Sitting at a small table in a classroom at Omaha’s Montessori Children’s Room, 10-year-old Owen Fuesel, an Illinois native and current Omaha resident, and Fadel Tamba, a UNO political science major and native of Senegal, are engaged in deep conversation about Tamba’s home country.
“That’s the town where I grew up, see?”
“How far away is that from Togo?”
Owen is getting last-minute guidance from Tamba, a senior at UNO, ahead of the school Geographic Bee, which determines who might move on to the state-wide competition held at UNO in April. The lesson and Geographic Bee represent the culmination of a three-month pilot program between UNO and Montessori in 2017 called the Global Citizens Academy. UNO associate professor Ramazan Kilinc, a native of Turkey who teaches in the Department of Political Science, launched the program with the assistance of the head of Montessori’s Children’s Room, Mary Boden Anderson.
I think that if we have a program like this at school, so kids are exposed to meeting – and it can be any country – but if they meet someone from there, it sticks in their mind.
- Fadel Tamba, UNO Senior
“I was just looking for some opportunities for our international students to reach out to the community and to provide service through their backgrounds,” Kilinc says. “I know that the students here are very open to different cultures and programs.”
With support from a UNO Civic Participation Project grant, Kilinc and a group of 12 international students from Japan, China, India, Turkey, France, Togo, Senegal, Mexico and Columbia spent an hour each week, from October to December, with students ranging from fourth-through-sixth grade at the Montessori Children’s Room. Each week, the students from UNO provided lessons on their home countries with the help of small informational paper booklets, miniature flags and a map.
Through the effort, students from different generations, cultures and countries came together to share their experiences and find common ground in their similarities – and enjoyment in their differences.
“I had known that [the countries] existed, and I knew a good amount of facts, but there were a lot of new facts and things I learned through the visits like geography, climate, food and culture,” Owen says.
Programs like the Global Citizens Academy echo the efforts of the Montessori schools’ founder, Maria Montessori, from nearly a century ago. Following the first World War, the Italian-born scientist and educator saw similarities in authoritarian teachers and authoritarian rulers, believing if children had choices, they would not automatically follow rulers who waged war. One piece of this effort was to expose children to cultures different than their own.
“At the time, she was teaching teachers to not necessarily follow a strict, authoritarian-type teaching, but one that allowed children to have more choices,” Anderson says. “So, if you have students who have a little bit more free choice, hopefully they aren’t going to follow what happened in the World Wars.”
Choice was also important in putting together each lesson, which was designed not to be a lecture, but as an informal discussion where both the Montessori students and international students could interact and ask more questions. Because of this, each week was different and the focus of the questions constantly changed.
“Before I came to visit the students, Professor Kilinc shared some of the information that I was going to talk about and he guided me on some very important aspects to talk about, like what might be the difference between a child in Senegal and one here, but when I came in I was shocked at the very adult questions they were asking,” Tamba says. “For example, they asked if Senegal used the same type of money, the CFA, as other West African countries and if everybody speaks French.”
One of the elements that Kilinc says made the lessons unique was that after each country’s lesson, students would place miniature flag stickers on a large map of Omaha highlighting businesses and organizations with ties to that country. Even though the lessons formally ended in December, the map still hangs in the students’ classroom.
Owen says the variety of the cultures that each of the students was exposed to made the discussions stand out.
“If we only had a couple, then it wouldn’t have been as fun.”
Tamba says these lessons aren't just fun, they're also important. He remembers growing up in Senegal, learning about countries like the United States, and hopes more children here can learn about different places and cultures.
“We were very exposed, so we have a very diverse idea about the world and what it looked like outside of Africa, but coming here that is one of the first things that shocked me,” he says. “I think that if we have a program like this at school, so kids are exposed to meeting – and it can be any country – but if they meet someone from there, it sticks in their mind."
“I realized in our experiences that teaching about other countries is teaching about ourselves, because most of the questions we received were comparing the countries we were talking about with the United States, in terms of culture, in terms of geography, economics and so on,” he says. “I teach comparative politics, so I’ve always thought that way, but I was able to see it firsthand with these students’ questions.”
While there are no specific plans yet, Kilinc and Anderson hope to bring the Global Citizens Academy back to Montessori this fall. Kilinc hopes that this effort provides a framework that more schools can adopt throughout the metro area.
“The great thing about this project is that it is really all about making those connections. The information and materials aren’t expensive and it doesn’t take much time. All it takes is a willingness to reach out and learn someone else’s story.”