How to encourage global citizenship? Start with reading engagement

How to encourage global citizenship? Start with reading engagement

When I signed my 6-year old up for soccer, I figured I was giving him a head start in his athletic development. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that many of his peers had already been on the field for three years.  

I felt as many moms and dads of school-aged children must feel. The simple process of choosing extracurriculars feels more like a competitive arms race waged against fellow parents. From early on, we start feeling enormous pressure to mold our kids into accomplished individuals across many dimensions: academic, athletic, artistic and beyond, all in pursuit of a future college acceptance.

The phenomenon of the over-programmed childhood is real and dispiriting. Add to it the prevalence of personal screens and it can feel like students are spinning in their own little isolation chambers. It’s why, in my role at Newsela, I’m so drawn to stories of kids who set personal ambition aside in favor of working for the greater good.

There’s the young woman in California whose letters to Dignity Health and Alaska Airlines led them to dramatically cut their use of plastic straws. There’s the Colorado Girl Scout troop who brought an anti-smoking law they wrote to their city council, then worked with council members to help get it passed. Another Girl Scout troop worked to remove the name of a segregationist from a well-known landmark.

Reading these stories made me reflect with new perspective on how my kids spend time outside of school. Excelling in piano or ice skating are worthy pursuits, but what about community involvement? Maybe as parents we should be prioritizing activities that help our children understand the importance of being local and global citizens. But how? How do we help our kids, both inside and outside the classroom, become informed about the world and empowered to take action on issues that matter to them?

Looking back, we all remember the moments we realized there was a bigger world out there. For me, those moments began with the written word, and I still believe in the power of reading to create global citizens today. Reading helps us engage and identify with characters from vastly different backgrounds, characters who exhibit our same troubles, hopes and ambitions. Reading opens us up to the world and makes us feel a part of it.

Such reflection is key to developing global citizenship. And in exploring how children learn to understand themselves and others, I find it helpful to consider the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) framework. SEL starts by helping children understand their own emotional needs so they can understand and respond with empathy to the needs of others. In this journey from self-awareness to social-awareness, reading plays an important role: it allows us to recognize ourselves in a character or story, and to empathize with others who are different.

 The road to global citizenship

The road to global citizenship

This awakening to self and to others allows students to take their next step to becoming global citizens: developing skills like critical thinking, identifying evidence, and holding an argument in discussion or debate. Strong reading abilities—combined with an awareness of current socio-political events—also helps foster media literacy. When students are able to read sources critically, they can pull on relevant ones to support their arguments. They can also understand and appreciate different viewpoints, and determine which are based most strongly in fact.

Of course, teachers play a paramount role in preparing students to think critically and be engaged with the world around them. As a method that strives to help teachers support every student’s learning, Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) emphasizes techniques like creating an atmosphere of respect and letting students choose the issues that are relevant to them for classes to explore. CRT also relays the importance of valuing different student perspectives, and giving kids the confidence to engage in issues important to them.

When students can engage with reading, think critically, and identify issues important to them, it prepares them for the final step to global citizenship: taking action. Consider the Girl Scout troop, and the law they helped pass to ban smoking in cars when a child is present. They had both the passion and the tools they needed to be successful. They gathered evidence through research, formed an argument, and made a convincing case to the city council. When the opposition raised arguments about government regulation and unfair targeting of minorities and the poor, they worked to take those perspectives into consideration and made amendments.

Putting this in the context of Social-Emotional Learning, you see the full journey a child can take: from self-awareness to social-awareness, then to developing relationship skills and responsible decision-making. It’s a powerful combination, this understanding of ourselves and others, especially when combined with an awareness of the past and strong reading and critical thinking skills. Raising self-aware, socially engaged readers is one of the best ways we can defend our democracy for the future. This is why we read. This is why we teach books. By presenting students with characters to empathize with, histories to grapple with, and perspectives to consider, we instill in them the skills they'll need to lead.

So if all this means maybe saying no to the traveling soccer team and the twice-weekly piano lessons to give my kids space to read, to discuss and debate as a family, and to find opportunities to be active in our community, then that’s a choice I’m happy to make. Because ultimately, we’re talking about a real 21st century skill: in an ocean of information, the ability to make sense of it all; to make connections, draw conclusions, and take action on issues we care about. This is what I want for my own children - for them to find that spark that ignites curiosity about the wider world, and their role in it.

And, if they happen to score a few goals along the way - that will just be icing on the cake.

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