― Chinua Achebe
― Chinua Achebe
I’ve been thinking all week about the distinction between inclusivity and belonging. As Kapono Ciotti put it in our pre-conference workshop on Wednesday, we’ve shifted our thinking significantly over the last few decades, and our language has had to shift as well. We started with tolerance–a word I personally hate because it suggests we only tolerate each other–then moved to diversity, then to inclusivity. But belonging is a very different thing, a deeper and more emotional concept than inclusivity. Rinku Sen referenced the weaknesses of the term inclusivity as well on Day One; inclusivity, she told us, suggests that one person or group has built a world they’ll allow others to come into, and that’s not the same as creating community together. Belonging is that feeling of home, that feeling of knowing that you are an inseparable part of something, connected deeply to the people around you.
This morning, we had the incredible experience of hearing from Poet Laureate Richard Blanco, and his search for home was at the heart of what he shared. As he put it in his keynote, he was produced (conceived) in Cuba, manufactured (born) in Spain, and imported (moved) to the United States. He described growing up Cuban in Miami, of the ways his family tried to “be American” by incorporating elements of a US lifestyle into their home. He made us laugh at his stories of “San Giving,” his family’s version of Thanksgiving, in which the turkey was always dry, pork was served as well, and pork drippings helped to make the turkey palatable. They drank rum and danced salsa on Thanksgiving–and childhood looked nothing like the Brady Bunch. He told us of his parents’ nostalgia for Cuba, for a life he never knew, and of their attempt to find home in the United States while also preserving a sense of home they might return to one day in Cuba. Blanco evoked humor but also a deep urge for belonging as he described his search for home and his parents’ yearning as well, particularly his mother’s: “To love a country as if you’ve lost one… It isn’t where you’re born that matters, it’s where you choose to die–that’s your country” (from “Mother Country”).
Blanco also described the challenges of growing up queer in his Cuban family, of being accepted for who he is–in particular by his grandmother. One of my favorite poems was “Queer Theory: According to my Grandmother.” The poem included endless admonishments for less-than-machista behavior from her grandson: “Don’t pee sitting down,” she told him. “Don’t stare at the Million Dollar Man; I’ve seen you.” Her ideas about masculinity, standards that didn’t match who he was, also impacted Blanco’s sense of home and belonging. It wasn’t until he wrote and then read his work at on Inauguration Day that he realized the United States can be home for all, a place where everyone belongs. “We can all write this new narrative,” he told us, “we can all contribute a chapter. There’s a new constellation waiting for us to map it, waiting for us to name it–together” (from “One Today“).
Our students need a sense of home and belonging as well, and I spent the morning in David J. Johns‘ master class exploring how students might contribute to co-constructing their education, particularly African-American youth, both LGBTQI+ and straight. His focus on student voice kept reminding me of belonging as well, of how often students feel school is a world constructed by the adults that they have to find their place in. Instead, David Johns’ workshop suggested that students should be involved in the creation of that world, of a space in which they feel right and safe and whole. Too often, he pointed out, adults assume they know what students need–which I explored in my blog on Day One. But when we ask students what they need from us, when we involve them in the conversation about what their education should look like, they can shift from being included (often only marginally) to a real sense of belonging. As someone working hard to incorporate student voice into everything that happens in the schools I support, I found his ideas deeply resonant. I found myself thinking about the power of learning from students rather than making assumptions or teaching at them, of the incredible transformations I’ve seen in schools where students have been at the table and have had the opportunity to turn their communities into communities that feel more like home. “We need to disrupt an educational system that determines opportunities based on zip codes and genetic codes,” Johns told us, so that all students thrive and feel a sense of belonging and wellbeing, both in our schools and the world they inhabit after they leave us.
For Zak Ebrahim, the search for home was different. As the son of a terrorist, Zak has moved 30 times in the course of his life. In school, he was bullied constantly–which he acknowledged has created a deep empathy for outsiders. He chose a life of peace building and constructive action, rejecting his father’s ideas about the United States and forcing change through violence. What moved me most was the element of choice, that idea that we can choose an identity different what’s expected or assumed, even when that identity is different than a parent or the community around us. “Isolation,” he told us, “is the key ingredient for radicalization; separation never leads to understanding.” As my friend and colleague Homa Sabet Tavangar pointed out, this was a perfect bookend to Bryan Stevenson‘s urging on Day One that we “get proximate” because only by getting in close can we really understand the lives of others. When our students feel a sense of belonging and home, it comes from that very proximity–and from seeing our own reflection in others, something we can only begin to do when we make real connections and build deep relationships.
I grew up searching for home as well, trying to make sense of my Semitic (Jewish) identity, clashing with the politics of Israel, trying to understand my place in the mostly non-Jewish communities I’ve inhabited. Once I stopped self-identifying as religiously or politically Jewish, it got even more complicated; I lived outside the United States for significant portions of my teens and 20s, always searching for a sense of belonging. Ever since I can remember, I’ve dreamed of trying to arrive at a home I never quite make it to; the dreams started when I was 9 or 10 and I still have them several times a year. I can see some city off in the distance each time, viewed from planes and trains and ships, but I never quite arrive.
I felt that way in school as well, as I shared in my pre-conference welcome blog. While I found ways to be included, I can’t say I felt I belonged. And this is probably at the heart of why the People of Color Conference has become so important to me over the years. When I step into the International Affinity group, I know I’m home; we are an incredibly diverse group, filled with people of every color from every continent, yet we share a connection to worlds beyond the United States and the experience of feeling like outsiders in places others call home. As the only US-born international most years, who feels more at home outside the United States than in, I don’t have to explain myself with this family. They know and understand me; I’m not just included, I belong. And as we prepared to meet with our student counterparts on Saturday morning, we affirmed how much our students need this, too: the power of being understood and seen by teachers and peers, and the sense of belonging that comes from it.
