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Middle Schools and Global Learning

Students at an international studies school prepare for the World Affairs Challenge. Photo courtesy DCIS.

Students at an international studies school prepare for the World Affairs Challenge. Photo courtesy DCIS.

Practical Advice on How to Boost Your Students' Global Learning
Asia Society released a new publication called Going Global: Preparing Our Students for An Interconnected World. Going Global is a compendium of best practices drawn from middle grades schools and high schools across the country, including ISSN and Goldman Sachs prizewinning schools. It provides practical advice on how to get started as individual teachers, teams or whole schools to systematically integrate international knowledge and skills in your school.

The book is organized around a few key areas bullet-pointed below, with some annotation on what it means in reall practice.

  • Creating a Global Vision and Culture A clear signal to students and adults alike that a school puts a priority on the development of international knowledge and skills is a mission statement that says so. The mission statement of the Denver Center for International Studies, which serves students in grades 6-12, leaves no doubt about its aspirations for students.“The Denver Center for International Studies (DCIS) prepares students for college by developing multilingual, interculturally competent students who are actively involved in a rapidly changing world.” (Denver Center for International Studies, 2008.) DCIS provides a good example of a school serving middle grades students whose global culture includes the external symbols of its international focus but goes well beyond that in its day-to-day practices. This is the school, as we spend our day with Eduardo, where regular morning assemblies feature speakers representing different cultural perspectives present their views on important world issues. This tradition of intercultural discourse engages students in serious discussions from multiple vantage points. As a member of the International Studies Schools Network, DCIS faculty have embraced the ISSN’s Graduate Profile, which describes in detail the knowledge, skills and dispositions that define a student’s global competence. Faculty at the school use the Graduate Profile for alignment of curriculum, assessment and instruction and the creation of learning opportunities outside the school that enable students to meet the learning outcomes that the Profile defines. DCIS' faculty has developed a portfolio system, beginning in the middle grades, to help students in their advisory program document their personal development toward the goals of the Graduate Profile. Says principal Dan Lutz, “We want them to understand, as they learn about the world cultures, how they are developing their own global competencies along the way.” (Asia Society, 2008 p.5)

  • Transforming Curriculum and Instruction by Integrating International Content It was hopefully evident from Eduardo’s day that international content and skills was woven seamlessly throughout his course work. Let me just dip a bit more deeply into examples within a few subject areas on how educators are their students in thoughtful internationally focused inquiry.

    Teaching the global history of science shows the international dimension of scientific inquiry. Moreover, students can learn science by using the tools of scientific inquiry to solve world problems. In Earth Science, for example, rather than simply memorizing facts and concepts from a textbook, students might be engaged in analyzing the causes and consequences of earthquake activity worldwide and then propose solutions to minimize damage and loss of life.

    Internationalizing English language arts requires expanding the traditional canon of literature to include writing about or from different parts of the world that is available in English. Broadening the base of literature can help students understand universal themes, such as how adolescents come of age and seek their identity in many countries. Literature from around the world can help break down cultural barriers within the school and provide a solid foundation for exploring the world’s cultures. In social studies, Geography enables students to examine the physical patterns and processes that shape human use of the earth. In turn, students can examine how human presence on earth can have significant environmental consequences.

    History courses are enriched for students by understanding that the history of the world and of the United States are histories of global interactions. There are myriad opportunities to developing a deeper understanding of our own history by comparing the American experience with other nation’s experience on pivotal issues like the fight for civil rights for all citizens.

    Language study enables students to communicate with people from other cultures, especially when they have frequent opportunities for authentic conversations. Moreover, language study can be a vehicle for gaining insight into world cultures. New technologies provide opportunities for students to immerse themselves in language through, for example, conversations with native language speakers over Skype, and reading target language newspapers and websites.

    A really terrific example of internationally focused interdisciplinary learning occurs at the Metropolitan Learning Center in Bloomfield, CT where students in grades 6, 7, and 8 engage in an in-depth, interdisciplinary study of two real-life case studies in all areas of the world. For example, in sixth grade, students study health and pollution issues in urban North America within the quarter-long theme of environment and health. Since asthma is a major health issue and is something these urban students know about from their own experience, students do an in-depth study of asthma. Instead of juststudying the physiology of the disease and stopping there, they look at statistics for all of North America, do scatter plot graphs of asthma, and examine the direct and indirect causes of asthma (for example, one direct cause—indoor environmental pollutants; one indirect cause—poverty). They read a novel about life in urban America; they write letters to city council members and state representatives; and they compile statistics to support their arguments in their letters. The students then expand their study of environment and health to examine other world areas where environmental degradation is having an impact—the Arctic and Antarctic regions, for example—and tie that back into their earlier local study. As my colleague Caryn Stedman, head of curriculum at MLC says, “These middle grades students use their discipline-based skills of scientific inquiry, math, literacy, social studies, and health to do what people in the real world do—synthesize the skills and knowledge in a meaningful way”

    A consistent effort to make the global connection in authentic ways across the curriculum. To utilize the habits of mind to consider the global perspective within each subject area and across subject areas.

