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Real-World Connections to Global Learning

Earlier this month, Meghan Sullivan, a teacher in her 14th year at Oak Hills High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, shared a post on the connections between deeper learning, global competence, and 21st century skills. Today, she shares the importance of engaging students by helping them connect the global to their local reality.

by Meghan Sullivan

Summer is a time to recharge and reacquaint myself with my own children, but this is also the time of year when my thoughts turn to the next school year.  The smell of new school supplies fills the air and the excitement of class lists, schedules, and new curriculum slips into our dreams.  After a period of reflection, we, as educators, are ready to make the necessary changes in order to best serve our students.  And so we buckle down, and re-enter the classroom filled with the motivation of a new day. 

Oak Hills High School is a large, comprehensive high school of nearly 3,000 students with a mission that clearly embraces not only global competence but also a commitment to career and college readiness. While reflecting on global learning, student engagement, and career and college readiness, one question continues to surface: without a real-life connection to our learning, does a global perspective even matter?

What does it mean to create a lesson plan that truly connects learning to the real world?  For a long time, I subscribed to the popular belief that learning is naturally connected to the "real world."  However, after examining my lesson plans, student assessments, and the feedback I was providing, I came to a life-changing observation: without making the learning applicable to the students' future in a competitive global workforce and open society, I was doing them a disservice.  Sure, I could include global topics in my classroom, but without a connection to the students' immediate needs, current interests, or future endeavors, it wasn't authentic for them.

Let me give you a few glimpses of success that I've had since this revelation.  For several years, our World History team has done an urbanization project.  In conjunction with the Industrial Revolution, we look at the urbanization patterns of major world cities and explore the similarities and differences of these trends. This year, we decided to add a new element to the project: we asked students to compare major world trends to those of Cincinnati.  We asked them to compare immigration patterns, business influx, architectural adaptations, and religious and cultural changes throughout Cincinnati's development.  We took students to our historic "Over the Rhine" neighborhood to talk with clergy, interview community outreach workers, tour outdoor markets, and walk the streets of their ancestors.  Before we added the urban explorations, students made amazing connections, communicated their findings purposefully and with conviction, and were able to discuss areas of the world new to them.  With the addition of the exploration time, students were still able to trace the major trends, but they also developed a personal connection to their daily life.  They could choose restaurants in a new area of town, take their parents to a new church on Sunday that had a German Mass, understand the significance of a park in a renovated area of the city, and recognize structural improvements (i.e. the addition of a downtown streetcar) and innovative trends. Understanding the current and historical trends of the city around them allows for students to connect to the same type of trends on the world scene with greater ease.

Another example is that of our French program, which has partnered with a high school in Normandy for three years.  Students and teachers in both schools develop learning experiences around a common theme. This year, our shared academic theme was clean drinking water.  We had investigated this same theme two years earlier.  At that time, we created a "water walk" for the students.  Each student group assumed the identity of a village somewhere in the world. They simulated the experience of people in that region to acquire clean water. Depending on their assigned identity, students walked a pre-determined distance on a track to a "clean well", collected water, and then walked the same distance home, carrying the water.  Students were clearly able to understand the difficulties of searching for and transporting clean drinking water. 

This year, we added a new element.  We invited Proctor & Gamble, a local multinational company, to educate students about their Children's Safe Drinking Water Campaign and water filter packets.  Students still did the "water walk" and collected water, but now they were required to clean the water with the water filter packets.  Again, we found that the connection to a local company with a global reach made a stronger impact on our students.  Students were able to see job opportunities connected to the learning, possible mission trips through churches, and connections to the medical field.  With a real-life connection, students were hooked on improving the world around them.   

Over the last three years, our school has worked hard to implement the pillars of global competence (investigate the world, communicate ideas, recognize different perspectives, and take action). I have been heavily involved in the study, implementation, and professional development of these pillars in our school, but I had not taken a hard look at the verbs connected to the statements.  Through the beginning portion of my learning, I was focused on the nouns.  World, ideas, perspectives, and action were helping me create meaningful lesson plans for students, but were not helping connect the students to the most fruitful part of the learning process. Looking at the verbs, I could see that students need to investigate, communicate, recognize, and act.  The learning experiences I design need to engage students in practicing these core behaviors. As a new year begins, I am committed to looking at the verbs.  By focusing students on real-life connections using a global lens, we can create more engaging and powerful opportunities to learn.

Meghan Sullivan teaches French and World History and is the World Language department chair. She leads a partnership with Oak Hills' French sister school and is the International Studies Schools Network (ISSN) instructional coach. If you are interested in more information regarding any of the topics discussed, feel free to contact the author, Meghan Sullivan, at her email address:  [email protected] or follow her on Twitter.

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