Bringing Globalization Home

A high school teacher helps immigrant students draw on their own expertise

By Jody Sokolower

Illustrator: Gale Geltner

Illustration: Gale Geltner, Times of War and Peace

“Globalization is complicated,” I admitted to my 12th-grade economics class, all immigrants, all English language learners. “But migration is a key aspect of globalization, and every single one of you is an expert on migration. So we’re going to start our study of globalization with migration.”

I believed that starting with my students’ own immigration experiences would push them to a deeper emotional level. In my experience, deep emotions lead to deep learning. But I was worried, too. The class included students from Mexico and El Salvador who came to this country out of economic desperation. Other students, including individuals from Yemen, Japan, and Pakistan, came from more privileged backgrounds. I hoped I could lead in a way that the diversity would enrich our learning, not feed tensions based on class or culture.

It’s difficult to find good social science text sources for English language learners (ELLs). Writers and publishers tend to “accommodate” ELL students by eliminating the complexity and contradictions in the content. But limited English doesn’t mean limited capacity for critical thinking. I usually look for strong materials and then expand, rewrite, or excerpt as neRethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust Worldeded. I knew I wanted to use as the basis for my curriculum, but it needed adaptation for English language learners.

The first challenge was providing a definition of globalization that would tie the course together. My experience in a mainstream class the year before was that many students “got” pieces of globalization — like sweatshops and the World Trade Organization (WTO) — but never saw the system as a whole. They got the trees, but not the forest. I hoped that explaining the definition up front, posting it on the wall, and referring back to it periodically would help students keep both trees and forest in view. Unfortunately, there’s no simple, quick definition of globalization. After comparing definitions in a range of books and websites, I ended up writing my own:

Globalization — More than ever before in history, there is one world economy. This pressure toward one world economy is called globalization. Globalization is the struggle for control of the earth’s resources — natural resources, human resources, and capital resources. There are eight elements of globalization:Migration.Big companies are international companies.Resources are international.Free trade agreements.World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF).Sweatshops.Environmental problems.Increased communication among peoples — the basis for resistance.

Before I introduced the definition, we did a gallery walk: I created collages with three to five images representing each of the elements of globalization and posted them around the room. I asked students to circulate and look at each collage. Then I asked the following questions: What are five important details you see in this collage? What do you think this collage is about? What questions do you have about this collage? What questions does this collage raise about the world? We had a lively discussion of each collage and it helped me begin to explain the elements of globalization.

Then, as I promised that first day, we began with migration. We watched Uprooted: Refugees of the Global Economy, which introduces globalization in the context of three migration stories: Maricel from the Philippines, Luckner from Haiti, and Jessy and Jaime from Bolivia. As we watched the video, I asked students to take notes: Why did these people have to leave their countries? What were their thoughts and feelings about migrating? What problems did they have as immigrants? Is anything about their experiences similar to yours? Each time I stopped the video for discussion, common threads emerged: “Even though Maricel studied hard in school, there were no jobs for her — that’s just like in Pakistan.” “Jessy and Jaime missed their children so much — my father didn’t see us for 12 years.” “My uncle’s factory in El Salvador moved to Nicaragua — like Luckner’s moved to China.” “Everyone in the movie has problems with immigration papers — in my family some of us have papers to be here and some of us don’t — I feel scared all the time.” I used this opportunity to open a discussion about the many reasons why some immigrants don’t have legal documents. “In this class,” I concluded, “everyone is welcome, and we don’t want to put anyone in danger. Please be careful what you ask and what you share. And can we agree that what we discuss in class stays in class?” Everyone agreed.

Then we started to collect our own information. I sent students home with global migration oral interview worksheets. Their assignment was to interview a parent or older relative who had migrated to the United States. The interview questions were keyed to the elements of globalization. For example: What are the most important economic and natural resources in your country? Which resources are publicly owned? Privately owned? How has the economy changed in the past 20 years? Why did you migrate to the United States? I encouraged students to interview family members in their first language and then translate the answers into English.

My expectations for this activity were modest. I figured we’d gather some information about natural resources and industry that we could use later in the semester, and collect data on why people migrate. I included questions about which resources are publicly and privately owned to lay groundwork for our study of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) later in the semester, but I expected many question marks on the surveys.

Two days later, when students returned with the completed surveys, we posted the information on butcher paper and compiled it by region. As they waited for their chance to write their responses on one of the charts, the students spontaneously clustered in groups, watching the findings go up and tracking patterns. One pattern that emerged was how often families were separated by migration. Another was the career sacrifices parents make: Beza’s father had been a principal in Ethiopia but works as a teacher’s aide here; Maria’s father was an engineer in Pakistan, but here he does clerical work.

I was amazed at the depth of information we received and the time that parents and other relatives spent in sharing a wealth of experience and knowledge. We got great information on resources, public and private ownership, changes in the economy — everything. As an engineer in Pakistan, Maria’s father had a professional’s understanding of energy resources. Jose’s cousin knew firsthand about the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and how he and his family were forced off their land in Mexico when the price of corn fell year after year. Every family had personal stories and specific pieces of information that contributed to the global picture we were creating.

