Building Bridges to El Salvador: A Model Global Curriculum
Post written by Kerry Dunne and AnitaCristina Calcaterra
We are so proud of the Arlington, Massachusetts, global education unit of study on our sister city of Teosinte, El Salvador! But before you read about it from us, please let three of our 4th graders tell you what they have learned about Teosinte:
Arlington is a densely populated urban/suburban town bordering Cambridge, Mass. We house a diverse population that includes immigrants from all over the world, and our students range from children who have parents who are both professors to children who are non-literate, new arrival refugees. We would like to highlight our global education focused interdisciplinary initiative that could be replicated by any school or community with a sister city or partner school elsewhere in the world.
Why El Salvador and Why 4th Grade?
During El Salvador's violent civil war of the 1980s, a number of towns across the United States took a stand against the Reagan administration's support of the Salvadoran regime that had, among other heinous acts, been implicated in the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero and six Jesuit priests. These towns, including Arlington, each adopted a rural Salvadoran community that had been decimated by government-supported troops during the war. Arlington was assigned the mountain village of Teosinte, home to about 50 extended families. With the support of community volunteers in Arlington, this sister city relationship has maintained its vibrancy, with annual fundraisers in Arlington used to support high school tuition of students in Teosinte, community service and exchange trips from Arlington to Teosinte, and events such as Spanish language concerts at the town hall that draw broad interest and involvement from families interested in exposing their children to another language and culture.
Massachusetts' state frameworks for social studies (PDF) focuses on the study of North American geography in 4th grade. In developing our local curriculum for 4th grade, a team of teachers decided that in addition to studying the five regions of the United States, students should also study another North American nation in order to add a global component to an otherwise United States-centered year. Because of our community's sister city tie to Teosinte, El Salvador, and because there is a large central American and Salvadoran immigrant population in Eastern Massachusetts, we selected El Salvador as our nation of focus.
A Six Week Unit (and So Much More!)
Our teachers worked together to develop an all-new unit of study on El Salvador. In addition to learning about El Salvador's political and physical geography, culture, and history, we had a clear goal of having Arlington's 4th graders feel a connection to their counterparts in Teosinte. We also sought to make this unit more than a pure social studies unit by integrating English language arts objectives such as close reading of non-fiction and informational writing.
To this end, a key student activity in our unit on El Salvador is that each 4th grader drafts a letter to students studying in Teosinte's village school, telling their Salvadoran counterparts about Arlington and asking questions about Teosinte. Each of our 24 fourth grade classrooms then use students' individual first drafts to create one "class letter." Each of the 24 "class letters" are sent to our Spanish department at Arlington High School, where a Spanish teacher guides her high school students in translating the letters into Spanish. The letters, in English and Spanish, are sent to Teosinte along with donations of Spanish language books and classroom materials for the village school. At the end of our unit of study, we receive letters from students in Teosinte responding to our class letters. This is a very exciting day for our 4th graders! Many of the students in Teosinte also enclose carefully drawn illustrations of their daily life in their village.
Over the years, as our school exchange deepens, our curriculum has as well. We use Bobbie Kalman's excellent non-fiction texts on El Salvador as non-fiction reading by our students, and we ask our students to use these texts as well as other resources to research and present what they have learned about El Salvador.
Parent volunteers affiliated with our sister city organization visit each of our 24 4th grade classrooms to lead an exciting one hour simulation-based lesson where the parent volunteers act as "pilots" leading the 4th graders on a "flight" where they receive an aerial tour of El Salvador. Through a grant from our local education foundation, six of our 4th grade teachers were able to travel to Teosinte where they stayed in homes of villagers and taught as guest teachers in the community school. These six teachers have remained in contact with Teosinte's community school teachers, exchanging emails about pedagogy and even holiday cards.
The newest addition to our curriculum unit involves the integration of technology. Teosinte does not yet have the infrastructure for Internet communication, but it will soon, and already teachers in Teosinte have begun to lay the ground work for real-time classroom exchanges via Skype by traveling to a nearby city with high-speed Internet capability. Within a few years, we will be able to have shared lessons conducted via Skype, where our Arlington students and their Teosinte counterparts are able to teach each other English and Spanish, and ask questions directly of each other in real time.
The teachers and community members of Teosinte have frequently told our sister city volunteers that their connection with Arlington is incredibly special to them. Quite simply, it makes residents of their village feel that they are part of a larger world, and that they are important. Interestingly, this is exactly how the the curriculum unit and letter exchange makes our Arlington 4th graders and their teachers feel as well. This unit is a highlight of elementary school for our students; one that they remember for years to come, and one that affects their perception of our world. We'd encourage all schools to consider forging a similar connection, and developing a curriculum unit of study that allows for building understanding between people and places in disparate parts of the world.
Kerry Dunne, EdD, is the K–12 Social Studies Director for the Arlington Public Schools and AnitaCristina Calcaterra is a 4th grade teacher at Brackett Elementary School in Arlington, Mass. Connect with Dunne on Twitter at @dunneteach and Calcaterra at @MsCalcaterra.