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December 1, 2016

At Home and Away

If you want to see thriving, global-minded classrooms, take a look at international schools.

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From the time I was in high school at a small prep school outside Boston, I knew I wanted to study in another country. My school was predominantly white, North American, Protestant, and East Coast. There was little interest in life beyond Boston, and I felt stifled.

By the time I got to college, I was determined to study abroad, to satisfy my curiosity for things beyond New England, and to become fluent in Spanish. So I did my final year of college in Madrid, where I spent a happy semester learning about culture and language. I wound up staying in Spain for two years after I met and fell in love with my future husband, a Spaniard.

After we married, my husband and I moved to the United States to teach at a small boarding school in Connecticut. The winters were long, and I found myself feeling déjà vu: The school was predominantly white, North American, Protestant, and East Coast. After two years at this school, we were unexpectedly offered jobs to teach at an international school in Hong Kong, all the way on the other side of the world. Neither my husband nor I had ever been to Asia; in fact, despite being inclined to travel and learn languages, we hadn't been to many places outside of our home countries. We couldn't imagine living in Hong Kong. We had 24 hours to say yes or no—and we said yes.

Since that day 19 years ago, my husband and I have lived and taught at international schools in Spain, Qatar, Malaysia, and Saudi Arabia, as well as Hong Kong and the United States. We've picked up small amounts of various languages and we've traveled with students to places like Hanoi, Ulaanbaatar, and Mada'in Saleh. We've taught students from 75 different countries. Our students have been Muslim, Hindu, Mormon, Buddhist, atheist, Christian, and Jewish. Most of these youth think nothing of hopping on a plane to a neighboring country to play a basketball tournament; will happily eat Korean, Brazilian, Thai, or Ethiopian, and other international foods; and are bilingual or trilingual.

We've discovered while teaching such globally comfortable students that international schools are teeming with curriculum, pedagogy, and community elements that lend themselves to creating global-ready graduates.

Learning How Diverse Curriculum Can Be

My first international teaching experience in Hong Kong showed me where some of that world-savvy comes from. Although I had a few years' experience teaching high school English, I immediately saw that Hong Kong International School (HKIS) did things very differently from traditional schools.

First of all, the school's English, history, and religion departments had disbanded and created one large Humanities Department. Interdisciplinary learning was the goal. I was assigned to teach 9th graders a daily, 90-minute class called World Cultures, which counted as both a history and an English credit for my students. We focused on five distinct regions of the world: Africa, India, China, Japan, and the Middle East. Half of all the grade 9 humanities classes in the school had 30 students or more and were team-taught by a pair of teachers. The other classes had about 23 students and a sole teacher. I was lucky enough to teach two sections, one taught on my own and one in which I was paired with George, a veteran history teacher.

That year opened my eyes to the possibilities of a curriculum diverse not only in subject matter, but also in type of texts used. We had no textbook, and George and I rarely lectured. Instead, we heard guest speakers from India's rising tech sector and took a field trip to a local Buddhist shrine. We watched films like Baraka, which has no dialogue but tells a compelling tale about humanity and our planet. We read texts like "Song of Lawino, Song of Ocol," a poem from 1960s Uganda that takes a critical lens to colonial life and the changes that came with it, and the epic Indian tale The Ramayana. We read, wrote, and performed Noh plays and watched the legendary Akira Kurosawa's film Dreams, an homage to the Noh format. I had never been exposed to such a variety of stories and voices. I had never learned so much so fast.

The learning curve may have been greater for me than for many of my students, who were accustomed to international living. Most of my students that year were third culture kids, children who spend a significant period of their life living in a country other than their parents', so they have a "third" culture that's neither their parents' culture nor that of the host country. We had an Australian-born boy who'd spent his childhood in Cambodia and moved to Hong Kong in his teens, a French-American child of a diplomat who had lived in six countries, and so on.

To most of these students, a global curriculum wasn't something new or different—it was a reflection of their lives. But for students new to the school, there was a period of adjustment to a new way of teaching, learning, and exploring "texts." Although my students may not have batted an eye at the variety of cultures represented in our World Cultures class, many found it a challenge to critically examine new text types and express themselves in new formats. Most were used to five-paragraph essays, but unsure how to write a Noh play or draw a visual metaphor representing the hero's journey theme in a Malian story.

