Are High School Clubs a Bad Idea?

I teach at a wonderful independent school at which everyone gets along really well, the curriculum is rigorous and innovative, the students are kind and curious, and the faculty and staff are amazing. I treasure the commitment and dedication of everyone, faculty, staff, students. I love being in the classroom with my students or collaborating with my colleagues.

From the BBC, “Lack of Sleep Blights Pupils Education,” 2013

But here’s the problem. My students don’t sleep enough. Many are dogged by stress and anxiety, much of it centering on “doing well” in school. This stress is compounded by weariness and a sense that the pace of life is too fast and that time to pause, rest, or reflect is unavailable. Why?

Here is one answer: there is a long and ever-growing list of school-related activities students participate in. Students at my school are required to take part in “community engagement,” activities that used to be called “community service.” These activities take place outside the 8 am-3:15 pm school day. Drama and musical rehearsals are also after school. All these activities require more time spent in cars. Our school is outside the city center and a 30-minute commute each way isn’t unusual.

Some students at my school miss days and even weeks of school to compete for expensive and time-consuming “club teams.” These sport teams are not affiliated with the school but many of our most successful athletes take part in them. Additionally, students interested in entrepreneurship attend a weekend-long “camp” at which they pitch ideas for companies to local business leaders. It is a terrific weekend and some of the student-generated ideas have become actual companies and non-profit organizations. Other students have begun similar organizations on their own. Although they are still fairly rare, student “start-ups” have become a part of the culture here, especially with the more ambitious.

In a given week, most students also participate in student organizations and clubs at school. Here is the list, copied from our daily bulletin, for a few days ago: Marimba Club; Taiko Club; Pegasus [our literary magazine]; Zine Club; YEP PDX; Math Team; Jewish Student Union; SAFE; Birding Club; Black Student Union; Model United Nations; Children of Immigrants Affinity Group. Here are tomorrow’s club meetings: Infinote [an acapella group], Design Club, Business Club, Booster Club, Camions of Care, Bridge Club, Chess Club, AWSEM [I’m not sure what that one is], Yearbook, InvenTeams, History Bowl, and Junior State of America. All this for a secondary school of 300.

All of these activities are worthwhile, as are sports, student theater, community engagement, and so on. But a 17-year old needs 9 or 10 hours of sleep every night, according to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention. If they get up at 6:30, that means bedtime should be somewhere around 8:30-9:30 pm.

I haven’t mentioned homework.

Since I arrived at my school about a decade ago, we have cut the homework load twice for high schoolers. It’s hard to say how much it has been reduced, but I’m certain the reduction is on the order of 1-2 hours per day. Yet this hasn’t lead to a reduction in student stress. The number of visits to the counselor’s office continues to rise. I think my veteran colleagues would agree that students are less likely to hand work in on time than they were 10 years ago. Cutting the homework load created a vacuum into which other resume-building activities rushed. It did not lead to better-rested students.

Given the packed schedules and stressed lives of my students, I feel the need to ask: where is the wiggle room? How can I get my students more sleep? This question leads to some rather radical queries.

What is the educational value of school clubs and activities? I am searching but cannot find much of anything in the way of academic research on the pedagogical benefit of school-based clubs. There are studies showing direct correlation between extracurriculars and graduation rates, though both closely track income as well. In fact, many of the activities my students participate in cost money, some of them a lot of money. Clubs and activities can actually function as a way of increasing inequality in student experience, as the chart below illustrates.

A Child's Day: Living Arrangements, Nativity, and Family Transit
Are clubs, sports, and activities multpliers of inequality? Should we be more actively trying to level the playing field? From the Univ. of Maryland School of Public Health

My questions are different: I want to know why students engage in so many clubs and activities and at what point does it all become too much? Of course we want our students to pursue interests and to direct that pursuit themselves. But does this have to happen during the “school day” but outside of class?

Having spent much of last year visiting Finnish schools, I surveyed a few friends there about student clubs and activities. Obviously, educators the world over look to the Finnish education system, but often, I think, they overlook what happens (or doesn’t happen) outside the classroom. The daily lunch, free and nutritious, is one example. (When I searched for scholarly work supporting the American practice of clubs and activities, I came across more than one that cheered on lunchtime academic clubs. I can see the use of “lunch-bunches,” in which students share a hobby or a pleasure as they eat together, but I wonder about taking away the break and the focus on healthy eating in order to gain more instructional time.)

My Finnish friends answered my question in unison. One respondent wrote: “Clubs in Finnish schools? Never heard about them.” A friend noted that many secondary students take part in activities outside of school–theater, sports, music–but these are outside the purview of the school itself.

Taru Pohtola, who teaches at Martinlaakson lukio in Vantaa, Finland, gave me some nice detail While many students play sports or make music outside of school, school itself is academic:

“[Like] most Finnish high schools, our school doesn’t have any real clubs. The only extracurricular activities our school offers are: 1) Choir – students meet once a week for 75 minutes after school. (About 25 out of 440 students.) 2) Student council – students meet once a week for 75 minutes after school. (About 20 out of 440 students.) 3) Ecological team and Tanzania team – students meet about once a month and organize certain events. (About 20 students out of 440 students).”

Tarja Mykrä, who is Director of Development at Mercuria Business College (a vocational school in Vantaa) told me that in Finland’s robust vocational school system, “There are no clubs …. If they have a hobby, it is always outside of school.” Another friend, who teaches at a highly-respected normal school in Jyväskylä, told me that although her school has no clubs beyond a student council, students who are highly invested in their hobbies can be prone to weariness during the school day.

I am struck by the use of the word “hobbies” by my Finnish educator-friends. I don’t hear that word anymore in the US–at least not about children.

