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In a connected world, global education is playing a bigger role in curricula.
And its role is increasing in states that haven't traditionally been known for global education, such as North Carolina.
In North Carolina, a coordinated focus on global education and international teachers is exposing students to the bigger world around them. In 2010 the North Carolina State Board of Education, Department of Public Instruction, Department of Commerce, and Business Committee for Education created the N.C. Global Schools Network. Through this network, education and business organizations are collaborating on approaches to international education.
Sixteen school districts in North Carolina have joined the network to date. As members, these school districts set international education as a priority and start international education programs.
Combined with skills including critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration, global awareness becomes critical for students to succeed in the world, said Timothy Magner, executive director of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, a national organization that focuses on 21st century skills for students.
"These are a set of skills that — when fused with core content — really prepare students for the kind of global economy and emerging environment that we live in today," Magner said.
The Internet has changed the ways people collaborate and communicate.
When Magner worked as a technology specialist in Fairfax County, Va., almost 20 years ago, students shared what kinds of pets they had in their house with others around the country. But this data collection experiment couldn't be done in real time.
"The Internet has fundamentally changed that," Magner said. "It's made not only real time collaboration possible, but it's changed the nature of the types of the conversations that you can have."
One of North Carolina's leading school districts, Union County Public Schools, just finished its first year of bringing international teachers in from VIF International Education, an organization that matches international teachers with U.S. schools and runs international education programs such as Global Gateway, a cultural awareness program for elementary schools.
Because VIF teachers have done so well, Union County is looking at VIF's selection process for ideas on how to improve the district's overall hiring practices, said David Clarke, deputy superintendent of human resources at Union County Public Schools.
"These people are vetted very closely. And these are really good teachers," Clarke said. "They're just not bringing in third- or fourth-year teachers who are OK. They're bringing people in who are dynamic and are making a difference in our classrooms and helping our kids out."
More than 20 schools in Union County Public Schools have VIF teachers. At Kensington Elementary School, the first-grade team boasts a teacher from Ireland named Sandra O'Connor and participates in the school's Global Gateway program. Kensington Elementary also claims the first U.S. teacher to win the International Educator of the Year award from VIF, Trevor Althof. This year, both international teachers and U.S. teachers in VIF programs such as Global Gateway could compete in the contest.
"It's been helpful having our VIF teacher here from Ireland," Althof said. "I think it makes it more real for the kids because they can make an instant connection with her and ask her what her experience is like here in the United States versus teaching in Ireland."
By finding out more about the students in their teacher's home country, the U.S. first-graders are learning that they have similar interests and do similar things every day, like play video games and go to school. And with a teacher from another country to pique their interest, the students start asking their parents at home about their own heritage.
In Ireland, students learn the Celtic language of Gaelic every day in school. O'Connor brings that practice to her classroom in North Carolina. She teaches students Gaelic phrases such as "close the door" and "stand up."
They also learn Gaelic rhymes, songs and step dances. After trying the step dance, her class threw a traditional Irish dance party, called a ceilí, for parents and the school's first-graders.
Along with these activities, her students connect on Skype with the North Carolina classes of other VIF teachers, who hail from New Zealand, Scotland, England and other countries. And they skype with kindergarten and first-graders at O'Connor's former school in Ireland.
"I really enjoy sharing my culture with them, and they love it," O'Connor said. "They all get really excited about Ireland. My kids at home are so excited that I'm in America, and they love skyping each other."
This excitement transcends cultural boundaries. In Althof's class, students read "Around the World in 80 Tales" and compare Cinderella stories from different countries.
These activities don't just meet the global education priority the school set.
"I don't think that global education needs to be something that's a separate sideshow," Althof said. "It's definitely something that needs to be integrated throughout the day. And it's something that's definitely doable. You shouldn't think of global education as something else that you have to do, something that's added to the plate. It's really something that makes the plate just a little more delicious."
For example, say his class reads a story about Switzerland. He may show a two-minute video clip from United Streaming that introduces the country, its location and its people. Then he'll go to the CultureGrams Online Database and walk students through information about Switzerland's culture.
Finally, the class reads the story about Switzerland and identifies the author's message and the most important part of the story. Then students explain why it's the most important part of the story. On Developmental Reading Assessments, they're tested on these three skills and have improved their scores.
"I'm able to teach those literacy objectives through the story, but also we're able to learn about the world," Althof said. "Meanwhile I'm able to integrate the technology that I'm supposed to be doing and everything else on our teacher evaluation instrument that's virtually impossible to do if you're not doing this sort of thing."
Both Althof and O'Connor share strategies and Web resources that they've used successfully in other settings, such as in California and Ireland. And they're discovering that good teaching is good teaching, no matter what part of the world they come from.
As Union County Public Schools and its fellow North Carolina districts continue to emphasize global education, they stress that global education is important for every student.
"We have to do everything with the focus on the right thing for kids," Clarke said, "and I think we're trying to do that here. I encourage other districts to look at global education and do what you can to help our kids."
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