Exposure Fosters ‘Whole New Perspective’

By John Gehring — July 09, 2003 4 min read
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Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.

“People asked me how the trip was, and I wouldn’t know what to say because it was so indescribable,” Ms. Wolfe said recently.

“It gave me a whole new perspective on everything,” she said. “I don’t count myself wealthy through money anymore. I count myself wealthy by the people I know, the things I have seen, and the songs I have sung.”

Student-exchange programs like the one Ms. Wolfe participated in, along with conferences that bring together students from around the world and international teachers’ groups that are sharing ideas, are helping to foster a global consciousness in precollegiate education.

While the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon nearly two years ago made awareness of international issues a more immediate focus in many U.S. classrooms, educators and students say that interest in global education has as much to do with the personal connections they make when they travel abroad.

A prime example is the two-week trip to South Africa that Ms. Wolfe and students from Seattle’s Roosevelt High School took in February. It grew out of a partnership with the University of Washington and its Comparative History of Ideas department.

When a few Roosevelt teachers took a course at the university called “Memory, Identity, Conflict, and Dialogue,” taught by James Clowes, a plan to help the high school set up an international connection fit perfectly into the program’s mission.

Mr. Clowes, the program’s director, has traveled with college students to more than a dozen places in conflict, such as Lebanon, Egypt, and Belfast, Northern Ireland, to explore what he calls “local-global dialogue.” The students who accompanied him launched a Dialogue Project to help high schools in Seattle start clubs and support activities that explore international issues.

In turn, the Dialogue Project spawned the recent “Changing Borders, Shifting Spaces” conference in Seattle that included students and educators from Belfast, Kosovo, and Sierra Leone.

“We want to help serve as a catalyst to connect with schools abroad and schools locally,” said Mr. Clowes, a professor in the University of Washington’s Comparative History of Ideas department. “It’s crucial to provide venues or ways for students to gain greater global awareness.”

Students and teachers from the 1,700-student Roosevelt High also started “Hands for a Bridge,” a program to address social division within their community and abroad through dialogue and other tools of conflict resolution. For the past two years, students, teachers, and parents have raised several thousand dollars to travel to South Africa and bring South African students and teachers to Seattle.

Along with attending classes at the Isilimela Comprehensive School in a South African township, Roosevelt students lived with host families and took part in art and theater projects designed by a Seattle theater with the goal of increasing mutual understanding.

Roosevelt students also helped set up a visit with a more racially mixed South African school so that the black students at Isilimela could begin making connections with more integrated communities in their country. When South African students came to Seattle, the visitors helped pave the way for the predominantly white, middle-class Roosevelt High students to meet and hang out with their counterparts from a largely black high school in the district.

“This is an exchange program, but it’s much more than that,” said Danny Rock, a history and psychology teacher at Roosevelt who took part in the trip to South Africa. “Our students have taken a very powerful global experience abroad and came back to discover how those lessons serve them at home here in Seattle.”

Other Avenues

Student-exchange programs and international education conferences span a range of issues and take a variety of approaches to increasing global understanding.

Every summer in Maine, for example, students from Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, and other Middle Eastern or Arab countries live and play together at an international camp hosted by Seeds of Peace. The nonprofit group, whose headquarters are in New York City, works to bring together young people from war-torn countries.

The youths take part in team-building games, attend Jewish and Muslim religious ceremonies together, and conclude the camp with a visit to the White House and the U.S. Department of State.

Meanwhile, U.S. and Russian high school students this spring presented research on weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East and in South Asia at the annual International Student- Teacher Conference of the Critical Issues Forum in Monterey, Calif. The Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies hosted the program, and throughout the year provides area secondary schools with curricular and instructional materials on weapons proliferation.

Teachers are also increasingly seeking out opportunities to expand their knowledge of the world.

Fred Mednick, a former high school principal, started the Seattle-based Teachers Without Borders. The group, which has members from 84 countries, provides a range of professional-development services and is even helping to open schools in conflict areas. Just a few weeks ago, Teachers Without Borders set up an online chat room where teachers can share classroom practices worldwide.

“I wanted to create a global teaching community,” Mr. Mednick said. “The real impulse is for teachers to connect with each other and share resources. ... There is no such thing as a continental cocoon.”

Coverage of cultural understanding and international issues in education is supported in part by the Atlantic Philanthropies.


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