Katalin Wargo and Jackie Chisam
The Dalai Lama once said, “Compassion is the radicalism of our time.” This certainly rings true in our current societal climate, where political, environmental, and social issues debated during the recent U.S. presidential election are still topics of contentious national discussion. Social media platforms explode with tirades against opposing viewpoints and empathy often seems lost in the heat of the moment. Attempts to subvert any opposition teach our youth that winning is paramount, and tolerating and understanding different viewpoints is weakness
When we designed and piloted our 9th grade humanities project-based learning course at Warhill High School last summer, we wanted to ensure that students understood that the human experience does not occur in a bubble. By examining our own and others’ experiences, we can learn more about the world. As educators involved in this course, we viewed our job as focusing on context as well as content. That’s why four of the course’s intended learning outcomes, borrowed from the International Baccalaureate, are as follows:
- Students participate in sustained inquiry within local, national, and global contexts.
- Students investigate the world beyond their immediate environment.
- Students deconstruct their own and others’ biases.
- Students recognize the natural rights, freedoms, and equality of all individuals.
We framed our first project, video letters to the next president (adapted from the National Writing Project’s Letters to the Next President), around these outcomes. The project was an opportunity for students to engage with current political, environmental, and social issues; explore the issues through personal, national, and global lenses; and voice their concerns to elected state and national government officials, which is one of the most profound forms of power our democracy offers its people. However, for this to be an authentic and meaningful experience, we also needed to ensure that students found these national and global issues germane to their lives as 14-year-olds.
Step 1: Getting Personal
Fostering a global lens first requires having students look at their own experiences to help them identify where their perceptions of the world originate. At the start of the project, students wrote “Where I’m From” poems to explore the roots of their various perspectives. They began by completing a brainstorming activity for the poem in which they wrote answers to questions like “What are some places you have strong memories of?” with whiteboard markers on their desks. They then circulated to examine where they could find similarities and differences among their peers. This was powerful because the anonymous forum encouraged students to feel comfortable being honest and because they could empathize with the diversity of experiences within their class.
Step 2: Thinking Outward
To move from examining personal identity to larger global issues, we did the “Take a Stand” activity next. Teachers asked students to think about issues like terrorism, social equality, education, criminal justice, the environment, and immigration and their implications within our home state of Virginia. Students were asked to agree or disagree with a certain state-level approach to these global issues and provide a brief explanation for their stance. This exercise allowed instructors to assess what students already knew about a host of national and global issues and what these issues meant to them personally. The activity also functioned as a springboard to order topics in terms of what resonated most with each student.
Figure 1. Take a Stand Activity
Step 3: Making Connections, Building Empathy
Exploring student letters posted to the Letters to the Next President website gave students an opportunity to connect to other young people’s experiences across the nation. They could see through the eyes of the young woman from Wisconsin who writes about women’s rights in education throughout the world or the Chinese American student from New York writing about personal experience with racism and discrimination. Although these letters only come from students in the United States, they can provide insights into global problems. For example, watching a youth interview her mother about her grandmother’s experience emigrating from the Dominican Republic can help students empathize with immigrants from around the world.
Step 4: Leveraging Student Choice and Real-World Examples
After the Take a Stand activity, students ranked which topics they felt most passionately about and were tasked with diving into sustained, self-directed inquiry to explore the issues. One of the most powerful ways to build empathy, make an issue relevant, and develop a nuanced understanding is to interview individuals who can speak to these matters from personal experience. For example, a group researching bullying interviewed students, administrators, and community members about their experiences as victims or perpetrators of bullying. Their video letter narrates the story of a victim to show how devastating bullying can be. Another group exploring terrorism conducted surveys to assess how closely local perceptions aligned with data on global perceptions of terrorism.This project provided students with a venue to explore their own perceptions, fact-check findings, and understand complex issues more holistically. Inviting students to explore their own experiences encouraged a self-awareness that isn’t always present in 9th graders. Examining the prior experiences that have shaped them and being pushed to challenge their own perceptions—through research and first-person interviews—has opened their minds to the world outside of this quaint Southern town
Readers may be interested in a subsequent project adapted for another group of students after the 2016 presidential election called Letters to the Governor, which is an initiative that we instituted to engage the civic voices of Virginia youth.
Katalin Wargo is a graduate assistant and doctoral student at the Center for Innovation in Learning Design at the College of William and Mary’s School of Education. Jackie Chisam is a teacher at the Pathways Project at Warhill High School in Williamsburg, Virginia.
ASCD Express, Vol. 12, No. 20. Copyright 2017 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.
|The World in Your ClassroomJune 22, 2017 | Volume 12 | Issue 20Table of Contents|