Sometimes students, parents, teachers, and administrators are comfortable living in the shells of their own existence. They’re satisfied with the status quo, choose to interact with those from the same religious backgrounds, cultural heritage, and political affiliations. They prefer their days to be filled with very little questioning, or feather-ruffling, or challenging.

Sometimes they consider the alternative views of others to be wrong, not just different. From an educational perspective, this is downright dangerous. We now have an enormous responsibility to ensure that our students develop cultural awareness and are engaged in acts of citizenship, not only within our schools and surrounding areas, but as active members of the global community.

Our world needs thinkers, innovators, collaborators, and communicators. Our students will struggle to serve as innovative contributors to our present and future societies unless they develop an understanding of, and appreciation for, our global partners.

A history of isolation . . .

It used to be that someone could be born, live, and die having only learned, worked, and experienced life in one main geographic region. Aside from the world news broadcast or filtered versions of world history shared by teachers in school, a young person likely had little to no interaction with cultures around the world. This should no longer the case, but in many schools this tendency toward isolation remains.

The school district in which I work is very conservative, located in a rural area of Pennsylvania that has, until recent years, had little diversity in its student population. (Schools in our area celebrate Christmas straight up — you will rarely hear generic “Happy Winter Holidays” songs or religion-neutral greetings of the season.) Now we have begun to experience an increase in enrollment of students from other cultures and countries, and, as a result, have adopted programs to support students in their learning endeavors.

Our English as a Second Language program mirrors most ESL programs in our state. The decision was made last year to house all of our district’s elementary students who qualify for ESL programming (and our ESL staff) at my school, as a way to ensure students have the maximum amount of support throughout the day.

The prospect of this change excited me. I was so eager to meet our new students and learn about their cultures and background experiences. I knew our general student population would also benefit from this increased exposure to world cultures. What an amazing opportunity for everyone in our school!

The surprising reality . . .

To my great sadness, there were some in our school community, both parents and teachers, who were apprehensive about the ESL decision. Their fears centered on the assumption that the needs of “those students” might be a drain on teachers’ time, and the needs of the general population of students would be neglected. I also believe fear of the unknown and biases about certain cultures played a large part in fueling these concerns.

Speaking from my own experience, I grew up in a very conservative area with little to no diversity in the our school population. Because of this, my exposure to knowledge about other world cultures was limited to what teachers and family members chose to share with me and my peers. We didn’t have the opportunity to connect with students from other nations. In our geography, world culture and foreign language classes, the values and biases of our parents and teachers were impressed upon us.

It wasn’t until I reached adulthood and had the opportunity to travel to other regions of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Ireland, The Netherlands, Canada, Greece, Belgium and the Caribbean that I fully began to appreciate the unique and extraordinary lives of others around our world. I had so much to learn!

Connecting our students to the world . . .

Talking with new friends across the world

The beauty of living and learning in today’s connected world is that we don’t have to fly our students across the globe in order to engage in learning with peers from other cultures and nations.

Last year, through our action research work in a Year 1 Powerful Learning Practice community, we sought to address the following question: “How can we involve our students in authentic and connected learning experiences that will encourage collaboration with classmates, among grade levels, and with students from all over the world?”

As a result, students in each of the teachers’ classrooms connected with students from other areas of the world in a learning partnership. The types of experiences were varied. In our 2nd grade class, teacher Kelly Dupas introduced Skype as a tool for communication and collaboration. I recall our first Skype adventure was a whole-class meeting of the minds, where Josh Stumpenhorst‘s sixth graders from Illinois shared information they had researched about famous American historical figures with the 2nd graders.

Kelly then worked through Twitter and Skype in the Classroom to arrange for Skype pals with another 2nd grade class in Alabama. Students skyped one-on-one with their pals, and through their discussions, reviewed concepts about weather, geography, culture, reading fluency through sharing poems and student writing, and more. They also shared in writing through Kidblog many of the things they were learning in class, and made connections with students in many US states as well as Canada.

Kelly reflects,

“The use of skyping really got my students excited about a lot of different things we were learning. They couldn’t wait to share what they wrote or share something new that they learned with their pal. They were constantly comparing and contrasting their culture & community with their pal’s. During one group Skype session with a class in Canada, we shared many different facts about where we lived. The students learned about provinces, temperature in Celsius, animals, weather, how their school day is structured, favorite activities… we were able to discuss in detail differences and similarities between the places that we lived.”

Connecting to learn and reflect upon curricular content is a definite benefit, but Kelly found that something even more meaningful developed over time. When tornadoes struck Alabama last spring, her students’ thoughts immediately turned to their pals from the South. Kelly recalls,

“It was all over the news and my students came to school very concerned about their pals. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get in contact with our pals for a few days due to power outages. After we found out that they were okay, the students wanted to learn all they could about tornadoes and other types of severe weather. They were excited to learn something new and had a purpose for learning about it. I believe that through the use of technology students can learn so much more. They are more motivated to learn and when they have a meaningful purpose they will be more engaged and driven in their own learning experiences.”

