. The moral of the story is to work at it, to think of the partnership as a long-term relationship which will improve with time and effort, and to expect things to be messy for the first year or two. Whether it’s navigating time zone differences (east to west), school year differences (north to south), trouble-shooting differences in technological access, or just trying to communicate regularly and well, you can expect this relationship to take effort–and to get richer and deeper as you put in that effort.
It’s essential to accept the limitations of technology and work within its potential, but it’s also important to think beyond technology as well. Global communication and relationships reach their deepest level through in-person experiences–and no matter how much technology has done for the global educational field, it will never replace the value of international travel for teachers and students with relationship-oriented organizations such as World Leadership School. Whether this is a teacher traveling to connect personally with their partner teacher(s) or students traveling to connect their communities, there is no question that deep relationships–especially on the level of sister schools–require more than email and Skype calls.
Keep your expectations realistic in year one–consider small successes significant successes, and build something bigger from there. It’s reasonable to say that most teachers go into global partnerships expecting too much their first time around, largely because the prospect of a global collaboration is so exciting and we have trouble controlling ourselves. Much of the time, however, when teachers try to accomplish too much too quickly, they leave the topics students find most relevant. By creating a space for less content- or standards-driven dialogue about favorite movies or day-to-day life, we can help build the foundations for much deeper dialogue later by helping kids see what they have in common. Bigger successes and deeper virtual events on global issues and perspectives might come later, but small successes count in the meantime.
Just knowing how to connect Skype doesn’t mean there will be a deep and meaningful dialogue between classrooms; in fact, navigating the awkward silences and discomfort of the first few Skype sessions is often what turns new teachers away from global education. I’ve seen huge, high-tech global events go to heck in a hand basket on million dollar equipment, and I’ve seen a no-budget Facetime call change students’ lives. Remember that deep global experiences aren’t about fancy technologies and big events–they’re usually about small accidental moments which occurred because the teachers created the right context for dialogue and didn’t push the kids too far too fast. I’ve had many experiences where a simple, seemingly innocuous question in a video conference drew out something meaningful and helped students connect with the world authentically; if you’re hungry for examples, see “Creating the Conditions for Accidental Learning: Dialogue with Syrians, Palestinians, Canadians… and Wookies.”
Consider building smaller experiences and “one-offs” with individuals to fill the gaps while deeper partnerships develop. Sometimes it makes best sense to supplement the developing partnership with a few Skype sessions with relevant individuals who can help to take the conversation deeper. People all over the world are involved in creating change in their homes, schools, communities and beyond, and most are so passionate that they’re thrilled to engage with classrooms and inspire the next generation to become leaders in their fields. Especially in the first few years of developing a deeper partnership with a classroom or school, these one-off experiences can really help globalize the dialogue in your classroom immediately, and speakers can be found in non-profits, non-governmental organizations, and even your alumni directory.
Particularly among higher-level teachers, I’ve noticed a tendency default to Skyping with semi-famous or major “experts” in a given field, and this makes sense when an expert can answer student-generated questions better than a young person can. However, I’ve found that sometimes more important connections happen when kids get to meet an individual who’s closer to their age and not yet considered important for their efforts. For example, I often connect classrooms with Yasser Alaa Mobarak, a young Egyptian photographer who has done a great deal of work with iEARN. He shares his photography, talks about what he hopes viewers will see, answers questions from the kids, and then invites students to continue the photographic dialogue and sharing in a private group he’s set up on Facebook. Honestly, no number of experts in Middle Eastern politics could ever impact kids as much as just one of Yasser’s photographs because they’re real, raw, and relevant. Most importantly, connecting with someone like Yasser demonstrates that young people don’t have to be famous to make a difference through their individual efforts and passions.
Remember that communication will take patience and inter-cultural skills, particularly in cases where teachers don’t share a common language. While language differences can slow down the initial steps in a global partnership, teachers have an opportunity to develop–and model–the kinds of inter-cultural communication skills needed for culturally-responsive global engagement. By making use of local expertise–among colleagues, students and parents–we can help spotlight the gift of foreign language proficiency among members of our community, and can help students see the value of learning another language in real terms. By testing (rather than avoiding) the technological tools available for translation, we can also help students become more discerning about their value and better at identifying accuracies. My suggestion is usually that teachers communicate in their native language and use resources (people, translators, etc.) to understand what they receive, but there is great value in trying and practicing your partner’s language as well–and there is little more valuable for young language learners than seeing the example of adult learners taking risks with a new language.
