Redefining Community: Linking the Global & the Local

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By Spencer White

From the Spring 2010 Caller

Our heads fill these days with reports of environmental degradation, the unraveling of indigenous communities, and the harsh realities of human conflict on our globe. I find this overwhelming and sometimes downright scary. I can only imagine how these problems make my 11-year-old students feel as they move through school, becoming more aware every year of the issues we, or they, will live through. Regardless of the life paths our students choose when they leave Catlin Gabel, they will face a world characterized by ever-increasing communication and collaboration with international communities. Technology has brought us the ability to maintain relationships and conduct business with people just about anywhere on the globe, at any time of the day. How our students engage in these relationships— in essence, their diplomacy—is of great importance to our world.

 
Our global education program seeks to foster global competencies in our students. Among these is the ability to work and communicate effectively across national, cultural, and linguistic boundaries. So how do we do this? Besides teaching world languages, or providing travel opportunities, how do we help our students build cross-cultural communication skills? The answer is, we practice. We practice by taking advantage of every opportunity we can to get kids to collaborate with their international peers.
 
Teaching students to be literate in cross-cultural communication requires two intentional activities. The first is creating meaningful relationships with people around the world—initially through email exchanges and interactive Skype conversations, and eventually through global travel.
 
The second act is linking these relationships to local peer groups. Our students must practice communicating about a specific issue, problem, or goal not only with local peers, but with peers of other cultures, languages, and nationalities. In this way we redefine the idea of community for our students, explicitly teaching that our actions and decisions affect not only our local community, but also those far away.
“Looking back in my journal I see how I have really never felt a connection with someone that far away from home before.” —Catlin Gabel student traveler
For example, Carter Latendresse’s 6th grade unit on food teaches students to critically examine how food is produced in the U.S. and compare our levels of consumption with that of other global communities. Making this tangible, the Garden Club’s new vegetable beds allow students to grow their own organic produce, as well as understand the influence the global food industry has on how we produce, transport, and learn about the norms of global food consumption.
 
Teachers David Ellenberg, Becky Wynne, and Laurie Carlyon-Ward, chaperones on this spring’s trip to Nepal, prepared 13 high school students by viewing Food Inc., a documentary on the U.S. food industry. Nepali students at the Sattya Media Arts Collective screened the film for our students’ visit, and together they talked about the arrival of fast-food restaurants in Katmandu. This spring, the students who traveled to Nepal will visit Carter’s 6th graders to talk about the perspectives of their Nepali peers.
 
Our community’s response to the Haitian earthquake in January most tangibly collected a sizeable sum of money to support Mercy Corps’s disaster relief work. But more notable was the fact that our Lower School students created pastel drawings with messages in French and Haitian Creole that were delivered personally by parents who traveled to Haiti to assist in the recovery. Our community grows stronger and more unified by working together to affect change in a distant place. From these collective efforts our students learn about the disparity between resources and power structures in our world—but they also see that they are not powerless in the face of all the world’s daunting problems, and that when we reach out to communities far away, we in turn strengthen our own.
“I really care about conserving water. I mean I did it before, but not nearly as much as I do now.” —Catlin Gabel student traveler
The Viewfinder Global Film Series is another example of how we challenge our community to unite around global issues, in the interest of educating our students. In its inaugural year, the series has hosted 23 films over 8 months of the school year—attended by more than 600 parents, students, and teachers. Far more impressive than the numbers, though, are the post-screening conversations that ignite passionate debate and reflection about how our school sees its place in our local and global communities.
“I was really surprised when I got back at the sheer amount of resources we use every day, how easy it is for us to have a hot shower, and how we take so much for granted.” —Catlin Gabel student traveler
As our students move into Upper School, their opportunities for local and global collaboration increase. Model United Nations challenges students’ diplomatic skills, while twice a week students board a bus to Aloha to help Latino children with homework. Many of these same students recently returned from Cuba. Apart from the humanitarian nature of the trip, the travelers learned the power of creating relationships with their Cuban counterparts and the life-changing nature of convening with a community so vastly different than their own. Leah Weitz ’10 saw this in action in Cuba, and she’ll never forget it: when she told their Cuban cabdriver about the humanitarian nature of their visit, he gratefully told her their ride would be free.
 
As an 18-year-old at Lewis & Clark College, I traveled to Argentina and Chile as part of my Hispanic studies degree. Six months in Mendoza living with modest third-generation immigrants of Italian descent taught me the power and potential of creating emotional connections with people outside my own community. Shy of the cliché of calling them my Argentine family, especially when talking with my “real” mother on the phone, I was shocked at how close I felt to them and how utterly dependent I was on their parenting and care. Perhaps I was an independent, self-sufficient young adult in the U.S., but in Argentina I was vulnerable and far from home. Here was my new community developing before my eyes.
“There is no real way to explain what has changed about me. What I can say is that the way I see things is as if I am seeing it on two planes, two perspectives. I see things the way I see it from Costa Rica and from the U.S.” —Catlin Gabel student traveler
We are fortunate at Catlin Gabel to have the opportunities and the means to develop international relationships through travel, technology, and the study of language. We are in the business of redefining for our students what community means, what it means to become a global citizen, and what it means to consider the global effects of daily decisions. In my mind, this fortune comes with a commensurate degree of responsibility. We have the responsibility not only to purposefully seek and create relationships in international communities, but we must always make an effort to connect these relationships to our daily curriculum, our school initiatives, and our local service work. These collaborations linking local action with global realties serve as important reminders of our need to change the way we think about community.  
 
Spencer White is Catlin Gabel's global education coordinator. He also teaches Middle School Spanish.