SARASOTA, Fla. – No more water bottles in class, Bible teacher Don Fry told the group of 10th graders as they came into his classroom at Sarasota Christian School. Usually congenial, this time Fry spoke in the no-nonsense voice teachers use when they know students are likely to object.
Looking confused, students pulled water bottles from their backpacks and put them on the table.
School administrators, Fry said, have decided that water bottles are too disruptive. From now on students can use the water fountain in the gym between classes and drink at lunch.
But the gym isn’t always open, students objected, and it’s out of the way.
Anticipating their reaction, Fry pulled three water bottles from under his desk that he said they can drink when they are thirsty.
One of them held brown river water. Another looked clear but he said it had 50 times the amount of arsenic that is acceptable in drinking water. The third had clean water.
The students realized they had been duped.
“You were mad at me because you believe it is a human right to have water,” Fry told students as they reclaimed their water bottles. And yet, he said, in Bangladesh, some people only have access to river water or water with arsenic. In the lesson that followed, the class explored the problem and discussed possible solutions, including education.
Fry’s lesson was one of many at Sarasota Christian School this year that are designed to stretch the global awareness of its 425 students in kindergarten through grade 12.
To focus the teaching, school administrators have been working with Mennonite Central Committee (MCC)’s Global Family education program. Each grade is connected to a school in another country that is supported in part by Global Family.
The Sarasota students not only learn about the school, the children, the culture and the country, they also raise $3,900 each year to support 13 schools on four continents. Schools use the funds in various ways, from student tuition and teacher education to extracurricular programs and food.
“We want our students to graduate with a global perspective,” said Superintendent Jeffrey Shank. “Part of loving our neighbors means that we understand them, get to know them and engage in conversation with them and really work at just helping our students understand people from around the world.”
Understanding can be as simple as kindergartners praying for the Zimbabwean children they see on their teacher’s electronic tablet or second graders drawing their own design like those seen on kangas, a traditional women’s dress in Kenya. Fifth graders read Palestinian folk tales and turned one into a play they performed for the other students in a Global Family chapel.
On the other end of the age spectrum, seniors in Spanish class who are connecting with a school in Palestine were introduced to Arabic. Juniors worked with Spanish because their school is in Nicaragua and sophomores learned some Bengali.
“They are learning to be aware that there are other people, that there are other languages and English is not the only language in this world,” said Spanish teacher Alma Ovalle. As students meet people who speak other languages, she hopes their exposure to Global Family will help students to respond with humility and love.
Each subject on every grade level incorporates lessons related to the country their students are studying, which requires some creativity for some subjects.
Ratio tables was the answer for sixth grade math teacher Arika Chupp, who taught students how to use the tables to compare U.S. dollars to Burundi francs. In science class groups analyzed the environmental impact of deforestation in that African country.
“This whole Global Family thing,” said junior Nicole Litwiller, “really gets students our age who are so focused on me, me, me to realize there are really big problems around the world. Doing little things that don’t seem like a big deal to us can really help.”
Litwiller is part of a student committee that helps to coordinate fundraisers for Global Family. They sold tacos in a bag during the fall festival, let students pay $5 to wear jeans instead of their school uniform and collected clothing to sell to a recycler. Students also bring offerings throughout the year.
“They love it,” said parent Melinda Voigt about her three daughters’ interest in Global Family. “They ask for chores at home in order to make money for their fundraising.”
Learning about other countries and the schools leads to a desire for personal connection. Third graders made a video to send to the school they sponsor in Cambodia. Students in Ovalle’s Spanish III class are going on an MCC learning tour to Nicaragua in the fall.
“It (Global Family) gives us a chance to interact with people who weren’t just from America and don’t live the same lives we do,” said middle schooler Emma Johnson. “Through Global Family I feel like I can meet new people, even if we’re not face to face, so we can learn about people’s stories and lives.”
Not all students and teachers were excited at first about the Global Family initiative because of the work involved. Teachers must learn about the schools and countries before they can include a lesson each quarter. Students have extra assignments.
Gradually, though, teachers are figuring out how to fit the global perspective into their existing curriculum and understanding how the program ties into the school’s values of community, service and peacebuilding, said Dawn Graber, director of academics, who was instrumental in starting the Global Family program at the school.
Fry, who admits to being ambivalent about Global Family when it was first presented, said making the connection to the Bible with his Bangladesh water lesson was a no-brainer.
“If you aren’t caring for people, you don’t get scripture. When you’re teaching Bible, they need to know the source … but if they don’t know what this does in terms of rubber hitting the road, it’s worthless.”
Watch Sarasota Christian School connect with Global Family program and partners in the video, “Learning and giving,” at mcc.org/stories/videos/learning-and-giving.
Miriam Copp-Johnson, MCC East Coast donor relations coordinator, contributed to this article.