Be thoughtful about how you handle inter-cultural and personality differences that pose challenges along the way. Other nuances of communication can also pose challenges, and differences of tone and communication style can often cause more difficulty than pure language use. I’ve seen teachers from culturally aggressive countries inadvertently offend teachers from more culturally submissive regions, I’ve seen teachers from “nice” cultures politely agree to things they have no intention of doing, and I’ve seen teachers from argumentative cultures create conflict without meaning to. The best advice I can give is to be transparent. To meet in a face-to-face setting like Skype can be a huge help, but more importantly, transparency means letting your partner teacher know when you hit a road bump. Try to engage in dialogue rather than avoid confrontation if you’re struggling with an element of the project or communication–let your partner know if you’re bad at answering emails around exam times, let them know how you respond to stress. Just as we want our students to lean into discomfort and learn to collaborate effectively in spite of–perhaps even because of–our differences, we need to do the same ourselves.
Read what’s out there and learn from what others have tried; more progress happens when we stop reinventing the wheel. There are far too many good publications for global educators to list them all, but I’ll name a few I’ve been exploring lately–and liking. I hope readers will add to the list by commenting about books, articles and other resources worth exploring.
- Mastering Global Literacy (Hayes Jacobs et al, 2013)
- Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds (Lindsay and Davis, 2012)
- Educating for Global Competence: Preparing our Youth to Engage the World (Mansilla and Jackson, 2011)
- Suzie Boss (Regular Edutopia blogger with expertise in Project-Based Learning who often shares stories of successful global partnerships and projects)
- Silvina Tolisano’s “Langwitches” (Varied Global and Educational Technology Topics from a Classroom Practitioner, The Graded School, Brazil)
- Kristen Goggin’s “Stories from the Garage” (Global PBL in Middle School Math from a Classroom Practitioner, Town School for Boys, California)
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.
“There could be no creativity without the curiosity that moves us and sets us patiently impatient before a world that we did not make, to add to it something of our own making.” —Paulo Freire
Every communication I receive from Joseph Hindogbae “Hindo” Kposowa begins the same way: “Dear Aunty Jeni.” It started almost a year ago, just before TakingITGlobal and Promethean worked to send him from his rural region of Bumpe, Sierra Leone to Lagos, Nigeria to be part of the Education Fast Forward (EFF5) Online Debate, “From Learners’ Voice To Global Peace.” It is no small thing to be considered family in Sierra Leone, and I honestly feel as connected to Hindo as I have to any student who crossed the threshold of my classroom over the 19 years I taught teenagers.
My connection to the Kposowa family began in 2010 through my work for the World Leadership School, when a high school sophomore at the Berkeley Carroll School in Brooklyn asked me to help her make connections in Sierra Leone. She had the vision of bringing former child soldiers to a United Nations Student Conference in New York; after reading Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, she was deeply concerned by child soldiers’ lack of voice and agency in such arenas.
Two months later, I met Hindo’s sister Sarah Culberson at the National Association of Independent Schools’ People of Color Conference in San Diego. Director of Service Learning at the Oakwood School (California) and co-founder of the Kposowa Foundation, Sarah was speaking on the biography A Princess Found, which chronicles her life as an adopted multi-racial child and her eventual discovery that her biological father was Sierra Leonean royalty. I approached Sarah after her presentation–would she be willing to help create a connection between the Berkeley Carroll School and Bumpe, where her father was the high school principal and her uncle the regional chief?
Two years later, I find myself amazed by how far we’ve come–not just in educating young New Yorkers about life in Sierra Leone, but in a partnership which is bringing new educational opportunities to Bumpe High School’s students and teachers as well. We were not able to bring students from Sierra Leone to Brooklyn because of U.S. visa challenges (go figure), but BCS student leader Elena Hirsch wrote grant applications, held major fundraising events, and raised enough money to offer a significant scholarship for local amputees to attend Bumpe High School, as well as supporting local programming around AIDS awareness and prevention in the broader Bumpe community. In November, 2011, Elena presented on her experiences at the Global Education Conference “GlobalEdCon” with me and BCS’s Head of Upper School Suzanne Fogarty (click here to launch the full recording).