    Furthering the development of students’ international competencies requires innovations in assessment well beyond traditional standardized tests. What students need are authentic and reliable ways of demonstrating their learning against valid benchmarks. One example is the work Asia Society’s International Studies Schools Network is conducting with the Stanford School Redesign Network. A set of rubrics are being designed for each academic content area to outline standards for“college ready” student work as well as the knowledge, skills, and dispositions representing global competence.

    Once completed, these rubrics will be used as part of a high school graduation portfolio system and, beginning in the middle grades, a system to drive the instructional planning of schools. The aim is to clearly articulate what student work that demonstrates college readiness and global competence “looks like”, and to use this information to align curriculum, instruction, and assessment to these criteria from the middle grades throughhigh school.
  • Recruiting and Preparing Internationally-oriented Teachers To develop global competencies, middle-grades students need teachers prepared to thoughtfully infuse a global focus within powerful, engaging pedagogy. Teachers need opportunities to deepen their own international content knowledge and time to plan and review their work, including as part of interdisciplinary teams. To do so, linkages need to be created between schools and an array of resources for adult learning. Universities, colleges and community colleges often have faculty members with deep international knowledge with whom middle grades teachers can connect. In fact, Title VI area studies centers that receive federal funding specifically to promote the study of Asia, Africa, Canada, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and other world regions are expected to offer professional development for teachers as part of their mandate. Numerous education and international affairs organizations offer conferences and workshops to develop teachers’ international knowledge and skills. For example, the National Consortium for Teaching About Asia offers seminars in 46 states to encourage teaching and learning about Asia in world history, geography,social studies and literature courses.

    Perhaps the most potent way for teachers to develop a more global focus is through international travel. Travel provides opportunities to bring back cultural, linguistic, and historical knowledge, which teachers can weave into curriculum and instruction and share with colleagues. Fulbright programs, Rotary Clubs, and other organizations offer funding opportunities to support teacher travel.
  • Expanding Student Experiences Connecting middle grades classrooms to international resources within the community creates opportunities for students to both learn about the world and take action, through service learning, on important world issues. A vital and often overlooked asset in every school community is the cultural background of students and their families. As a nation of immigrants, be it recently arrived or in the distant past, parents and other community residents bring a rich tapestry of knowledge and experience that can enhance classroom learning. The diversity of families’ heritage and experience is an enormous asset waiting to be tapped. Middle-grades schools, with students in leadership roles, can identify key cultural and international resources within the community – from museums and cultural organizations to restaurants and social organizations – and create an “international asset map”. Once identified, students can be a part of the outreach effort to bring the community into the school.

    As middle-grades students learn more about the world and its challenges, they need to learn first hand that with knowledge comes the power to effect change for the better. Service learning provides the opportunity to connect local action to global issues. Eastside Middle School, in White Plains, New York, created the Global Run Project in 2005, in which students choose humanitarian projects, research all aspects of the global issues that it involves, conduct video-conferences with students in other countries, and then take action through fundraising and community awareness. The Project now involves at least 20 schools in ten countries.

There are a great many other examples of ways schools are trying to meet the educational challenges and opportunities brought on by globalization, but what you can gather from my quick review, and will be more evident if you have a look at Going Global, that there are pockets of excellent practice dotted across the country.

The same is true at the policy level -- Asia Society has for several years also supported, in conjunction with the Longview Foundation, a network of states that are attempting to integrate international knowledge and skills within state policy frameworks, for example, in state content and performance standards, graduation requirements, demonstration school programs, and statewide awareness campaigns.

But what we’ve found over and over again, is that these efforts of practitioners and policymakers are going in isolation from one another. And that there is a real hunger to come together, to share ideas and work collaboratively on common dilemmas.

That’s why Asia Society has launched the Partnership for Global Learning. The Partnership for Global Learning is a new organization established to provide leadership and structure to advance the field of international education from the margins to the mainstream of American education.

The Partnership for Global Learning is a membership network of teachers, schools, administrators, policymakers and colleagues from universities and education organizations designed to promote sharing of best practices and to advancement of education policy to include greater focus on developing American students’ global competencies.

Join like-minded colleagues who are also on a journey to internationalize middle grades education from the school house to the state house to the White House.

As a nation, we do, indeed, face both the “old” problem of persistent poor academic achievement, especially in disadvantaged communities, and the new demands of globalization, which are equally critical in privileged and disadvantaged communities. To meet these challenges we need new approaches in elementary schools and in high schools, but what we know is true is that you can’t get there from here without the middle grades.

Anthony Jackson is Asia Society's vice president for Education Programs. He wrote Turning Points, the Carnegie Council on Adolescent Developments’ report on the education of adolescents in the early 1990’s and later co-authored Turning Points 2000 with Gayle Andrews.