Is the American love of student clubs and activities related to its cultural fear of “loitering” teenagers, of young people with “nothing to do?” Or is it driven, like so much else in a high school student’s life, by the college application process? At my school, at least, students work hard to set themselves apart in the eyes of colleges. This is largely done outside of the classroom.

I will not pretend to write a summary or critique of the American college-application process here. But one outgrowth of the rigmarole is that somehow we have arrived at the point at which many students search for opportunities to show prospective colleges their “leadership,” “passion,” and entrepreneurial spirit. It is much easier to demonstrate these qualities outside the classroom than with mere grades and standardized test scores. The desire of colleges to judge the “whole student” has created new stresses on students to brand and present themselves in novel ways.

Simo Mikkonen, a Professor of History at the University of Jyväskylä who has also spent time at Berkeley and Stanford, confirmed my suspicion that Finnish universities do not offer weight to an application laden with extra-curricular activities. School in Finland largely means classes punctuated by breaks. No surprise then that universities are more concerned about academics than what students do in their spare time. This seems psychologically healthy to me.

Somehow the American system of presenting our entire selves to colleges–academic, social, casual, personal–suggests that the workaholism and lack of work-life boundaries that saturate American middle-class society have made their way into teenage life. That the less affluent may not be able to keep up with the privileged and harried is hardly a vote in favor of overscheduling.

Yes, the pace of my students’ lives is a sign of affluence. But I would rather they had more hobbies, things they do for fun, far away from the eyes of college admissions officers.

I would also like to see curricula that offer students more opportunities to try out new subjects and to follow their interests. Shortening the length of courses and moving towards mastery transcripts rather than rigid lists of requirements might help move worthy pursuits–like community service–within the daily, 8-3 schedule of school. But without some sort of limit on clubs and activities, I fear these progressive ideas might lead to even more hurried students.

Intrinsic Motivation and “The Whole Student”

The Infinite Monkey Theorem describes a very simple problem in probability yet it offers many opportunities for philosophical reflection–and jokes. Given enough time 440px-chimpanzee_seated_at_typewriterand sufficient numbers, a group of monkeys will eventually produce all of Shakespeare. As a teacher, I reflect upon the truth that even the worst educator will “produce” a conventionally successful student, eventually. But this is the result of random outcomes rather than inspired input.

Of course the “means” of teaching is finally judged on the “outcome” of the student. We might evaluate this student at any point along the way–say with a mathematics exam when they are 10. Or we might wait and look at their skills and knowledge during a matriculation exam, as they do in Finland. Either way, we link outcomes to methods (inputs) and ajudge the methods that most often produce desired results.

Am I wrong, or is this how it works? Is this right? If a student at my school, where students range in age from 4-18 years old, ate in our cafeteria every day for 14 years, could I judge the quality of the food by the health of the student? Oh, no, we’d say, there are so many other factors. There is what they ate at home for supper. There’s genetics. There’s random chance. A healthy young adult would suggest the cafeteria’s food is okay, no?

Is it heretical to question papers or exams as the best indicator for determining the best inputs–in this case content and method? I suppose it depends on what we are adjudicating. Are we looking at the “whole student?” It seems to me that this is the way we are going in the US, although with the manic quest for good grades, high test scores, clubs, activities, sports, community service, and so on rather than for healthy, fit, balanced people.

For a moment, I the monkey, am going to remain at my typewriter, happily pounding keys, though I wonder if I really should be trying to produce Shakespeare. It’s already been done and I don’t even know what I am trying to produce really. I only know it when someone tells me I’ve done a good job. Perhaps I should not be trying to produce a “strong student.”

The intense socialization at school, often manifested as resumé building, has for me made these thoughts by Pasi Vilpas newly attractive: “We have been made to believe that what is happening at school is learning,” he writes. “But what is happening at school is school.” He goes on:

  • The school is intended to provide circumstances which are appropriate to determine marks, grades and degrees rather than to learn.
  •  The marks, grades and degrees guide the flow of the students to their higher education, adulthood professions, social relationships and economical status.
  • All learning at school is subordinated to this.
  • Evaluation pays attention predominantly on the adopted facts instead of enthusiasm towards learning.
  • The students lose their strive for independent thinking but become masters of foretelling how the teachers expect them to think.
  • The best performers of this ‘creative thinking’ will be priced with good grade.
  • Co-operation with other students easily lowers the rank of the altruistic ones.
  • This is why co-operatively intended learning so frequently transforms into completely chaotic mess.” And, finally,
  • “What the students truly study in a constructivistic manner, proves to be the teachers.”

A self-referential world of conformity and “guess-what-I-am-thinking.” No wonder students tell me they want to get “straight A’s” and not that they have passion for the subject at hand. If this rings true just a little bit, I think Vilpas’s emphasis on learning not school makes sense. Teachers are to focus “on feeding and protecting the intrinsic motivation of the students[,] directing their orientation toward profound learning.

What “Works” vs. What Matters

What does a well educated secondary-school graduate look like? Rather, what do they know and what can they do? Historian Yuval Harari argues: “Most of what we teach children today, in school, or in college, is going to be completely irrelevant to the job market of 2040, 2050. So it’s not something we’ll need to think about in 2040: we need to think today what to teach the young people.”

As compelling as this declaration sounds, I think it’s a bit vocationally oriented for my taste. Replace “job market” with “world” and I’m on board. Perhaps best practice would be the intersection between student interest and societal need.

Two of my students, avidly listening to a public address by the EU’s Deputy Ambassador to the US, Caroline Vicini on Monday. They felt as if a part of the world they’d never visited before had been opened to them–a country of brilliant adults discussing important issues and creating policy.

My US History students, 16- and 17-years old, have just completed a terrific unit on immigration. After studying the history of immigration since the Civil War, with its emphasis on blocking people of color until the 1965 Immigration Act, they worked in twos and threes to interview recent immigrants to our city.