I wrote in November about the importance of thinking about benefits on the “other side” of any global partnership, and there is no case where I’m more aware of that responsibility than in my work with Hindo. He demonstrates Freire’s “patient impatience” in his uncanny eye for my live presence on Facebook and Skype, as well as texting to my phone occasionally, so few days pass without a greeting from him. Having just graduated from university in Freetown, Hindo has returned to Bumpe and is now in his first year teaching History and Government at Bumpe High School, where his father Joe Konia Kposowa is principal. Hindo knows he has been fortunate; he knows how much it means to have the education he does, and he has returned to Bumpe to help lead his community forward. He will also be entering law school this month because, and I quote, “There is no justice in my community!”
Recently, Hindo shared his project for a TakingITGlobal professional development e-course he participated in on Environmental Stewardship, with instructor Deanna Del Vecchio. Thanks to the generosity of donors, TIG is currently able to offer scholarships to young teachers across the developing world, and I have encouraged Hindo to get his colleagues involved as well. Deanna told me, “Hindo’s eagerness to learn impressed me, as did his commitment to bettering his community through education. He developed an excellent final project that successfully applied the course concepts to needs in his own community, and spoke eloquently to express his ideas and opinions.” He asked my advice on the project, in which he wants to develop awareness and action around environmental stewardship and waste disposal in Bumpe, but he didn’t really need my help–he already thinks like a leader and a teacher at only 23. I encourage all readers to watch Hindo’s project film, to learn more about his plans and community support, and to visit Hindo’s Give for Youth project page to support this young visionary.
Just as I discovered a way to create constructive change through working with teenagers in Costa Rica and the United States, so Hindo represents an opportunity to do the same. I don’t want to shape Bumpe–I want to support Hindo’s growth as a leader and teacher. By offering him encouragement, support, and access to strategic global partners, I hope to empower him to believe in himself and his vision of change for his community. And Hindo, in turn, is providing incredibly powerful, authentic experiences for young people in North American classrooms.
When people speak of needing to allow students to “construct rather than consume knowledge,” my mind always goes to both Hindo and Elena. Over the years, the knowledge that young leaders sit in my classroom has driven the majority of my practice, both inside the classroom and now in my work with teachers. In fact, the knowledge that teachers have the opportunity to affect change through our students is what gets me up every morning to do this work, what keeps me hopeful about humanity’s future in spite of our heartbreaking present.
And there are millions of potential Hindos and Elenas sitting in classrooms around the world, ready to create change. We just have to provide an environment which empowers them to believe in their own best solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.
This fall, I was honored to be part of another multi-point video conference on the Middle East in Transition for Global Encounters, a series being offered to schools through a partnership between the Centre for Global Education, TakingITGlobal, and the Research Journalism Initiative. The two-session series included a curriculum for classroom and asynchronous homework activities, which we’d spent weeks developing, revising and posting in a virtual classroom, including carefully-crafted discussion threads and online assignments. The live event included dialogue and discussion, all well planned out in advance… but in the end, it’s not all that foresight and planning that make a global connection meaningful for students. In fact, our events in October reminded me yet again that accidents are the best part of global learning, and that real connections are made when we reveal something subtle and unintended about who we are and are able to see each other as human.
In this case, it was the convergence of a very serious conversation about peace and conflict with a slightly less serious season of the year in North America: Halloween. The discussions were around violence and non-violence in Syria and Palestine, and students were exploring seriously the difference between acceptable self defense and terrorism, when people do or don’t have the right to raise arms against an oppressor, what happens when superpowers get to decide who has the right to self determination… And amid it all, one rather brave, tall young man from a high school in Ohio kept stepping up to share his thoughts in front of the camera–dressed as Chewbacca from Star Wars.
At first it just seemed absurd. My role during our live events is to monitor and facilitate the Twitter feed, and the tweets went through the roof–mostly from the Canadian students.
- “OMG CHEWY COSTUME!!! BRAAAAA!”
- “Ahh freaking out! Loving the Chewy costume!”
- “These poor people watching us must think we have an extremely hairy kid talking to them.”
- “Yea I was gonna recommend a razor lol jk!”
