Image from the photo essay, "Mongolia's Nomads," by Taylor Weidman.


Getting to the Heart of Global Education

Originally published in The Social Studies Review, the official journal of the California Council for the Social Studies.

Exploring one's culture is an essential part of lifelong learning. It establishes a foundation for one's personal identity and family history, connects to place, and sparks curiosity and respect for cultures around the world.

Language, family, art, music, economics, social structures, beliefs, and traditions are just a few cultural elements that shape how we live and relate to others. Cultural influences create the world we live in, as they form the foundation of our interactions and experiences and affect who we are and how we perceive others.

Supporting students' exploration of these cultural facets at every educational level can help connect them in an increasingly complex world where individuals and communities around the globe are struggling to overcome differences in diversity, beliefs, and values. As American artist and social activist Robert Alan wrote, "Cultural differences should not separate us from each other, but rather cultural diversity brings a collective strength that can benefit all of humanity."

This is one of the concepts at the heart of global competence. According to the Asia Society, the core components of global competence include students actively investigating the world, weighing perspectives, communicating ideas, taking action, and applying disciplinary and interdisciplinary knowledge. How can teachers support and prepare students to engage in a fast-changing and culturally diverse world?

As storytellers at the Global Oneness Project, we are committed to the exploration of global cultures. The intention of the Project is two-fold—to house a rich library of multimedia stories highlighting cultural, social, and environmental issues, and to offer companion curricula for teachers. Our stories connect the local human experience to global meta-level issues, such as climate change, water scarcity, food insecurity, poverty, endangered cultures, migration, and sustainability. Through featuring individuals and communities impacted by these issues, the stories inherently include universal themes highlighting our common humanity—identity, diversity, hope, resilience, imagination, adversity, empathy, love, and responsibility.

The themes are a foundation for the companion lesson plans that I began to develop four years ago when I created the education arm of the Project. One of the primary goals for the lesson plans is for students to walk away with an expanded experience of the world through witnessing powerful, real-life stories. Activities within the interdisciplinary lessons engage students further with the media"s subject matter, providing collaborative discussion questions, creative group activities such as mini-debates, and reflective writing questions to assess critical thinking skills. Standards are aligned within the lessons, including the Common Core Standards, C3 Social Studies Framework, and Next General Science Standards.

The Project uses the power of stories as the foundation for learning. Stories can innately draw us in with basic human elements, connecting us through their universality. In many ways, stories are essential in that they convey the essence of what it is to be human—to love, to create, to engage, and to learn. This is why the best stories remain powerful through time, across continents, with the potential to transcend boundaries. Today, as our educational systems become a mirror of our complex world, with increasing and sometimes contradictory rules and policies, stories continue to provide simple access to the essential material of life and learning.

A decade ago, Emmanuel Vaughan-Lee—musician, filmmaker, and founder of the Project—said he was "drawn to tell human stories that explore the connection between culture and ecology, which bear witness to the tremendous changes we're experiencing around the world." In 2006, he was invited to spend a month with various Maori and Aboriginal leaders and communities in New Zealand and Australia, interviewing them about their cultural traditions. He met and spent several days filming Bob Randall, a traditional owner of Uluru's Rock, one of Australia's Aboriginal stolen-generation, resulting in the first short film released by the Project, The Land Owns Us.

This was the first of many films by Vaughan-Lee, and shortly after its release, the Global Oneness Project was born. The Project since has produced dozens of films—from 5-minute shorts to feature length documentaries—and currently distributes films by partner filmmakers from around the world. The online platform features these films, as well as numerous photo essays, articles, and interviews with global thought leaders.

Our media provides students with engaging and creative means to connect to the world around them and also to themselves. For example, in 2014, Vaughan-Lee made the short film Marie's Dictionary, which documents Marie Wilcox, the last fluent speaker of the Native American Wukchumni language and the dictionary she created in an effort to keep her language alive. Through her hard work, Marie hopes that her dictionary will support the revitalization of the Wukchumni language for future generations.

While Marie's Dictionary might seem to be primarily a tool for learning about Marie's culture and work, the film also helps students explore larger themes of identity and cultural preservation. The accompanying lesson plans incorporate ways for teachers to assess speaking and listening skills and include questions that bring together social, cultural, and historical factors. In the lessons, students are asked to consider their relationship to their Native language, their opinions on the importance of language preservation and are encouraged to learn the Indigenous history and geography of where they live.

"Crossing Borders" is another one of the Project's stories, which depicts Syrian migrants moving from Serbia into Croatia through photography. Through his photo essay, Slovenian photographer, Ciril Jazbec, conveys the intensity, hardship, and sheer enormity of the refugee crisis. The accompanying lesson plan, "Far From Home," asks thoughtful questions that encourage students to state their own opinions and assertions, as they explore what it might be like to be a refugee. The lesson includes questions that bring the crisis home, by asking: What five items might students take with them if they had to leave their homes? Students are asked, in a writing prompt, to consider their own reactions and responses to refugees seeking entry into their country.

The Project also includes a short film, Amar, by Andrew Hinton, which documents a 14-year-old boy's life and his daily routine in India. Amar is the main income-earner in his family, working two jobs while pursuing his education. In the accompanying lesson plan, "A Day in the Life," students explore their own daily tasks, goals, and what motivates them through difficult times. A reflective writing prompt introduces students, through an online secondary source from Time Magazine, to children living in other countries, including Kenya, Japan, and Egypt. Students compare, by noting similarities and differences, Amar's routines to those of another child.

All of the Project's stories introduce students to individuals and communities living in the far-reaching edges of the world who are most impacted by change. Additional stories include a film about the Gamo people of the African Rift Valley in southwestern Ethiopia whose traditional farming practices are threated due to globalization; a peace worker serving gang youth in Guayaquil, Ecuador; life for a Quechua community impacted by development along the Interoceanic Highway in Peru; and the effects of relocation and technology on the Drokpa, nomadic mountain people of Tibet. Through the Project's media and lesson plans, students are invited into foreign worlds, discovering other cultures, and often times, discovering themselves.

One question I've been asked frequently by teachers is: How does the Project decide which stories to highlight? We focus on producing and featuring visually compelling, character-driven stories. In the summer of 2012, the Project spent 10 days in the small Alaskan Yup'ik community of Emmonak, a small village on the Yukon River near the Bering Sea. The film, Yukon Kings, features grandfather Ray Waska, who teaches his grandson how to fish during the summer salmon run.

Days were spent on boats along the Yukon, fishing salmon, and spending time with the Waska family at their summer camp. The film crew shared stories and meals over freshly grilled salmon and salmon jerky, and heard many stories from Waska of the changes he and his community have witnessed over the decades. We learned that, in recent years, the Yup'ik have suffered due to the decrease in salmon numbers, which has impacted Waska's culture and livelihood. The days were long—more than 20 hours of daylight—and we were completely immersed in Waska's way of life. Vaughan-Lee describes that it was one of those trips and shoots where everything came together, capturing a unique story and experience.

An important question we need to ask ourselves is: How can we prepare students to become perceptive and engaging global citizens?

We can begin by offering students immersive, relatable, compelling human stories that invite them to connect to what is universal and deeply sustaining across borders. Getting to the heart of global learning is making global issues relevant and accessible for students to evolve as self-confident global citizens.

More to Explore

Turning to Face the Dark
Educators Parker Palmer and Ariel Burger explore themes on suffering, healing, and joy in a contemplative dialogue.
The Serviceberry: An Economy of Abundance

As Robin Wall Kimmerer harvests serviceberries alongside the birds, she considers the ethic of reciprocity that lies at the heart of the gift economy.