Breaking Down the Classroom Walls

Research tells us that a teacher’s practice is generally set within the first five years on the job and that teacher effectiveness does not significantly improve beyond that time. I don’t know how true that is for teachers who continue to seek professional development. I have been fortunate enough to have participated in several programs over the past 25 years that have profoundly impacted my teaching. Most recently, two colleagues and I completed the GCC program through World Savvy, Columbia University Teachers College and the Asia Society. The GCC has significantly changed both my teaching methods as well as my teaching stance in the classroom.

Since completing the GCC, the Global Competence Matrix has become the driving force for my curriculum decisions. No longer frozen in time, we examine history through the lens of current issues affecting the world. The goal of my teaching is to empower students to take action. Underlying everything we do are the questions, “How is this topic relevant to people today? What actions can we take to make a difference in our world?”

How do we do this?

Every year, my middle school educator colleagues and I first meet to discuss a global issue around which to frame our curriculum. This year, we are examining migration as a human experience. Next, we choose skills, values, and attitudes from the global competence matrix that most relate to our global issue. In the case of migration, we are focusing on the core concept, “World events and global issues are complex, interdependent, and caused by a variety of forces.” We build our lessons from the content standards to focus on the three interconnected ideas contained within the concept. Finally, we construct an integrated inquiry-based unit of study in which students explore the core concept in a way that builds empathy and understanding.

For example, for the topic of migration, we will immerse students in a cultural simulation activity called Bafa’Bafa’ to help them understand the ways in which culture shapes identity. From there we will build student empathy and background knowledge through a case study of politics in Eritrea. The case study will include multiple classroom visits from a local youth who migrated from Eritrea to the United States under extraordinary circumstances. We will then hold Socratic Seminars to allow us to hear student voices and to explore ideas in greater depth.

Past case studies and Socratic Seminars on the Bangladesh garment industry and the Flint water crisis have led students to uncover power dynamics and issues regarding race and access to resources. After studying these topics, five students created a website to bring awareness to the issues caused by a desire for cheap fashion and other students started a campaign to raise money for the community of Flint.

The immersive experience of the GCC program was instrumental in helping us learn to collaborate and co-construct learning experiences for our students. The “Learn” class instructors designed their coursework in ways that deepened my own understanding of inquiry-based learning and collaboration. The “Do” classes provided opportunities for me to take risks in designing curriculum and to receive feedback on its effectiveness. Building on our experience in the GCC program, we hope to use global competency-based teaching to break down the traditional classroom walls and create a more dynamic learning environment for both teachers and students.

Rod Septka is a GCC graduate and middle school educator in Mill Valley, CA

Published on by Mattie Vukmir.