Tuesday, November 27, 2012

In Praise of Freedom

My school has a diverse student body, with nearly half of the students in the Upper School coming from families of color.  This comfort with diversity is a tradition at the school and I suspect it informed a decision to enroll a small population of international students three years ago.  Though we also have students from other nations, most of our current international students come from China.

The introduction of foreign students into my American Government and U.S. History courses has added a rich layer of diversity to class discussions.  From matters as simple as explaining why the northeastern states are known as New England (not to mention helping a student to locate said "New England" on a traditional map!) to matters as complex as explaining individual libraries and political freedoms to students from a nation which recognizes neither of those ideas as essential to the human experience, my own teaching has been happily altered by the presence of these students in my classroom.

Last year, I made the decision to encourage two of the international students to participate in the Model Congress team that I coach.  I settled on two because it's a steeper climb to prepare non-native students for a Model Congress.  First, students with evolving English language skills must practice their English for a political debate environment, one that moves quickly and requires a new level of communication skills.  And then they have to be taught about the American political system and how the Congress works.  They have to understand the idea of an elected, representative body seeking to make laws for the nation while being accountable to the people.  They have to understand the constraints of political action when a Constitution effectively protects individual rights.  These notions can sometimes be difficult for American students to fully comprehend.  They are even more challenging for students who come from a nation where ideas such as freedom and participatory democracy have some very distinct boundaries.

Last year, two international students took me up on the invitation and gave Model Congress a try.  Both were bright and engaged and worked mighty hard to benefit from the experience.  Though neither won an award, I was proud of their efforts and thrilled by the way their own experiences and questions influenced the ideas and understanding of their native-born teammates.

This year, one of last year's students joined the team again.  I added another two international students, 10th grade girls who were outspoken and capable.  Then we set to work, drafting bills and talking through arguments in favor of their proposals.  Thanks to Hurricane Sandy, we lost two weeks of debate preparation and I felt it most keenly when it came to the international students.  But the students were excited to participate and I had always thought of their membership on our team in terms of how it would shape their understanding of the American political system, so there was no downside to competing.  Veteran B, one of last year's international participants, was a great help in getting rookies A and C up to speed.  And so we set off for the competition in Washington D.C.

At the close of the competition, awards are made to the participants who rank among the very best.  My team usually earns a few of those awards and as we sit together to hear the award announcements, I am always proud when my students earn recognition for their efforts.  But I don't know that I have ever felt the thrill I experienced when B, a Chinese student, won an American Model Congress award.  B is passionate about freedom and democracy; he's always eager to explore such ideas.  His contributions to our practice debates and discussions are rich and thoughtful.  He earned that award through hard work, enthusiasm, and faith in American freedom.  I was thrilled for him.

In a happy coincidence of timing, his contributions to free debate at Model Congress earned him an award on the same weekend that his native country had a closed-door meeting to select the leader of the Communist Party.  Every teacher has a collection of memories of days when it all clicks, when she can venture to hope that her work with students has made the world a better place.  I added one more event to that handful on that Sunday afternoon, when a kid born in an authoritarian state exercised his natural rights, freely expressed his opinions, and demonstrated the enduring power of freedom and liberty.

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