Questions are the Answer

A high school teacher poses the question, "What is global literacy?"

By S.J. Childs

Locate Brazil on a map. Identify the main points of the Treaty of Versailles. Recognize one of four pictures as the Parthenon.

These are what the proponents of standardized testing might tell you is global literacy. But memorizing a bunch of facts is not global literacy. Being able to read the world is much more than being able to read a map. Recently, my students helped me to a deeper understanding of global literacy.

We were halfway through the third quarter of Junior Global Studies at Franklin High in Portland, Ore. I wanted to “do a unit” on Colombia and the U.S. aid package (Plan Colombia). But I didn’t have the time or energy to develop a new role play or a fancy simulation. I had a good videotape and a few articles I had gotten from a variety of sources. But I wasn’t sure how I was going to use them. It would come to me, I told myself as I walked into the classroom.

I fell back on an old teacher standby — the pre-unit brainstorm. I asked students what they already knew about Colombia and what they wanted to know.

They made their list of what they already knew. It wasn’t much. Out of two classes, most students were able to tell me: Colombia is in South America; it grows coffee; the people are Spanish-speaking. A few were able to tell me that it grows marijuana and cocaine. Two knew that there was some drug war going on; and only one knew that the United States was involved and that there are some rebel/guerrilla groups involved.

Given everything in the news and all over the Internet on Colombia, their knowledge was hardly impressive. If some outsider had come in and listened to this or tested my kids in the usual way, he would have been very disappointed at what the students knew and clearly didn’t know. But some outsider would have been wrong.

Next came the “what do you want to know” part of the activity. This is where kids are supposed to ask a few interesting questions that help them buy into the unit as a whole. This is where I am supposed to cross my fingers and hope that they don’t just ask “What food do they eat?” or “What is the capital?” There was no need for finger-crossing. The way I framed the question helped. I asked, “Given what we have studied this year and what you already know about the world, what questions do you have about Colombia?”

My course is designed around the theme of globalization — from colonialism to modern economic imperialism. We study its effects on cultures and the environment, its relationship to race and power, who benefits and who does not, and the nature of resistance. We had studied the destruction of the rainforest in Ecuador through oil drilling. We had studied colonialism in Africa. We had studied the IMF/World Bank and structural adjustment programs. We had studied the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa and the challenges faced by the post-apartheid government. And while I mention these things now, I did not remind students.

I discovered that what we had learned had changed the way the students saw the world. Here is a list of the questions they came up with, without any prompting other than my original question:

  • Is coffee a cash crop?
  • Has it been colonized?
  • What were the effects of colonization?
  • How much does Colombia owe to the IMF/World Bank?
  • Is the rebellion connected to poverty created by the International debt?
  • Is the cocaine industry the result of poverty created by IMF policy?
  • What are the living conditions?
  • Do they have rainforest?
  • What resources do they have that the US and others want?
  • Is oil there?
  • Is the US or Colombian government subsidizing the coke trade?
  • What is a drug war?
  • Why and how is the US and its military involved?
  • How does the drug war benefit the US?
  • What ethnic/culture groups are there?
  • How are they differently affected by development and exploitation by the industrialized world?
  • To what extent is the US responsible for the civil war?
  • How is the drug war and our involvement affecting neighboring countries?

As they shouted out the questions, I wrote them on the board, hardly able to keep up, madly erasing the previous week’s scrawls to make room. As I wrote, my smile widened. I was impressed. I could tell from their faces they had no idea what they had just done. They knew almost nothing about Colombia, but they knew what questions to ask. They were on their way to becoming globally literate.

I made sure they did understand what had just happened. “When you leave my classroom, when you have no one to give you articles or have you do a role play or show you films, you now have the key to understanding the world. You know what questions to ask. And now, whenever an unfamiliar place comes up in the news or you encounter the name of a country you know nothing about or you hear about a conflict half way across the world, ask yourself these questions.”

Some would say that the questions aren’t enough, and they are right. But the questions lead to answers that are far more than a bunch of isolated names and dates in history. The next step is helping students figure out where to look for answers, how to draw conclusions, how to make sense out of the complex scenarios and how to speak out.

And some, including myself, would say that even if questions were enough, students missed some crucial ones. They neglected to ask questions about how Colombia is stratified, especially along lines of race, class, and gender. Their questions were alert to the role of the IMF and the United States, but ignored asking about how Colombia fit in to regional trade and military dynamics. And, reflecting the emphasis of the course, their curiosity was perhaps overly economic, and not also focused on the texture of Colombian culture — music, art, dance, literature or traditional storytelling. Indeed this activity helped me to see the strengths of my course, but also which areas needed more emphasis and time.

The school year isn’t over yet. We still have nine weeks to cover sweatshop labor, the World Trade Organization and GATT, patents and food security, corporate control of the media, and alternatives for the future. To attempt to study all those issues in the remainder of the year may seem crazy, but grappling with the fundamental issues of the day, one never has enough time. Considering the global roots of injustice and possible alternatives is the work of a lifetime, not just a one-year course of study.

I hope when the class is over, my students will leave with more questions like the ones they asked about Colombia. Next year, I will make this sort of activity part of some end-of-the-year “Final Exam.” If I were in charge of writing a statewide assessment for Global Studies, this would be it. I would ask students to ask some questions. I now know that the best way to find out what my students know is to find out what questions they ask.

S.J. Childs ( teaches at Franklin High School in Portland, Ore.