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Using Diverse Voices to Transform Our Classrooms and Communities

Today we introduce Heather Singmaster, assistant director for education, Asia Society, as the new host of the Global Learning blog. She will bring the voices of students, teachers, administrators, and policymakers together to give practical advice on integrating global competence into education and will explore international best practices in education. From time to time she will also feature the work of Asia Society's education team to shed light on our initiatives, challenges, and work with the field.

There are many reasons that global competence needs to be integrated into every classroom and afterschool program in America. One reason that we may not discuss enough, is that studying other cultures and learning other languages reduces bias and creates a more harmonious society. Understanding the differences and similarities among people from diverse cultures makes you empathetic to their experience. I think we can agree that as protests continue throughout our country, a little empathy would go a long way.

Recently, I came across an article by Junot Díaz, one of my favorite authors, in a travel magazine. He wrote about his love of the Japanese city Fukuoka, partially because of the food, but even more so because of how outgoing and talkative its people are—which was not his experience on trips to other parts of Japan. To explain this, he cites Professor Mary Louise Pratt's concept of a contact zone: "social spaces where cultures meet and clash and grapple with each other." Fukuoka's place in the world—that is, its geographic location (closer to the mainland and South Korea than it is to Tokyo)—has led it to be more outward looking, and more likely to embrace diversity and be curious about what is different. Díaz, as a Dominican-American from the contact zone of the Caribbean, can fully relate to and embrace this city and its people, and vice versa. 

During the State of the Union address, President Obama talked about how he "grew up in Hawaii, a melting pot of races and customs,"and we could add, a contact zone. He continued, "I want future generations to know that we are a people who see our differences as a great gift, that we are a people who value the dignity and worth of every citizen —man and woman, young and old, black and white, Latino and Asian, immigrant and Native American..."

As a country of immigrants, we have clashed and grappled with each other in the past, and we continue to do so. Yet, as our country grows ever more diverse, there is hope that this won't always be the case. Our youth come into contact with diversity every day—one could even argue that our classrooms are contact zones now that minorities are the majority in our schools. And, as digital natives, they are communicating with others around the world with regularity. Interaction with people different from themselves is a natural and common occurrence. 

This means that we already have in our schools the resources to integrate the perspectives of other cultures into daily lessons—they are students, sitting right there in front of us, just waiting to be asked. Hearing their voices, understanding their experiences, and helping them to respond to points of view that are different from their own is how we can learn to value our fellow human beings. And even in classrooms that may not be diverse, technology makes it easier than ever to connect with other classrooms around the world. This learning is vital to overcome the partisanship of DC, it is critical to help our fragmented communities heal, and it is fundamental for maintaining peace here and abroad. 

So why isn't it par for the course in our classrooms? Many teachers are trying; they know it is essential and that they need to leverage diversity as an advantage. Research shows that when students learn relationship skills like empathy and healthy responses to conflict, the results are personal development and academic success. Yet I constantly hear from teachers that they need help—that they haven't been trained or given the tools to support their students in understanding the world and their place in it.

And so we must.

As this blog refocuses and refreshes I want to do just that: help our teachers find practical ways to bring in and model how to respond to global perspectives, to hear the diverse voices already in their classrooms, and to give students the global competence they need to succeed and to be better citizens. I want to help policymakers understand that learning another language and integrating global into our classrooms is not a secondary pursuit. This work is of utmost importance in creating a world where understanding one another and remaining curious, rather than suspicious, can lead to bipartisanship and a more prosperous America.

This blog is a joint effort. We need to collectively work to broaden the horizons of our students and of ourselves. So to again quote from the President's State of the Union speech: "A brighter future is ours to write. Let's begin this new chapter—together—and let's start the work right now."

Send your blog ideas and suggestions to [email protected] and follow me on Twitter.

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