High school educators don’t talk much about the importance of the connection between home learning and school learning. The enthusiasm my students and their families demonstrated for this project made me realize what a mistake it is to ignore families as resources. This is particularly true for immigrant students, who sometimes feel they must leave their family and culture behind to “make it” in the United States.

One part of the survey that elicited rich results was the question “How has immigration to the United States affected your family?” Hamza’s father said, “[The positive effects are that] my family is getting a good education, jobs, and dreams come true. [The negative effects are that] my family has to work full-time during their studies. We have less time to spend in the house. We have less time to sit together and talk.” During our class discussion Delia said, “I never knew what it was like for my father when he first came from Mexico until I just asked him now. I had no idea how hard it was.”

I asked the students to use the information from their survey as background for writing the story of their own migration or the story of one of the people they interviewed. And I requested that all the stories be written in first person. I read them a couple sample immigration stories and gave them a word count (400 words). When the stories were complete, we read them aloud in small groups.

Building Community

Asking students to share the complexity and pain of their families’ migrations was a risk, but it did push class discussions to a deeper level as students shared their feelings and the feelings of their families. This deeper level of connection with the material built class community. As one student said in her end-of-year evaluation, “When I am sharing my ideas with the group, I feel very friendly because people are talking very nicely to each other — with respect, no racism.” It also enabled the students to engage with academic material that was very difficult for their level of English language development. The most marked result from my perspective was their willingness, spring of senior year, to think critically about the world economy.

One of the many strengths of Rethinking Globalization is the emphasis on rooting globalization in the history of colonialism. During our very first discussions of globalization, Jose asked, “Why are some countries so much richer than others?” Astri asked, “Why do some countries have so many resources and others so few?” I wanted to make sure that every student understood that power and wealth in the current situation is based on what happened during centuries of colonialism and imperialism.

The center of our study of colonialism was the “Six Building Blocks of Colonialism”: stealing resources, cash crops, factories instead of crafts, drawing borders, holding up the hierarchy and west is best (adapted from Rethinking Globalization, page 35). After we discussed the building blocks, students created booklets with drawings that illustrated each building block. From looking at the drawings, I could tell at a glance whether they understood the concepts.

Then we headed for the library. The assignment was to pick a country that was colonized and create a poster explaining how each of the six building blocks applied to that country’s history. The students worked in teams of two or three. Many of them chose their own countries and they brought their prior knowledge of colonialism to the patterns we discussed in class. The class discussion was broadened by history learned in schools in Pakistan, Mexico, Indonesia, Taiwan, China, Brazil, Yemen, and Japan. Faryal wrote the following:

It connects with my life because Pakistan and India were one country when the British came to take over. The British people made it very hard for my people and made conflict between them. Pakistan and India got separated. Some Indian people stayed in Pakistan with the Muslim people, and most of the Pakistani people are in India and can’t come to live with their own people. I learned a lot from this topic because now I actually know how and why everything happened.

Tackling ‘Free Trade’

One of the most complicated aspects of globalization is the role of the World Bank and the IMF. I was searching for a concrete and personal way to introduce structural adjustment policies and the IMF when my cousin reminded me that credit card debt balloons in very similar ways to IMF debt. What’s more important for young adults to understand than the pitfalls of those seductive pieces of plastic?

I downloaded a couple of credit card offers aimed at college students. We went through them line by line, defining terms and reading the small print together. Raymond, calculator in hand, showed us on the board what happens if you charge $1000, miss a payment, and then pay the minimum amount each month for a year.

This worked well as an introduction to Life and Debt in Jamaica, an excellent video on the role of the IMF, World Bank, and WTO policies on post-colonial Jamaica. The impact of IMF policies on the dairy industry, farming, banana plantations, and manufacturing are all illustrated in depth. Michael Manley, former president of Jamaica, explains why he felt he had to accept the IMF loan and conditions; IMF and World Bank leaders explain why they believe their policies are good for Jamaica; and Jamaican farmers, workers, and economists describe the impact on their lives and on the country. The voiceovers and accents are difficult for English language learners, so we went slowly and stopped frequently for interpretation and discussion. As we watched the video, students created dialogue journals. On the left side of the page, they recorded quotations and described significant images from the video. On the right side, they wrote personal reflections and reactions. Alvin applied his new understanding of free trade policies to migration from his homeland, Hong Kong:

In some countries, there are a lot of people with no jobs because their businesses were destroyed by free trade. Because of the problem of getting jobs, people immigrate to other countries and settle down there. In Hong Kong in 1997, the year it was returned to China, people were scared there would be a financial storm because free trade is changing China. That’s why people started immigrating to Canada or somewhere else.

One student’s reflections took the form of a poem:

Debt is like a deep and dark circle,
It has a way in, not a way out.

Debt is like a deep and dark circle,
It puts conditions on you.

Debt is like a deep and dark circle,
It makes you non-independent.

Debt is like a deep and dark circle,
It always goes up, but lets you go down.

Debt is like a deep and dark circle,
But you can come out by being together.

