Common Purpose in the Classroom

Send by email
A class on globalization unites students & teacher

From the Fall 2011 Caller

By Patrick Walsh

What does a teacher do when nine students have a question at the same time? What should we discuss when we are all curious and excited to learn about differing aspects of a night’s reading? Four times a week we come together in my senior elective, Globalization: Debates and Controversies, and cast our experiences all together in an attempt to make sense of our complex and rapidly changing world. This is what makes Catlin Gabel classrooms so wonderful to watch over: the fact that even as students share insights from a wealth of backgrounds, there is a sense of common purpose.
In a group of 16, there is space for all to be heard. Any student can ask about the term that escapes her understanding or tell a story about what he saw inside that McDonald’s in Cairo. We’re sharing our experiences while we riddle (in both senses of the word) the teacher with questions and demands for clarifications. How can something that was just privatized go public? Why doesn’t the government simply invest incorporations rather than subsidizing them or bailing them out? Who would buy a Greek bond? The students are growing up in front of me, and their hunger for understanding completely new fields of knowledge is wildly energizing.
The participants in this course have lived in places as diverse as Latvia and Iran, and their parents hail from places like Indonesia, Denmark, Ireland, and northeast Portland. Some have enjoyed economic privilege; for others this school is the path to new worlds. What I love about teaching at Catlin Gabel is the fact this diversity takes root in our unity as colleagues. The 16 young people in 4th period deeply share a desire to understand the tectonic economic, political, and cultural forces shaping the world into which they will soon be launched. Some may go to art school, others law school. Some speak English at home; others do not. Together they are a group of dedicated friends, whose marked differences lead them to enjoy each other more.
At the very beginning of our rigorous study of topics including the International Monetary Fund, the patenting of genetically modified organisms, and the upcoming UN Framework Conference on Climate Change, I asked students to reflect on the impact globalization has had on their lives. Their answers ranged from reflections on Soviet-era airplane parts, eating American junk food abroad, practicing martial arts with Korean neighbors, and mailing a blood pressure monitor to Ethiopia. It was a stunning array of experiences. For many of them, though, travel has led them to wonder about their place in the world, worried glances at newspaper headlines make them wonder what is waiting for them, and they hope Globalization will help them understand it all.
And this is where the dizzying classroom discussions come in. What do they sell on the Irish stock market? What does it mean that Iceland defaulted? Why are mutual funds regulated differently than hedge funds? It’s a happy struggle to parry all these questions. And, soon, we will turn to outsourcing, the environment, and the intriguing question of just why do people from Brazil to Russia like American popular music so much. Why are these discussions so much fun? What is it, this sentiment and ease that permits the students to laugh, disagree, interrupt, and question so freely? I don’t know, but the spirit of frenzied inquiry in the classroom is like nothing I’ve found anywhere outside of Catlin Gabel.
Upper School history teacher Patrick Walsh has been at Catlin Gabel since 2006. He has taught at Michigan State University, as a Fulbright lecturer in Germany, at Concordia College in Minnesota, and as a graduate student at the University of Texas in Austin. He has two children at Catlin Gabel, one in Beginning School and one in Lower School.