It's a Not-So-Small World

By Danny LaChance
The Institute for Global Studies helps educators create globally-aware classrooms

Minneapolis North High School French teacher Julie Eddy cringes when she describes "culture Fridays." It's the old-school way of teaching French and francophone culture, she explains. You teach verb tenses and vocabulary four days a week and then, on Friday, you sprinkle the curriculum with a benign lesson about culture--a sampling of pamplemousse, perhaps, or a slide show of Paris's architectural triumphs.

That approach is problematic, Eddy says, because it fails to acknowledge that French and francophone culture is constantly evolving, filled with conflict, and situated in an international context. The traditional, textbook-based approach to French culture leaves out contemporary events like the 2005 riots by disenfranchised youth in Parisian suburbs. And it often ignores questions of immigrant identities and colonial legacies in favor of celebrations of textiles and cuisine.

The Institute for Global Studies provides a much-needed antidote for the "culture Fridays" approach, Eddy says. As a teacher who is committed to staying current with French culture and to creating a realistic picture of contemporary French and francophone culture for her students, she has been attending workshops run by the institute--both intensive, weeklong summer seminars and one-time events during the academic year--aimed at helping teachers from different disciplines bring international perspectives into their classrooms.

During the school year, she's joined by other Minnesota educators who want to engage with the world beyond the United States in their classrooms. Teaching all kinds of subjects--from social studies to science to art--and educating students who range from kindergartners to college undergraduates, they come to the institute in search of new ways of thinking about the world and new strategies for teaching about it.

In the summers, educators from throughout the country travel to Minneapolis to participate in workshops. Last year, almost 300 teachers from across the country participated in programs including a poetry seminar with Spanish poet Noni Benegas and a weeklong institute on documenting the Hmong diaspora using literary, cinematic, and oral history approaches.

The workshops help the institute to fulfill a central part of its mission: bringing the resources and knowledge of the University and its faculty to those who are not directly affiliated with it. "It's a multiplying effect," says Molly McCoy, IGS's outreach coordinator. "Teachers share what they learn at the institute with so many more people."

Nannette Ransom, a public school teacher from Houston, Texas, is one of those multipliers. Last summer, she attended a workshop on the literature of the African diaspora, led by Njeri Githire, assistant professor of African American and African studies. Reading authors who hail from Brazil, the West Indies, Canada, and Europe was eye opening, Ransom says: "I was exposed to writers I had never heard of before and never knew existed." The Houston school district is implementing a new program, called Teach Africa Now, in its schools, and Ransom will be including authors she first encountered in Minnesota in the curriculum that she's developing for the program.

The institutes are unique, McCoy says, because they inspire creativity as much as contemplation. In 2008, for instance, an institute on medieval European culture involved a creative component. The teachers examined how medieval Europe has been represented in popular films and compared those representations to scholarly accounts of the period. In the afternoons, they met with a local videographer who taught them how to write, produce, and edit their own cinematic renditions of the Middle Ages.

Likewise, in October 2007, the institute sponsored a workshop called "Documenting China: Photography and Social Change in Modern China" at the Weisman Art Museum. In addition to learning about the industrialization of China, and photo documentation of changes, local teachers met with a photographer who taught them the ins and outs of digital photography.

Emphasizing creative production in addition to analysis gives teachers techniques for engaging their own students, McCoy says. "This was a chance not only to connect with photographs from China, but also a chance for the teachers to ask, 'How can you use photography in the classroom?' " That's exactly what educators like Eddy have done. At a workshop in February, she encountered the work of French artist Alexis Peskine, whose work responded to the uprisings of Parisian suburbs in 2005. Inspired by Peskine's work, Eddy shared it with her students and asked them to create their own artistic responses to injustices that they had witnessed or experienced.

"I had never before considered how art can start discussions about our society," she says. As her students, many of whom are members of immigrant and minority groups, produced artistic representations of everything from sexual violence against women in the military to the treatment of Arabs at airports, Eddy sensed a level of engagement with French culture that she hadn't seen in them before.

"Doing this helped them to make connections with people they haven't even met, to say, 'I might have something in common with a French person who has experienced some of the things I have experienced,' " she says. "I think it even helped my students make connections with other students in the classroom, to say, 'Oh, wow, I never thought you might be experiencing something similar to what I have been experiencing.' "

That's music to McCoy's ears. McCoy is proud that IGS workshops give teachers principles rather than prepackaged lessons. They leave the workshops not with "lessons in a can"--generic 45-minute exercises--but with broader ideas about globally-aware education that they can then refine and tailor to their own students.

Indeed, by presenting teachers with perspectives and strategies that will help them to transform their classrooms in global ways, the workshops are taking a step toward banishing the "culture Fridays" model of international education.

"So often in professional development for teachers, the question is, 'What are you going to give the teachers to do on Monday?' We're interested in something larger than that," McCoy says. "Our goal isn't to make educators' teaching easier. Our goal is to make it better."

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on January 21, 2009 5:05 PM.

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