“Empathetic Global Citizenship” unpacked

My concept for a school learning community (opening in August 2013) aims to create empathetic global citizens.  Let me unpack each of those terms:

[The next time I write, I will further explore the distinction between “school” and a “learning community.” The idea that students need to go to “school” so that they can learn in a classroom is a relic of the industrial age, and has arguably been outmoded for decades. For a preview on this topic, see this great post from Prakash Nair, a futurist and architect, The Classroom is Obsolete]

But let’s get back to mentoring a diverse group of empathetic global citizens:

The first of these terms, empathy, is walking in another’s shoes. In my experience, schools try to do so much so quickly (45 minute periods are the norm) that there’s rarely time to reflect. Yes, students read about King Lear, but do they take time to think about what it would have felt like to be that person in that different time and different place?

For example, three women just won the Nobel Peace Prize today (Friday). If that even gets mentioned in most classes, there won’t be time to learn about any of the three women. There’s “no room in the curriculum” for the world today. At Triangle Learning Community, we would likely respond to big news such as the Nobel announcement by using our two-hour block of time in the morning to read some basic articles about the prize. Then we could divide our 20 students into three groups — and each group would learn as much as it could in 30-45 minutes about either Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf

Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee

or Tawakkul Karman, a Yemeni opposition leader.

Each group would present what it learned, and then each student (including the teachers) would blog about the morning session. We would take time to reflect and to imagine what each of these women’s lives has been like. And unlike industrial model schools where homework is planned months in advance, if we got into the discussion and wanted to learn more, we’d have the curricular flexibility to continue the discussion on Monday morning as well.

[For more on the topic of Is Homework Deliberate Practice? see this advance copy of the book Fires in the Mind.]

Some students could even choose for homework to learn more about one or more of these women (other students might choose to read about other topics — all students at my school will practice reading/writing and math for homework daily).

Before our empathetic in-class discussion, the teachers would put the Nobel Peace Prize award in context, as I did last year when I blogged about the 2010 winner of the prize, Liu Xaiobo from China (he is imprisoned in China and was not allowed to receive the award).

The global piece comes from exploring the world outside the United States (which, incidentally, represents less than 5% of the world’s 7 billion people). Reading an article about the Nobel Peace Prize is a good example of how we’d do that. Part of being a global citizen is following the news on a daily basis, so as they came up, we’d look at issues such as nuclear energy in Japan, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Israel-Palestine issue, and any others that students find interesting.

The idea of citizenship contains both the idea of rights and responsibilities. Americans are a powerful people. Even in a down economy, much of the world desires the freedoms and opportunities that exist in the US. The premise behind TLC is that members of our community have an obligation to understand the rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution and to use those rights to make the world a better place.

Students at TLC will be mentored through projects in 6th and 7th grade that will develop and refine students’ literacy and numeracy skills by making tangible products that the world can use. Students will take more responsibility for the projects, which will grow in complexity from 4-5 week projects in 6th grade to 2-3 month projects by 7th grade.

In eighth grade, TLC students will have six months to work on a capstone project that contributes to the world in a significant way. One such project might be securing 50 micro-loans for 50 women in a village in rural Pakistan.

For instance, one of the early 6th grade units will be for students to demonstrate that they can work with big numbers and economics. A possible project that might come out of that unit would be for a group of students to make a website that explains to a global audience of elementary students how to picture big numbers such as a million, a billion and a trillion.

I have found one such site, called the MegaPenny Project, which is a great starting point… but I think it could be made even more accessible for students and could include more examples that students can relate to:

Here’s an image from the MegaPenny Project that students at TLC could build upon as they put their project together:

Math is everywhere in our world (we’ll work on math concepts for an hour every day at my school), and if you don’t understand big numbers, it’s hard to make sense of the world, where numbers like million, billion and trillion are thrown around on a regular basis.

Here’s a resource from the BBC called how many really? that puts millions of people into perspective, relative to the number of people you know.

And here are some screen clippings that show how million, billion, and trillion are prevalent numbers in today’s world:

As empathetic global citizens, students at TLC will regularly collaborate to make real projects that help others make sense of the world.


About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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