These interviews took them to day-worker hiring sites, a tienda (small grocery store) owned by a woman who crossed the Mexican desert at 15, to the comfortable houses of Nike employees, and to a well-known local plant store and nursery. They presented what they learned and experienced by making web pages, creating podcasts, and through art. This was “HISTORY,” but it was an event in their lives rather than sitting on the runway, waiting for graduation and take-off.

The assignment demanded many use new computer applications, they researched geography and history, many used their second languages. And they loved it. So why, besides conformity to the structure of colleges (themselves built on 19th-century models) should history be separated from foreign languages, science be separated from math? Why “chemistry,” or “art,” standing alone? Why isn’t “school” a communal encounter with a series of rich questions, which teach content, skills, and passion? In other words the enactment of what is needed most by the students’ many communities: school, home, city, and the broader society. This “need” is not narrow and includes activities related to every traditional discipline.

The world is such an interesting place, saturated with complex problems needing understanding and–solutions. Why not begin there? There is an optimism about a curriculum enmeshed in real life and students quickly pick up on it. The attraction of the exciting topic itself is the “so what?” for the lesson.

Finnish TransversalThese thoughts return me to the Finnish “transversal” I encountered last year. At the center of the goals for secondary education was not college acceptance or a great job. Instead: “development as a human being and as a citizen.” Citizenship is an action, I would say, as is “being human.”

In the valley of the academic year that is March–so far from Winter Break, so far from Spring Break–the temptation to fall back into “content delivery” looms. To sit down at my typewriter at start banging keys. But in this moment–Trump, Brexit, Migration Crisis–I feel compelled to look for hope (hope to sustain myself as a teacher) in my students’ intrinsic motivation. Their desire to learn, that is, rather than to get everything right.


How Can Young People Best Help the Neediest in a World of Staggering Inequality?

The students in my course on Globalization have just finished their project on sourcing. A few looked at the companies that make some of their favorite jackets or shoes and tried to decode corporate double-speak and find the truth about how factory workers are treated. Others have offered the school more sustainable and just options for sourcing some of the clothing screened with our school’s name and logo. Lucky for me, the head of our student government is in my class and he has been inspired to change the company from which student groups and clubs buy their t-shirts and sweatshirts. Others in the class helped a company run by girls at the school select a supplier more in line with their values. Morale seems pretty high.

In reflective writing on the projects, many students considered the distance between themselves and those who make their clothes, shoes, and much else. How can this gulf be narrowed? Through social media? Education about the workings of the global system of production is a start, but it doesn’t lead to real contact. My students also ended up feeling stuck: what if turning away from companies like Adidas, Levis, and North Face, companies that pay so little to people in poor nations … what if this meant these poor people lost their jobs and tumbled further?

I don’t have an easy answer to this question, although I kid myself that my teaching is solutions-based. I am sincere about it, though: I feel I cannot blithely pass along a world of environmental collapse and obscene economic inequality to “the Millennials” without comment. They deserve to learn about the problems we are thrusting upon them. And, I believe it’s irresponsible to teach about climate change without also teaching about those making a difference. I also think schools should be models for just and sustainable behavior–though teachers know that institutions are less flexible than lesson plans.
For the time being then we are turning to considering ways to help the neediest on earth as directly as possible. This is not an academic exercise. In an article entitled, “Why Are Their Still Famines,” the BBC reported yesterday (23/2/17) that 100,000  people in South Sudan face starvation. Much is needed and little is coming:


“UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has said $4.4bn (£3.5bn) in aid is needed from international donors by the end of March ‘to avert a catastrophe’.
“‘Despite some generous pledges, just $90m has actually been received so far,’ he said, which represents about two cents for every dollar needed.
“‘We are in the beginning of the year but these numbers are very worrying,’ Mr Guterres said. ‘In our world of plenty there is no excuse for inaction or indifference… There is no time to lose.’ …
“In the immediate term, two things would be necessary to halt and reverse the famine: More humanitarian assistance and unimpeded access for humanitarian agencies to those worst affected.”

Here is my current goal as a teacher: encourage my students to think about their place in the world and their ethical responsibilities within it. Second, I want to help them remove barriers between their current experience of being overwhelmed by famine, war, climate change, extinction, and, here in the USA, political catastrophe at the heart of the American democracy, and a life in which they feel connected and valuable. Heavy stuff!


In preparation, when we read Peter Singer’s words–some of which are included below–we understand that we can go online and participate in hedonism or idealism with a new immediacy and ease. What does this mean for us in the global 10% (which, I believe, includes all my students and myself) and for those at the bottom of the economic hierarchy?

I asked my students to watch Peter Singer’s Ted Talk and offered this passage from “The Drowning Child and the Expanding Circle,” from 1997.

“Today the assertion that life is meaningless no longer comes from existentialist philosophers who treat it as a shocking discovery: it comes from bored adolescents for whom it is a truism. Perhaps it is the central place of self-interest, and the way in which we conceive of our own interest, that is to blame here. The pursuit of self-interest, as standardly conceived, is a life without any meaning beyond our own pleasure or individual satisfaction. Such a life is often a self-defeating enterprise. The ancients knew of the ‘paradox of hedonism’, according to which the more explicitly we pursue our desire for pleasure, the more elusive we will find its satisfaction. …

“Here ethics offer a solution. An ethical life is one in which we identify ourselves with other, larger, goals, thereby giving meaning to our lives. The view that there is harmony between ethics and enlightened self-interest is an ancient one, now often scorned. Cynicism is more fashionable than idealism. But such hopes are not groundless, and there are substantial elements of truth in the ancient view that an ethically reflective life is also a good life for the person leading it.”

