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Teacher of the Year: Local Engagement Through Global Questions

March 07, 2016 6 min read
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Shanna Peeples is a high school English teacher at Palo Duro High School in Amarillo, Texas. The students in Shanna’s class reflect the large refugee population in the city of Amarillo, which is known for having the highest number of refugees per capita in the United States. Shanna is the 2015 National Teacher of the Year, an honor awarded by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and a 2016 NEA Foundation Global Learning Fellow and will be traveling with a cohort of K-12 public school educators on a field study to Peru in June.

Join Shanna, the NEA Foundation, and Asia Society for a special #GlobalEdChat on Twitter this Thursday, March 10, at 8 pm Eastern time to learn more about how to get started with global education.

By guest blogger Shanna Peeples

“If the structure does not permit dialogue, the structure must be changed.” Paulo Freire

Statistics wearing ironically worded t-shirts, skinny jeans, expensive tennis shoes, and careful makeup walk into my classroom every day. Two out of three of them, research says, are bored every day in high school because the material isn’t interesting or relevant, doesn’t have value, and feels forced upon them.

What if helping students articulate their deepest questions can help them reconnect to learning? What if student-centered inquiry led the classroom? What if students’ own questions help them engage in real research?

Inquiry Engages
This is where global education and local investigation come into play.

Each day, teachers are charged with the invaluable task of preparing tomorrow’s citizens. As educators, we have the agency to make instructional decisions that affect how students perceive the world around them. We can equip them with the essential knowledge and skills to thrive in this era of globalization—even beyond graduation.

As a NEA Foundation Global Learning Fellow, I am privileged to increase my own global competence as well as model it for my colleagues and students. That competence begins with a willingness to explore and understand cultural and global topics. Understanding comes through open and authentic inquiry, which in turn leads to deeper learning.

In the 21st century, the world is a global village that can be engaged in with as little as the click of a mouse. This unique moment in time provides teachers the foundation to cultivate a classroom culture of globally themed student inquiry, in the class, the community, and beyond. Student questions are authentic, engaging, and self-motivating ways of disrupting the narrative of disengagement and classroom apathy by helping students sees themselves as global citizens.

The Impact of Local Investigations
According to VIF International Education, local investigations encourage students to ask global questions in the context of their communities. This levels the playing field. No matter the extent of direct international background experience, students have equal opportunities to think more critically about the world around them. The variances of cultural capital, in fact, enrich the process of local investigation. Every student is an active contributor. These investigations can take shape as single lessons or even long-term projects. Regardless of the chosen format, VIF recommends that effective local investigations should:


  • Allow students to be the investigators and charge them with collecting data to answer classroom questions about their communities
  • Introduce primary source knowledge that allows students to expand on existing knowledge about the topics being investigated
  • Be “hands on” and allow learning avenues beyond traditional textbooks
  • Reveal connections between local topics and global contexts
  • Utilize 21st century technology
  • Help students take charge of their learning.

For a group of 16-year-old bilingual girls in my class, their local investigations began with an irritant: the breast cancer awareness bracelets—worn mostly by boys—printed with: “I love boobies.” My student, Lucia, began approaching anyone wearing the bracelets.

“Do you know anything about breast cancer?” she asked them. “Do you know why you’re wearing that bracelet? Did you know men can get it, too?”

Joined by friends Ana, Adeline, Marissa, Nydia, and Stefania, Lucia began creating a documentary about attitudes toward and awareness of breast cancer. This was a subject rarely discussed in my students’ mostly immigrant, mostly poor neighborhood. Through surveys, visits to community centers, and even quinceañeras, they discovered that many women felt shut out of healthcare because of fear and shame.

As the girls investigated how to help these women, they approached the Amarillo Breast Health Coalition to create a partnership and gain resources. The girls then created a bilingual breast health presentation that they gave in venues as diverse as the school library to Diez y Seis de Septiembre celebrations.

One of their presentations helped a woman who’d never had a mammogram get one. It helped identify a malignancy, and the woman was successfully matched to resources, care, and treatment. It helped identify cultural stigmas of health. All because the students were led to investigate their own questions.

Bring Investigation to Your Classroom
Teaching based on student investigation is at the crux of global education. Try it and see for yourself:


  • Brainstorm your own questions, writing them on an anchor chart, or share the grade-level examples mentioned above
  • Have students generate questions, writing them anonymously on index cards if they’re able, or have a scribe
  • Anonymity is key to getting good responses from secondary students
  • Collect the cards and keep them for later
  • Use them as a prompt, as a writing exercise, as a research question or essential question to spark discussion, reading, or writing in your class.

There are many potential questions that can guide students to think more about the global connections of their local investigations such as:


  • Where is my family from?
  • Where does our tap water come from?
  • Where were my clothes made?
  • Why do some people in my community have a different accent than me?

I remind my students that these are the questions floating like invisible thought bubbles over all of our heads; that we are not alone in asking these questions.

From these questions, students begin to think conceptually about universal questions of justice, identity, responsibility, and co-existence. Simplifying in this way helps students to go deeper into our content. Mike Schmoker highlights 90-120 minutes of purposeful reading and writing every day as a “high-leverage” instructional practice that shows one of the most gains in student learning. Generating authentic questions and then writing and researching answers is one way to encourage deeper literacy across the content areas in all grade levels.

What if we could collaborate with our colleagues in other content areas to help students complete cross-curricular inquiry projects with a global focus? This boosts the time they spend on meaningful reading and writing, plus it creates an atmosphere where inquiry is encouraged. Further, it respects children because it values their thinking and allows them the agency to answer their own questions about themselves and the world.

As teachers, we’re the model learners in our classrooms, so it’s incumbent upon us to demonstrate our own comfort with questions, and to weave global competence into our teaching as a daily practice, not as an “add-in” on special days.

The most enduring understanding we give ourselves and our students, however is to know that the more we learn, the more we can beat back fear. And when fear retreats, peace and understanding increases.

Follow Shanna, NEA Foundation, Heather, and Asia Society on Twitter.

Image of Shanna’s students courtesy of the author.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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