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How Study Abroad Transformed My Classroom and Curriculum

By Thomas Kenning — October 30, 2015 5 min read
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Recently, I had the opportunity to attend and speak at IIE’s Generation Study Abroad Summit. I was joined by hundreds of educators, business leaders, and policymakers who all believe in the powerful impact study abroad can have on education. Today, we hear firsthand about the influence of one trip on one social studies teacher, Thomas Kenning of Plato Academy Clearwater in Florida.

Here’s a simple, easily verifiable, and profoundly significant fact—most Americans never go to college, but the vast majority of Americans do go to secondary school. This majority will vote or not, think globally or not, be socially responsible or not, and by virtue of their numbers, decide this nation’s—and the world’s—future course. Given that, it’s vital for every American to have their comfortable assumptions about the world challenged, expanded, and complicated by a good social studies education at every level of schooling.

That’s why I became a middle school social studies teacher, and that’s why when people ask, I tell them that I’m doing exactly what I want to do with my life. If all of this sounds lofty, you can call me an idealist. But I count myself in good company.

Senator J. William Fulbright recognized this fact when, at the end of World War II, he proposed allocating some of the funds derived from the sale of military surplus to implement a scholarship fund for international exchange between the United States and the nations of the world. It was on this auspicious occasion—the founding of the Fulbright Program—that he declared his aim: “To bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship.”

Connections Abroad
All of this led me to the US Department of Education’s Fulbright-Hays Seminars Abroad program. During the summer of 2015, I had the distinct honor and privilege to travel to the People’s Republic of China as a Fulbright representative alongside some of the most dynamic, original thinkers in the education profession.

During our month of study, we had the opportunity to visit the Dandelion School in Beijing, a humble campus in a repurposed factory space that serves a small fraction of the millions of dislocated children belonging to China’s mass of migrant workers. In Xian and Chongqing, we learned about efforts to preserve Chinese cultural traditions such as wǔ lóng—the dragon dance—even while bringing prosperity and modernity to the heartland of the nation. In Shanghai, we were guests in the lavish Changning Children’s Palace, a government-funded arts center aimed at cultivating and encouraging the next generation of Chinese musicians, artists, and innovators. I was able to climb Huashan, one of China’s five sacred mountains, traversing wooden planks that are suspended on sheer cliffs some thousand feet in the air.

But the most tremendous part of my Fulbright experience was the opportunity to connect with Chinese people: the guides, the academics, and the ordinary taxi drivers, teachers, and friendly strangers on the street. These were real people, with their own hopes, aspirations, and points of view—sometimes strikingly different from mine, sometimes similar, sometimes in great contrast to each other. These real people, combined with the history, culture, and cuisine around me, transformed China from a series of tropes and half-formed ideas drawn from the news into a crisp, contradictory, and complicated place—far away, yet rich, dynamic, strange and familiar all at once.

Classroom Insights and Curricular Resources
With the insights gained in China, I returned to my own classroom facing a great challenge: How could I begin to make China that real for my own students? How did I begin to talk about a nation that is so commonly misunderstood—and sometimes feared—in the United States? Luckily, through the inspired collaborative contributions drawn from my fellow participants, I returned with a full arsenal of lessons that brought a modest slice of China back home to my students. All of our lessons are online for the benefit of your students, too.

My own curriculum project is a unit of lessons created for Open Ended Social Studies, an educational website inspired by my experiences in China. Open Ended Social Studies collects and presents original, dynamic classroom materials focusing on parts of the world that are underserved or neglected by traditional world history textbooks in the United States. The middle and high school lessons on the site aim to foster critical and historical thinking, greater cultural awareness, and a sense of wonder about the world and our place in it.

My lessons pack a lot of history and culture—perspective on the Great Wall and the Great Firewall, the Silk Road and modern globalization, the Terracotta Army and modern projections of Chinese power—into digestible, media-rich bites, but what sets them apart is that there are no multiple choice questions here. For me, visiting China raised as many questions as it answered, and that’s how I try to structure every lesson—as a segue for reflection, discussion, and further research. My lessons also aim to cultivate a greater sense of empathy and global citizenship, just like Senator Fulbright suggested when he founded the program. It’s this spirit, in truth—more so than any specific facts about the length of the Great Wall or the growth of China’s GDP—that I hope to impart upon my students.

Senator Fulbright observed that “educational exchange can turn nations into people, contributing as no other form of communication can to the humanizing of international relations.” I’m proud to report that this spirit is still very much alive and well, not just in the Fulbright office, but in the streets, school rooms, and universities of China, too. It’s on display in my classroom and in the classrooms of others, I hope, as I bring these lessons home from my summer in China with the Fulbright-Hays Seminars Abroad Program.

Connect with U.S. Department of Education, Heather, and Asia Society on Twitter.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Fulbright-Hays Seminars Abroad Program is now accepting applications for the 2016 session. Three seminars are available: a seminar for K-8 teachers to learn about the indigenous heritage of Peru, a seminar for secondary school teachers to examine sustainable development and social change in India, and a seminar for postsecondary educators to explore religion and diversity in Senegal. To learn more and to apply, please visit click here.

Image: Author in China. Courtesy of the author.

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