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Bring Real-Life Experience to Classrooms: 4 Tips to Engage Your Students

We know that by bringing global perspectives to the classroom, we can engage students at a deeper level. Today Shawna Bryce shares tips to help design projects that include real-world, global aspects.

By Shawna Bryce

Let's admit it:  when it comes to the Eastern world, we Westerners often find ourselves shaking our heads in confusion.  This includes even the well-informed educators of American students. 

In the summer of 2011, I served as a guest English teacher at a two-week summer camp of the Nanjing, China sister-school of Union County Public Schools, North Carolina. One of the most powerful experiences was our visit to the Nanjing Holocaust museum. I had never heard of the Nanjing Massacre or the Rape of Nanking.  Walking through the exhibit, reading the stories, seeing the pictures, hearing the music, I felt like a traitor because of the disrespect we had paid these innocent victims simply by not mentioning or teaching about them.

So I vowed to change. After my trip, I was determined to find a way to link my American students to my experience in China and bridge the gap of understanding that is there mainly because we allow it to be.

To do so, I integrated personal experience into my curriculum instruction and designed a project actively involving students in the learning process. Based on this experience, here are four tips on how to design similar projects:

1. Project topic needs to be relevant to student learning

In my tenth grade World Literature class we customarily teach Night by Elie Wiesel, a short and powerful novella of Wiesel's experience as a teenaged Jew imprisoned in a Nazi camp. The only problem was that I sensed students becoming blasé about the Jewish Holocaust. They had read about it, watched movies about it, and essentially studied it so much that it was almost fiction to them, just like an ongoing movie saga. 

I was disheartened that it would become so "normal." I wanted to shake them up about the travesty and horror of this period of inhumanity in history.

It is relatively easy for American students to connect to European culture; after all, so much of it is the basis for their own. The language is more easily understood; the rites of passage and yearly calendar are relatively the same based around a similar idea in theology; the customs are connected and similar. I realized that Eastern culture is farther removed from an American student's grasp, but that is all the more reason to build a connection that will serve as a foundation of understanding. So I introduced The Nanjing Museum Experience to allow students to begin building a link to Asian culture through a human bond, to realize that while we may have many differences that separate us, the fundamental similarities connect us.

2. Projects need to allow for utilization of skills across disciplines

The Nanjing Museum Experience assignment has flexibility that allows students to play different roles and to become experts on specific subtopics of the Nanjing Massacre. Students were provided a list of reading materials from which to choose in order to create our own "live" Nanjing Holocaust Museum. Some students played the role of historian/researcher and focused on the children, women, religious communities, or soldiers. Some students even chose to research specific people—Iris Chang, John Rabe, and other individuals known for their heroism during the Massacre. Some played the role of an analyst and studied America's involvement; how economics were impacted; the role of the UN; artwork, literature, and music as a result; etc. Some choose to be artists and show their knowledge and reaction to the event through art forms such as creating sculptures. Students took on the role of a curator as they presented their research while walking the gallery. The students dressed professionally and demonstrated their knowledge in a professional manner. 

3. Integrate passion into project design to motivate student engagement

Empathy and sympathy, being such powerful forces for change, are the two vehicles for this assignment.  During their research and background reading of this Holocaust, students became very upset, especially with the fact that they had never heard of this in all of their studies regarding World War II and the inhuman treatment of innocents. One student even pointed out that it was a holocaust of sorts that occurred each year that discussions of this event were omitted from lessons in World War II since we selectively sorted out which groups of innocent victims we memorialized in our studies and which ones we avoided.

4. Get the school and community involved

By far, The Nanjing Museum Experience, as we called our big day, was one of the most successful days of my teaching career, not merely because of academics. The gallery was open to the students from the school, as well as parents. I was certainly proud of the work submitted by my students, but the best part was the reaction of the students and adults whom these sophomores educated with their research. Many students left saying they thought only Jews had suffered so horribly in World War II. Several girls mentioned to me that it was a great project, not because of the subject matter, which was extremely sad and horrific, but because it had shown a light on specific people who made a difference on a large scale. They, like these heroes, had often wondered what just one person can really do in a world that seems so unfair and unjust at times.

It was a building block—a project that opened up eyes and hearts, and if we really want to get students to learn, we must get them involved. The heart is a great place to start.  Affinity for all things Chinese followed our project, and I watched students begin to choose to read more from Chinese and Chinese-American authors. In class, they shared current events that centered on China. They explored Chinese customs and Eastern philosophies. A world that had seemed so foreign to them was now more easily understood and appreciated, and all because we first sympathized and connected as humans.

Union County Public School is a 2010 member of the Confucius Classroom Network of the Asia Society. Shawna Bryce has taught English at the high school level for 18 years and now works as a freelance writer.

Follow Shawna and Asia Society on Twitter. 

 Article curated by Yi Zheng.

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