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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

World Savvy: Education Without Boundaries

A new program is globalizing San Francisco classrooms.
By Laura Scholes
Related Tags: 9-12 High School

A cartoon of President Bush with the arms and hands of a baby: "This Is Bush's Idea of Small Arms." A drawing of Uncle Sam pointing a gun and, in the background, a U.S. flag with skulls for stars and stripes made of bullets: "Is This What We Stand For?" A simple message, inscribed in black magic marker: "Coming to a Conflict Near You! The United States IS the Lord of War."

The walls of Lucy Karanfilian's spacious classroom are filled with these advertising pitches created by seniors in her International Relations class. Dramatic? Sure. But the messages reflect a more sophisticated worldview than you might expect from an inner city public school in San Francisco's Potrero Hill neighborhood.

Before starting the class, most of the students weren't aware of global issues, much less their own places in the larger world. "Ms. K. forces us to think how other parts of the world are connected to our lives," said Paul Jackson, one of Karanfilian's students at the International Studies Academy. "Now, I know that what I do can have an effect on somebody I'll never meet."

Though the school's name suggests a heavy focus on global issues, her senior class is the only one in the school doing much in the way of international studies. In fact, she doesn't even have a class textbook. Much of the support for her global curriculum comes from World Savvy (formerly Project Spera), a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization dedicated to helping young people think beyond their borders, and to engaging them in community and world affairs.

"We created our professional-development program to help teachers mainstream global issues into the curriculum," says Dana Curran, World Savvy's cofounder, and executive director of the program Karanfilian participates in. "We knew there were a lot of really great curriculum resources out there, but teachers just didn't have the time to figure out how to make it fit into their schedule. We made that our job."

Education at a Bargain Price

For $100 ($200 for private school educators), teachers get not only customized curriculum resources and unlimited access to the World Savvy library for an entire academic year but also one-on-one consulting. "Teachers come to us and say, 'I know I want to incorporate global issues into my class, but I don't know where to start -- help!'" says Kelly Korenak, World Savvy's program associate and teacher liaison. "We sit down together and brainstorm. We talk about what they teach, the timeline for their curriculum, and what has to be covered according to the standards."

Forty teachers are involved this year, all but two of them from Bay Area public schools. "We welcome everyone, but private schools more often have the discretionary funding and/or the flexibility in their curriculum to offer a course that focuses on global issues," says Curran. "In public schools, those resources and that flexibility often just isn't there, and it's really important to us to make sure there's broad access. There are a lot of voices to be heard."

Those voices come not just from history and social studies but from a variety of disciplines; teachers of journalism, math, drama, and art are in this year's crop of program participants. Also included are ten Savvy Scholars, recipients of a new scholarship that funds teachers who would not otherwise have the money to participate.

"It wouldn't have been doable for me without the scholarship," says Ellena Weldon, an English and journalism teacher at San Francisco's Burton Academic High School. "I have to buy the paper for my classroom; that's where my money goes."

Freedom to Teach -- and Learn

When she applied for the program, Weldon's primary interest was in bringing issues of immigration to her classroom, which has a diverse mix of students: 50 percent Asian, 25 percent Latino, and 25 percent African American. She liked the idea that she could bring her own ideas to World Savvy and they would help her find meaningful ways to implement them. "Teachers are often approached by organizations that have their own agendas," says Weldon. "World Savvy never tells you what to do; they ask you what you want to do. It's been a really rich experience for me."

Karanfilian, who is also a Savvy Scholar, agrees. "As teachers, you're so involved with your students -- going to their basketball games, knowing what's going on with them outside of school -- that you just don't have time to really be a party to what's going on in the world; you're kind of shut off," she says. "Sadly, the last thing I want to do at the end of the long day is watch the news. World Savvy gives you the opportunity to be exposed to information that you wouldn't otherwise find out. They make it easy to get excited again about the issues of the day."

This impact on the teachers was something of an unexpected benefit for Curran. "We didn't plan it this way, but we've seen that our teachers are really getting to reengage with the content they are teaching," she says. "When they don't have to spend the hours and hours of additional time to prepare, they're able to be more energized in the classroom."

But of course the main beneficiaries are the students themselves, as Curran intended. Though she initially focused on immigration issues, Weldon has found that her students are now eager to explore other global concerns. "We recently read a New York Times article together about how scientists are now 90 percent certain that global warming exists," she says. "Now, there's a really high interest in my class about this topic."

Karanfilian has seen certain issues really fire up students who had previously been reluctant to engage due to language, culture, or other barriers. "One discussion we had earlier in the year was whether the United States deserves its position of power," she says. "It was an interesting debate, because we have a high immigrant-student population that has very mixed feelings about how the United States treats them and the countries they originally came from."

"Our debate gave them a chance to realize that they bring prior knowledge to the table and that they have an opinion that's not only valid but also knowledge and experience based," she adds. "I always try to find ways to remind them that they know more than they think they do."

Whether it's learning from experience or the chance to discover something new, the exposure facilitated by World Savvy seems to be making an impact -- in the short term and possibly beyond. "Learning about 'blood diamonds' in Ms. K.'s class was cool," says Joshua Knox, an International Affairs Academy senior from San Francisco. "It was interesting to see what people have to go through every day -- working for nothing and not getting respected for it -- just to try to support their families. Learning about things like that makes me think about what I'm doing and what I'm buying -- I never thought like that before."

Laura Scholes is a writer and editor living in Berkeley, California.

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