July 2010

Meet Our Featured Guest Columnist: Janet Collier

Janet Collier is a history teacher at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland. Each year, she holds the Global Health Conference for everyone in the seventh grade. Students work with teachers to research and create exhibits about the health needs of different countries. They display their finished projects, on topics from HIV/AIDS to hospital funding, at a special event for parents and the rest of the school, where they answer questions and talk about what they have learned.

Q: What does "health and human rights" mean to you?

A: It is important that we take personal responsibility for our health, but we cannot, as single individuals, ensure that we have safe drinking water and enough healthy and affordable food to eat, that the infrastructure around us is safely constructed, that we will not be exposed to disease or develop cancer, or that we will never be the victim of an accident, not to mention being unable to take care of ourselves due to either our youth or our age. It is in everyone's interest that the people on this planet be as healthy as they can be and receive the care they need when they aren't. The more people who can fully participate in their families, their communities, their countries, and the world, and the more people who are able to realize their full potential, the better off everyone will be. The world more than ever is a collaborative project, and the more people who can contribute their work and their ideas, the more likely we are to find solutions to our many challenges. Furthermore, how can you justify agreeing to, implicitly, the pain and suffering of innocent people due to malnutrition, disease, and injury?

Q: Describe the goals of the Global Health Conference for the seventh graders at your school.

A: When we first planned our Global Health Conference, we were trying to create a grade-wide educational experience that would allow our seventh graders, in their World Cultures course, to learn more about the world through research, writing, and sharing with each other and others. We wanted to focus on one issue so that the students could come to appreciate both differences and similarities among countries, could identify patterns, and could gain a global perspective. We wanted students to develop their research, writing, and presentation skills through a project with real-world significance. Furthermore, we wanted our students to develop compassion for people in other parts of the world who are suffering, as well as to recognize that there are lessons to be learned and shared from parts of the world that are successfully addressing problems and promoting good health. It is important the students be connected to significant issues in the world today and discover that they can make a contribution to improving the world.  

Q: Why did you think it was useful for your students to learn about global health issues?

A: Health is something to which everyone can relate. We all know what it feels like to feel sick, tired, and hungry, even if it's just for a little while. By looking at the world through health, students can feel a connection with and a compassion for people in other parts of the world. We initially thought we would change the topic of our global conference each year, but it was clear that health was a topic seventh graders could understand and appreciate. In addition, there is a wide gamut of routes into the topic, appealing to a wide range of learners: the human component, geography, science and medicine, public policy.  These characteristics make it an excellent venue for helping students become global citizens. But in addition, health is such a basic component of human existence, and so many of us in the United States take good health and access to health care for granted, that I think it's important for students to understand the role it plays in many of the other problems and challenges people elsewhere face.

Q: What do your students learn from the experience?

A: Our students learn the importance of promoting good health. They learn compassion for others less fortunate. They learn that some of the best solutions are simple and relatively inexpensive and build off local conditions. They learn how to start with a broad inquiry - "What is the health situation of people in country X?" - and narrow it down, focus it, find an answer, and support that answer with evidence. They learn how to share their expertise with others in a variety of ways: in writing, visually, and through oral presentation and conversation. They learn about many important jobs and professions that contribute to making the world a healthier place. They gain an appreciation of some of the obstacles that stand between many people and good health. They make a connection with both the specific health issue and the country they learn about through their research, and they carry that connection with them as they continue to grow and learn.

Q: How could other schools develop similar programs?

A: I work at a private school, not subject to the high-stakes testing that currently holds sway in the public schools. Most schools, however, are public, so I think it's important for teachers interested in a project like this to recognize how many standards can be met through it. You can't look at it as a project outside all that you have to teach but as a way to meet many of your learning objectives (content objectives in many subjects, literacy objectives, technology objectives). While we do it through just our seventh grade social studies course, it's an excellent opportunity for interdisciplinary work. Involve the English teachers, the science teachers, and even the art teachers for working on the visual displays the students create. Involve parents, too. Our main audience for the conference is the students' parents, but you can involve them before the conference. Ask for volunteers among the parent body who work in any way with the health professions to come and speak to your students. Students need opportunities to learn about, analyze, and respond to real-world, real-time issues, and this project lets them do that.