The best school for polyglots

Students at the Wellstone Int'l High School (from their website)
Students at the Wellstone Int’l High School (from their website)

Last week I had the opportunity to visit the Wellstone International High School, the coolest, most exciting high school I’ve ever seen, of whose students I will remain eternally jealous. I heard multiple languages as I was shown the school, and had the chance to speak Somali, Spanish, and Arabic—but unfortunately I didn’t get the chance to speak French with the Haitian student.

As I was leaving, a retired teacher said to me, “I envy you.” I replied to him, “You envy me?! You got to come here for work! This is the best place to work I’ve ever seen!” The school sets the standard for what global education can and should be.
The best global education

International students in middle school: Marginal or model?

International students raise everybody's level
International students raise everybody’s level

So many schools in the US profess the importance of producing global citizens. Learning new points of view, becoming “marketable” in an internationally-facing economy, and engaging in different languages and cultures all make up the ideals of a “global curriculum.” Our students, however, sorely lack global competence.

At the same time, our schools are full of speakers of many languages. My own daughters’ school has speakers of Spanish (Latin American and Iberian), Russian, Somali, Oromo, Amharic, Arabic, and Telugu that I’ve heard myself. (Who knows how many more there are?) Their experience spans multiple continents.  All these students are wells of knowledge for everyone at the school; the only problem comes from how to draw it out so all can drink.

Today’s global citizens

The kids from all of these different countries already embody these global ideals. They are truly multi-cultural. They bring in one culture as they absorb America from the cafeteria, the locker room, and their iPods. They are all expected to know a second language–English–at a very high level.  Their English class expects way more than, say, the school’s Spanish class, as it pushes these students to use the language in multiple, challenging contexts, with the high-flung goal of allowing them to compete with native speakers.

Rather than set these kids up as a model, unfortunately, our school and society marginalize these international students. The hijabs of the Somali girls make them “strange,” and kids don’t know how to interact with the Latinos who sit together and speak Spanish at lunch. The Russian kids don’t want to talk about their families’ different traditions, and the Arabs keep quiet so no one hears their accent. Many of them go off to ESL or ELL classes during the day–which is considered remedial, not supplementary. ESL and ELL aids help “accommodate” the kids or their parents. If you hear any language besides English on the playground, you will only hear it in hushed tones.

The wrong model

The monolingual, monocultural kids function, whether we like it or not, as the model. Clearly, we need to teach English and American norms to kids from all countries so they can function and succeed. At the same time, we barely push those kids who lack fluency in a language besides English or display ignorance of any culture or values besides those of the US.  The monocultural kids are already at the top of the class.

We misplace the stigma. Instead of just getting the international kids “up to speed,” we ought to emphasize among the monolingual, monocultural student body that they do not measure up to the high level set by these bright, flexible, intelligent students. (Studies have shown that fluency in more than one culture and language improves cognitive and academic performance.) Our schools should do more to lift up and highlight the unique knowledge and wisdom of these children. As much as our education pushes knowledge of English language and American culture, all would benefit from learning from their multicultural, multilingual example.

Drawing from the well of international students

Our schools could offer much more as they prepare our children for global citizenship if they drew from the very student body of the school.  If I want my child to learn Telugu, why does the school not offer a forum for her to learn from her Indian friend? Taking kids out of “normal” class for ELL classes is important, but why not other languages for other children? If my children learn about world or US history, why do these children’s experience not make up part of the curriculum? Why don’t the kids from the Spanish table at lunch help out the Spanish class? Why do my children not learn in literature class about the beautiful, unique importance of Somali poetry? or Arabic music in choir class?

Students should be rewarded for broad cultural and linguistic heritage, and ignorance should be educated. Grades and assignments should reflect global citizenship. Language arts should include knowledge of another language and international genres of literature. History should include deep knowledge of other countries. Speech and communications should reflect the ability to communicate in other languages.

Will the monocultural and monolingual students cry “no fair!”? I hope so. I hope they realize that it is not fair for them to be consigned to ignorance. We should influence them with grades and peer pressure–the main incentives in middle school–to dive deeply into another culture. Then the global citizen from Russia will get a better grade than the kid born in the US, or the one who is embarrassed of his Chinese accent will outshine the one who doesn’t even try to speak another language. Not only will this produce better global citizens, it more accurately reflects our globalized economy and society.