So we are turning toward what Singer calls “effective altruism.” This brings to mind Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

maslow-pyramidThe bottom seems to refer to short term, emergency aid: food, clothing, shelter.

Security and safety, the second tier, also seem like legitimate goals as well when sharing what you’ve been given. I am struck that the satisfaction we take in giving to charity is much higher on the hierarchy than the needs of those who receive our gifts.

Because there are so many non-governmental organizations and charities to choose from, I am asking my students to do some research through websites that evaluate such groups: Charity NavigatorCharity WatchGuideStar, and GiveWell. Between now and when we meet again on Tuesday, I am requiring that they spend 45-60 minutes searching for 3 organizations that efficiently help in a meaningful way. Then I am asking that they answer these questions with a paragraph each:

14A_AID BUDGET TABLE.1What is the best mechanism for keeping the poor alive and offering them ways to escape dire poverty? (Think governmental foreign aid, NGOs, etc.) Explain your answer.

Given the fact that the US is not near the top of the pack in per person foreign aid, what do you think ordinary citizens should do to help? How much should wealthy countries give? (Note the US is far below it stated goals.) How much should individuals give?

Importantly, my students know I don’t have answers to these questions. I think we should all try to help, but I have no idea how much. Should we feel a sting of sacrifice? Is it better to give what they can now or should my students pursue wealth with the plan of sharing much more later in life? Or should they work directly on a pressing issue for humanity?

For Wednesday, each student will offer a 1-minute pitch, presenting a group that they believe would do real, meaningful good with a donation of as little as $10. Then, for Thursday, I have assignedone-page essay on the responsibilities of wealthy global citizens (meaning them) to aid the poorest. How? How much? 

I feel like I am being honest with my students. They have known they are privileged for a few years. Now we can talk about what to do with some of that unearned power. Next year at this time they will be off at university or enjoying a gap year. Before they go in the broader world, I hope to begin a habit of sharing the gifts that come with birth in the global North. $10 might indeed save a life and we all have $10 to spare. Just now we have time to think about what that means and how best, for each of us, we might proceed.






Learning by Doing: Sourcing at School

15251583_1854076671538545_8197163217215029248_nFor years, I’ve asked students to use sourcing websites and internet articles about labor rights to search for the factories in which a couple of items of their clothing were made. Usually a pair of shoes and a favorite shirt.

By undertaking this search, students think about the labor that supplies them with so much. They tend to think with new empathy about the people, often Asian, mostly female, who make their clothes. This focus also shines a powerful, unflattering light on advertising and its role in obscuring the often unpleasant experiences of those who make our things.

This year, my students will become sourcing consultants, putting what they’ve learned about supply chains and ethical consumerism into practice.

Three students at our school have begun designing and selling t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, “Proud to be a Feminist.” The young women are dedicated to human rights but–as one of the students told me–they have no ideas about the conditions under which the shirts were made. Enter my Globalization class!

I have given my students the option of working for or pursuing another similar project:


Even if your school doesn’t have start-ups, you can still run this project with your school’s athletic gear. In the US, student clubs often buy t-shirts. This project could help with those purchases as well.

I have told my students they’ll need to follow some steps:mg_0189

  • What do we need to know? Numbers, goals, costs, etc. You need a meeting with the team.
  • The current companies: what are their practices?
  • Finding and contacting workable options for sourcing shirts AND printing/ink based on what you learn from
  • Making a pitch with 3 viable options.

They’ll be looking for companies owned by women, companies with strong labor and environmental records and, because it’s a priority of the client, local shirtmakers and screeners as well.

It isn’t difficult to discovery the human rights record of a company like Gilden or Fruit of the Loom. Even a simple Google search” “Gilden” “t-shirt” “labor rights” with results limited to the last year brings up enough to narrow the search and find stories of chronically hungry Gilden workers in Haiti in 2014. Even with this information, students  have to decide if three-year old reporting still matters and whether companies that have recently cleaned up their acts would be given another chance.

Of course, with such a project, I cannot control exactly what my students learn. They also might not be successful in finding ethical shirts (and screening) that comes in at budget and fulfills the client’s requirement for social responsibility. I bet they will succeed–but if they don’t? Even that will be a valuable lesson–a lesson within and assignment that I doubt any of them will ever forget.


Sources: ;;

Oxfam: The wealthiest 8 men on earth possess wealth exceeding the poorest 50% of humanity

The wealthiest 8 men on earth (and yes, they are all men) possess wealth exceeding the poorest 50% of humanity.

That’s about 3,700,000,000 people.

My students are stunned by this simple statistic from Oxfam’s new report on economic inequality. The report is readable for secondary students and filled with prescriptions for change. For educators interested in solutions-based curriculum, it’s a terrific new resource, especially as a guide for suggesting areas for student research.

Look at this image:


Somehow, Apple feels it is acceptable to pay subsistence wages while, “in 2010 almost three-quarters of revenue from its iPhone went to profits.” Similarly, citing the website, Make Chocolate Fair, the briefing  notes that “Cocoa farmers in the 1980s received 16% of value of a chocolate bar; today they get 6%.”

How could such inequality possibly come about? Because of globalization, the world’s great consumers have to dig (and care to look) to learn these alarming facts. But this sickening inequality is not natural: it’s due to policy and to a learned mindset in the wealthy nations that savage inequality is somehow natural.

The Oxfam report was reported to be on the agenda for the World Economic Forum in Davos: we’ll see what that leads to. Given the interest of the for-profit media in obscuring the reality of income and wealth inequality, it falls on educators to pull these facts into the light for our students to see.

