Learn Locally, Think Globally: How Students and Teachers Grow From Cultural Exchange

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In 2015, I met artist Pablo Seminario for the first time when I visited his studio in the Sacred Valley of Peru. In his artwork, Pablo turns traditional Peruvian symbols of birds, sea animals, and flowers into a style of his own, which he calls the "Seminario style." As a teacher and an artist, I was not only mesmerized by his use of abstract, organic shapes and lines, but also his captivating stories—for example, how his flying people creations brought him peace and freedom during a time of war in his country. The angel-like figures were his way of escaping the terrible things happening in his country and seeing the beauty of the land and his people.

My journey to becoming a global learner and helping my students become global learners had begun a year earlier, when I had the opportunity to participate in the NEA Foundation's Global Learning Fellowship, a year-long professional development program that helps teachers cultivate skills to prepare students for global citizenship. I met Pablo during my field placement as a fellow.

Standing in Pablo's brilliant studio filled with tools hanging from the ceiling and artwork in different stages of completion, I immediately pictured all the ways my students could learn from his art and his stories. Eager for opportunities to benefit my students, I asked Pablo if he would be willing to work with us via an online platform—and he said yes!

In the fall of that year, I shared my journey to Peru with my students. Students in every grade loved seeing images of the landscape, animals, art, and people. My students cheered when I told them that Pablo had agreed to work with them. They collaborated to brainstorm a myriad of questions for Pablo: Why did he decide to be an artist? What inspired his work? What does he do when faced with a mistake or challenge? Students also inquired about life in Peru and what it means to be a global citizen.

We used Google Hangout to video conference with Pablo. The format did present some challenges in our work together. Students shared that at times it was hard to understand Pablo because the internet would freeze. Pablo’s accent also made some words hard to identify, but my Spanish-speaking students were thrilled to share what he was saying with our group.

We learned new skills from Pablo and became better artists because of our partnership. Yet something more powerful was at work: My students and I were becoming global learners. We were breaking the barriers of distance and discovering how we could learn from others around the world.

In the summer of 2016, I shared with Pablo via Facebook how much his collaboration meant to my students and me. We had all learned so much about culture, art, and life in Peru—and we didn’t want to stop there. Pablo agreed to visit in person with his wife, Marilú, who is also a ceramist. Once again, the NEA Foundation supported me as a Global Learning Fellow by providing grant money to make Pablo and Marilú's visit a reality.

Although planning and working through the logistics with my school system were at times tedious, my determination and advocacy helped county leadership understand how important this partnership with the NEA Foundation and Pablo and Marilú would be for everyone involved.

During their week-long visit, Pablo and Marilú worked with our students, staff members, and even parents. Pre-K students created tiles by drawing patterns of lines and shapes into clay and painted them with vibrant underglazes, while artists in kindergarten through 4th grade attended mini assemblies to learn about Pablo and Marilú’s journey to becoming global artists.

Fifth graders sculpted unique, abstract figures using coils and slabs, and 6th graders built relief tiles that doubled as self-portraits and cultural narratives. The tiles will be used as a permanent installation piece in our school lobby, with students’ artwork surrounded by a frame of tiles created by school staff members.

Not only did we learn new artistic techniques—our guests brought their world to us and we shared our world with them. Each of us took away a better understanding of how we can learn from each other and grow as people when we are willing to embrace new ideas and beliefs.

After Pablo and Marilú’s visit, I asked 5th and 6th graders to reflect on four questions:
1. What did you learn from Pablo and Marilú?
2. How has your view of art changed?
3. In your own words, describe what it was like to learn from famous Peruvian artists?
4. What does it mean to be a global artist?

I was overwhelmed with pride as I read their responses:

“You can think about different cultures, different people, and different ways of life. Not only can you do that, but you can incorporate it into your art.”

“It made me think that you can use art to help you in troubling times, and you can use art to make a safe haven.”

In their responses, my students showed a deeper understanding of their own artwork, as well as why learning about other cultures is an important part of the world we live in today.

One student reflected, “I used to think about how art changes me, but now I think about how the art changes the artist and why he does everything.”

“Having Pablo and Marilú teaching helped us to see how people who are different from us can relate to us and what they see differently,” another student shared.

As one student eloquently put it, being a global artist means, "You can connect with more people from different places in the world. And you are able to tell stories through your artwork that others are able to connect [with].”

Global learning helped us celebrate our differences, while also recognizing what we shared and how we could bring something valuable to each other's lives. Reflecting on the exchange, Pablo told me: “It’s been a fantastic experience, our first time teaching little kids with so many questions, ideas, [and] comments. We are hardworking people, and I can say that teachers in the U.S. give everything they have in energy and knowledge. Another thing that impressed us was the fact that among the kids we saw represented almost every country of the world. This is a project that should be growing, copied everywhere for a better understanding between mankind.”

As tourists in another country, we often don’t see a place through the same eyes as those who live that reality. Our perspective is filtered through our own cultural norms. Global learning helps us move beyond seeing others through a single story—and gain an understanding of the rich, complex world we all live in together.

Photos courtesy of the author

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