The cherry on the sundae came after the event, from the boy himself: “Had a great time discussing important topics today in my Chewbacca Wookie costume. Hope to do it again some time.” If you look at the screenshot I’ve provided from the Livestream, you’ll also notice Elmo in the back left, who got a lot of attention in the Twitter feed as well–especially at the very start of the video conference when her giant head was still in place. See the full Twitter feed for the whole conversation, if you’re curious.
I can’t overemphasize how important these accidental moments really are. We can do a lot to try to plan activities and conversations which will foster intercultural connections between kids, but the fact is that the most powerful connections are like this one: accidental, unintended moments when our basic humanity comes through. I’d love to wax poetic about the whole thing, but honestly it was what it was–a serious and meaningful conversation about peace and conflict with a kid in a wookie suit, a giant red Elmo in the background.
I saw something similar–and slightly more poetic–happen once in a live video conference with a young poet in Palestine, Falastine Dwikat. I was facilitating a video conference for young women in Denver, and Falastine was sharing about her life. My students were struggling a bit with the experience–Falastine read her work fairly quickly, which left lots of time for questions, but the students hadn’t understood her poetry very well and were having trouble thinking of what to ask. It was one of those awkward moments which are inevitable in video conferencing, and thankfully a teacher in the room stepped up to end the silence. “What are you reading right now?” she asked the young poet.
What happened next was something I could never have planned–as Falastine described her current read, a spiritual exploration called Sophie’s World, the students on my end started turning and whispering with surprised expressions. They were reading that very book in their philosophy class, it turned out. Falastine shared what she was enjoying about it, and a student on my end bravely declared, “I really hate it. We all do.” To this, Falastine replied, “Oh, but have you gotten to Chapter 11 yet? Oh, you have to keep reading–that’s the best part!” It was a moment of connection, a flash of common ground between young women in two very different parts of the world living very different lives–whether my students read to Chapter 11 as a result or not.
In truth, there is much more which connects these young women–but we have to start with what’s possible, with the little insights which make us laugh or see each other as a little less distant than the map suggests. Teachers can put all the right pieces in place, but we can’t force these kinds of accidents to happen. Our role is to create the conditions where it can happen, to set up all the right circumstances and create an environment where students feel comfortable as themselves, where it’s ok to make mistakes and laugh at themselves a little.
It’s the connection which matters; anything which breaks the ice can create these humanizing moments. Years ago, early in my work running such events, I facilitated a video conference on Women in Leadership between high school students in Denver and university students in the West Bank. We had young women on both sides of the globe, talking live about the very long and complicated path toward women’s full liberation in U.S. and Palestinian society. On the whole, the conversation was serious but slightly stilted, like the students on the U.S. side didn’t quite feel at ease–and I remember wondering what I needed to do to help them relax so they could be less concerned about the camera and more concerned about the conversation.
All it took to shift the moment and create the opportunity for a real connection was a comment from one young woman in Denver, who approached the camera at a critical moment, just as the Palestinian women finished sharing some of the more oppressive elements of their lives. My student looked seriously into the camera. “It’s not really a question, just something I wanted to say. It’s taken a long time for women to get where we are in America,” she told the girls in Palestine. “When I think about the last hundred years, it’s been a slow process to liberate women, and we’re still not paid as much as men today.” She paused, then looked straight at her counterparts in Palestine. “So, be encouraged, I guess,” she told them. “It’s a long road, but things do change with time.”
As teachers, we may need to stop worrying so much about our content for a few minutes and know that what we’re really doing is creating a learning moment, not trying to control exactly what happens inside of it. The less we try to control or force the direction of conversation in such live events, the more likely these unplanned, magical moments have the room to occur. The kids who watched Chewbacca talk seriously about the state of the world will never forget the experience–first because of the image he created, certainly, standing in front of the camera covered in fur. But they’ll also remember what he had to say, which was thoughtful and articulate–important, even. This work is not just about peace, conflict, leadership or literature–global education is about setting up the conditions which allow students to learn about culture and identity through these very real, mostly accidental moments of connection.
SUNDAY, OCTOBER 14, 2007.
La Habana, Cuba.
