Originally published by the New York Times
Matt Cone writes about teaching students about global issues in the classroom, with a special nod toward Senator Bill Frist. Cone is a teacher at Carrboro High School in North Carolina.
Of the more than 8,000 class periods that I have taught, one stands out as my favorite — not only for what happened in the class but also for how it transformed my teaching. The class took place in the fall of 2004 and what strikes me about it now is how primitive it was by today’s technological standards. Indeed, the entire class consisted of the students sitting in a circle, staring at a speakerphone, and engaging in a dialogue about global health with a guest on the other end of the line. Fortunately for us, the guest was Dr. Paul Farmer, a path-breaking physician who co-founded the organization Partners in Health and who is the subject of a book the class had read, “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” For forty minutes, the students peppered Farmer with questions about Haiti, about how to best use one’s talents to address global health issues, and about how he had worked with Republicans and Democrats to ramp up global health funding.
As soon as we hung up, it was immediately apparent that the talk had lit a fire under the students: they not only wanted to track down the books and films that Farmer had referenced, but they also wanted to form a global health club. I returned home that night and told my wife, “I need to find a way to do this more often.” Over the past ten years, I have pursued having students study complex global issues in depth and then engage in discussions with a range of experts. The good news is that teaching about global issues through the use of technology and expert speakers is far easier than one might expect, it has great appeal for teenagers, and it frequently leads to learning that extends far beyond the classroom.
Thanks to the Internet, exposing students to global issues and to experts who work on them has never been easier. When I started my career, finding articles and videos on international issues was an arduous process that required hours of sleuthing and juggling VCR tapes; today it is possible with just a single computer to find and within minutes share information about even the most underreported international news stories. So, for example, if my class wanted to know more about the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, we could accomplish the following within a single period: find articles about it online, locate websites to track the disease’s spread, set up Google Alerts to keep us abreast of the latest news, and reach out to experts in public health, journalism, history and government who could help us to understand the issue in greater depth. Since staging a dialogue with Paul Farmer a decade ago, we have been fortunate to arrange dozens of meetings or Skype calls with a wide range of experts that includes Muhammad Yunus, Jim Yong Kim, Laura Bush, Colin Powell, Jeffrey Sachs, Noam Chomsky, Bill Frist, Dan Ariely, Paul Collier, Alan Mulally, Christy Turlington, Adam Hochschild, Peter Singer and many more.
Learning about global issues through the use of technology and expert speakers appeals to teenagers for two reasons. First, it’s not “busy work.” When students know that they are reading chapters from a macroeconomics text so that they can prepare for a wide-ranging dialogue with Jeffrey Sachs, they are eager to prepare as thoroughly as possible. Students appreciate that when they speak with an expert, they are able to ask critical questions and engage in an intellectual give-and-take with someone who (usually) treats their questions and opinions with respect. In fact, this goal of critically examining the issues and approaches that we are studying is one that is modeled by the experts with whom we speak. So, for example, my students spoke with Sachs and heard his ideas about why foreign aid can provide the big push that lifts nations out of poverty, and we also spoke with one of Sachs’ most vocal critics, Nina Munk, whose book “The Idealist” maintains that much of Sachs’ efforts have failed. Similarly, my students met with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim on the same ...
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