After laying out the economic myths that support the current, unsustainable system, “An Economy for 99%” offers a number of specific paths to take:

  • “accountable government”;
  • a “new global consensus and a virtuous cycle to
    ensure corporations and rich people pay fair taxes, the environment is protected, and workers are paid well”;
  • a system in which “proceeds of business activity should go to those who enabled and created them – society, workers, and local communities”;
  • an end to “the extreme concentration of wealth to end extreme poverty”;
  • “a human economy [that] will work equally for men and women”;
  • governmental intervention “to ensure that technology contributes to reducing
    inequality, not increases it”;
  • pursuit and adoption of “sustainable renewable energy” sources;
  • And, finally, “Moving beyond GDP, we need to measure human progress using the many alternative measures available.”

The report is neither exhaustive or perfect. But it is a great launching pad for discussion and, I hope, better choices by students and schools. We owe it to our students and our children to show them the economy as it actually is.

Download the report (as a pdf) here.

New Topics in Globalization: Chinese Outsourcing to Africa in the “Trump Vacuum”!; Microbeads & Patagonias!

africanshoesI began a post a new few weeks back, but I doubt I will finish it. I confronted the grief I felt this autumn, teaching about 19th-century imperialism and my misery at the unpaid debts owed by the old empires–the US included–to the so-called developing world. It is unhappy business, teaching 15-year olds about King Leopold’s murderous rule in Congo or the British colonizations of Gambia and China.

I feel I need to clear the air about all this with my students. Is our wealth dependent on all the suffering we read about? And how can we refer to the places attacked and robbed–sometimes for centuries–as “developing nations?” It seems like a bad joke.

I feel I have to figure out how to teach my students, honestly, about the toll that imperialism–largely European and American imperialism–has taken on the world.

My students learned for the first time about invasion, meddling, strong-arming and other bad American behavior in the Philippines, Guam, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, not to mention Honduras, Guatemala, Panama, Cuba, and seemingly every other nation in Central America. The involvement of the US in these places over the past 150 years has been extremely destructive, yet our media and our government abet our amnesia by never mentioning the empire. Still, the work feels incomplete.


I want to come up with a pithy way of describing this. About the relationship between “the  West and the rest,” between the global North and the places it has attacked in recent centuries. So I began a blog post about the American empire and its impact on its colonies.

I took notes on the death toll of the invasion of the Philippines; I added up the number of times the US has invaded Cuba. When I found myself skimming Jack London’s letters home from his 1907 trek across the Pacific Ocean in his boat, The Snark, looking for the scene in which he describes the unhappiness on the face of deposed Hawaiian Queen–I remembered reading about him hobnobbing with the American elite at the Honolulu Yacht Club while ex-Queen Liliuokalani sat apart, largely forgotten and ignored–I realized that the scope of my complaint is too large to be contained here.

So for now, I am turning back to the present moment and the many topics I will soon share with my students in my Globalization course! But I’ll simmer on my new, catchy name for imperial debts.


This year, when we tackle the patterns and ethics of outsourcing and offshoring, I am excited to look at China’s move to “send jobs to Africa.” I’ve been speculating about this for a long time. It simply made sense when I read the “race to the bottom” articles of the late 1990s, decrying the policies of Nike and other footwear and apparel manufacturers for chasing cheaper wages across Asia. Who remembers our first Nikes were made in Japan? Soon it was off to Korea and China, Vietnam and Bangladesh.

I wondered at the time if the final frontier in this journey would be Nigeria, because of its huge population and the fact that half of the people there, about 80 million, speak English. Now may be the time.

In Ethiopia, English is the language of instruction in secondary schools and colleges. What’s more, according to DHL’s logistics magazine, Delivered, “factory wages in Ethiopia can be about $40 a month, less than 10 percent the level in China.”

While this trend accelerates, some speculate that the election of Donald Trump will turn the US toward economic isolationism, and likely away from foreign aid as well. Enter China. So here are some questions I want my students to consider and research:

  • Will workers in China feel their jobs are being “taken” by Kenyans or Ethiopians?
  • Will most Chinese people feel proud that wages have risen to this point?
  • Will such outsourcing mean migration patterns will shift? Is it possible those looking for work might move instead to nearby countries where new jobs are created by this new wave of globalization?
  • What is the relationship between China’s huge infrastructure projects in Sub-Saharan Africa (see here and here, for example) and the potential shift of manufacturing jobs from China to places like Ethiopia, Egypt, and Zambia?

Another theme of my course will be the globalization of waste and pollution: carbon dioxide and methane, of course, the gyres of trash in the ocean, and also microbeads and microfibers. Microfibers are especially of interest in Oregon, where I teach, because Patagonia is a popular and respected clothing company here. It is from synthetic clothing, like Patagonia’s “fleece” jackets, that microfibers come.

For years I have asked students to trace a pair of shoes and a favorite shirt or jacket back to the factory where it was made. This leads to all sorts of discoveries about the transparency of companies and the hollowness of unenforced “codes of conduct” for contracted factories, more window-dressing than anything else.

On this assignment, Patagonia has always stood out. The environmental and supply chain sect602790951_1280x720ion of its website is so detailed, I have considered not allowing students to study this company. But now there is increased concern about the impact of microfibers on the environment: they apparently become lodged in the bodies of fish, literally entering our food supply. Microfibers also carry bacteria and other pollutants.  How will this highly responsible company respond? (Click the image here for a terrific, if academic, podcast on microfibers.)

Once we really master the issue–which plastics are going where, such as when we wash a fleece jacket–perhaps my students can create a report tracing their clothing not only back to the factory but also forward into the food and water supplies! Then we will come up with an action step, which I want them to develop. Some ideas to get started:

  • ask a speaker from Patagonia to visit our class and ask them what their plans are for combatting pollution from their clothes;
  • look into other, similar clothes that don’t shed as many fibers;
  • lobby the state government for regulation;
  • put together some sort of information program/guide for teens.

