Last week, I had the privilege of facilitating a webinar on Global Project Based Learning for the Buck Institute for Education “Webinar Wednesday” series, and I found myself repeating a mantra over and over again during that presentation: is it your project, or your students’? In preparing that webinar, I found myself reflecting on one of my earliest teaching experiences and so, for those wanting to know the ‘backstory,’ I offer “Daniel’s Story.”
In my very first teaching experience as a graduate student, I was given a blank piece of paper (literally) and told to design a Model United Nations class for gifted and talented elementary students at The Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth (CTY). It was the summer of 1993, following two years of war in the Middle East and the World Trade Center bombing of February that year, and so, in addition to using best practices from UNA-USA’s Guide to Delegate Preparation, I built my Model UN class around issues in the Middle East.
In an attempt to present a balanced tension, six of the countries I assigned to my students were Islamic nations (including Saudia Arabia, Turkey, Iran, Jordan, Egypt, and Syria) and six of the countries were those with direct interest in the region (France, the United Kingdom, Israel, the United States, the Russian Federation, and the newly unified Germany). Of course, it was not lost on me that I had stacked the deck on the Islamic nations, having packed the class with permanent members of the Security Council, all equipped with the veto, but it was my hope that I could combine this “realistic” simulation with cultural studies in a way that would show that the Islamic world was up against a two-fold challenge—where global political realities left-over from the Second World War and the Cold War could be used to leverage cultural stereotypes left-over from what Edward Said had called the long tradition of “orientalism” in the West. It was an ambitious syllabus, with challenging readings and a clear set of learning outcomes in mind, but I was not prepared for how truly “gifted and talented” my students would be.
If I remember correctly, Daniel, the boy who was assigned to represent Iran, was the youngest in the class. Ten years old from the suburbs of Philadelphia; was soft-spoken and bookish, but not shy about asserting his opinion. In a room of self-styled geniuses, he had the sort of self-confidence that comes from already having learned to use his talents carefully, rather than to expect great rewards simply for having them. During our classroom sessions in the common room of the psychology building at Goucher College, Daniel would speak when necessary to defend Iran from charges arising either in the West, or among his Sunni neighbors, and he would speak eloquently with the kind of command of the facts I was hoping students would achieve as a result of my class design. He used his library time, poring over paper copies Keesings and Facts on File (no internet, yet). He knew the region. He knew the issues. As a result, he began to build a following in this little world simulation. Yet, he had come to realize, too, that the deck was stacked against his Islamic partners and, as a result, so too against those from outside the region who had little choice but to choose sides in a conflict with no obvious solution. Thus it was that Daniel approached me, on a hot July day during which the air-conditioning was out, and frustrations were mounting:
Daniel: Mr. Kubik, I have a question.
Me: Sure Daniel, what’s up?
Daniel: Well, I’ve been thinking this over and with a week to go in our simulation, there’s no way we’re going to accomplishing anything on Middle East peace. It’s a waste of time. I was wondering if we could work on something else?
Me: What did you have in mind, Daniel?
Daniel: Well, I’ve been looking at issues surrounding water usage in the Middle East, and it looks like a problem everyone has to deal with. I was wondering if Iran could convene a conference on using water so that we might come to a regional Resolution on that question. Some of the other countries from outside the region will be interested, too, because they have scientists and businesses that might benefit from participating. Can we do it?
Me: [Now, in my mind I’m thinking two things at once: 1) Holy smokes! This kid is sharp! and, 2) Hey, I’m the graduate student in international relations here, and I know that, realistically, there’s no way in the world that Iran could convene a conference on water issues and expect anyone to attend. It’s my job to teach these kids the way the world works, and letting them do something like this would…
And then it hit me. It would change the world.
Daniel had come to me with an honest question. It was not my job to tell him that his question was misinformed; that the Saudis or Israelis might work to disrupt such a conference from the outset; that American business interests would only be interested in such a conference if they thought they could walk away with all the water rights in the region; or that that other adults would laugh at him (and probably me) if he went home and explained that this was what he learned at CTY. My job was to help Daniel understand and, perhaps, answer his question on his own terms or, better yet, with the help of his classmates who, it was clear as they gathered around, were equally frustrated with the larger end I originally had in mind.
Although I certainly didn’t see it then, I look back on that moment as definitional in my life as an educator. It was in that moment that I ceased to be a political “realist.” It was that moment in my life that I realized that teaching was always going to be more about what my students could help us all discover, than it was about what I could help them discover.
So, after standing in front of my students dumbstruck for probably 30 seconds (though it seemed like an eternity in my perception of time), I squatted down next to Daniel among the circle of students, and said,
“Interesting idea, can you tell me some more?”
Daniel proceeded to lay out the basic ideas for the conference, and had clearly already negotiated with a few of his classmates who were ready to lead trips to the library in search of the resources they would need to make the conference authentic. They went, they researched as a class, and in the last week, despite the lack of air conditioning, they held a really cool conference that actually negotiated a water settlement, and opened the way for some progressive dialogue on Middle East peace as well.
In the final session before the parents on the last day of class, parents in the audience actually welled up with tears. I was praised for my innovative teaching, and I was invited back to teach Model U.N. for five more years, and then for two more years as Site Director before I finished my Ph.D.
Now, before you say, “Well, sure, that’s what can be done with gifted and talented kids in a summer program setting, but it won’t work with others or in the real world of public schooling,” let me assure you that while working with UNA-USA’s education department on a later version of the Delegate’s Guide, or during their national Model UN conferences in New York, I saw hundreds of inner city kids from America’s most multi-cultural city work out similar arrangements among themselves based solely on the work they did after school. I could also tell the same story, as well, about two sophomore boys from George Washington High School in the Denver Public Schools who, while awaiting the results of a hearing to be expelled from their school for gang-related disciplinary issues, were nonetheless allowed to attend a UNA-USA Global Classrooms conference in 2006. Here, they managed to amaze all of us, including the social worker assigned to watch over them, by representing Sweden on climate issues in a way that brought diverse participants together and led to the successful passage of a Resolution on climate change. Someone gave them an authentic “context in which they could translate a positive imagination into reality” (Friedman, The World is Flat, 458), and they ran with that, and with a new “gang,” one that offered them a better direction. I hope that experience kept them in school, but I don’t know. As too often happens in our profession, I don’t know the end of that story.
I don’t know whatever happened to Daniel, either (though I’d like to, if he’s out there, and stumbles into this somehow). But that’s not the point. What I do know is that young people can change the world, but first, we have to be willing to design global learning experiences that let them. To do that, we have to not only let them ask questions, we need to insist that their education hangs on the kinds of questions they force us to consider. To this day, the question Daniel forces me to consider, over and over again, is this: When you meet a “Daniel,” will you just plow ahead with your lesson design, or will you grant him or her the space he or she needs to find the answers? Is it your project, or students’?