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Going Global With a Schoolwide Festival

By Noah Zeichner — April 10, 2012 4 min read
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Many of us are passionate about teaching students to be global citizens. But we often ask: How do we get beyond the “food, flags, and festivals” approach as we try to provide our students with a global education?

This question took on a special urgency for my colleagues and me when we decided our high school would pursue an “international” designation.

Surprisingly, one of our best decisions was to steer straight for the often-criticized festival concept. But our festival would go beyond cultural celebrations, instead engaging our entire school in the study of a critical global issue with a week-long series of events. We wanted our festival to be a rigorous learning experience that would bring our school community together.

Beginning a Festival Tradition

It was no coincidence that a student and I had just attended the Aspen Ideas Festival, a week-long gathering of global thought leaders, as part of the Bezos Scholars Program. That experience inspired us to put together a team of students, teachers, and community members to plan our first festival, held in March 2011. We chose the theme of water and coordinated the timing of the festival with the annual United Nations’ World Water Day in March.

During our first festival, we saturated our school community with information about global and local water issues throughout the week:

• Monday—An entertaining public keynote lecture by Robert Glennon, author of Unquenchable: America’s Water Crisis and What To Do About It, on domestic water scarcity helped make our festival a community event.
• Tuesday—Students and their parents attended breakout sessions with representatives from Seattle Public Utilities, international journalists, and global health professionals as part of an evening college and career fair.
• Wednesday— An all-school assembly about our local watershed encouraged students to develop a personal/local connection to the issue of water scarcity.
• Thursday—A schoolwide lesson on global water scarcity required students to calculate their personal water usage.
• Friday—A teach-in featured 17 different workshops, along with a Walk for Water service-learning activity. Students carried five gallons of water around the track to simulate what one billion people have to do every day to gather fresh water.

Building on Our Success

Our first festival brought our school together. Students were discussing water in their science, social studies, language arts, art, and math classes. At the end of the week, students (and teachers) had not only gained an understanding of complex global problems through a variety of perspectives, but they had taken action toward addressing them.

The entire school was buzzing with excitement for learning about the world and with hope for the future of the planet. My student leaders surveyed their peers and found that, amazingly, 80 percent of students responded that they would likely change the way that they used water in their lives.

This spring, we held our second annual World Water Week. This year’s theme was food security. Students organized a three-on-three basketball tournament to raise money for famine relief. We had an all-school assembly about local food justice and an all-school lesson on the water footprint of different foods and causes of global hunger. At the end of the week, we put on another student conference with 25 different workshops.

Last year, we dedicated a lot of energy and resources to the keynote lecture. This year, we decided to skip the evening event and focus on bringing a rich experience to our students during the school day. In the end, engaging the entire student body and faculty proved to be more important than putting on a high-profile public event.

Tips for Starting Your Own Festival

This may all sound overwhelming. How can you possibly have time to coordinate a school-wide festival while teaching full time? Here are some tips to make it a more manageable process.

This Spring

• Pitch the idea of a 2013 festival to your principal and fellow teachers.
• Design and implement a process to select a global theme with input from students, parents, teachers, and the community. You can gather input through online surveys and discussions with students during homeroom periods.
• Identify a group of three to four students who might be excited to be lead organizers in the fall. A festival makes a great senior project!
• Ask to be a part of your back-to-school faculty meetings in August. Introduce the theme and an outline of the festival to the staff and ask for volunteers to work on the project with you. Presenting the festival as an integral part of your school’s plan for the year will help you obtain buy-in and support from your colleagues.

Next Fall

• Start planning! An all-school assembly and an all-school lesson can be organized fairly easily.
• Empower the students! Have each of your student leaders in charge of a committee and have them recruit more students to help. Committees might include publicity, curriculum, and fundraising.
• Use technology to communicate with your student leaders. I rely heavily on Google Docs, Facebook (the students have a closed group), and Remind101.com.

Putting on a school-wide festival is a lot of work, but it is a powerful way to bring global learning to your school community. Good luck on your global endeavors and feel free to contact me with any questions. Meanwhile, my students, colleagues, and I are already brainstorming ideas for World Water Week 2013!

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