Globalizing the Classroom

December 21, 2017


As we come to the close of 2017, and the temperature drops, I find myself reflecting on the warmer months. Summers are a time for rest and relaxation, but also growth for teachers. Some of my summer highlights were family time traveling out of state to see our grown-up sons, taking long walks on the beach with my wife Beth, backpacking in the White Mountains with my dad and daughter, coaching my son’s baseball team and my daughter’s ski team, along with getting a Corgi puppy named Odessa! However, a key part of many teachers summers is valuable professional development. I went to a workshop called “Cities and Our Urbanizing World” at Harvard University which was part of their global outreach program. My experience was supported by the Stowell Family professional development award, which is given to a Gould faculty member each year.

The workshop at Harvard was both a journey into the future of our globalizing world and a journey into my past. One afternoon as I ran along the Charles River, my mind wandered from the workshop topic to my involvement in urban issues in college in the last 1980’s. As I walked upstairs in the “squat,” I was shocked to see dozens of people living in the abandoned city-owned high-rise apartment building. In hushed tones, the squatters explained to me how they had illegally tapped into the NYC’s power and water lines. They pointed out the gentrification that was sweeping across the Lower East Side. As I interviewed them and filmed the anti-gentrification protests and marches at Tompkins Square Park, my mind grappled with the complex issues of gentrification and squatting in New York City in the 1980’s. These issues would reach their climax in the Tompkins Square Park riots of 1988. In some ways, it was a long way from my “Law and Society” class at UMass-Amherst with Professor John Brigham, but in other ways, it was not far at all. Professor Brigham had suggested that I go down to Manhattan and help create a documentary on the squatter’s rights movement. While in his class, I was working at UMass’s student-run television station and I loved filming politically charged documentaries along with musical events like when Phish played at the student union ballroom.

The Tompkins Square Park Riots of 1988. Photo by Q. Sakamaki.

I hadn’t thought a lot about my collegiate involvement with urban issues like gentrification and squatting on the Lower East Side of New York City until my experience at a workshop for teachers at Harvard a few weeks ago this summer. This experiential learning, or “learning by doing” was some of the most powerful learning of my college career. It came back to me in waves as I took part in the workshop at Harvard. For me, it was both a journey into the future and a journey through the past.

I was working alongside 40 to 50 excellent teachers from all over the country—from public schools in big cities and private schools in rural areas. Experts on urbanization spoke about the growth of slums, urban architecture, informal economies, globalization, poverty, and environmental sustainability. In 2010, the world passed a tipping point, over 50% of the world’s people now live in urban areas. The most rapid urbanization in human history, and it’s reshaping our world. We discussed urbanization issues like inequality, housing, transportation, and environmental sustainability in small learning groups and thought about how to incorporate the ideas into our teaching. Teaching at a boarding school in a small town in a rural corner of the most rural state in the US, with students from some of the biggest cities around the world is a great opportunity for growth on both sides.

Because curating new and old music is one of my hobbies, I created a soundtrack for the conference on our urbanizing world to share with my fellow participants. The Talking Heads songs “Cities” and “Once in a Lifetime” are bookends to the playlist. Like literature or journalism, music for me is a way to gain perspective about political ideas, historical concepts, and economic processes. It’s also a way for me to gain perspective on the world and my place in it.

I came away from the workshop with many ideas on how to incorporate the important contemporary issues of urbanization into our curriculum at Gould. I’ve already shown the short film “The Future of Cities” by Oscar Boyson in my AP Comparative Government and Politics class. The film was part of my homework for the workshop at Harvard and gives a very relevant and thoughtful perspective on the future of global urbanization. Focusing on urbanization, I was able to bring to life the somewhat abstract concept of the “state” in political science. My students were quickly able to connect the role of the state in shaping urbanization in the cities of our future. They were also able to see the role of the state in shaping the post-American World through our summer reading book of the same name by Fareed Zakaria. I will be using some of the readings from the workshop, and I also picked up several thinking routines from Harvard’s Project Zero program. 

Perhaps most personally, the workshop gave me a deeper appreciation of the privileges of my life. Chance and old-fashioned good luck play a huge and often overlooked, role in our lives. Someday, you may find yourself in a large unfamiliar city, left to wonder how you got there. It is easy to shut the door and get lost in your own life, and not to look at your life from a global perspective. I was reminded this summer that the best education is that which starts in the classroom but then extends to action in the world and enriches the purpose and meaning of our lives.

Brad Clarke
Dr. Clarke is the Associate Dean of Academics and History Department Chair at Gould. He loves his family, trail running, playing baseball, and his epic collection of vinyl records.

Leave a Reply