Click here to see Jennifer’s full Cuba blog from 2007
“It is trust that opens wide the heart,
without the longing of
The late afternoon light was yellow and sharp, every brick and stone standing out against the deep blues of sea and sky. I wandered with nothing particular to do or see once the heat was bearable, exploring the backside of a remote town called Baracoa. It is a town just beginning to feel the impact of increasing tourism as roads get better and travelers get more adventurous, more willing to spend twenty-plus hours on a bus to get to the farthest reaches of Cuba. I wasn’t in the touristy section of town; I’d wandered into purely Cuban neighborhoods where the streets were too narrow for a car to pass easily. The streets were pretty desolate; at ten that morning they’d been bustling with shoppers and people walking to and from work, school and markets, but by late afternoon everyone had gone home to enjoy the waning heat and the touch of evening breezes coming in off the ocean.
I was photographing a paper dove stapled to a doorway, the words“contra el terrorismo / against terrorism” handwritten on its warping surface, when I heard the singing. At first I thought it was a woman; the voice was a loud and clear high tenor, powerful and resounding in the empty street. I followed it, but hesitant to intrude I ended up skirting the block before I mustered the courage to approach. The song drew me to a small cement patio outside a simple cinder-block home in the middle of a block, a patio crowded with adults and children of all ages, nearly all afro-cubanos gotten up in their nicest clothes to gather around the singer. It wasn’t a woman; a young man around 25 was belting his heart out as he strummed intensely on his guitar. I could see his neck straining and I imagined my father saying how he’d blow his vocal cords out in no time, but it was worth it to listen in that moment, to get to hear such talent so accidentally.
I leaned back against the building across the street from their patio. They saw me at once, and I smiled widely and tried to make myself infinitely approachable, the kind of person anyone would trust with their children. Within minutes, they were inviting me onto their patio and into their festivities. I tried to refuse the rocking chair given up by a woman 20 years older than I, but as the honored guest I was goaded until it seemed far more polite to accept. It was a birthday party, it turned out; the old woman on the rocker in front of me was turning 90. Someone came around with a tray of shot glasses filled with a thick white drink; it was sweet and strong, going straight to my head and relaxing me into the rocking chair immediately.
The singer finished a song and made as if to leave his seat, but the crowd insisted on another, blocking his path and pushing him back down with friendly but insistent hands. Another song for the birthday girl. And then something happened I’ll never forget. The singer began, and the song he chose, I’m not sure why, was a beautiful ballade all Cubans know called “La Ultima Canción/The Last Song.” The song was written by a celebrated Cuban musician named Polo Montañez, who was killed early in his career by a drunk driver and who is still mourned by all Cubans. It’s a beautiful and popular song, mind you, written shortly before his death, but I immediately worried about the choice. The refrain is the most famous line: “El ultimo momento de mi vida debe ser, creo que debe ser romántico. / The last moment of my life should be, I believe that it should be romantic.” Many adults began singing along, and the patio came aloud with the sound. I started singing quietly as well, and I received smiles and impressed nods that I knew the words. But my eyes were on the birthday girl, the old woman of nearly a century whose eyes had filled with tears. No one else noticed until after the song ended and the young musician successfully fled, but she was weeping silently through every word.
Her family gathered around her the moment they realized, of course. She was lovingly coaxed out of her claims that she was useless to them and nearer her end than anyone wanted to admit openly. They calmed and soothed her, a woman who looked like her smoothing back the old woman’s white hair. Her lovely grand- and great-grand-children lined up to recite poetry which they’d memorized for school. The kids kept looking over at me every time they said yanqui, and everyone started laughing and cheering again. Often patriotic and evocative of the Cuban landscape and revolutionary spirit, the poems made the birthday girl smile just a little, though she was still wiping at her eyes twenty minutes later.
I am always amazed by the moments when strangers let me into their lives so fully, when I see the raw and authentic wounds of the human experience open before me. It’s painful to live with one’s eyes open and one’s heart prepared to by changed by the truth, another truth, someone else’s real and delicate experience. It’s painful to grasp life by its guts and pull them up close for a look, and that’s exactly what happened to the old woman, exactly what happened to me because I was privileged to bear witness to her moment. But just as there’s nothing more tragic than an old woman crying about death on her 90th birthday, there’s nothing more beautiful than a community coming together in the darkening light to honor a life well lived and to share a little common ground with a stranger in the gentle breezes of early evening.