With a look of concern, Ella raised her hand and asked, “I want to ask my partner a question but I don’t want to be rude.” She continued, “I noticed most of the girls in Kenya have really short hair. I want to ask my partner if that style is popular or if there’s another reason for the length. Is that okay?” The discussion that followed was one that would have been close to impossible for a teacher to plan. It was this type of authentic learning that Principal Liz Hicks had hoped for when she committed to bringing Level Up Village courses to her school.  

In August 2016, the Girls Academic Leadership Academy (GALA) opened within the Los Angeles Unified School District with much fanfare as California’s first all-girls public STEM school. GALA opened with only 6th and 9th grades and will grow each year until it encompasses 6th-12th grade by 2020. With the goal of incorporating global education into her new flagship school, Principal Hicks attended the Level Up Village workshop at the 2016 National Coalition of Girls Schools conference. Inspired by what she learned, she asked both opening grade levels to implement courses. The 9th grade computer science classes selected Global Web Designers, and 6th grade English classes implemented the Global Conversations: Malala course.

As one of GALA’s sixth grade teachers, I was slated to teach the Malala course, which focuses on the themes of leadership, community service and education. To prepare, I completed LUV’s online teacher training. This was my first experience involving global connections and online collaboration platforms and I had MUCH to learn.

GALA students were then paired with students at several schools located in rural Kenya who were participating in the course through LUV’s partner Kenya Connect. Using LUV’s curriculum and global communication portal, my students read and discussed I Am Malala with peers in their own classroom, as well as with their Kenyan partners through the exchange of video messages. Together, they had opportunities to engage in collaborative discussions and problem solve the issues they care most about.

Naturally, the girls and their Kenyan partners fell in love with Malala as we read her story. All were impressed by her courage, strength and dedication. They praised her devotion to her religion and country while being inspired by her work and words. Perhaps because I taught this course in an all-girls setting, my students were very vocal about the shock, outrage, and sadness they felt as they read Malala’s descriptions of the treatment of women, as well as the laws and restrictions placed upon women in other countries. For many of my students, this was one of the first times they realized just how different their life could be if they simply lived somewhere else. Sure, they understood food and language and holidays may be different, but differences like not being allowed to leave the house without a male escort or that in some places a female doctor can only treat female patients – these were new ideas.  

Malala and the global partner video exchanges with Kenyan students brought real people with real lives in real places to social justice concepts they had only been exposed to before in the context of history books or articles. The girls had much to say! And the conversations didn’t end at 3:30. Many students went home and spontaneously shared details about the course with their families. Imagine that! I had several parents email to share how involved the whole family had become and how appreciative they were.

As an English teacher, this global collaboration provided an authentic task, purpose, and audience for my students to practice their communication and speaking skills as they recorded their videos. The partner video exchanges created a safe environment for students to view and critique draft recordings, get peer feedback, revise answers, and practice and re-record until they were ready to upload. Students felt personally connected to their audience and were motivated to create clear, educational and interesting videos for their partners.

One of the things that surprised me the most was how much I learned about my students through their partner videos and collaborative projects. As the girls answered questions about leadership, community service and education, they were sharing their views, experiences and ideas on big issues. I got to hear what they thought was important and why. By the time the course was over, I not only knew each of my students better, but also had a better understanding of what matters the most to them.  

My most memorable moments were the “unplanned” questions, comments, connections and discussions that naturally unfolded throughout the course. The dynamic interactions the students were having with their partners in Kenya overflowed into our daily lessons and discussions. For example, one student wondered why so many Kenyan presidents shared the same last name; another student wondered why access to water was so difficult. Many students were inspired to do outside research. For me, it doesn’t get much better than having self-directed students wanting to learn more, do additional work, and ask questions that prompt meaningful discussions.

My favorite lesson in the course was the leadership lesson, which included an online leadership quiz. There was a buzz in the room as the girls read, shared, and discussed their impressively accurate results with each other and their Kenyan partners. Students developed a better understanding and appreciation of each other’s unique leadership styles which is bound to pay off as they continue to work collaboratively, build relationships, and communicate with each other.

It’s not every day that an EdTech-driven experience can touch our core beliefs and values the way this one did. It was the curriculum highlight of the year for me and for many of my students. Reading I Am Malala in a global classroom setting helped bring a new perspective to our own personal struggles; what we may have once thought difficult or complained about no longer seemed as significant. By the time they finished the course, my students had both a new friend across the world and a deeper appreciation for each other’s countries and individual challenges. Moreover, they emerged from this experience as global citizens, having developed greater maturity and understanding of themselves and the world they live in.

Carrie Brown has been a Los Angeles Unified Public School District (LAUSD) educator since 1991.  She has served as an instructional specialist, literacy coach and classroom teacher. In 2002, her classroom was used as a demonstration site for Scholastic’s Read 180 curriculum which was toured by former first lady Laura Bush.  Carrie holds an M.A. in Elementary Education.  She is currently teaching 6th English/History at Girls Academic Leadership Academy, California’s first public all-girls STEM school.

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