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Providing Opportunities for Rural Students

Editor's Note: Teachers in rural settings often struggle to help their students connect to the wider world. Here is how Josie Perry, a social studies teacher in North East, Maryland, has brought the world to her students. 

by guest blogger Josie Perry

While my school may be located just an hour north of Baltimore and an hour south of Philadelphia, it is still quite rural; in fact, it is so rural that each year ends with Tractor Day. It's the only day of the year that the majority of our seniors wake up before dawn to start the long drive on their tractors to school. (If they don't have a tractor, they get inventive and show up on their riding mowers.) 

I teach contemporary world studies, and when I tell my students that my class is not a traditional history class, it is often met with a bit of skepticism until we actually get into the course and they realize that we focus on what's going on in the world today (rather than what went on yesterday). The nature of my course lends itself well to the four domains of global competence: investigating the world, recognizing perspectives, communicating ideas, and taking action.  

My Challenges

Taking my students on this global education journey is always an adventure. They often come with limited exposure to the world beyond our small rural county and have many preconceived notions about specific regions of the world and the people that inhabit them. I start each year with a discussion of Chimamanda Adiche's TED Talk The Danger of a Single Storywhere she discusses her experiences with single stories and stereotypes. She shares not only how she has been labeled with a single story, but how she too has labeled others in the same way. This is something that my students can relate to as they have had this same shared experience. Overcoming their single stories of the world is something that we work on the entire year. This is not easy work!   

The title of my course, "Contemporary World Studies," provides insight into another challenge. It's a course that is always changing and in need of update. This year as I prepared my North Korea lessons, they were quickly disrupted and needed revising due to the meeting between North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-Un, and South Korea's president, Moon Jae-In. This often requires a great deal of flexibility and a willingness to continually learn on my part—skills I could learn through travel. I also felt that to be more effective in teaching this course, I needed to challenge myself to go beyond reading books and get out and experience the world.  

Begin With Small Steps

I knew to overcome both challenges would require putting myself out there and taking risks I wasn't sure I was ready to take. I still live in my little corner of Maryland and am teaching at the high school I graduated from. Was I really ready to set off into the great big world? 

rural_education.pngI found the courage to start small. I read and watched everything I could connected to my course topics and attended social studies conferences to learn more, starting with the Choices Teaching Fellow Program at Brown University, which focused on human rights. Serving as a Choices Teaching Fellow gave me the opportunity to learn, improve my instruction, and share my experiences with teachers across the Mid-Atlantic region.  

After my Choices Teaching Fellow experience, I knew that I wanted to do and see more. It wasn't enough to travel around the US; I needed to go far beyond our borders and bring the world back to my students. I applied to and was accepted to participate in the Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms (TGC) program, which included an online global education course, a 3-day symposium in Washington, DC, and an international field experience. 

Go Big or Go Home

When I learned of my acceptance, I was beyond excited for this amazing opportunity to bring the world back to my students. I went to the Philippines with the mindset that I was going to be teaching my host community about the American education system, yet I learned so much more from my host community and family in Boot than I could have ever imagined. 

While I teach in a rural area, I have never had to do without resources provided by the school system, so it is easy for me to focus on my teaching practice and student needs. In my host community, that was not the case. The teachers had to be concerned about the finances of the school because the money from the government was not sufficient to support the student body. They had to get very creative and resourceful with their limited supplies, like reusing sheets of manila paper to outline the days' activities and sharing one projector for the entire school. 

Perry Teaching.JPGI learned that it truly "takes a village" to make education work in the rural areas of the Philippines. Everyone in the community had a role in the school—local handymen made needed repairs, mothers came in and prepared lunch for the kids who couldn't go home, neighbors walked the youngest students to school while parents were away at work. Boot National High School (BNHS) has the most active parent organization I have ever seen, one that would be the envy of many American schools. If teachers needed anything, they would reach out to the parent organization. I was overwhelmed by the generosity of the community with their time, family, and stories. It's that sense of community that makes BNHS a success.

Ibn Battutu, a scholar who traveled extensively throughout the Medieval world, stated that traveling "leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller." After my experience in the Philippines, I know that I am meant to be a traveler. I am meant to go to places with childlike curiosity, learn as much as I can, and be in awe of our amazing interconnected world. With each travel experience, I have an obligation to share my stories with my students and my community. With each new experience not only do I grow, but the people around me grow as well. I am inspiring future explorers who can't wait to see the world and I am proud to say that I have had students travel to every continent except Antarctica!  

What You Can Do to Bring the World a Little Closer

Bring your travels into your classroom! 
Most of my students have not traveled far, so I use my travel to bring the world to them. In Mexico, I shared my experiences from adventures in the jungle and taught them about traditional Mexican foods, like the Mayan sweet cakes I brought them from a roadside abuelita. 

Bring in guest speakers!
Using personal contacts as well as local universities, I find guest speakers, including exchange students, to enhance my students' exposure to cultures. With exchange students, I allow time for the students to share their experiences with the class. I have watched my students' faces light up when Brian, a PhD candidate, told them about spending time with the Ese'eja indigenous people of Peru and how his team used newly acquired knowledge of local plants to save a dying child. Shane, a political refugee, recounted his experiences fleeing Zimbabwe in fear of his life and humorously told them about his first shopping trip to Wal-Mart in the US and being overwhelmed by the number of bread choices. Mayra, a Mexican American DREAMer, spoke about her experiences of crossing the US-Mexico border illegally as a child and adjusting to life in the US. These guest speakers provide my students with invaluable perspectives on contemporary global issues and inspire my students to learn more about the world and hopefully travel beyond our very small town.

Get out of the classroom (if possible)! 
I take field trips to provide invaluable experiences that can't be learned from a textbook and give my students a chance to interact with people from diverse backgrounds. We ventured as far north as the United Nations in New York; to be at the heart of geopolitics is inspiring for students. Visits to Washington, DC, have included a tour of the Newseum and the US Holocaust Museum. A favorite trip is to Ali Baba's Middle Eastern Restaurant to experience an authentic feast. If there are barriers to taking students on trips, then take yourself and become a storyteller.   

And finally, be sure to apply for the Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms Program!

Connect with Josie and Heather on Twitter. 

Quote image created on Pablo

Photo taken by Jen Plete and used with permission. 

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