How do you think schools could draw from the multicultural, multilingual knowledge of all of their students, to the benefit of all?

Photo credit: Éole / Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

Educating students to be global citizens

A Minneapolis Somali teacher, Abdikadir Adan Xiito (
A Minneapolis Somali teacher, Abdikadir Adan Xiito

Schools speak about making students “global citizens,” but if they do not engage the local communities they are neglecting a valuable resource.  Today I went to the education fair put on by the Minneapolis Public Schools.  I met my Somali friend, Ahmed, because he and I are trying to expand Somali language education.  So we met the most influential workers in world language education in the district with the largest population in the state.  We met someone who is already engaged in Somali language education, Dahir.  He has learned how to be a global citizen and now teaches others how to be global citizens.  Our city, he says, offers resources that can make us all become better global citizens.

“Global citizen” is a term used broadly, and I would like to define it more precisely.  I think that a global citizen is one who comprehends one’s position in the globe, geographically and culturally.  Comprehending this position requires learning about other cultures in order to perceive one’s place relative to others.  One can easily come into a discussion assuming one’s superiority or the other’s inferiority, but until one enters into discussion, one cannot know the facts–which may differ from one’s assumptions.  A global citizen engages in dialogue with people of other cultures and geographies; from this engagement, the global citizen constructs a clear, data-based vision of his or her place in the world.

Dahir is a global citizen, but he had to leave his country to realize the value of his country of origin, Somalia.  As an African, he said, he always felt the weight of colonial culture over him.  His father, though completely illiterate, spoke perfect Italian, and he taught Dahir’s brothers Italian.  (Italy colonized much of the Horn of Africa.)  Italian language held a mark of distinction, and so value came from their ability to emulate the colonial power.

Later Dahir moved to Germany, where he began to teach German expats moving to Somalia about his Somali language and culture, and teaching others these subjects taught him their value.  He recognized that something existed in his home country: a culture and a history and the Germans were working to learn about it.  This made Dahir curious about how to teach world language and culture.  His work with the German expats gave Dahir the ability to be the first Somali language teacher in the Minneapolis Public Schools (and perhaps in any US public school system).  He teaches his Somali students that Somali language and culture have value.  By understanding the value of Somali culture, his students become more broad-minded and better citizens of the world.

The diversity of Minneapolis, he explained to me, is growing, as well as the emphasis on educating students to be “global citizens.”  This combination is exciting as Minnesotan children can learn about world citizenship as good citizens of our city.  He emphasizes that the various African immigrant groups–especially the Somali community–can help prepare all the students in our city to be world citizens.

We can familiarize ourselves about the geographic diversity of the world “out there” by getting to know the diversity at home.  To begin with, we learn in Minnesota that Africa is not a monolith.  Here in our city we have many people from the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Djibouti) who speak multiple languages.  Populations from West and South Africa, and some North Africans, live here, too.  This simple lesson begins our path to global citizenship, and the means to learning lie within 20 miles of my house.

Good global citizenship can help adapt us to future economic opportunities.  Dahir noted that the world will soon focus on Africa for business development.  As the Chinese economy grows, Chinese businesses increasingly look to Africa for natural resources.  Other countries will also likely look towards Africa, and so those who know the various languages and cultures of that continent will succeed in bridging that gap for those looking for business opportunities.

I desire most strongly that my children become successful global citizens, and thus better people.  By “successful” I do not narrowly mean financial success, but I want them to enjoy social success, intellectual growth, and spiritual connection with people different from them.  They can begin connecting with others through language-study, which will increase contact with people from other cultures and teach them how to live comfortably with people from other cultures for mutual benefit.  They can grow in many ways by constant contact with other cultures.

I’m grateful that Dahir learned the value of Somali culture and is teaching it to the children of Minneapolis.  I want to work with him so that his lessons can reach thousands of more students so that we all can become better global citizens.

What ways have you found to become a better global citizen in your own city?