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Glocalized learning: What’s relevant in the rural world

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The mission statement of the Common Core State Standards concludes: “With American students fully prepared for the future, our communities will be best positioned to compete successfully in the global economy.” I wonder in an effort to create global citizens if the premise of this mission isn’t flawed. Using similar language, the U.S. Department of Education states its goal of preparing students for “global competitiveness,” but surely global competition is not the same thing as teaching students to engage globally. Instead, imagine a mission statement that ends: With all students fully prepared with an understanding of the past, an engagement with the present and a plan for the future, our local communities will be best positioned to participate humanistically and responsibly in the global community.

The standards are designed to be “relevant to the real world” — so what does that mean anymore, especially when your “real world” seems completely ignored by the global economy, as is often the case for rural communities? We’ve all read the bumper sticker: “Think Globally, Act Locally.” Perhaps this should be our rallying cry for globalized, or rather glocalized, education? We can develop students’ critical-literacy skills, connecting learning first to a student’s sense of place then using the immediacy of home to connect to more global issues.

There is a lot of rhetoric about globalized learning, but why do we have blind acceptance of this notion? An eye toward the broad aim of schooling and civics education for a global community makes sense, but, rather than a competitive, ethnocentric stance, we can engender a worldview in students — and place-based pedagogy can help us do that. We can teach students how to be glocal, focusing on globalized learning without sacrificing what’s important on a local level.

In January this year, some 300,000 West Virginia residents suffered without water after a massive chemical spill that has yet to be resolved environmentally or politically. But chemical spills are nothing new for West Virginia – what’s new and news is that the rest of the country heard about it. Just two weeks ago we saw the third largest coal ash spill in North Carolina. There have been 40 years of mountaintop mining with multiple studies reporting devastating human health impacts, yet every time I mention mountaintop removal, people outside of rural Appalachia seem surprised — despite the fact that half of the country’s electricity comes from coal. In fact, land area in some counties — such as the 40% in Wise County, Va. — have been decimated by surface mining. Rural counties in Pennsylvania have incurred social and economic costs due to fracking; yet, there seems to be a relatively quiet response to these rural realities, despite their far-reaching economic and environmental consequences. Oh, and never mind the damage done socially and politically by “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Deliverance,” and the countless redneck jokes circulating in popular media.

So, forgive me if I roll my eyes when I hear terms like globalized education. Glocalized learning, by contrast, allows us to help students forge connections between local and global understandings. Place-based education provides familiar footing, inviting students to use their home knowledge to foster connections to a curriculum that might otherwise seem impersonal and irrelevant.

Take, for example, “The Book Thief,” by Markus Zusak who uniquely positions Death as the narrator in a story about the Holocaust. While adolescent readers may or may not know someone who is Jewish or German or Polish or European, they do likely understand the notion of mortality. In teaching about the Holocaust or World War II in a social studies or language arts classroom, teachers can use novels like “The Book Thief” or “Night” as “glocal” texts, asking students critical place questions, such as: Who from our community fought in the war? Where did they fight? Do we have living veterans in our community? Do we have a Jewish population in our community? Why or why not? What populations have been discriminated against, marginalized or harmfully targeted in this community? How is that similar to (or dissimilar from) other instances of oppression? The novel then becomes a personally relevant place text serving as a scaffold to distant places in time and space.

When teachers draw on students’ understanding of place and local knowledge, students become the curricular experts. They also become engaged! Consider the chemistry, earth science, economics and civics lessons derived from considering the future of coal or understanding the impacts of 4-methylcyclohexane methanol (or crude MCHM) into the local river. This notion of grounding learning in local phenomena creates opportunities for students to engage at a local level as a scaffold to reach more global perspectives on the same topic, understanding chemistry and water politics at home before understanding how those disciplines are contextualized in different countries. Again, teachers can use critical place questions to cultivate learning: What do these “outside” places have in common with my place? How do the different communities respond to disasters? What established infrastructure assists residents in need? What are the politics influencing natural resources in other places? How are these similar to or different from my community?

Maybe we can amend the bumper sticker: “Learn Locally, Act Glocally” to communicate the importance of our home communities as part of the global economy. We do not learn how to be global citizens. We are born global citizens. The role of schools should teach students how to engage in that citizenry and use our membership responsibly at all levels — at home and places farther away.

Amy Price Azano is a professor of adolescent literacy at Virginia Tech. Follow her on Twitter @ruralprof.