We may decide to work on a different, related issue, like banning bottles with caps from area schools; or working on an ordinance in nearby Beaverton, Oregon, to ban single-use plastic shopping bags, as nextdoor Portland has.

The link just above leads to a short video about how bottle caps from bottled drinks are ending up in the stomachs of the birds of the Pacific Ocean. On the island of Midway, once the site of a great battle between the American and Japanese navies, seabirds like albatross are dying at alarming rates. As their bodies decompose, it becomes clear that their stomachs are full of plastic, especially bottle caps. Is this the outcome of a new kind of imperialism? The great global powers are no longer competing for colonies as they once did, but they nevertheless directly impact helpless and harmless places all over the world, now through our environmental carelessness.

Postscript: Here is a recent article on the Trump Administration’s possible change to policy in Africa.








Global Identity and Globalization in 2017: Thoughts and Resources


A Syrian family, a month from home, pauses to rest in a makeshift shelter in Croatia, as they await a train for Hungary. We cannot hide the images and stories of migration from our students, but what do we want them to learn? Image from Global Oneness Project.


As 2016 draws to a close, those of us who teach about global issues, global competence, global skills, or global citizenship are trying to figure out how to proceed. Here is a partial list of relevant issues in the news this year:

The meaning of nationalists, often ethnic nationalists, taking power, or assuming greater political roles, across the global North;

The impact of the migration crisis on politics in Europe;

The withdrawal of Gambia, Burundi, and South Africa from the International Criminal Court;

The fate of the European Union after the Brexit vote and the success of Euro-sceptics across the continent;

The impact of the election of Donald Trump on international agreements, especially regarding climate change and Sino-American relations;

The fate of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Here may be the central question for educators that arises out of the year’s news: Does the advent of Brexit and Trump foretell the decline of global identity and global citizenship?

It goes without saying that many politicians in the global North and elsewhere are seeking power by invoking populist themes. In many developed nations, political passions have shifted and venerable anxieties about economics, immigration, crime have settled around the issue of national sovereignty. This means that issues such as ocean acidification and air pollution–topics which don’t privilege nationalism–are pushed aside by politicians and the press alike in favor of talk of terrorism and borders.

In our everyday lives, however, we experience globalization in a number of sometimes-contradictory ways simultaneously. While politicians warn about terrorism and “open borders,” marketers and business consultants prepare brands and companies for a global marketplace and worried citizens seek relief on Facebook and Instagram. Even those that vote for nationalist candidates enjoy their access to an ever-increasing array of consumer goods and media. This isn’t hypocrisy–it’s our current condition. But how can political nationalism–or in some places religious fundamentalism–coexist with globalization in nearly every other aspect of life?

A case in point in US President-elect Donald Trump who, according to CNN,  “has about 150 companies that have had dealings in at least 25 countries outside of the US, including Turkey, China, Saudi Arabia, and Azerbaijan.” Yet as a politician, Trump says this:

We hear a lot of talk about how we are becoming a “globalized world.” But the relationships that people value in this country are local. Family, state, country. They are local. …

There is no global anthem. No global currency. No certificate of global citizenship. We pledge allegiance to one flag and that flag is the American flag.

From now on it is going to be: America First. Okay? America first. We’re going to put ourselves first.

1024px-photo_of_earth_flagIt is not Trump’s job to square these facts. He has business partners all over the world but his rhetoric uses nationalism and nostalgia that is exclusive and exclusionary.

The rhetoric our schools use to talk about these issues matters. Are we preparing “global citizens?” Are we readying our students with “21st-century skills” to compete in a global market? The latter here appears more palatable to the powerful in American education: there is no threat to populist emotion to assert that students will be trained to outperform others from around the globe in terms of innovation and entrepreneurship. American leaders then try to thread the needle, seamlessly connecting personal and national success.

On the masthead the White House’s page on education, President Obama is quoted as saying, “If we want America to lead in the 21st century, nothing is more important than giving everyone the best education possible — from the day they start preschool to the day they start their career.” In terms of primary and secondary education, the Obama White House argues that, “To create an economy built to last, we need to provide every student with a complete and competitive education that will enable them to succeed in a global economy based on knowledge and innovation.” Not empathy or justice or service, but competition and economic success. Even American progressives funnel global identity into the rhetoric of business.

This is not so everywhere The Finnish National Board of Education defines education in strikingly different terms:

The key words in Finnish education policy are quality, efficiency, equity and internationalisation. The basic right to education and culture is recorded in the Constitution. The policy is built on the principles of lifelong learning and free education. Education is seen as a key to competitiveness and wellbeing of the society.

Finns then don’t deny the reality of economic competition, but it isn’t rooted in a zero-sum game that leads to treating the education of the young as a race to prepare workers to fend for themselves in a cut-throat and now global race.

It is clear that people’s work is interconnected as never before.  Smartphones and shipping containers, logistics and free-trade zones have connected producers, marketers and consumers together as never before and these processes don’t appear to be slowing. Culturally, the same platforms have similarly linked us. My students in Oregon listen to K-Pop and Hindi Pop while teens in Korea and India watch “Game of Thrones” on Netflix.

As a teacher, I am wondering where the world is headed. What skills and knowledge do my students need in order to work in a global marketplace–of ideas as well as products. And how will the shifting political and economic sands alter their sense of self, of identity?


What follows are resources compiled with educators in mind, to further investigate these issues. Some of this material is taken from Here are the categories:

discussion questions on global identity/citizenship and their challengers;

links to recent journalism on these topics;

links to readings on global education and global citizenship; and

links to organizations that support global identity and citizens, especially in terms of education.

Discussion Questions

brexitvotebyageLook at the age breakdown of the Brexit vote: why are young Britons apparently so much more international in outlook than those over 50? Might it suggest that the vote may someday be reversed?

