How One District Went Global, With Planning and Opportunity
Today we turn toward districts, and the example of Herricks Union Free School District on Long Island, New York. Jack Bierwith has been the superintendent for thirteen years and has guided the district as it has added language classes and integrated global competence into its curriculum for all students.
By Jack Bierwith
In 2018, the PISA assessment, which will be taken by 15-year-old students in countries around the world, is expected to include a special section on global competence, in addition to reading, math, and science. This is, I believe, a clear indication of the importance worldwide policymakers place on global competence for young people both as workers and as global citizens.
For Herricks parents, educators, and students, the importance of global competence is nothing new, but the inclusion of global competence in the 2018 PISA is an extremely welcome recognition of what we have long considered to be a critical part of every student's education. When I arrived in Herricks in May 2001, I asked both teachers and parents what they thought an educated graduate would look like. To my surprise there was a remarkably high degree of consensus. Everyone wanted students who could think critically and creatively, do sophisticated research, work effectively in collaborative teams, and communicate succinctly and clearly. They also wanted students who could remember what they learned in AP Chemistry when they took AP Physics and then be able to apply the combined skills and knowledge to the solution of complex real world problems. Equally important, they wanted students who could put their skills and knowledge into a global context.
In the estimation of everyone, Herricks was well on its way toward meeting these aspirations. The challenges were how to raise our efforts to a higher level and how to ensure that all students leaving Herricks were included. While our goals were clear, how to reach them was not.
The journey we embarked on 13 years ago, which continues today, has been a wild, exhilarating, and extremely productive one. The goals remained constant but the strategies were a mix of planned initiatives, serendipity, and opportunism. As a district, Herricks functions by clearly defining and collecting goals and then encouraging and supporting staff in undertaking initiatives in line with those goals. With global competence as with creativity or problem solving, we wanted widespread initiatives which were integral parts of all subject areas and all grade levels. One cannot help students gain global competence simply by creating a special course any more than one would help students develop creativity by creating a special course and minimizing the importance of those skills the rest of the time.
Part of this work involved taking full advantage of the incredible diversity of the student body. For example, 69 different languages are spoken in the homes of the 1,400 students in the high school. In addition, the religious backgrounds of our students encompass about every major religion—Christian (Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox), Jewish (Orthodox and Reform), Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, and Bahai. All New York State students are required to take a two-year course on Global Studies which includes the study of religion. As with many sensitive issues, most texts and study materials are toned down to the point of losing all life and interest. To bring them back to life, the high school has invited panels of religious leaders to meet with students each year. Discussions are lively, candid, and often pointed. Students get a chance to understand both the similarities and differences of faiths.
While that is an example of the planned use of the assets of the community to enhance global awareness, other uses have been more opportunistic. Fifth grade students studying the United States presidential primary and election process began following presidential or prime minister elections in other countries. At first, it was serendipitous. One student talked with her grandparents, who lived in another country, around the time one of their presidential candidates was assassinated. When she raised that in class the teacher, seizing an extraordinary opportunity, asked the students to take a look at that country's election politics and history. She then asked them to see if there were elections simultaneously happening in other countries. This began a six-month effort to follow the election process in several different countries simultaneously. With the Internet, as well as some relatives providing their perspectives on events, students were able to gain extraordinary insights. It was interesting and exciting.
These are just a few of hundreds of examples of activities that incorporated global awareness into classes in all subject area K-12 on a daily basis. At the same time, we also initiated formal programs in many areas. For instance, our teachers and some students have been given access to virtually all events run by the Foreign Policy Association. A significant number take advantage of these on their own time. What is learned is then infused back into various courses.
The high school has also established a global policy research institute for any high school student interested in pursuing in-depth research. This is parallel to research programs in math and science, which Herricks, as well as many other districts, offer. Many students in this program are mentored by doctoral students and professors at NYU in areas of specific interest.
While all of these efforts were and are important parts of a Herricks education for students, what strikes me most is the richness and excitement they brought to our schools. As I look toward retirement at the end of the year, I am struck by how much fun we had trying new ideas to bring global awareness into all parts of our schools. Most of the ideas worked. Some did not. But, all were worth the effort. Global awareness was not simply another thing "to be done". It is about recognizing the richness of the world and figuring out how to bring that to students. Anything less would have meant giving students less than what they deserved.
Jack Bierwith is Superintendent, Herricks Union Free School District.