FEATURE STORY: A Global Perspective

By on May 13, 2015

Teton County students offered opportunities to impact the world

The evening news continues to shatter assumptions of a world working in perfect harmony. And our Facebook news feeds continue to confirm that today’s students face new challenges hardly realized even a decade ago.

Aside from reading, writing and arithmetic, students today are set to perform on global stages that require finely-tuned skills more often refined by experience, not books.

“Think about the students coming into college now, knowledge is cheap — if you want a fact, you Google it,” said Bryan Shader, a professor of mathematics at the University of Wyoming. “If you want knowledge and want to know how to use knowledge to make a difference, in some ways that’s about experiences. We need to concentrate on experiences as opposed to transfer of knowledge.”

In Jackson, experiences that are made available to students often change the trajectory of career paths, post secondary education goals and perspectives — molding students into leaders that see beyond the mountain peaks.

“Living in a place like Wyoming can feel isolated,” said Jordan Schreiber, a 2008 Jackson High School grad who now works as a Development Associate with J Street in Washington, D.C. “I feel like my world opened up with Model UN. It was the first time I gained a universal perspective.”

The American Dream
Whether the programs are offered through local businesses, statewide competitions or nonprofit clubs, Schreiber encouraged today’s students to give them a shot.

“Regardless of whether or not you’re interested, just try it,” Schreiber said. “It’s so important for students in Wyoming to gain these types of experiences.”

Shelby Combs, new executive director for IC21. (PHOTO: INTERCONNECTIONS21)

Shelby Combs, new executive director for IC21. (PHOTO: INTERCONNECTIONS21)

Case in point, Azadi Rugs may be a new business in the town, but the century-old fine rug company has supported the international nonprofit GoodWeave, an organization that has sought to eliminate child labor for decades. Trevor Ruffner, gallery director for Azadi in Jackson, introduced the American

Dream project this year, opening up an international partnership with local students and rug weavers in the Middle East.

“What we wanted to do was reach out to the community from the artist’s standpoint,” Ruffner said.

“We want to teach the community about how these rugs are made and inform people about what goes on in the Middle East and what GoodWeave is doing to open our eyes to their international work.” Ruffner took the American Dream to pARTners who pitched the idea to various classes in town.

Jackson High School government teacher Jim Rooks has two students who were chosen as finalists from a field of 30 submissions. The government teacher used the contest in his classroom this year as a supplemental project to a “We the People” competition, where students simulate a congressional hearing.

“Students should care about learning and it should be real,” Rooks said. “Authentic begets authenticity. When the topic is real and you are looking at real people, and people are drawn to real people, you have immediate student engagement. Experiential education goes hand-in-hand with authentic and real learning.”

The winning designer will have his or her art shipped to Pakistan where a professional weaver will spin the “American Dream” into a rug.

The program dovetailed with the “We the People” competition. The statewide civics program is another example of how teachers like Rooks are using programs to enrich and expand students’ learning.

“I had these kids that just got back from the ‘We the People’ [competition], which is very serious and a lot of work. Instead of just doing book work, I gave these students the opportunity to compete in the American Dream,” he said.

It was something completely different for the students who were neck deep in researching and analysis, he said.

Deeper connections for students are those made along the journey, he said. Rooks refers to this as “soft edges,” of learning — the process by which students learn empathy through dissecting an issue.

“When you turn them loose on an issue, they honor the complexity,” he said. “They walk out thinking that life isn’t so simple and that it’s super complex. The end result is that they love learning and are becoming passionate learners. For a lot of kids, when they are done with school, they are done. They see books and lectures as boring. For kids that participate, they end up knowing more of what they want to do in life. I think these experiences help them to see what they are good at.”

International affairs

Hailey Morton-Levinson may be the vice mayor of Jackson as a member of the town council, but it was programs like the Model UN that first piqued her interest for international flavors as a young student at Jackson High School.

Delegates during an unmoderated caucus as part of the Security Council committee for the Teton Model UN. PHOTO: INTERCONNECTIONS21

Delegates during an unmoderated caucus as part of the Security Council committee for the Teton Model UN. PHOTO: INTERCONNECTIONS21

“It was a really cool way to learn about other countries and role play as a diplomat and as someone from another country,” she said. “When I started, I didn’t think that way. I was in my own little world.

[With Model UN] I got to meet students from other places throughout the country.”
Morton-Levinson credited the Model UN program for her desire to study International Relations and Political Science at Georgetown University, where she graduated in 2008. As a college student she never anticipated moving back to her hometown of Jackson, she said, but is glad to serve as a public leader in a place she holds so dear.

“I was happy to come back and use my skills on the town council,” she added. “I didn’t do Model UN in college because college was a new level of work for me, but [Model UN] really helped me develop my research skills and critical thinking skills. That is not as exciting when you are a high school student but, looking back, it was very important.”

Shelby Combs’ experience was similar to Morton-Levinson’s. The newly-minted Executive Director for InterConnections21, the nonprofit that supports programs like Model UN, said it was Amnesty International that led her to a career in supporting other students’ desires to see the world on a larger scale.

“I was a product of programs like these,” Combs said. “Now I feel like I am doing a job that a kid coming out of these programs can do. You never now what [research] paper, program, or speaker will spark an interest for your future work.”

Delegates vote as part of the General Assembly during the Teton Model UN competition. PHOTO: INTERCONNECTIONS21

Delegates vote as part of the General Assembly during the Teton Model UN competition. PHOTO: INTERCONNECTIONS21

Her studies and work have led her to Thailand, Belgium, China, South Korea and Jackson Hole. After time spent as a global studies faculty member at the Journeys School, Combs now shifts her attention to the IC21 mission, which is to educate students about critical world concerns and take action. IC21 gives students and teachers opportunities to “think globally and act locally.” Its current programs focus on engaging high school students in promotion of human rights, peace and democracy, teaching about the United Nations system and global issues, sustainability education, and preservation of World Heritage Sites.

“Kids from Jackson, Star Valley and Driggs, Idaho are all seeing the world in a different way,” said Combs. Specifically, the Model UN program puts students in a position to represent and defend a country and its people. To do that, a student needs to understand the country’s history, issues and culture.

“This is a deep intercultural experience and it’s unique,” Combs said. “There isn’t someone from Mozambique representing his country — we are putting the responsible on the student.”

Shader, the University of Wyoming professor, said these kinds of programs develop a different kind of college student.

“Anything that helps our students come in with an idea of where they want to go and where they want to go with their lives gives them an advantage,” said Shader, who has 25 years teaching at the collegiate level. “When students are coming in with a different perspective, they see where learning helps them connect with the world around them. Somehow they are more motivated and looking to make a difference in the world.”

Where to find these programs

While teachers use these classroom-enriching programs, many others can be found through nonprofit organizations, Combs said. Contacting the Community Foundation of Jackson Hole and cruising its website for nonprofit contacts is a good first step. You can also find information on IC21 at IC21.org.

Shader suggests two programs through the University of Wyoming — the Summer High School Institute for high school sophomores at UWyo.edu/HSI as well as the WYSTEM web site at UWyo.edu/WYSTEM, which is full of programs for Kindergarten through 12th grade students.

“Students that have performed perfectly on standardized tests, but struggle in class, are dealing with life for the first time,” Shader said. “These programs help [students] develop and make transitions less drastic. They help them deal with adversity and help them persist. We are all going to meet challenges and we should welcome that. But how are we going to deal with those challenges? That is a gift to give your child early on.”

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