Is it possible to choose which globalizations we want? In other words, can we have the global flow of capital and information without the global flow of people and identities?


Can teachers educate students to succeed in a global economy without altering their identity as citizens? Can we have a global economy and globalized culture without global citizenship?

Are global and national identities at odds? Does an increase in one mean a decrease in the other? And does dedicating oneself to putting one’s nation “first” help or hurt people abroad?

Recent Articles on Challenges to Global Identity and Globalization

BBC News Hour, “Trade Wars: The End of Globalisation?” 25 Nov 2016. A good primer on economic globalization and its current challengers.

Jim Butcher, “Global Citizens Versus the People,” Spiked, 7 December 2016.

Daily Star (Lebanon), “Will the Assault on Globalization Continue in 2017?” 17 December 2016.

The Economist, “The New Nationalism,” 19 November 2016.

James Hitchings-Hales, “A Global Citizen’s Guide to Proper New Year’s Resolutions,” Global Citizen, 16 December, 2016.

Readings on Global Education and Global Citizenship

Richard M. Battistoni, Nicholas V. Longo, Stephanie Raill Jayanandhan, “Acting Locally in a Flat World: Global Citizenship and the Democratic Practice of Service-Learning,” Journal of Higher Education Outreach and Engagement, Volume 13, Number 2, p. 89, (2009). This article offers useful examples of colleges connecting the global and the local, especially in terms of service learning.

Michael Byers, “Are You a Global Citizen? Really? What Does That Mean?” The Tyee, 2005. Byers is a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia. This essay may be a good way of thinking about how global citizenship is and isn’t defined.

Tara Nuth Kajtaniak, “10 Key Terms for Global Education.” This handy page offers definitions for words we hear a lot, including “global citizenship,” “global competencies,” and “globalization.” It offers links to authoritative sites where many of the definitions originate as well.

Jen Chavez-Miller, “Themes of Global Education in Finland,” 2015. This page looks at both the big picuture of global education in Finland as well as at a couple of specific school Jen visited as a Fulbright grantee in Finland.

Kyra Garson, “Ethical Considerations for Internationalization: Perspectives from Global Citizenship Education,” Canadian Bureau for International Education, CBIE PhD Research Series, 2012. Considers the ethical dilemmas and institutional barriers to meaningful global education at the college level.

Ronald C. Israel, “What Does it Mean to be a Global Citizen?” Kosmos Journal for Social Transformation, 2012.

“The National (Canada) Youth White Paper on Global Citizenship.” By the Centre for Global Citizenship Education, The Centre for Global Education and TakingITGlobal, 2015.

Fernando Reimers (Harvard Univ.), “What education for what world? ” at UNESCO Bangkok, October 2015 (video),

Global Identity and Global Citizenship–Groups and Organizations

Global Citizen. This is a great site for reading about global issues and for thinking about what it means to be a global citizen. It has thematic sections (Girls and Women, Education, Health, etc) and encourages activism in many ways.

Global Citizenship Institute. A week-long summer program run out of St. Mark’s School in Massachusetts in conjunction with the Salzburg Global Seminar in Austria. It’s goal is to “educate and support faculty and students from public, private and international secondary schools as they learn ways to become engaged global citizens actively working to solve problems of global and local significance.”

Global Collaboration Day’s Page on Global Education Resources is terrific. It has links to organizations. conferences, and other useful resources for teachers.

Global Oneness Project: “Founded in 2006, the Global Oneness Project offers free multicultural stories and accompanying lesson plans for high school and college classrooms.” The materials are aligned with US Common Core standards. They are also well organized into categories including migration, climate, vanishing cultures, nature, etc.

TakingITGlobal: “TakingITGlobal is one of the world’s leading networks of young people learning about, engaging with, and working towards tackling global challenges.” The site offers free, downloadable “action guides” on a series of topics, including climate change and HIV/AIDS. They are a bit out of date but offer some useful frameworks for a large-scale project.

A Quick Historical Primer on Standing Rock for Teachers and Educators Outside the US.


This evening the Department of the Army in the US announced that the Dakota Access Pipeline would not immediately be completed. According to the New York Times, “the Department of the Army announced that it would not allow the pipeline to be drilled under a dammed section of the Missouri River.” This news has been welcomed with joy by the Sioux and their allies, but it is unclear if the pipeline will merely be re-routed away from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation or if its completion is in doubt.

The crude oil pipeline, called the Dakota Access Pipeline, stretches almost 1900 km across the north-central US, from North Dakota to Illinois, where crude oil is to be transferred to railroad and then refineries. One sobering thought for those who oppose the pipeline is that President-elect Donald Trump not only approves of the pipeline, he also owns stock in the company constructing it.

To those outside the United States, and for many in the US as well, the legal relationship between the federal government and the 562 federally recognized Indian tribes can be confusing. This is at the heart of this conflict, as is the history of the US government’s treatment of Native American rights.

To begin, there is the issue of the sovereignty of Indian nations. The Bureau of Indian Affairs describes the relationship between tribes and the government this way:

“The relationship between federally recognized tribes and the United States is one between sovereigns, i.e., between a government and a government. This ‘government-to-government’ principle, which is grounded in the United States Constitution, has helped to shape the long history of relations between the federal government and these tribal nations.”

Even so, tribal sovereignty has been eroded by the states and the federal government over the centuries and the text of the Constitution, which recognizes tribes as nations separate from the United States, has given way to a loose hierarchy of federal law over tribal law over state law. So tribal is usually considered superior to the laws of the states (in which Indian reservations are encircled), but this tribal over state supremacy has, by custom, become less the matter of innate sovereignty on the part of the tribes but more because Congress allows it.

