Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Learning to Teach Again: Blindspots

It is almost the end of the semester--I had my second to last class meeting for World Regional Geography today. I'm pleased, overall, at how the course has gone. Room for improvement next time around? Absolutely! But that doesn't mean this first time through was a bust.

We began the semester looking at different "tools" of geography. We spent some time looking at different types of maps. We learned about population dynamics, and the demographic transition model. We considered different economic systems, and different political systems, and what it means to be a "developed" country.

The middle part of the semester--the bulk of it, really--was spent considering different regions of the world. We began with a region that is "home" for most of my students: North America. And from there we globe-hopped through "Team West" (Western Europe, Australia & New Zealand, and Japan--strange, I know, but they are definitely "Team West") before heading to other regions to learn more about "the rest": Eastern Europe, Russia, Latin America, the Middle East and Northern Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and all of the subregions of Asia. It was a busy semester!

And now, we are near the end. Today we spent our class time examining various "hot spots of conflict" around the globe. Some of these were obvious and well-known to my students, such as Israel vs. Palestine, and the U.S.'s involvement in Afghanistan, and North Korea vs. ...the world? Others were less well known, such as the ongoing unrest in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or the long-term distrust between India and Pakistan, or Russian influence in former Soviet republics like Georgia and Ukraine.

As I was preparing for today's lesson, I spent some time thinking about my own perspective on the world. I wanted to challenge my students to think about their own perspective on world events as well. The main theme throughout this course has been thinking about peace and justice. I recognize that I have a particular view of peace and justice, because of my religious convictions, sure, but also because of my cultural context. I've tried to be aware of this as I've been teaching the course, but I'm sure I've had blind spots as well.

So today I raised the question to the class: "Which country in the world today do you think is the biggest threat to world peace?" I gave them a little time to talk about it together. When we reconvened as a whole group, I asked if they were willing to share. Some had talked about Iran, others mentioned North Korea, and one student even suggested "terrorism" as the biggest threat to peace, though she acknowledged that this is not a country in the world--which makes it all the more difficult to combat.

I had found this article from Brilliant Maps, knowing that I was going be teaching this lesson. It includes this very brief video--it's only a minute long, so maybe give it a look?

While a few students indicated that they had mentioned the U.S. as the greatest threat to world peace, most were initially surprised to see the results of this survey. Truth be told, I initially was too. I recognize that I have blindspots--and in this case, because of the culture I have been raised within and continue to live within, I think.

As we discussed this a bit, we didn't come to any consensus on this issue, but most of the students who spoke up gave some good reasons why they could see other countries viewing the U.S. as a threat. Even some of the ones who initially seemed shocked that the U.S. would be perceived as a threat were expressing things like, "Maybe the U.S. used to be the underdog, and so we might still--as a culture--think of ourselves that way, even though we are clearly the superpower today?" or "Americans think of ourselves as the good guys, because we are told how we are trying to help in the situations we get involved in." As they were thinking about this, it was interesting for me to see them becoming, well, more aware of their own blindspots. Not that this negates any patriotism that they might feel...but it was an increased awareness.

Near the end of our class meeting, I noticed this bulletin board that one of my colleagues had put up in our shared classroom:

An interesting thought, isn't that, my fellow educators?
I guess this is my hope: maybe I haven't necessarily taught my students everything about every region of the world--which would be an unreasonable expectation, after all! But perhaps I've helped them think about things from a different perspective than they have previously held? In that case, I will count the semester a success.

I am sure that I still have blindspots of my own to uncover and discover. But I hope that as I am in this process of learning myself, I can mentor my students in a similar process of thinking about their own blindspots.

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