Making Global Competency a Focus: The Global Scholars Program

By Zachary Milewicz

Close your eyes and imagine being a sophomore (if you aren’t one already!), sitting down at a desk with a junior to your left and a senior to your right. Now look at the front of the room and you see three instructors: a social studies teacher, an English teacher, and a foreign language teacher. You begin to research global poverty. Fast forward to the next year: you pick up the phone to speak with the vice president of The World Bank. And then it’s summertime and you’re in the midst of the Kibera Slum. Now open your eyes. Rather than dreaming about learning in this futuristic classroom, you can become part of it.

Last spring, Social Studies, English, and Foreign Language Department Chairs Jen Laden, Duane Smith, and Melissa Stahl attended the Think Tank on Global Education conference at Harvard. They spent a few days discussing global competency alongside educators from around the world. After returning to Byram Hills, the three of them “got together to really think about something like a concrete step or program that could be developed here to really make global competency a focus,” as Ms. Laden put it. What did they come up with? The Global Scholars Program.

The Global Scholars Program is a three year program that allows students to explore an important global issue of their choice. In the first year of the program, students look at important  issues impacting our world to get familiar with potential areas of exploration. This will be done in a unique way: by connecting with classrooms from around the world via Skype to find out how are those big issues are impacting other parts of the world and by integrating the study of literature.

In the second year, each student zeros in on an area of interest. English Department Chair Duane Smith describes the area of interest as any “big issue that is going to plague our society as a whole, not just our nation, in the years to come like water consumption, poverty, agricultural issues, and climate change.” Students will zone in on their issue by doing in-depth research and connecting with a professional in the field who does that for a living, such as an environmental attorney. Laden explains that this aspect allows students to get a sense of “how this would translate in the real world” and answer the question of “how could I make a career out of it?” The second year revolves around communicating ideas and taking action, or “coming up with an action plan that they think could really address this global issue.”

During the summer between years two and three, students travel abroad. They visit a different area of the world with a special focus on the issue by spending time looking at the impact of it on a certain area and hopefully initiating whatever their action plan is to try and make a difference.

Once back in Armonk, students begin year three, which is all about leadership. The vision is for those students to become the leaders of the program and work with the year one and two students to help them. Additionally, these leaders would also continue their work by staying connected with their professional and pursuing their action plan.

The main emphasis in the program is exploring “global competency” and what it means to be “culturally proficient.” In other words: “how can students be global citizens?” At Byram Hills, there has been a major emphasis on STEAM – science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics – these past several years. STEAM trains students to be tech-savvy and equipped to problem solve. New courses with this goal in mind have been introduced at BHHS for next year, including a robotics elective and AP Computer Science Principles. However, less of a focus thus far has been on global competency. Recently, though, there have been some curricular changes to integrate global competency into regular classes. For example, all freshmen recently completed a major assignment in English class; in previous years, it was a social issues speech, but this year, students were required to select a global issue to research and speak about, “which had to deal with one of the sixteen main sustainability goals the UN put out,” Smith explained. The curricular changes assist in educating students about the global community we live in and the existent global issues, although the new Global Scholars program “goes a step further and really creates a space for students to ‘dive deep,'” says Laden. She explains that the program also “sets kids up for the skills they need to be the leaders of the next generation.”

This program is extremely unique, as not only will students come from three different grades and be co-taught by three teachers, but they will also be graded solely with authentic assessments. Yes, a class that lacks tests. The authentic assessments will be project based and include giving presentations, writing letters, and creating campaigns.

In that aspect, it will be very similar to the Authentic Science Research Program, which also lacks “multiple-choice tests.” It will also be alike in terms of the number of teachers, who are all there as resources. In Science Research, one often sees Mrs. Greenwald, Mrs. Salomone, Mr. Keith, and Mr. Gulick in the room simultaneously. And this is how Smith envisions the Global Scholars Program environment. He wants to “allow students the opportunity to make connections and break down walls between these disciplines (English, social studies, and foreign language).” Smith does not want students to think of the Global Scholars as “being three different teachers, rather as being one program.” He explains, “Interdisciplinary study is not new;  it’s been a buzzword in education for decades, but the concept of our disciplines being in separate silos is still part of every high school. There are going to be times where there’s an overlap happening, but what we’re hoping with global scholars is that the program itself is going to blur the lines between these disciplines.”

So what’s the connection to foreign language? As the foreign language department chair Melissa Stahl says, “In order to communicate ideas in any country other than this one you have to know a foreign language.” Stahl explains that learning a foreign language, such as one of the three offered at BHHS – Spanish, French, or Italian – prepares you to learn another language. In fact, even students who take Spanish (let’s say) may not utilize that language overseas. Stahl furthers, “If students choose to go internationally to target the area of girls education as the big concept, they can do something in South America or Central America where where they speak Spanish – that’s great. But in a lot of the areas where girls aren’t getting an education, they’re not even speaking Spanish. They are speaking more indigenous language. Even knowing spanish is not going to be enough. So it’s just a matter of being open to learning another language or being able to learn another language. And being able to take risks and try.”

So who should take this class? There is not a prerequisite or a GPA requirement. The only requirement is interest and willingness to be invested. Laden wants “kids that care about the world around them and want to make a difference.” Her hope is that each will “come with different strengths that they’ll bring to the group.” Smith agrees, urging anyone who “has a desire to learn about the world around him or her.”

The Global Scholars Program is something new and exciting for the community, but the potential outcomes are profound. If you’re interested in participating in the program, see your guidance counselor before it’s too late. If you have any questions, the doors to the offices of Laden, Smith, and Stahl are almost always open. Ask away, as curiosity is a key characteristic for success in this program.