I wonder if we might channel our childhood wounds and educate from exactly what we needed as children ourselves; the effect would surely be transformative. Ultimately, the search for a country we can call home is the same as our students’ search for belonging in our communities. A school can be a country, too, I keep thinking–a place where all belong and contribute and know they are home.
In our pre-conference session yesterday, Kapono Ciotti and I shared an interview I did with a young woman I mentored starting at the end of her 5th grade year, when she was given a scholarship to the independent school where I taught. A Mexican-American raised by a single mother from the state of Durango, she experienced so much “othering” by teachers and tutors that she ultimately dropped out of her NAIS school and went to her neighborhood parish school. Back among students who looked like her, and among teachers who honored exactly who she was, she thrived.
This young woman’s story is not unique, unfortunately, and her powerful words–as well as the outraged reactions of our workshop participants–have been in my heart and mind all day at the People of Color Conference. How often do we misperceive our students’ capacities or drive, assume we understand why a student acts as they do, rather than asking the questions that might help us see the world from their perspective? When we come to the People of Color Conference each year, we come back into a community that gets the importance of students’ sense of power and identity, of their wellbeing in their own skin and their empowerment as learners. How might we ensure that this happens for all learners in all schools? How we might ensure that educators engage all students with an asset mindset and try to understand their why?
Our morning keynote Bryan Stevenson explored similar ideas by suggesting that we need to look more closely at the racial divides and challenges around us. Don’t avoid “bad neighborhoods,” he told us; get closer and try to understand why they exist. Get proximate to the people, to their day-to-day lives, so you can understand and honor the whybehind what you see. His stories humanized everyone, from death row inmates to the prison guard whose truck was covered in confederate flags and racist bumperstickers. He told us of a condemned man who sang of higher ground, fueling Stevenson’s sense of purpose as a result, of how the school-to-prison pipeline exists because of the assumption that some children aren’t children. “We have to change the narrative,” he told us repeatedly; we have to combat the fear and anger that lie at the heart of oppression so we can see every child as fully human and deserving of a real childhood. “We have to stay hopeful,” he told us, so that when someone says “these kids can’t…” there’s always someone pushing back to insist that they can. I found myself thinking again of my student, of how often her teachers assumed they knew her why (she wasn’t trying hard enough, didn’t have the right skills, probably had challenges in her family life), rather than starting from the kinds of questions that might have unearthed what was really going on (she had a very supportive home life but insecurity over who she was and how she fit in, the sense no one honored her as a learner and she needed to get better at everything, and intense discomfort because she knew even the teachers saw her as different).
Rosetta Lee’s sessions on racial and ethnic identity touched on similar themes; in the morning, we did an “Up-Down Exercise” to affirm our own identities, and with each set of identities she unpacked the nuances involved. In the afternoon, she told us about her own “lunchbox moment” on her first day of school in the United States, when her peers thought her Korean food was gross and she first felt “other.” She provided us with a sense of the stages we might see students go through as they make sense of their marginalized or privileged identities. She reminded us that we have to do our own identity work before we can do it with students; otherwise, we run the risk of projecting our baggage onto them. She talked, too, about the balance we have to set, especially with young children of color, between helping them understand the challenges they may encounter, what she called “protective socialization,” and making them overly scared of a hostile world. She said that our job is to tell our students how much we love and believe in them as exactly the people they are, but that we can’t promise their identities will always be honored by the society around them. She unpacked why so many students feel limited by the perceptions of others, particularly by adults in a position of power, and she urged us to try to understand the reasons behind the behaviors we might see in the schoolhouse. If a student isn’t turning in homework, for example, it might be important to understand why it feels easier to avoid caring at all, rather than caring, trying, and running the risk of failing.
At Mt Vernon Presbyterian School here in Atlanta, one of their community norms is to start from questions. Today drove home just how important that can be–not just for our students but for our broader society. When we approach students with assumptions about who they are, we are not engaging with them as fully human–and that can have lasting and traumatic effects on the young people in our care. Addressing this challenge means unpacking our own baggage, the why behind our own choices and assumptions. But we also need to remember another MVPS community norm, which is assuming the best intentions. I would like to believe that most educators want to do right by every child in their care; what they often lack is the training to know how to respond to challenging moments, how to get to the heart of why those challenges have arisen. Like a gardener, culturally responsive teachers create the conditions for growth and learn to lean into discomfort, to be transparent with their students and model growth. Each child has gifts and perspectives to offer our classrooms and the world beyond our walls, and educators who approach students with an asset mindset are able to draw those gifts and perspectives to the surface. Rosetta reminded us today that while different perspectives provide different truths, the most powerful community is one where we recognize that we need each other in order to see the whole truth.
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.
“COMMONSENSE HAS TRAMPLED DOWN MANY A GENTLE GENIUS WHOSE EYES HAD DELIGHTED IN SOME TOO EARLY MOONBEAM OF SOME TOO EARLY TRUTH… COMMONSENSE AT ITS WORST IS SENSE MADE COMMON, AND SO EVERYTHING IS COMFORTABLY CHEAPENED BY ITS TOUCH. COMMONSENSE IS SQUARE WHEREAS ALL THE MOST ESSENTIAL VISIONS AND VALUES OF LIFE ARE BEAUTIFULLY ROUND, AS ROUND AS THE UNIVERSE OR THE EYES OF A CHILD AT ITS FIRST CIRCUS SHOW.” –VLADIMIR NABOKOV
Still one of my all-time favorites, “Yellowbird” is Andrea Gibson’s swan song in support of arts and creativity.
This is Sonya Renee Taylor’s favorite performance of her poem “Beautiful,” and the revelations are mind blowing.