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December 1, 2016

Every Journey Begins With a Step

We must build students' global connectedness as if our lives depended on it.

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Instructional Strategies
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Credit: © Stefanie Felix

Pundits have interpreted last June's Brexit vote, in which Britons voted to leave the European Union, as a referendum against globalization. Although the vote was no landslide, it reflected the insecurities of particular groups in the face of shifting social and economic prospects. Those voting to leave might have been chiding global elites for enjoying advantages gained by opening up trade, communications, immigration, and finance across borders, while seeing themselves as casualties of globalization.

The impact of Brexit—together with other headline stories, from Zika to the refugee crisis—offers a vital reality check for educators: How relevant and responsive is your teaching to the challenges and opportunities that result from our profoundly connected world? How can schools create opportunities for all students to find their sphere of influence—and meaningful work—in a big, messy, integrated, global system?

A Global Experience for All Students

Whether we like it or not, we live in an era of global connectedness. When teachers and leaders have pursued priorities of global competency, built global perspectives, or even encouraged students to form international friendships, students have begun to transcend the limits of borders, circumstances, and history. When schools take even simple steps to bring the world into the classroom, we can start to replace fear with curiosity, and see opportunities in our differences. And we have the best chance to develop such global competencies among elementary-age learners, who have the time and openness to build these skills.

The benefits of learning about and from the world are many. Students in schools with a global-competency focus have higher test results and score higher on measures of social inclusion, community building, and social action, (Vega & Terada, 2013). Many possibilities for career growth exist for people willing to travel abroad or work with teams across time zones. One in five U.S. jobs is tied to international trade (Baughman & Francois, 2014), and jobs in which a person must speak a second language (Morsch, 2009) often remain unfilled. And even though bilingual college graduates earn a wage premium (Saiz & Zoido, 2006), just 7 percent of U.S. college students are enrolled in foreign language classes, and 95 percent of these enrollments are in European languages.

Despite evidence supporting the crucial role of global competency, it often stays at the bottom of lists of urgent education priorities. Even with a common goal that students graduate from high school college- and career-ready, I marvel at how "foreign" global citizenship and competence remain in well-intentioned U.S. schools.

We might even be going backwards: In 2008, fewer U.S. public elementary and middle schools taught foreign languages than did so a decade earlier, with no indication of the trend reversing (Rhodes & Pufahl, 2009). Educators have told me privately that strategic priorities with the word "global" are being removed in independent schools and public districts. Yet if headlines about Brexit, the world refugee crisis, and so on teach us anything, it's that we can't afford to keep doing school the way we used to.

Steps Toward Global Competency

Let's start by helping our youngest learners develop global mindsets. Although children in many independent schools and families with means to travel have benefited disproportionately from global exposure, any preK–12 school possesses plenty of tools to spur global engagement and curiosity, the first steps in navigating the choppy waters of global competency. Building global competency doesn't need a big budget or a radical transformation of curriculum. It does need willingness, awareness, leadership, humility, and enthusiasm.

Because technology and knowledge become outdated within a decade, effective approaches to building global competence must center around a new category of skills—global collaboration, empathy, creativity, deep inquiry, and effective communication. These also happen to be the skills most needed for creating peace among countries and living a happy, meaningful life.

As elusive as realizing these outcomes may be, the steps adults take to help children build meaningful connections with the wider world have the most lasting impact in reaching those outcomes. Here are five steps elementary educators might take—starting now.

1. Shift the Culture

Think about the big picture of your school by making small dents that reshape it in ways that encourage students to learn about other cultures and build awareness of the wider world. Simple cues in your building tell your community what matters to you. You might start with prominently featured bulletin boards that display "Hello," "Friend," or a school motto in various languages (particularly those spoken by students and staff). Deliver a portion of your morning announcements in a second language often used in your school or in various languages to normalize bilingualism, affirm student heritages, and expose kids to the sounds of other tongues. Ensure that teachers can properly pronounce student names on Day 1. Choose a school motto or theme that reflects global competency, like "Be a friend to the whole human race" (my simple definition of global citizenship) or "Be the change you wish to see in the world." See the online sidebar "Opening a Window to Everyday Moments" for ideas about picture books to use with the youngest children.

Just as an uncluttered workspace might inspire productive thinking, a school or classroom with multilingual or globally inspired bulletin boards, world maps, books by diverse authors, and artifacts conveying the various cultures represented, studied, or befriended by your community sends a powerful signal.

