By Sarah Evans
How can we build cultural competence in elementary school-aged children? In a recent interview with Dr. Bena Kallick, co-founder of the Institute for Habits of Mind, she emphasized the need for building “equity consciousness”, which she defined as “the ability to pay attention to how much individuals have in common in order to know what makes their differences so special.” To accomplish this with people of any age, she suggested creating opportunities for people of different cultures to collaborate on meaningful projects that work toward a common goal. With a passion for project based learning and extensive experience with teaching for global competence, this concept aligned with the heart of my educational philosophy as well as our school mission at North Broward Preparatory School, an independent school in South Florida.
Establishing a partnership with another school has its challenges. However, North Broward Preparatory School is part of an international family of schools, Nord Anglia Education, which connects 76 schools in 31 countries. Tapping into this network allowed for a collaboration with schools that are both geographically and culturally unique. A combination such as this was exactly what was needed to bring educators and students together to work toward common goals and build cultural competence by effectively interacting with people across cultures. While building their cultural competence, students would also strengthen their capacity to employ Habits of Mind such as listening with understanding and empathy, thinking, communicating with clarity and precision, and thinking interdependently.
A few days after interviewing Dr. Kallick, I observed a class of fifth grade students enthusiastically collaborating on an engineering project in Minecraft©. At the time, I did not know much about how to use Minecraft© or about the endless possibilities this platform provided to benefit the classroom. However, it was clear that children all over the world would choose to play this game over other activities. I began to wonder if Minecraft© could be the key to a collaboration intended to build cultural competence.
After learning the basic functions of Minecraft© (mostly from students), I began laying out the framework for a collaborative cultural competence building project that also encouraged the development of Habits of Mind such as thinking interdependently, creating, imagining, innovating, and listening with understanding and empathy. This open ended unit served as a platform for teachers and leaders to collaborate on a common goal. Giving teachers a voice and inviting them to co-create a project offered an authentic reason to build relationships as well as create an impactful project. This also presented teachers with the opportunity to experience the same potential benefits we hoped our students would experience.
Using Zoom© as a platform, I worked with teachers and leaders at Nord Anglia Education Schools in both Ecuador and Mexico to further develop the initial project framework into a detailed plan. Then, the fifth grade teachers at North Broward Preparatory School who piloted the project enhanced the unit by contributing details that tailored the project to their students’ needs, interests, and skillset.
To establish some baseline data on the impact this project would have on our students, we engaged children in a thinking routine, Step in, Step out, Step back. With this routine, our students first examined a photograph of the students with whom they would collaborate. When they stepped in, they were asked, “Given what you see and know at this time, what might the people in the photo think, feel, or experience?” We then asked them to step out and raise some questions about what they might like to know about these students. This routine worked seamlessly with their developing the habit of questioning and posing problems. This helped our students identify their own biases and perceptions about the group of students in the photo. We then told them they would be meeting and working with these students through Zoom. Making students’ thinking visible in this way helped the teachers to become aware of the biases that could be addressed throughout this project. At the end of the project, students completed the Step back portion of the thinking routine, thinking about their original thinking and identifying how their thinking changed after getting to know the children with whom they collaborated.
During the students’ first Zoom meeting, they met in small groups in breakout rooms. They began with a getting to know you interview. We carefully practiced listening with understanding and empathy. After that, all of the students were brought back together and we introduced the next task: Look thoughtfully at your own home and identify elements that influenced who you are as a person. They shared these perspectives and in the next session, they collaborated with group members to create a home in Minecraft that incorporated several elements from each child’s home. This provided students with an authentic purpose for sharing information about themselves and their culture, appreciating similarities and differences, and learning about each other on a deeper level. In the end, group members presented the homes they created in Minecraft to their classmates. These presentations continued to build students’ equity consciousness, as they deepened their understanding of how much they have in common and appreciated each others’ differences.
When students reflected on how they changed their perspectives about the other culture based on this experience, they began thinking flexibly. As students considered what they observed, they were genuinely impressed. These examples show how their thinking changed: “I now understand what is meant by the saying, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover,'” and, “When I move on to middle school next year and have new students in my class, I will ask the new students questions so I can get to know them better instead of ignoring them or assuming we don’t have anything in common.”
Because of the success of this pilot project, we have expanded the cross-cultural collaboration to include students in kindergarten through fifth grade, as well as students in World Language classes. We also added collaborations with children living at an orphanage in Haiti as well as a local afterschool program for previously homeless children. The collaborations are now tailored to meet the curricular needs of each grade level but continue to hold at their core, the development of cultural competence through student engagement on collaborative projects.
The following are examples of the ways some of the grade levels have enhanced their existing curriculum through this collaboration:
Kindergarten students are journeying together through the writing process as they author stories, create books, participate in author shares, and learn to give each other constructive feedback through the use of the thinking routine, Ladder of Feedback, to cultivate a culture of trust and support by sequencing feedback in an order that is constructive.
Fourth grade students are collaborating with children living in an orphanage in Haiti to learn about how to best grow tropical perennial plants for food in Florida and Haiti since both locations have similar plant hardiness growing zones. Their common goal is to work toward the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of ending hunger by introducing Floridians and Haitian people to plants that have the potential to offer an endless supply of food.
Fifth grade students are also collaborating with students at the Nord Anglia Education school in Ecuador to take action toward the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). Fifth grade teachers decided to use an existing unit in which students worked interdependently to invent a product that eradicates issues presented by the SDGs. Students at collaborating schools were grouped based on the SDG about which they were most passionate. They then used the Design Thinking Process developed at the Hasso-Plattner Institute of Design at Stanford to collaboratively create and promote a prototype of their invention.
As a part of a world language program, students learning Spanish are collaborating with students learning English to learn more about each other’s daily lives and deepen their understanding of cultural holidays such as Dia de los Muertos.
Because of the way this cultural competence collaboration was established to include the four key elements of personalized learning, it has, by design, already grown, and will continue to grow and change according to the needs of students and educators. To build cultural competence, it is imperative to create meaningful opportunities, such as those offered by this project, so that children can have positive experiences with people whose cultures are different from their own. Due to the unique way in which teachers and students invested in common goals throughout these collaborations, participants organically became aware of their similarities, which aided their development of an appreciation for differences and thus, successfully impacted participants’ equity consciousness.
Sarah Evans is the lower school assistant principal at North Broward Preparatory School in South Florida. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, has a Master’s Degree in Teaching Language Arts, and a Bachelor’s of Science degree in Elementary Education. Sarah is passionate about using project-based learning and the Habits of Mind to create opportunities for students to make the world a better place.