Toward Empowering Assessment

It wasn't only the curriculum that was dynamic and diverse in HKIS's Humanities Department; the assessment practice was also unique. Assessment empowered students to be advocates of their own learning. We had student-led conferences, during which students shared their work with both parents and teachers, culminating in a joint goal-setting process.

Grades in our classes were determined by a "majority rules" approach. Students spent 30–45 minutes reviewing their portfolios, writing a self-evaluation, and assigning themselves a grade they believed fair. George and I would read their evaluation and decide what we each thought the grade should be. Then the three of us would sit together and agree on a grade that seemed the most accurate. If the student and I both believed she deserved a B, and George believed she deserved a B-, the B would stand. If a student believed he deserved an A, but George and I believed an A- was more accurate, the A- would stand—and so on. The process felt far more inclusive and less stressful than traditional grading systems, in which the teacher assigns the grade and the student either feels validated or cheated.

You might wonder what empowering assessment has to do with creating a global-minded, inclusive classroom. I believe it's a vital component of that process. It's easy to forget the power structure in which most of us teach. We, the teachers and administrators, hold the power over students' future with grades and recommendations, and our students are acutely aware of that. It often doesn't seem fair to them, and it can create a distance between the teacher and student, or even between students, should jealousy or feelings of unfairness arise.

My experience at Hong Kong International School taught me that including students more deliberately in the assessment process creates a stronger sense of community in our classes and allows us all to dig deeper and take greater intellectual risks—marks of a global citizen.

Instilling Globalism in Teaching

Not everyone can move to Hong Kong in an effort to produce global-ready graduates. The good news is, you don't have to. There are many ways to instill international, inclusive curriculums and student-friendly assessment into your repertoire, whether you live in Los Angeles, the suburbs of Dallas, or rural New England. Here are three.

Inventory Your Texts

First, take an inventory of your classroom and texts. By texts, I mean anything students read, watch, listen to, or view in an effort to understand and learn in your course. This might include novels, essays, films, artwork, plays, TED talks, blogs, political cartoons, advertisements, and so on. If you're a homeroom, humanities, social studies, arts, or language arts teacher, or a science teacher who assigns readings beyond the textbooks, look at the list of all texts you read, view, and listen to in any given year. Add up the rough total number of texts taught, and then compute what percentage of the total texts are written or produced by an author in these categories:

  • American, British, or Canadian authors?

  • Someone from a country/culture other than the United States, England, or Canada?

  • In the 20th century? In the 21st century?

  • A woman?

  • A person of color?

  • An LGBT author or artist?

  • Originally written or produced in another language?

  • Written or produced by authors or artists who represent a nondominant faith in your country (for instance, in a Christian-dominated country, an author who is Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or Hindu).

Also figure out what percentages of your texts are from these genres (or any other genres): fiction; nonfiction; books; short stories; poetry; movies; and podcasts, blogs, advertisements, or other media.

When you finish, note what stands out to you. How many voices, stories, and text types are your students getting access to?

I don't suggest any magic number to aspire to, but I do suggest teachers aim for as much variety as they can in their curriculums. One benefit of teaching internationally is exposure to many different kinds of people and cultures. The more we hear others' stories, the more empathy we have for them and their experiences. It's important that Americans hear stories from around the world to understand the ways in which their experience is similar to other cultures, and it's important that marginalized groups like female, LGBT, and minority students see their own voices and experiences reflected in the literature, history, science, and art they study.

One of the most successful books I've taught at the high school level, both in the United States and abroad, is the graphic novel Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, about a teenager growing up in 1980s Iran. American students in the United States are often shocked at how much they identify with the protagonist and her rock-n-roll, rebellious ways in war-torn Tehran. My hope is that they'll think of that young protagonist when they hear about Iran on the news. It won't seem like an abstract place any more but rather a place full of people like Marjane—and like themselves.

This inventory also allows you to see the diversity of text types you are using. Perhaps you never considered that you could use advertisements, blogs, or podcasts as part of a British literature course, but I'd encourage you to think broadly about what "literature" means in an increasingly global, visual, and interconnected world. In history studies, opening up to newer text types can reveal how much history is connected to the present. For example, today's crises in the Middle East have a direct connection to the partitioning of land after World War I; you can make good use of current events, blogs, and animated clips about ISIS, Iraq, and Syria to highlight how the impact of World War I can be felt today.