More than a pretty "nice to have," visual cues in the gym, cafeteria, principal's office, halls, and classrooms reflect your culture shift to global empathy. The message is that your school doesn't reserve global learning for a specific day, week, or unit, and doesn't depend on a few people to get creative for global experiences. Adults and kids are open to learning with and from the world in math, science, technology, sports, and the arts. And everyone matters.

Such a culture shift can enhance school climate goals like inclusion, empathy, collaboration, student-driven learning, kindness, and respect. Purposefully align those qualities with a culture of global citizenship as you talk about international connections. This helps everyone more easily embrace an ideal that will feel less and less foreign.

2. Start with What You Love

Encourage faculty and staff to experiment as they design instruction with your global community connections in mind. I encourage teachers (and students) to "start with what you love." Any personal interest, favorite lesson, or even technology tool can serve as an entry point to shape a learning experience through a global lens.

For example, a movie buff might introduce films from around the world during special days. With guidance, watching a film can shift from a passive experience to an active exploration of life themes, often connected to academic disciplines. Cue students to notice elements that shed light on geography and language; different living environments; and how kids play, learn, and entertain themselves. Students might contrast their expectations with the reality in hard-to-visit places. Such noticing helps foster empathy for a culture that students might otherwise know only through negative stereotypes. And because this activity originates from one of your passions, it won't feel like work. The Global Education Toolkit for Elementary Learners (Tavangar & Mladic-Morales, 2014) contains a list of potential films and a classroom discussion guide.

Starting with these micro-steps needs to be seen as just that: a start, a thoughtful step in a larger process toward creating transformative learning. School leaders should periodically check in by asking students and staff to consider what's changed in the school, what they're more aware of in terms of global connections, and how you might improve. At each staff meeting, include a question about global initiatives or showcase a simple initiative that builds global competencies.

3. Mine Your Local Community for Resources

Starting with staff, then including students, brainstorm at least once a month about how to tap global resources embedded in your community. Do staff, family members, or neighbors have global experience they might share with learners? Does your district host exchange students who might come to school? Can a trip to the grocery store turn into a discovery of global impact?

You might research the historic impact of various immigrants on your local community. If you've recently welcomed new immigrant populations, brainstorm ways students could learn from them as well as demonstrate care for that community. Teachers can mark on a world map (with thumb tacks or mini-flags) the countries of origin of individuals in your classroom or school, and continue to mark on the map places tied to any internationally related student experience, such as a plunge into a novel set in an African country.

Give students the power to come up with a project that connects them to a non-United States location of their choosing, such as a shared class book, a quest to locate key landmarks using Google Earth, research into environmental changes in a country, or an arrangement to do service learning with a classroom abroad. Country choices can spring from any inspiration: where a student's grandparents came from, the origin of their favorite fruit, or even where their clothing was made. This can be the first step in cultivating student passions.

Mining the local community for global connections helps demonstrate that you're not promoting a local-versus-global way of thinking. It starts to plant awareness of the wider world so that travel for service or learning becomes an aspiration within all students' reach.

4. Challenge Digital Citizens to Make Meaning

The wealth of multimedia tools available to create, collaborate, and code should facilitate global competency. Unless we connect these tools to deeper inquiry and model how to transform multimedia from entertainment to serious commentary or interactions, however, their effectiveness will be limited.

Because the majority of 13-year-olds are on social media, let's consider how to use social media for social good, starting in upper elementary. This might mean blogging as a class, either on a class blog or as guest bloggers for a cause or publication students care about, which may have an established audience. Guide students to follow Twitter accounts like @MalalaFund, @Girls_Inc, @soccerwoborders, or @UNICEF to see how various groups are making a difference. Or kids might participate in book clubs with readers from around the world, such as through the Global Read-Aloud.

Share what you're learning by live streaming a science lab, creating podcasts tied to curricular lessons, sharing with schools in diverse climates experiences of growing food in a community garden, or sharing visuals on platforms like The Wonderment, Kidblog, or Edmodo. When you share through an ongoing Skype connection or project-based learning networks like TakingITGlobal, iEARN, and Level Up Village, people with diverse perspectives can offer feedback on classroom products, raising the quality of students' work. These activities transform students from passive consumers of content to active creators. Lessons model positive use of social media and lead to solving real local problems.

5. Plug Global Competency into Any Lesson

A framework created by Asia Society and the Council of Chief State School Officers simplifies the process of bringing an international angle—and global connection to skills like collaboration—into any lesson. Teachers can take any topic, lesson, or unit—from geometry to poetry—through these four steps. Let's look at how to do this with a unit on the American Revolution.

