North Carolina Teacher Makes Virtual Global Connections: Q&A

By Sarah Schwartz — May 02, 2017 6 min read
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Brenda Todd’s elementary school classes in Union County, N.C., have explored Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, and India—without ever having left the country.

Each year, Todd organizes her curriculum around a theme with both global relevance and local significance for her students in the Charlotte suburbs, on topics such as water quality and conservation, agricultural production and trade, and educational access. She supplements her lessons with virtual first-person accounts from collaborative partner schools in other countries.

Todd uses the free blog platform Edublogs to pose questions to partner classrooms. Teachers and students in schools abroad then write back to her and her students at Rocky River Elementary. During her 2nd grade class’s water unit, for example, she received responses from five countries to questions she had posed online about clean water access, use, and cost.

Todd also used her blog, Going Global at Rocky River, to participate in the Flat Stanley project. Through the project, students in different countries exchange paper cutout characters—"Flat Stanleys"—and then send letters back and forth to recount their foreign visitors’ adventures. Instead of sending letters, Todd’s students contributed to blog posts about their Flat Stanleys that their partner schools could view online. In addition to blogging, Todd’s classes have Skyped with classes in England and Australia.

Through this work, Todd was the first teacher in North Carolina to achieve the state’s Global Educator Digital Badge last year. The badge, which teachers obtain after 100 hours of global professional development and the completion of a capstone lesson unit, was developed in 2014. She completed her professional development through Participate, a company that runs a teacher exchange program and operates an online training platform for global educators. Todd’s capstone project, “Perspectives About ‘Feeding the World'—Importance of Agriculture to Society” is available on North Carolina’s SchoolNet as a resource for other teachers statewide.

As fears mount over U.S. students’ global competitiveness in an increasingly interconnected world, states have seen growing interest in global competence—an understanding of international issues and ability to work with people of different cultural backgrounds. Like North Carolina, some states and school districts across the country have introduced global competency requirements or credentials for students and teachers. (See Education Week‘s commentary blog, “Global Learning,” for further coverage of these issues.)

Education Week spoke with Todd about her curriculum, the technology challenges she faces in implementing it, and her advice to other teachers looking to use digital curriculum to build students’ understanding of the international community.

Her responses, some of which were provided by e-mail, have been edited for brevity and clarity.

How did you begin teaching global studies, and what projects did your students work on?

A lot of it started with blogging with the Flat Stanley project to a teacher in Australia. We corresponded back and forth by blog, rather than by mail, because it was cheaper. We answered the questions [and showed each other] what our Flat Stanleys were doing. And then I met [two other teachers in Australia and England], and we got into more blogging and Skyping.

We did a little magazine that the Australian class published, and we answered questions that went into it about our school day. We did some other projects about [comparing] holidays. When the class in England went on a field trip to London, we were able to Skype and see some of their sights. It was like we had a field trip, but didn’t have to pay for it.

Can you describe your capstone project?

It was about feeding the world and agriculture around the world. We [talked about] getting the food from the field to the table, and all the different necessary steps of planning it, getting a good harvest, bringing the harvest in. We talked about importing and exporting through different lessons. We talked about fair trade in some of the Central and South American and European countries. [The students] took everything we had gone through in the 13 lessons, and they had to act it out: What they would do if they were this seed being planted, to the farmer who was harvesting it, to the exporter, and getting the food to the people that needed it.

We did blogs and emails during this unit, as we could never get a good time [to Skype] with everyone having working technology. (See Todd’s blog post “Agricultural Around the World” for her students’ conversations about imports and exports with peers from other countries.)

What are the biggest tech hurdles you’ve faced?

Time is an obstacle to Skyping. Both Australia and New Zealand are different times altogether. One time [the Australian] school had an overnight event that we did, and the other time we had come back to school for an evening performance, so students came in a little early so we could Skype. With England we managed to work out a time that was near the end of their day and near beginning of our day. More of our work had to be done by the blogs.

Once we got to 3rd-5th grade, [the students] have their own laptops, so they each have a computer. It does not always connect [to the internet], but they do have a computer. But K-2, they share computers. It’s kind of hard to have enough for every child to do much work with [the computers].

Has global education changed the way your students relate to the world?

I think they’ve become more curious. They’re starting to see that they’re not the only ones in the world. We’ve done a lot this year with schools, talking about some children not being able to get an education. [This] was our focus this year, where agriculture was last year.

For many of them, they have not traveled outside of Monroe, North Carolina. Some of them, when they go to the fifth grade trip to Charleston, it’s their first time to the beach. We do have a large Hispanic population, so some of those children are from Mexico. They often talk about going back and forth to Mexico, and some of the Central and South American countries.

Some of the children are able to tell you about their cultural background. They get really excited. I had a second grade girl this year that, on her own, decided she’d do a project on her home country of Colombia. She did a wonderful job presenting to the class. When [the children] get enthusiastic and start doing it themselves, that’s a good reminder that it’s worthwhile.

What would you recommend to other teachers looking to implement global learning?

It’s especially good if you have a social studies blog, where you can bring in [information] about different communities around the world, or schools. Finding those few minutes to do it, and then having technology that is available and working, would always be the main [resources] that the teacher would need.

I had never traveled myself. People are always amazed that I can bring global [education] into the classroom, having not traveled. I think that’s a good point to tell teachers--that they don’t have to travel to do it themselves. You have to do some research yourself and be ready to learn, yourself, about other places. That’s what I did.

I had never blogged before, I had never Skyped before. Lots of things are new to the teacher, too. You’re learning along with the children, which makes you a lifelong learner.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.