Connecting our content to meaningful experiences outside of the classroom seems hard. Connecting our students to peers and content experts around the world seems even harder. But if we are serious about providing every student with a “world-class education,” then we will have to come to terms with the fact that one of the critical elements missing from most students’ educational experiences is….the WORLD: its peoples and their languages and perspectives. The geography of the world (natural, political, human and otherwise). How the choices we make in our daily lives impact others around the world and ecosystems all over the planet. The WORLD may be the most forgotten piece of our educational programs.
So what can be done? How do I expand my curriculum beyond the covers of our textbook and the walls of our classroom to connect my students to the world? For my students, learning and practicing the language isn’t enough. Our students need to practice language as a global communication tool, not merely an academic pursuit of points and grades. So that was my answer: I must facilitate opportunities for my students to people around the world. Yes, easier said than done. But it has to be done.
My students do learn some geography…I want them to learn more. But most of the time when students learn geography, they color maps, memorize borders and capitals, pass the test and move on. And forget. They haven’t seen a compelling reason to need to know all of those places. So I don’t do a “geography lesson” or a “geography unit” full of maps, capitals, borders or flags. Maybe that’s wrong. Or maybe I just did it wrong as a younger teacher and that’s why it didn’t work for me or my students. Be that as it may, in my class, there is no “geography test.” Instead, I connect my students to people and places in the world. They have penpals in eastern France. They correspond with Peace Corps volunteers in Senegal, Benin, and Burkina Faso and sometimes the children volunteers’ villages. They support a school in Haiti and are working alongside an NGO in Togo. And each of these connections makes it meaningful to learn about the places: where they are in the world in relation to other countries and natural features such as oceans; what their political systems are like; how their natural resources, their history and their perspectives influence their practices and their interactions; what we have in common with them and what sets each of us apart. When we talk about these aspects of geographic literacy, the lessons are pertinent and meaningful because the students are connected to “real” people in those places. Those countries now matter to them. Can my students name all of the world’s countries and capitals when I base our geography content learning on connections we have in the world? No. But they have greater geographic literacy in the broader sense, which isn’t actually about memorizing capitals and countries anyway…and perhaps a greater desire to learn about the rest of the world as a result.
You don’t have to be a world language teacher to do this. In fact, so few American students study world languages in the United States (18.5% according to this Forbes article), that it is really imperative that ALL teachers connect their subjects and their students to the world. I’ve done some really easy connections by sharing my students’ work on Twitter with carefully selected hashtags that will send my students’ work into the twitter feeds of people around the world who are interested in the topic the students were working on. When those people start favoriting and commenting on the tweets of their work, students want to know more about the places their “followers” are from.
To go just a little bit further try this: Are your students talking about a hot topic in health? physics? government? literary criticism? the arts? current issues and events? Have them post their commentary on a tool like Padlet, then send the link to their Padlet out via social media (again, with appropriate hashtags to draw in the right audience) so that their content conversations aren’t just with you, but with others around the world. Be sure to mention that you’re hoping for global replies and ask your followers to also share (so you are more likely to get replies from diverse places). If you try this, it is very important that you turn on “moderate posts” in Padlet’s settings so that you can be certain that comments are appropriate and safe before they appear on the Padlet. You may also want to include a request that those who post say where they are from. This will make it easier for you to then follow-up with lessons and activities about various places in the world. You can do this in the Padlet “description” which will appear at the top of the page. The nice thing about using tools like Twitter and Padlet in this way is that there is the potential to give all students (not just world language students) practice valuing and analyzing comments that represent diverse perspectives without merely judging or dismissing the comments because they do not correspond to one’s own beliefs.
Ready to go further? Sign up with Peace Corps’ World Wise Schools program to have your classes correspond with a volunteer serving in a developing country. You can pick the region of the world and even the sector in which the volunteer is working so that it best matches your curricular needs and interests.
Do you have a particular area of focus? Maybe there is an NGO (non-governmental organization) doing work in that sector somewhere in the world. Your students can send questions to these content experts and may even be able to get involved in their work. Here’s a world-wide NGO directory to get you started. Just quickly browsing their list by region, I saw NGOs for specific sports, journalism and the arts, among others, so truly, any subject can connect their students to the world in this way.
How are you putting the world in “world-class education?” Share in the comments below.