Draw on Students' Backgrounds

Why not draw on the resources you have right in your room: the students? According to the National Center for Education Statistics,1 the vast majority of U.S. teachers are white. Yet since 2014, a minority of students enrolled in U.S. public schools have been white, and nonwhite student populations, especially Hispanic and Asian, continue to grow. Although teachers need to be careful not to ask students to be spokespersons for their race, religion, or culture, we can inspire more cultural sensitivity by creating classrooms in which students share stories from their diverse traditions.

A fruitful opening-year activity is to ask students to write an "I Am From" poem following a format I learned from a colleague years ago. It asks students to write four four-line stanzas, each beginning with the phrase "I am from." In the first stanza, students list familiar sights and sounds from their home or homes. The second stanza features festivities people from their culture celebrate and typical foods; the third, common phrases students hear, often from their parents and relatives; and the fourth, people in their family and that are important to them. Some of my favorite lines over the years include:

"I am from honking trucks and diesel fumes."

"I am from the homemade birthday cake of my choice and Chinese takeout on Christmas Eve."

"I am from, 'Money doesn't grow on trees.'"

"I am from a nurse, a lawyer, and grandparents who never finished high school."

Sharing these poems in class and posting them around the classroom helps students and teachers begin to see the variety of experiences and voices we have right in our own room. Many similar activities, lessons, and assessments that draw out individual stories and intercultural sharing and dialogue can be found online or by asking your colleagues. Please remember, however, to remain sensitive to students' comfort levels with issues of race, culture, and socioeconomic status.

Seek Professional Development Opportunities

For guidance on how to create global-minded curriculums and facilitate global conversations, why not attend a relevant conference? I recently attended Exeter's Diversity Institute, a week-long course at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire, which trains teachers in using a variety of texts to discuss racial and social justice in English and history classrooms. Many other conferences specializing in global-minded education exist. The National Association of Independent Schools runs an annual People of Color Conference for educators from independent schools, and anyone can attend the International Baccalaureate organization's annual conferences for its Africa/Europe/Middle East and Asia-Pacific regions. If you can't take time off work, try the Global Education Conference, a free annual online conference.

You don't have to study abroad, speak another language, or teach in a different country to produce global-ready graduates. We live in a time in which students can connect with classrooms in Pakistan, exchange tweets with a journalist in Mexico, and learn a language through sites like Duolingo while sitting in class. Although there's no substitute for travel and personal experience, educators can powerfully encourage intercultural understanding and equity through the texts we teach, the professional development we engage in, and the classroom communities we foster here at home.

Texts that Help Students Go Global

Try these texts to inspire global-minded thinking among high school students and some middle schoolers.

The Odyssey (graphic novel by Gareth Hinds)

The text is faithful to the Fitzgerald translation of Homer's Odyssey.

Themes: irony, the Greek code of hospitality, the Hubris cycle, the importance of home, women's role in ancient texts, fidelity, graphic choices (such as color outlines).

Born into Brothels (documentary film by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman).

This film traces the lives of eight children who learned photography from the film's director during the two years she lived among their families in Calcutta's red light district. Although there is nothing sexually explicit in the film, you will want to discuss what a brothel is and how being born into one affects these children's lives.

Themes: marginalized people, India, poverty, education as a means for improving our lives.

Barefoot Gen (short cartoon by Keiji Nakazawa, Toshio Hirata, and Hideo Takayashiki).

This cartoon depicts the real-life story of a Hiroshima bombing survivor. Note that although students are pulled in by the cheerful feel of the first half of this Japanese animation, this is not a Disney cartoon. When the bomb drops, the cartoon depicts the reality of the bomb's aftermath. Students can find this film very upsetting.

Themes: World War II, nuclear weapons, war, putting ourselves in our enemies' shoes, coming-of-age, the hero's journey.

Various poems by Carol Ann Duffy, including "Shooting Stars," "Education for Leisure," "Mrs. Tilscher's Class," and "Stuffed."

The U.K.'s first Scottish, female, and openly LGBTQ poet laureate writes about everything from the Holocaust, to forbidden love, to childhood schoolhouse memories.

Themes: politics, education, feminism, sexuality, innocence lost. Duffy's verse features many poetic devices to analyze.

Americanah (novel by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie).

This love story traces the whip-smart, independent protagonist through her experience as an immigrant in America and return to her native Nigeria. Adichie is known for her TED Talk "The Danger of a Single Story."

Themes: racism, the immigrant experience, returning home, power structures, love, coming-of-age.

End Notes

1 National Center for Education Statistics (2016). Fast Facts: Public and Private School Comparisons. Retrieved from: https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=55

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