Going Global: 9th Graders and the World That Awaits Them
On the wall of my 9th grade Global Studies classroom hang two essential questions that guide us each day in the course: first, “How does the past, with all of its complexities, shape the world we live in today?” And second, “What are my responsibilities as a global citizen?” The questions serve to remind us of two intersecting realities—that the problems in our world today sometimes emerge out of nuanced historical processes, and that, once we understand the problems, it is our obligation to do something about them.
This is heady stuff for a 9th grader. Sometimes when I tell friends what I teach, I get these blank looks and comments like, “Yes, but aren’t 15-year-old boys only interested in sports or video games or what they’re going to have for lunch?” And my answer to such queries is invariably the same: 9th graders are far more capable of understanding the world than we might think. All we need to do is set the table and invite them to the feast.
Our course begins with an overview of basic economics, globalization, and sustainability—grounded in the belief that the seeds of any conflict almost always involve scarcity in one form or another. We then go on to examine three areas of the world that are ripe with complex challenges: the Middle East, India, and China. Within each unit, we look at geography, religion, economics, history, and intercultural conflict, always with an eye toward finding solutions to the problems we encounter. Inevitably, students come to see that easy answers are hard to come by; there are always outside (or sometimes internal) forces at play that serve to push people further apart than closer together. Undeterred, Fenn 9th graders keep at it, armed with an innate sense of optimism that every problem can—eventually—be solved.
We at Fenn aim to prepare our students for the world that awaits them. The goal of a good education is not or should not be to fill students with knowledge for its own sake, or to give them the tools they need to serve themselves. Rather, a good education is all about student engagement—with ideas, with themselves, and with the world around them. And when students become engaged with the world around them, they almost can't help but try to solve the problems they encounter.
At the end of our economics and globalization unit in the fall, students (pretending to be countries or nongovernment organizations) are given a real world scenario which they have to solve: that the world is about to run out of oil. For two days, they research and debate with one another the best possible solutions to the crisis. They negotiate; they argue; they innovate. At our most recent Oil Crisis Summit, students representing China offered to buy the coastline of Nigeria for a meager sum of $4 billion. It was hoped that Nigeria, in turn, would use the money to invent new technologies for the shipping and transport of goods. The idea sounded silly and out of touch at first, until I remembered the title of a new book by Howard French that just was published last spring—China’s Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa. These ninth graders instinctively understood what's already taking place in the world, and that a complex world demands complex answers. We couldn't ask for better preparation than that.
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