At the end of the semester, I gave the class a choice of culminating activities. Somewhat to my surprise, the students decided to create a text for English language learners on globalization. We brainstormed a list of the most important things we learned over the semester, and the students narrowed the list down to eight chapters:

  • What Is Economics?
  • Migration: We Are Part of Globalization
  • Colonialism: The Roots of Globalization
  • What Is Globalization?
  • The IMF and Poor Countries in Debt
  • Sweatshops, Free Trade, and Fair Trade
  • Globalization Means the Whole World Can Fight for Justice
  • Economics Is the Fight for Resources: The War in Iraq

I developed a framework for the chapters and an assignment sheet, and the students divided themselves into eight groups. Each group was responsible for developing a list of the information that should be included in their chapter and for assigning sections. In addition to the core information, each chapter included personal reflections, an illustration, focus questions, vocabulary, and activities. By now we were well into May of their senior year, but everyone wrote at least two drafts of their section and a reflection as well as collaborating with their teammates on the other pieces. The students submitted their final drafts on diskette or via email; I compiled and edited the final text. When we were finished, we had a 53-page spiral-bound book, Globalization: Economics in the 21st Century, Immigrant Students Teach Students.

My favorite part of the book is the reflections at the end of each chapter because there I can see the critical thinking process. For example, here Shoaib reflects on Chapter 4, “What Is Globalization?”

The big countries are getting stronger and more powerful, and small countries are getting weaker. The big countries are taking air, land, and a lot of resources from other countries. After learning all about globalization and the dilemmas of global trade, my point of view is that the world is getting worse and worse. With no tariffs on products, it seems like big countries have most of the power in the world. It is destroying the world economy. If I were the president of the United States, I would change all the world and make everyone equal. I would make the whole world one country and live in peace.

Next Steps

Of course the next step is to use the student-generated textbook with the next generation of students. Ideally there would be a progression, with each new class using the previous year’s text as a springboard for their own. Stay tuned…

On the end-of-year evaluation, I asked students what skills they thought they had improved. More than half of the responses were specifically related to critical thinking about the world. For example, “I’ve became more aware and sensitive about the changes of people’s lives because of economic problems.” “We understand what is the real meaning of migration. It was important to me because I also migrated to another country.” But the most exciting response was the suggestion from several students that we should have returned to look at the economies of their home countries in the light of their new understanding of globalization. Their eagerness to apply what we learned to re-analyzing the situation of their home countries is the best evidence of what we accomplished.

One aspect of the curriculum that didn’t work as well as I had hoped was the unit on resistance. After so much appalling information on the injustices of globalization, I hoped my students would feel excited by the opportunities that increased global connection provides for international solidarity. We read articles, researched organizations on the internet, and watched several videos, but this section lacked the fire and intensity of other parts of the semester. Next time I will integrate resistance into each unit; when it’s tacked on at the end, it just doesn’t work. I will also prioritize bringing in speakers (or maybe we’ll take a field trip to Bolivia!). One of my colleagues had an additional suggestion: Students need explicit support in going from classes with progressive, critical perspectives to “the rest of the world.” In other words, I need to help them navigate the distance between the view of globalization we studied and the one they may encounter in their next economics class.

When I decided to use the students’ own migration as the starting point for studying globalization, I was operating partly on instinct. I hoped it would engage students at the beginning, but I saw migration as an isolated “element,” one detached piece of the globalization story. I didn’t really grasp myself how central it was to the global web. It took the students and their parents to show me the way. Here is how Rizwana, Mariam, and Yaneli described the connection in their introduction to their chapter, “Migration Is Part of Globalization”:

Migration is part of the world economy today. It is a big piece of globalization. The changes in the world economy are good for some countries and bad for other countries. If there are no jobs in your own country or if there is a war, many people have to migrate to other places in the world. That is part of globalization. Because we are a class of students who were all immigrants to the United States, our family stories are a good way to begin to understand globalization.

We closed the year by writing poems to express our hopes for the future. Here is Delia’s:

The world shall be one nation
Where there is no discrimination for skin color
Where the word humanity has presence
As the water sparkling through the mountains

The world shall be unity
As the ants lining together form a group
Working for each other and helping each other

The world shall be never defeated
It shall be so strong that even
Wars or natural disasters won’t
Make it fall down

There shall be a world where
The words war, hatred and ambition
Don’t exist
Because the world shall be love, peace
Freedom and friendship.



Bigelow, Bill, and Peterson, Bob, eds. Rethinking Globalization: Teaching for Justice in an Unjust World. Milwaukee: Rethinking Schools, 2002.

Cho, Eunice, Paszy Puente, Francisco, Louie, Miriam, and Khokha, Sasha. Bridge: Building a Race and Immigration Dialogue in the Global Economy. Berkeley, CA: Inkworks Press, 2004.


Uprooted: Refugees of the Global Economy. National Network for Immigrant Rights and the Interfaith Coalition for Immigrant Rights, 2002. Bilingual with English/ Spanish subtitles.

Life and Debt. Stephanie Black, director. New Yorker Films, 2001.

Zoned for Slavery: The Child Behind the Label. National Labor Committee, 1995.

Jody Sokolower ( is a longtime anti-imperialist activist. She teaches history at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, Calif.