At Standing Rock, the first treaty between the US and the Sioux that has relevance to the conflict today is the 1851 Treaty signed at Ft. Laramie. This was intended to bring to an end the violence between the US, its citizens, and the many tribes/bands who signed it. It reserved the area inside the purple line on the map above.

In 1868, another treaty promised the Black Hills to the Sioux forever. (Now they are home to Mount Rushmore National Monument and several other cities, towns, and parks.) More or less immediately after the 1868 treaty, more whites moved into this protected land in part because of mineral strikes. In the process, they killed so many buffalo that tribes clashed with each other as they moved around trying to find more bison on which their civilizations survived. As you can see (though the font is small on the map) these and other stolen lands, promised by treaty, were taken by the US between 1877 and 1910.

The Sioux have never ceded this territory. In 1980, “the Supreme Court awarded eight Sioux tribes $106 million in compensation–the 1877 value of $17.5 million, plus interest. This was payment for what the court called ‘a taking of tribal property.'” This money is still in the bank. The Sioux don’t want it. They want the Black Hills, which are sacred and, I would argue, legally theirs. By 2011, the money in the account was $1.3 billion. A resolution this year in South Dakota House State Affairs Committee to return much of the Black Hills to the Sioux instead was defeated unanimously.

Okay, to the north of the Black HIlls, there are two issues with Dakota Access as far as I can tell. First, it appears the northeastern boundary of the 1851 map is not agreed upon and some people claim the pipeline is slated to run on Indian land.


You can see Standing Rock on the map at the top of this post. The top right part does look a bit different than the map here. I’m not sure. A Reuters article I found helpful states: “The current route runs within half a mile of the reservation. Protesters on Monday said the land in question was theirs under the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1851, which was signed by eight tribes and the U.S. government.” Whether on or off the reservation, the construction of the pipeline apparently destroyed a number of culturally important sites and destroyed several gravesites, despite public testimony about the sites in federal court days before.

The other issue is water. Millions get their drinking water from the Missouri River, which the pipeline will cross adjacent to the reservation. Also, beneath the ground is the Ogallala Aquifer, on which many Sioux are dependent for water and over the which the pipeline runs. The same is true of the also controversial Keystone Pipeline and the Sioux and neighboring tribes were already fighting that pipeline for similar reasons.

The land ownership issue seems like it could be settled without rubber bullets. I don’t know how any new pipeline could be built in that part of the world without concern for subterranean water. But I can’t see the Sioux winning the long game here. The pipeline is almost completed and it is unlikely the US won’t find a way to let it go forward. The United States has such a poor record of recognizing Native American sovereignty, especially where valuable natural resources are involved, that it is difficult to be optimistic about the ultimate ability of the Sioux to control their own water.

Tim Walker on Finnish Teachers in American Schools

I met Tim Walker in Martinlaakson lukio in Vantaa. In fact, we met in the classroom of Pekka Puera, a math teacher who is something of a rock star in Finnish education circles and whose methods have inspired many of the changes I’ve made to my teaching this fall.

Students in Jyväskylä spend a Saturday morning ice fishing with their teacher

For the past few years, Tim has been writing from the perspective of an American educator living and working in Finland. His current piece for the Atlantic offers a view from the other side, from Finnish teachers who come to the US and try to ply their trade in American schools.

Tim has written in the past about time and how it alters education in the States. Education here usually seems rushed, compressed, stressed by the amount of content (and skills) teachers feel they must cover in order to fulfill extrinsic sets of standards and goals. Another interesting theme in Tim’s articles on time, stress and the difference between the US and Finland is the American emphasis on planning. American teachers are often compelled to produce detailed plans for every lesson; others are instructed that the most thoroughly “scaffolded” lessons are the highest quality. The upshot of this is untold hours of time spent documenting the process of teaching, rather than creatively responding to student’s input and questions, developing new teaching methods, or carrying on other forms of professional development. This is compounded by the number of hours American teachers spend in classroom plus the ever-changing litany of initiatives they must conform to, including Common Core. As one teacher Tim interviewed put it: “I feel rushed, nothing gets done properly; there is very little joy, and no time for reflection or creative thinking (in order to create meaningful activities for students).”

Much of this, as Tim writes in his new piece, boils down to the issue of trust. (“Trust” is a word I heard over and over during my time in Finland. It is used to describe not only relationships between teachers and students or teachers and administrators, but across society in general.) A few years back, I made a little extra income by designing daily lesson plans for a school district in Kansas. Each plan was to conform only to a particular set of desired outcomes, rooted in state standards. When I attempted to include materials which linked issues in American history to the present day ( such as relating the first-wave feminists movement to contemporary women’s issues), I was kindly asked to remove them. Worse, the poor teacher who received my lesson plans was told (by design) exactly what to write on the board and what questions to ask the students. This for someone with a college education and a state teaching certificate! This is not how we expect doctors or electricians to behave, so why teachers?

Tim points out that simply handing American K-12 teachers autonomy is probably not the answer. Such a move has to be coupled with changing the pool of applicants for teaching jobs. But federal and state governments will have to do more than pass another set of “standards” if they wish to break the vicious cycle of long days, shrinking pay, low social status, and burnout.

Check out all Tim’s great writing for the Atlantic on education in Finland and the USA here.

The Education Commission Report on “the Learning Generation”

This report points out the promise of funding education in the poorer nations–and the problems that will came if we don’t. It is striking that even at this moment of increased globalization, international aid for education is falling.

As an American, I am struck by this passage: “Historical analysis shows that inequality fuels unrest and when educational inequality doubles, the probability of conflict more than doubles. Unrest is likely to be greatest where the gap between youth expectations and daily realities is widest.” So as my nation–like much of Europe–turns inward, the selfishness that elites use to deride “globalization” could well lead to greater international conflict.

Source: the Learning Generation | the Education Commission Report