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How One School Turns Elementary Students Into Global Citizens

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Almost a decade ago, my school's 5th grade teaching team decided to make a radical change to our social studies curriculum. We reworked our traditional American history class into a yearlong, global citizenship curriculum. Instead of looking at the foundations of government systems using a distinctively U.S. lens, we broadened the definition of what it means to be a citizen. We wanted to teach the Bill of Rights alongside the United Nations' Convention on the Rights of the Child treaty. We wanted to introduce U.S. branches of government alongside international agreements. And we have kept at it for nearly 10 years.

At first, it seemed innovative to explore the changing definition of citizenship using a global perspective. What a difference a decade can make.

Today, teaching global competency hardly seems novel. In fact, in a rapidly changing political and environmental landscape, focusing on the development of global competency seems urgent. The ability to imagine other perspectives and recognize one's own point of view is essential to understanding the current complexities related to immigration, environmental challenges, and racial and religious tensions at home and abroad. Additionally, studying any environmental, political, economic, or social system without recognizing its global interdependence seems limited.

But is such content too complex for elementary students?

When our K-8 elementary school, which is located in the San Francisco Bay Area, began designing a global studies curriculum for 10- and 11-year-olds, we knew we were entering unchartered waters. But there are some teaching advantages in earlier grades: a self-contained classroom, the ability to integrate a range of academic subjects without scheduling obstacles. Spending the full day with students allows teachers to control the pace, depth, and length of study. These positive attributes help to offset the limited knowledge and experience possessed by younger students.

Although we continuously reflect on our curriculum, my teaching team has learned a lot about how to successfully help students develop global competency over the last decade. Here are a few important lessons we have gleaned along the way:

Remember the Danger of a Single Story

We launch the academic year with photography to virtually travel to different countries. We ask students what they notice and wonder as they look at galleries about homes, material possessions, diets, classrooms, clothing, toys, and children's bedrooms from all over the world. The questions and observations they generate about other cultures help leverage students’ inherent curiosity.

But as powerful as "armchair travel" can be, we quickly learned that photographs can unintentionally perpetuate cultural clichés and stereotypes. So, media literacy is also a key component of building global perspectives. What lifestyles, values, and points of view are represented? What is omitted? We now watch Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED Talk, "The Danger of a Single Story," to help understand how one story or photograph can mislead by giving a simplistic or erroneous sense of a culture.

To explore how one-dimensional a photo can be, students turn the lens on themselves and look at pictures of the United States. We ask them to notice what information is missing. The students learn that the pictures and stories are just a starting point of exposure to all the amazing differences and similarities among people.

Navigate Complex Content

One of the first questions students ask is, "Why are some countries so poor?" Initially, teachers scrambled to find developmentally appropriate content that addressed the underpinnings of global poverty without perpetuating unproductive feelings of guilt, pity, or despair.

To help explore the different factors contributing to a country's struggling economic status, we began to use education nonprofit World Savvy's The 5 Ps of Poverty framework (place, people, past, politics, and peace) for lessons. We ask students how having friendly neighbors or access to a coast make a difference to a country's economy. We also intentionally frame poverty study around the opinion columnist Nicholas Kristof’s quote: "Talent is universal, opportunity is not." This helps to uncouple poverty from character.

Another way to explore the connection between opportunity and poverty is through immigration. Students read the young adult adaptation of Enrique's Journey by Sonia Nazario, a true story about a Honduran teenager who makes a harrowing journey to reunite with his mother in the United States. Enrique's story explores the complexities of illegal immigration and the dire choices people must make when faced with poverty and lack of opportunity. Nazario's account does not make a case for or against illegal immigration, but it does give a compassionate view of what propels immigrants to take such extraordinary risks.

Get Involved

It is important to explore global issues with a sense of hope and empowerment at any age, but especially when students are young. The end goal is to inspire compassionate, well-informed problem-solvers who understand the interconnectedness of cultures and environments.

Kyle Redford's students sell baked goods and lemonade to raise money for a micro-loan project.
Kyle Redford's students sell baked goods and lemonade to raise money for a micro-loan project.

To do so, our teachers host a yearlong speaker series, inviting social entrepreneurs to the classroom to talk about their work. Globally focused organizations like UNICEF, Kiva (a nonprofit that allows people to make small loans to low-income entrepreneurs), and Living Goods (which distributes products sustainably) speak to our students about global challenges and what kinds of innovative solutions are used to fight worldwide poverty and inequality.

Students also become entrepreneurs themselves and raise money to fund a microloan for Kiva. They design a business plan to earn $25 through food and rummage sales or soccer clinics. In their reflections, students report how appreciative they are to be able to contribute to a solution.

Measure a World of Learning

In addition to conventional assessments, our curriculum uses written and oral reflections, as well as thank-you letters to speakers, projects, and presentations. To end the unit, students research a global changemaker and prepare to inhabit that person for a forum focused on the question: What is the most important issue we need to address to help the world thrive?

Students research how they can best make a case for global ideas such as conflict resolution, human rights, education, and environmental sustainability to an audience of community members and parents. For example, a student assuming the identity of Wangari Maathai might argue the importance of addressing environmental sustainability while another portraying Malala Yousafsai will argue for the importance of universal education.

By the end of the discussion, they understand that pitting one global issue against another represents a false choice. Their issues are interconnected. These kinds of holistic observations are the real measure of their learning.

Redford's students, dressed as activists, social innovators, and other notable figures, discuss global issues as a class.
Redford's students, dressed as activists, social innovators, and other notable figures, discuss global issues as a class.

There is no question that global citizenship is fluid and complex, but the educators on our team agree that the challenges are worth it. We see our young students develop a deep curiosity for global issues and a willingness to grapple with these important skills and content.

Our students face a world that is dramatically more interconnected than preceding generations. Helping them develop the competency to recognize and respect diverse perspectives (including their own), effectively communicate across cultures, and ultimately, understand and address global challenges is no longer just an option—it is essential.

Pictures provided by the author.

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