  • Investigate the world. Go beyond the textbook and Wikipedia to explore various angles and get deeper. How do global news outlets, universities, or influential thinkers treat the topic? For a unit on the American Revolution, look at how textbooks or websites from British, Australian, Indian, or another English-speaking culture describe this revolution or life in the colonies. Do their accounts differ from your U.S. sources? Consider what impact the American Revolution had on other battles for democracy around the world. 1 What take do women and people of color—past and present—have on this war or on life during that era?

  • Recognize perspectives. How might a person's environment, gender, history, belief, or culture affect their perspective on this issue? Imagine the views and experiences of the defeated side in the Revolutionary War. Who benefitted from this revolution, and what evidence backs this up? If you Skype with students in another country, diplomatically ask their perspective on the American Revolution or on political upheavals in their own nation. You might carefully explore any revolutionary movements happening now—or in the recent past—in areas your students hail from.

  • Communicate ideas. Aim to reach diverse audiences, bridging geographic, linguistic, and cultural barriers by using the technology and media digital natives love to tinker with. The popularity of "Hamilton: An American Musical" demonstrates how exciting ideas about history can be communicated in ways the audience relates to. Make a short film, podcast, poetry reading, or even augmented reality experience about life in the American colonies. Interview experts on the American Revolution or revolutions in general, including refugees or local veterans. Organize a TED-type event or gallery walk to showcase your learning, including global perspectives.

  • Take action. Learning sticks when it's accompanied by action and reflection and when students view themselves as having a role to play in their communities or the wider world. Taking action might feel like a stretch in a unit on the American Revolution, but start by inviting students to consider how they might connect their learning to ways to help in their community. They might wish to share learning with an international classroom, help preserve a local historic relic or battleground, or teach what they learned to younger students. Conclude with reflection on what students have learned and experienced and what challenged them.

An Urgent Call

With global social economic shifts now leaving many individuals behind, making sense of various cultures and ways of life or learning how to "make the world a better place" isn't just an idealistic dream; it's an urgent call, upon which lives depend. The simple steps presented here—used one at a time or all together and at a pace your classroom can sustain—will help build indispensable skills for our global times. The world's needs and opportunities are great enough that each student can find a sphere of interest and of meaningful engagement by the time they need to be college- and career-ready. Learning for global competence might be exactly what both our struggling classrooms and divided world need right now.

Opening a Window to Everyday Moments

Amidst roll-outs of many new educational technologies, nothing can replace a beautiful book. I have stacks of #diversebooks sharing tales from various perspectives. I've been a fan of Children Just Like Me (by Anabel and Barnabas Kindersley, DK Children, 1995), People by Peter Spiers (Doubleday, 1988) and Material World by Peter Menzel and Charles Mann (Counterpoint, 1995), all of which offer a beautiful portrait of our global human family.

It's been a while since something as ambitious and outstanding as these books came out for younger audiences. That's one reason I'm enthusiastic about The Barefoot Book of Children by Tessa Strickland, Kate DePalma, and David Dean, published by Barefoot Books last September. Its hand-painted illustrations and straightforward text open a window to big ideas and everyday moments around the world. Parents and teachers will benefit from 15 pages of informational endnotes that offer many learning possibilities. And the book's culminating text should engage a wide range of imaginations: "Every life has a story. It's easier to understand someone when you know their story. You are a part of the world. You are also a world all your own … What will happen in your story?"


Baughman, L., & Francois, J. (2014). Trade and American Jobs: The Impact of Trade on U.S. and State Level Employment. 2014 Update. Washington, DC: Business Roundtable.

Morsch, L. (2009). Why it pays to be bilingual. Retrieved from AOL Jobs at www.aol.com/article/2009/01/26/why-it-pays-to-be-bilingual/1441339

Rhodes, N., & Pufahl, I. (2009). Foreign language teaching in U.S. schools: Results of a national survey. Washington, DC: Center for Applied Linguistics.

Saiz, A., & Zoido, E. (2005). Listening to what the world says: Bilingualism and earnings in the United States. Journal of Economics and Statistics, 87(3), pp. 523–538.

Tavangar, H., & Mladic-Morales, B. (2014). The global education toolkit for elementary learners. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Vega, V., & Terada, Y. (2013). Research supports global curriculum. Retrieved from Edutopia Schools that Work at www.edutopia.org/stw-global-competence-research

End Notes

1 To find international perspectives, do a Google search as if you were living in England, India, and so on. For instance, to emulate a search from someone in the United Kingdom, type the following into the search bar: "American+revolution+causes site:uk." To search as if from another country, substitute "site:uk" with site:(internet country code). A list of all Internet country codes can be found here.

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