4th grade teacher Amber McCabe used Kidblog as a platform through which to connect her students with people in other cultures around the world. Amber says,

“After a blog post, my students quickly became fascinated with those who responded: where they were from, the culture of the place, etc.”

Through this work, her students developed an awareness of and desire to learn more about people from around the world. Amber recognized the importance of involving students in learning about various cultures through classroom experiences, and often included opportunities to raise students’ cultural awareness. She says

“Culture is very important to me, and I believe it is necessary for us to be informed about different ways of life. In America, we come in contact with people everyday from other parts of the world. We need to understand the differences and similarities and learn to accept people for who they are. Because I had many ELL students in my class, I created a monthly “world week” system. Each month we would focus on one culture/country from around the world — starting with the many cultures in our classroom. Family members would bring in food and discuss their culture with the class. We would play games, research online, and experience the culture firsthand.”

Service to others, elementary-style . . .

Through her leadership in this area, Amber’s students became inspired to make a difference in the world. One of Amber’s students was from Haiti, so students decided to design a project to raise money for children in Haiti. As project supplies were purchased, Japan’s natural disaster devastation struck, so her students decided to expand their project to help support children in Japan as well. Students created beaded pins that represented the country flags of Haiti and Japan, and decided to sell them to our school community for $1 each. (Amber cautioned students at the project’s start to expect maybe a profit of $50 or so, and not to be disappointed if they didn’t reach their earning goal.)

Amber and our entire school community were moved by students’ passion to make a difference! Students spent hours of their time during recesses, before and after school, and at home to create the pins and handle sales. Student pairs visited homerooms to explain their cause and display the pins. The class couldn’t keep up with how fast the orders came in. Pins sold like crazy! Students ended up raising over $700 for their cause, and we are so proud of their dedication to this project.

Consider also involving parents in the effort to connect students globally. After learning one of her student’s parents was spending time working abroad in China, 3rd grade teacher Bev Libell worked with the parent to arrange Skype sessions, communication via her class blog to share photos and insights into the Chinese culture, and he even visited the class upon his return to share details of his trip.

School-wide, last year we involved our student council in working through the worldwide Kiva program to create opportunities for entrepreneurs in need. I was grateful that students from Bill Ferriter’s Kiva Club in North Carolina took the time to skype with our student council to teach us about the Kiva organization, how the website functions, and rationales for how they make decisions about lending. We look forward to continuing our involvement with Kiva this year, which all began with some how-to and a Kiva gift from Bill’s student group last year.

Take your own steps toward cultural awareness . . .

The road to developing cultural awareness and proficiency, especially in schools and community that are not diverse, is not an easy one. We are taking small steps towards becoming a more culturally proficient organization, and it begins with small successes in classrooms and schools, as well as initiatives such as our district’s Arabic enrichment program, but we must make global learning more widespread and available to all students, families, and teachers.

Ready to embark on the journey and help your students develop as global citizens? Consider involving them in some of the many amazing cross-cultural activities made possible through the power of technology and the Internet.

Here is just a sampling of some of the many available connected learning initiatives available:

Flat Classroom – “The Flat Classroom® Project is a global collaborative project that joins together middle and senior high school students. This project is part of the emerging tend in internationally-aware schools to embrace a holistic and constructivist educational approach to work collaboratively with others around the world in order to create students who are competitive and globally-minded.”

Around the World with 80 Schools – “Around the World with 80 Schools started in January 2009 and is an ongoing project. The challenge is to connect your students with 80 schools from around the world via Skype.”

My Wonderful World– “A National Geographic-led campaign to expand geographic learning in school, at home, and in communities. We want to give kids the power of global knowledge. Geography is more than places on a map. It’s global connections. People and cultures. Economics and environments.”

The Global Read Aloud Project– This project connects students in reading and discussing literature together via Skype and through collaborative spaces such as Edmodo and wikis.

Skype in the Classroom– Connect with other teachers and classrooms, find global projects, and locate resources for using Skype in the classroom.

E- Pals Global Community– “ePals provides digital content designed for collaboration and self-paced, self-directed learning as well as a safe platform to share work globally. Authentic ePals projects are centered around meaningful content and experiences that require teamwork, digital literacy skills, higher-level thinking and communication.”

Kiva – Student groups can become involved in this non-profit organization whose mission is to “connect people through lending to alleviate poverty.” Loans are offered to those with entrepreneurial spirit who are “helping to create opportunity around the world.”

This issue is so much larger than can be expressed in a single blog post. Aside from cultural differences, how are we helping students develop awareness of, and appreciation for, differences among students in terms of gender, religion, and socioeconomic differences? How do we, as leaders, work to understand our own cultures, underlying biases, and the cultures of our organizations so as to best challenge assumptions and make learning relevant for all students? We must help even our youngest learners develop their capacities to serve as contributing members to our global society.


Images: iClip subscriber service; Lyn Hilt; Kiva screen shot.

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Lyn Hilt

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