By Josh Brown
As I entered the classroom, I noticed a familiar sight: backpacks were hastily strewn across the floor as rambunctious kids paraded into class after lunch. A minute later, a group of boys sprinted in right before the bell rang, panting as they high fived each other. No, this isn't a scene from my fifth period class in Northridge, California. This is a 6th grade classroom at the Bahrain Bayan School in Manama, Bahrain, more than 8,000 miles away!
I recently participated in the Teachers Educating Across Cultures in Harmony (TEACH) fellowship to the Kingdom of Bahrain, a small island country located in the Persian Gulf. Funded and organized by the Bilateral U.S. Arab Chamber of Commerce, the Fellowship's goal is to provide U.S. educators an opportunity to visit the Middle East and gain insight into the history, culture, and society of the region in order to foster intercultural understanding. I was part of a group of eight K-12 educators who toured historical and cultural sites, visited prominent non-profit organizations and businesses, and collaborated with educators at schools in Bahrain.
While walking the halls of Bahrain Bayan, I noticed another familiar sight: the same exact anti-bullying signs we have at my middle school. It was at that moment I realized that diversity education is imperative to curb bullying and foster intercultural understanding among youth.
Most cases of bullying in our schools are rooted in misunderstanding. As humans, we have been conditioned to fear people we do not understand: the kid with the foreign accent, the child with a non-traditional family background, or the student with a disability. Since this fear is learned, it can also be unlearned as well. After all, it is much easier to antagonize a person you don't understand, so the key is to find commonalities and bridge differences. In an era where even the president of the United States perpetuates Islamophobia and hate, it is imperative that students gain a global understanding in an increasingly diverse world.
One effective way of building intercultural understanding is to globalize your classroom. By incorporating aspects of diverse cultures into the curriculum, educators can increase their student's global awareness, compassion and intercultural competency. Fortunately, there are numerous travel grants for teachers to experience different cultures for themselves and bring it back to their schools. I've been able to globalize my classroom through fully funded travel fellowships to Asia, South America, and the Middle East. After each trip, I incorporate aspects of the culture into the curriculum. For example, upon returning from the TEACH Fellowship to Bahrain, I designed a lesson where students cycle through various stations. At the first station, students compare and contrast U.S. and Bahraini currency I collected while abroad. At the second station, they use Google Cardboard to view 360-degree photos I snapped at various sites of interest in Bahrain. At the third station, students learn how to write their name in Arabic and analyze the symbolism behind the Bahraini flag. Not only did this lesson incorporate standards-based, common-core aligned instructional techniques, but it also exposed and educated my students to a vastly different society from their own.
In addition to traveling abroad themselves, teachers can literally bring different cultures and perspectives into their classroom through online pen pal programs. Inspired by my visit to the Bahrain Bayan School, I began working to organize a pen pal program between my rambunctious 6th grade class and the equally boisterous 6th grade class in Bahrain. Via an online platform, students will write each other about a variety of topics, create multimedia about themselves, and collaborate on group projects from halfway across the world. Through this pen pal project, I look to provide my students the opportunity to learn that cultural differences are not a barrier to understanding, but a reason to celebrate diversity.
Given that many low-income students have never left their neighborhoods, let alone traveled the world, a globalized classroom provides them a unique opportunity to experience a variety of different cultures. If we really want to curb bullying in our schools, we must teach our students the power of tolerance.
Joshua Brown teaches 6th, 7th, and 8th grade special education at Holmes Middle School in Northridge, Los Angeles. He is a Teach Plus California Teaching Policy Fellow.