A classroom as big as the world

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It's the eve of the Iraqi election. And in Aaron Becker's classroom, preparations are in full swing. Israeli hip-hop music plays in the background as the Islamists and the Royalists put finishing touches on promotional materials, and members of the Kurdistan Democratic Party search for Kurdish hats.

Then the speeches begin. Iraqi National Congress representatives plead for a democratic Iraq, a speech by el-Dawa is peppered with Islamic references, and the Iraqi Democratic Party explains why delaying the election six months would allow all Iraqi citizens to participate.

Here at Evanston Township High School, it's a surprisingly typical scene.

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Ever since the school instituted a global studies requirement in 1988, international history, culture, and foreign policy have infused the curriculum to an unusual degree. Even the after-school program - with Model United Nations, Islamic Awareness, and Japanese Tea Ceremony - has a global flair.

But that global flair makes the Evanston school somewhat of an anomaly in the United States. The scope of most of the nation's schools remains largely limited to the US - or at least Western civilization.

That's a limitation that may eventually cost the US dearly, warn a growing number of educators and business leaders. In a world where business ventures, policy decisions, and even pop culture are becoming increasingly global, US students need a fuller understanding of the world beyond their own national borders.

Many US students lag behind their counterparts when it comes to global knowledge. A 2002 National Geographic Roper poll of young adults in nine countries found that Americans ranked second to last in their knowledge of facts about the world. Only 1 in 7 could find Iraq on a map of the Middle East.

However, a slow process of change is under way, says Michael Levine, director of education at the Asia Society, which works to promote learning about the world in general and Asia in particular. Some states are beginning to change their requirements to reflect a more global curriculum, he says, and a few are recognizing the importance of learning languages.

"I think it's being driven from outside the education community, by the economic development requirements of a global age. Governments and business leaders are seeing the need for a different kind of skill set."

In the eyes of some, Evanston - winner of a 2003 prize for excellence in international education awarded by the Asia Society and the Goldman Sachs Foundation - is a model.

Evanston makes learning about the world a requirement, not an elective. Sophomores take a full year of "global perspectives" courses, with offerings that include semester-long classes on Asia, Africa, Russia, Latin America, and the Middle East - or a year-long humanities course taught by history and English teachers that covers multiple continents.

Students learn about the battle over Chechnya, or take part in a mock peace conference on Kashmir. The international focus goes beyond social studies, trickling into the arts and languages, which include French and Spanish, as well as German, Hebrew, and Japanese.

About 150 students at Evanston are learning Japanese. "A lot of the kids who take Japanese take the Asia studies class as well," says Michael Van Krey, one of two Japanese teachers at the school. "They get a bigger picture of another part of the world.... People realize Asia's here to stay."

Evanston is unusual in that it implemented global studies so thoroughly, and so early. But other schools show interest in doing the same.

It's not always easy. Faculty members can be insecure about their own limited knowledge of the world, or resistant to changing the way they teach. Even when they're willing to learn more, funding teacher training is a challenge.

The standards movement, too, has worked against globally themed curricula, with its emphasis on basic skills like reading and math over social studies, and few, if any, requirements about international knowledge.

Not just an extra at affluent schools

More states are now paying lip service to global studies, and mention them in state standards, but that doesn't always translate into action in the classroom.

Teachers and principals need to be proactive, say some advocates of global ed.

"If we've decided our standards are international, it's up to us and our teachers to live up to those standards," says Mark Montgomery, director of the Center for Teaching International Relations at the University of Denver.

Sometimes a program like Evanston's - in a big, relatively wealthy, suburban school - can actually discourage, rather than inspire, smaller, poorer, or more rural schools, he says. "If you hold that up as the model, [other schools] will say, 'I can't do that.' "

He tries to show them that they can do just as much in their own way - in particular, that an international viewpoint is something that can be integrated into existing classes.

He'll talk to US history teachers about the influence of the French and British on the founding of America and to science teachers about how units on wildlife migration, nutrition, or disease can be expanded to have a global viewpoint.

Mr. Levine of the Asia Society agrees, and notes that international studies have also succeeded in some urban schools. Recently the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which works almost entirely in underfunded schools, has made a push for more global curricula.

"It's an important equity issue," Levine says. "In terms of the global economy, these are going to be essential skills.... When we begin to introduce these courses and opportunities in urban areas, there's tremendous demand for it."

A school on Manhattan's Lower East Side with a 100 percent nonwhite student body recently developed an international theme. Some students take Chinese, and others participate in an exchange with Sri Lankans.

At Evanston, students tend to come from affluent backgrounds, and some are accustomed to discussing current events at home. Even so, many students say the global perspectives classes are having a profound effect on how they see the world.

Viewing world events through different lenses

In Mr. Becker's Middle East class - one of the more popular offerings - students take on a new identity when they begin the semester.

A teen can "become" a Kuwaiti oil magnate, a Lebanese student, or an Israeli settler - complete with a name and a profession. The student maintains that identity for a whole quarter.

"It pushes them to think outside themselves," says Becker, whose classroom is decorated with Middle Eastern pillows, rugs, and art. Most students sit on the floor during class; girls will sometimes borrow a head scarf to wear for a few days.

Rob Fiffer, a junior who took the Middle East course last year, had the role of a Palestinian militant. "I was pro-Israeli settlements," he says of his own political stance. "Now I realize things aren't so black and white."

Fizza Hussain, on the other hand, took on the part of an Israeli teenager. A Pakistani who often watches Pakistani television at home, she says the course helped her discard stereotypes about Israelis.

Both students carry on intelligent, informed discussions about the region and the Iraqi elections. Rob helped start a club, Middle Ground, because "I wanted everyone to experience a little of what the Middle East course was like."

The club puts out a monthly newsletter that covers everything from restaurant reviews to serious interviews. A recent issue included a political cartoon, an interview with a civil rights lawyer, and a piece about an Israeli hip hop artist.

In January, Middle Ground sponsored the schoolwide mock election for Iraq. Every day during that week's morning announcements, students read information about a different Iraqi political party. In the end, 120 students participated. (The People's Union of Iraq emerged the winner.)

Students like Rob and Fizza - newly passionate and well informed about international issues - are what Evanston's teachers hope for.

Knowledge that makes a difference later

It's not surprising that the school has strong participation in Model United Nations, or that, long after their sophomore "global perspectives" year, some students talk about getting daily updates from The New York Times and BBC World News.

Moreover, Evanston teachers say, the background students get helps them in more traditional courses. "So much of what they bring to class involves knowledge they got as sophomores," says Martin Moran, who teaches an advanced political science class for seniors.

It's a result all schools can achieve, says Professor Montgomery, if they're willing to invest in global studies in more than superficial ways. "You have to get away from the F-words," he cautions. "Food, flags, festivals, famous people, and fashion - if that's all it is, then it's an add-on."

If done correctly, he says, global education shouldn't have to be something "extra."

"To me it's all about infusion," he says. "The global components are already there. It's whether the teachers, school, and students are finding ways to highlight those global aspects to whatever it is they're teaching."

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