Creating First Impressions Through Classroom Exchanges

Earlier this year in an EdWeek Global Learning blog post, Heather Singmaster suggested some ways to work toward global competence in the classroom without getting on an airplane. One of her recommendations was to connect with local universities and groups such as World Affairs Councils who often host international visitors. This spring I did just that.

I am fortunate to live and teach in Seattle – international visitors are always coming through town. In recent months, I have tried to create a few opportunities for my students to interact with the world by setting up brief cross-cultural exchanges in the classroom.

In late March, the World Affairs Council of Seattle was looking for a classroom to visit with a group of five community leaders from India. They were in Seattle as part of a three-week Department of State-sponsored project that focused on challenges that different ethnic and religious groups have overcome and continue to face. I invited them to come to my classroom for a one-hour meeting with my students.

I asked our school’s ASB advisor to set up a 15-minute student-led tour of our school to allow me some time to prep my students at the beginning of the period. As my students entered the classroom, we rearranged the tables into a large square. My students sat around three of the sides and left the front edge for our guests. I asked for volunteers to talk about what we were learning in class. And I requested that each student be prepared to introduce him or herself and to indicate if their families are from another state or country. We talked about the importance of speaking slowly and clearly and when to pause for the interpreters.

I didn’t know what to expect. This particular group of students had declined to attend several optional opportunities to engage with guest speakers earlier in the semester. Many of them were struggling with attendance. And even if they did attend class regularly, I hadn’t prepared them for this discussion previously. But when our guests walked in, my students instantly transformed themselves into world diplomats. They sat up straight, made eye contact with the guests, and introduced themselves with confidence.

We spoke for an hour about fresh water scarcity and water pollution, two issues that we were studying in our class. One of the guests explained what it is like to have to bathe in and drink water from a river that is polluted with toxic runoff and human waste. My students and our guests asked each other and responded to several questions and when our time was up, we posed for a group photo outside. As we walked back to the classroom, the first thing out of my students’ mouths was, “When can we do this again?”

The students who appeared least engaged in class the day before now were eager for more opportunities to learn from international perspectives. The short visit ignited a spark that led some students to express a new desire to travel abroad. And for me, I created a new course in my mind: a series of units on various global issues, each anchored by one or two visits from international guest speakers. How fun would that be?

So what made this experience different than a typical guest speaker appearance? My students said afterward that they loved meeting people who had never been to the United States before. In other words, they had the opportunity to help create first impressions.

In my next post, I’ll share another recent exchange between my students and youth their age from Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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  • rbarrette

    Why be globally aware?

    Thanks Noah for this insightful piece. 

    I want to add what I feel is missing from this push to open such global doors for our students.  You are fortunate to work and live where you do.  But let us consider the millions of students and their teachers who are not this close to such opportunities.  How will we change the mindset of those teachers and students? How will we help them develop the tools to be globally-minded without being able to take advantage of the physical proximity?

    Most of us are aware of opportunities to connect our students globally from the classroom.  In my small, rural school of 325 students we take advantae of the Global Nomads Group, Citizens in Action program.  My students communicate regularly through Google + with their peers in the SOLA of Kabul, Afghansitan.  This includes a monthly live video conference session and a project-based and collaboratory culumination.

    But this in my mind is the missing piece.  This kind of involvment, be it my class’ or Noah’s is NOT ubiquitous.  In fact, I argue that it is an exeception to the rule out there in K-12 classrooms. 

    This brings up the big question:  What are we doing – in addition to talking about global awarness – to get all schools, if not all classrooms, involved in some tangible way? 

    My students recently conducted a schoolwide survey of 23 questions about cultural stereotypes, Islam, Afganistan, and Mexico and Canada.  They wanted to measure the level of awareness our 325 students have about these topics.  The data reveal some very scary realities.  Not the least of which is a tendency to stereotype based on clothing, a lack of basic facts about our neighboring countries, and little knowledge about places our troops are stationed.

    My students want to know why they were not raised in the K-12 system to be globally aware, to study current events and understand their roots, and to learn to avoid culture stereotyping.  They are all 11th and 12th graders.  They are now working to develop materials to help their school mates overcome this huge deficit of knowledge and fact.  They hope to begin to change the system.

    But the bigger question remains:  Why should every K-12 student in this country be globally aware? As I recently read in a response to a NY Times posting, everyone else in the world speaks English, so why should we try to learn these other langauges and cultures when they all want to speak English?  What is the point of being globally aware when there is no great consequence for not being so?  And if there are reasons to counter this thought, then way are we still only talking about in 2014?

    Thoughts?

    • NoahZeichner

      Mapping the Nation

      Randy, check out this blog post about the Mapping the Nation project:”Global and Competition: Two Dirty Words in Education.”  The conclusion:

      As the education statistics in Mapping the Nation show, U.S. students aren’t studying foreign languages, and if they are, it is not to proficiency. Students aren’t studying abroad to interact with people from other cultures and widen their perspective. And classrooms across the land are struggling to integrate global into their professional development and curriculum.

      But I swear it is a struggle worth fighting. The opportunities are huge and they are global.

  • NoahZeichner

    Changing the system

    Thanks for your thoughts, Randy. I completely agree that those of us who connect our students to the world are unfortunately often an exception. You ask a valid question – why fight the system? I have a couple of thoughts.

    First, teachers and students today are under an incredible amount of pressure from endless testing and accountablility systems, both of which distract us from real-world learning. Unfortunately, I don’t think that will change without some real political will. But it will only change if we continue to demonstrate how we educating for global competence. Our students, who understand better than anyone the urgency and relevance of global education, must be part of the movement to transform teaching and learning in this country. 

    Second, it is easy to get lost in the jargon: Common Core State Standards, 21st Century Skills, Global Competencies, International Education, Global Education – the list goes on and on. Teaching globally is not a new invention and most of the skills that students need to engage with the world have been taught for centuries (you could even argue that some are 19th or 20th century skills). The trick, I think, is to present global education not as a new, separate initiative for schools and districts to adopt, but rather as just good education

    We will be launching a new space in the Collaboratory in the next few days: CTQ-Global. In addition to connecting with other passionate global educators, perhaps we can also find some ways to connect our students so that they know they are not alone in the system.