I recently closed a bank account. The exact reasons why are unimportant. What is important is the conversation that transpired with my parents right before I closed it. I mentioned that this account was my travel account, and I had actually only opened it because I had a bunch of euros and English pounds that were doing me no good in the United States, and in exchanging them, I gained $100-150 dollars, almost enough to buy my textbooks that semester. I kept the account open because I knew I would be traveling a lot, but several years later, when I returned with my Egyptian pounds, the bank wouldn’t buy them. As a result, I now have several Egyptian bills laying around in my wallet. To this my dad responded, “well, there’s a lesson you could do with your kids.” And a little piece of my brain said, “well, duh.”
Now, I didn’t say this to him because my dad’s suggestion was a very good idea, and for several reasons. It’s a way to make the classroom more personal, and I can teach about currency and other countries, both of which are mentioned at least once in my big long list of standards, alongside numerous standards about diversity, which is so pushed in educational contexts these days, it’s practically lost its meaning. But I did tell dad that not only had that thought already occurred to me, I had a better one.
This is more of a classroom plan than a lesson plan. That is, rather than a single designed activity, it is an outline which can form the skeleton of a wide variety of activities or units. And I’m not the first to have done it. It’s been used as a one or two day activity to introduce students to multiple countries, it’s been used as a recurring activity as a class progresses through geography classes, and it’s been used as a goal builder for all number of classes, often changing countries to book genres or speech acts. But here is my take on it:
At the beginning of class, each student will be issued a “passport” because, like the magic school bus, we have a magic classroom, in which we will travel all over the world. (This is actually something that the teacher I am working with said last year.) I’ve done lots of searches for student passports and student passport templates which I could print out. The pre-made ones are a bit out of my price range (that’s not to say they’re expensive–about a dollar a piece, but there are a lot of students) and the templates either have inside pages which aren’t appropriate for my uses or big color covers which are a waste of ink. As a result, I suspect I will buy some colored paper and print the American Eagle and the word “passport” on the front and staple several pages inside. I also suspect that aside from the information page, these pages will be blank both because I would rather spend my time designing something other than visa pages for fake passports and because I am not entirely decided if the inner pages will be used for stamps only or if they will also be used for the students to write a couple of sentences about what they learned about the country or culture we discussed (I suspect this will depend on the students’ levels.)
Now, if this was my class, I would divide it into units, and during each one, we would visit a country, and the kids would get their passports stamped. As, in reality, I am teaching individual lessons within another teacher’s curriculum, I instead plan to include country information into each lesson (extra points because I become Miss Melissa, the travel agent and the kids always know to bring their passports when I come in.) When teaching about a country, there are several things I want to include:
- the country’s location on the map or globe (and probably a map of the country alone)
- the capital and perchance something about the government (keeping in mind that I’m working with elementary school students, I obviously need to avoid in-depth political explanations, but we’ll see what I can do here.)
- the currency (as mentioned before)
- Languages spoken there
- Pictures of urban and rural areas and the people who live there
- Some facts about every day life (such as, common dress, common occupations, religious beliefs, weather and climate, modes of travel, famous people, etc.)
I also have several criteria for choosing countries. A country doesn’t have to meet all of the criteria, but basically, the more categories it falls into, the better:
- Matches a book I might use in class (i.e. The Magic Pot and China, The Bremen Town Musicians and Germany, Ayu and the Moon and Peru, etc.)
- Matches a topic the kids are studying (i.e. Either Brazil or Australia would go along well with a unit on animals and habitats because they both have a vast array of flora and fauna.)
- Is the native country of students or their families.
- Adds variety to the list of countries studied. (The key here is to not present a Eurocentric view, and be sure to include aboriginal cultures.)
- Is a place that I or a friend of mine has personally visited. In other words, it is a country I can present a personal narrative for. (I’ve used this as a narrowing category, starting with the list of countries I can access personal narratives for and adding to it from other categories where necessary)
Based on these criteria, I have sixteen countries I have already earmarked for lessons: England, Canada, China, Native Americans of the USA, Mexico, Germany, Japan, France, Argentina, Egypt, the Marshall Islands, Peru, India, Denmark, New Zealand, and Lithuania.
Why am I doing this? First of all, it meets several core standards: those which require students to learn about currency, cultures, and maps, if not others. Second, it’s fun. Last year, the students got a kick out of getting to “travel” to other countries, so I’m pretty positive they’ll enjoy the more tangible experience of having “passports,” even if they have to write about the countries they “visited.” In addition, I think it would be fun to have the students write postcards that we can hang on the wall outside of the classroom. Last, it allows me to introduce students to a wide variety of cultures in a context which (ideally) emphasizes value of non American cultures and promotes biculturality, which in turn will hopefully re-infuse some meaning into the old “diversity” standard.
Now comes the most difficult part of all: improving the idea and eliminating as much of my personal bias as possible. So if you think of any countries I should reconsider or ways to improve this, let me know!