Long gone are the days when international study meant a few semesters of a foreign language and a handful of exchange students traveling to far away countries.
With the proliferation of video conferencing, social networking and smartphone technology, the world has become increasingly connected—and educators are taking note.
More schools in Chicago are bringing a global perspective to their curriculum as a selling point for students who will one day find it more difficult to get into a good college without it and who will enter a workforce where interfacing with financiers in Europe and manufacturers in Asia is but a few mouse clicks away.
GEMS World Academy is among the newest players in Chicago K-12 education that incorporates international study throughout its curriculum.
The school, which opens its doors this September to about 200 students, is part of a network of 21 schools operating in Asia, Africa and Europe. Located in Lake Shore East, the school will eventually be home to pre-kindergarten through sixth-graders, and a second facility will accommodate students through 12th grade. Once fully operational, the school will have about 2,000 students.
Geoff Jones, head of GEMS Chicago, says the new school, the first in North America, will tap into GEMS’s worldwide network of schools.
“What the schools share in common is a focus on a very rigorous college preparatory program of studies, but one that is equally focused on this idea of preparing students to become world leaders in global areas of study,” Jones says.
When first-graders, for example, learn about the topic of fresh water and where it comes from, they participate in video conferences with GEMS students in other countries to contrast the local method of tapping into lakes and reservoirs for fresh water with the process of desalinization used in Dubai or Delhi, Jones says.
“At the first-grade level, they begin to see the complexity and the idea that there is a common need and a common problem to provide enough fresh water for life as we live it, but there are multiple solutions; those solutions always depend on the resources available at the place,” Jones says.
By third grade, students learn that the need for fresh water is a political and socioeconomic issue as well, according to Jones.
Starting students out with a global perspective early is a central precept at GEMS.
“Most of us have learned a language and forgotten it; we are trying to change that model,” he says.
The language study aims to be more nuanced than the nuts-and-bolts version of foreign language study traditionally presented to students.
“You study Spanish, but you have to learn to look beyond that language and understand the cultural cues,” Jones says. “It really means becoming a powerful listener and empathetic and picking up on a broader set of cues you need to be able to understand and communicate.
“So when they do go on in their studies and career they’ll understand that it’s really about building larger and deeper networks of ideas.”
While offering a global perspective to education is certainly a rising trend, some Chicago schools have included it in their curriculum for years.
Mike Horton, headmaster of the British School of Chicago, says the school began implementing its international primary curriculum a year after opening its doors in 2001.
“People talk about preparing children for the world of tomorrow, as if the global world is tomorrow and not today,” Horton says.
The Chicago school is one of 28 in the British School system, which has campuses throughout Europe, Asia and North America. The British School of Chicago, which serves 840 students, recently broke ground on a new campus in the South Loop.
The school employs a thematic approach, Horton says, tying subjects together around a motif to give students a greater sense of the depth of the world around them.
Third-graders, for instance, participate in a project on chocolate that includes lessons on Brazilian farmers. The unit aims to expand the students’ understanding of the country by detailing Brazilian language, culture, art and cost of living, among other topics, Horton says.
“The music teacher introduces the music of Brazil and the dance teacher teaches the dances of Brazil,” he says. “Everything is linked together.”
Like GEMS, the British School starts students early on foreign language study, Horton says.
“We start students off in French at age 3,” he says. “Children are like little sponges; they take it in. They are open and accepting of the curriculum and the discussions that take place. They are not coming in with any bias about any other country or religion or color.”
The school also includes a travel component, giving students the opportunity to study abroad.
Last year, seven students traveled to Tanzania, meeting up with five other students from international British School campuses. The students worked with Tanzanian children, helping to build a school. More students will return this year to continue the work, Horton says.
In addition to international travel, the British School is encouraging use of technology to connect students at an early age.
Horton says that after teachers at the school witnessed students as young as pre-kindergarten age using their parents’ iPhones during parent-teacher meetings, they realized they might be missing an opportunity.
“One of the things we put into our nursery three years ago is iPads for our 3-year-olds,” he says, acknowledging that the idea at first seemed gimmicky.
“You cannot hide children away from the technology of today,” he says.
Timothy Inklebarger is an award-winning writer and currently works for Chicago Parent’s sister newspaper, the Wednesday Journal.
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