Educators must fully immerse our young leaders of tomorrow in authentic, meaningful connections. This will not only foster empathy, but also build their global awareness. I created one such Powerful Learning experience with my students through a mission project where they made personal connections with life in Bangladesh.
At River Dell Middle School in River Edge, New Jersey, my class was preparing to read the novel The Red Pencil by Andrea Davis Pinkney. This novel contains important themes and topics that are challenging for middle school students, including gender equality, child marriage, terrorism, seeking asylum, and conditions in refugee camps. I believe in Howard Zinn’s statement, “Education cannot be neutral on the critical issues of our time.” So, I led my grade-level team in developing a global project with an emphasis on student voice and reflection.
After careful consideration of what the team wanted our students to learn from this novel, and how to make the words in the book a reality for them, we crafted the following essential questions that would drive inquiry throughout the unit:
After developing our questions, we needed an authentic context. To begin, we considered the global outreach message we wanted as a focus for our students. We gathered resources from news articles and researched nonprofits and individuals from around the globe that are either affected by oppression or who are fighting to make a difference. We then used Skype for Education’s website to find a connection that would help shed light on oppression. Through the use of Skype and other resources, we were able to create a multidimensional learning experience with research and global connections.
As an introduction to the unit, students researched oppression in different parts of the world. Students explored one of the topics discussed in the novel, and developed a PSA to bring awareness to a nonprofit that serves those affected. This allowed them to explore the real-world effects of oppression and see how there are people around the world trying to make a difference. Students then used Flipgrid to share and provide feedback to the work of their peers, which allowed them to bring voice and emotional connection to the themes of the lesson.
To bring our unit to a close, students had the opportunity to Skype with Raihana Haque, a head teacher in Bangladesh, about life in a refugee camp. In preparing for that Skype session, students conducted research on the Rohingya refugee crisis and on Ms. Haque using her “About Me” Sway. Students then developed questions to ask Ms. Haque about her experience teaching in the camp. My students were overwhelmingly excited to talk to an individual 7,856 miles away about a topic and a way of life that is different from what they have experienced. Seeing my students engage with Ms. Haque and hearing the thoughtful questions they asked her was one of the highlights of my year.
In teaching this unit, I learned the importance of being patient and giving students the time to learn for themselves. I became a tour guide of the education process, allowing students to figure out their own problem-solving techniques and explore their own creative thoughts. No question is too big or too small for students to make global connections and to build empathy. When students have the opportunity to engage with real-world examples of people confronting global challenges, they will amaze you with the ideas and connections they create.