“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” ~Gandhi
I can’t imagine a world without leaders like Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malala Yousafzai who engaged others in difficult conversations, took action, and led others to act as well. Each of these leaders exemplifies courage, leadership, and grit. They all recognized that they didn’t have to wait for change to happen, they could make it happen—and their actions have inspired countless others around the world. As an educator, I want my students to see themselves as agents of change and understand how their decisions or actions affect others globally. This learning must begin early in a child’s life and is just the beginning of the journey to a global education.
In order to encourage this kind of learning, I must be aware of my own biases and perceptions of global issues, but also see the world from the perspectives my students bring to the classroom. I must create an environment that allows them to feel it is safe to share those perceptions and then challenge them in a meaningful way. While I grew up in a homogeneous area in West Virginia, I teach in a very diverse school system with students from all over the world. I had little understanding, beyond what I had read in books, of what life was like outside my small community. My students look, sound, and act differently, which can present challenges when I don’t understand their culture or heritage. As a community of learners, we all need to understand our differences and commonalities.
In a TURN video, author and Harvard professor Ron Ferguson explains that children live their lives in a variety of settings. Each setting has a different set of rules and expectations. Their home lives and school lives are just two places where students encounter conflicting expectations. Ferguson also explains that as early as kindergarten, children begin to judge and teach one another about their identity based on such attributes as where they are from and the color of their skin. This is where the importance of global education begins.
Even though our school system has a diverse population, I find that students have limited opportunities to embrace their heritage and share their stories. Students still experience racism and intolerance in their school lives. The lack of ability to identify and understand another’s perspective is partly a result of insufficient global education in our schools. Change begins with us. As educators, we must immerse ourselves in learning about and experiencing different cultures as much as possible. We must understand global issues from different points of views and try to learn as much as possible about our students and their families to get a better picture of their perceptions. Then we must provide students opportunities to embrace their identities while understanding their place in the world.
Recently, I had a great conversation with a 5th grade student I have been privileged to work with for many years. Her mother volunteered in my classroom as well. I thought I knew her family well. However, I really knew very little about their story. That day, I learned a great deal about her, beyond what any standard assessment could provide. First, she is proud to be a first-generation immigrant to the United States. Her mother is from Chile and her father is from El Salvador. Each of her parents came to America for a better life but journeyed at different times and different ways. Her father came illegally on the back of a truck. Her mother entered legally to finish her education to be a nurse. Both parents went through the proper procedures to become citizens. While her mom works as a nurse, her dad started his own plumbing company to support their family and relatives who still live in El Salvador. Some of her mother’s relatives have since made the journey to America and are citizens who contribute to our country as well.
After this student shared her family’s story, I learned something very important about the peers and adults in her life outside of her immediate family. She said it was amazing to share her family story with me because her peers and most adults have never asked her about her family’s history. When she started school, she did not know what English even was, and now she feels it is special to be bilingual. So the few minutes we spent together while she shared her story meant more to her than any standard I could teach her. Instead, she learned that I care about her as an individual and can understand the unique perspective that she brings to my classroom.
In my class we discuss and learn about culture and global issues. We challenge ideas about what is right and wrong. Our discussions are not always easy, but the students begin to understand one another at a deeper level. Next year my 6th grade students will have the opportunity to share their cultural heritage with their peers. We will learn about the artist, Marc Chagall, who used symbols and images to narrate his story. Then students will create an artwork that narrates their cultural heritage.
Global education has many facets, and what I have described here is only the beginning to what is needed for global understanding. It is our job as educators to tap into the worlds of our students to help them make connections in the global world. Children who have the opportunity to explore the world beyond their personal windows are able to recognize others’ perceptions as well as their own. Students need to communicate their ideas and take action to improve the lives of others. This will create citizens who have a strong sense of responsibility for tomorrow’s world. Global education helps children see themselves through the eyes of others and how their footprint impacts the world.