Study of the U.S. Institute on Secondary Education: American Studies through the Lens of Democracy and Citizenship
Missoula-Charleston-Washington D.C., May 31-July 5, 2016
by Kristina Urbonienė
a teacher of English at Šiauliai “Saulėtekis“ gymnasium
A SHORT PROGRAM DESCRIPTION
The University of Montana welcomed twenty Secondary school teachers from different countries of the world to the Study of the U.S. Institute on Secondary Education: American Studies through the Lens of Democracy and Citizenship. The participants could learn about issues in secondary education and American Studies through a wide range of speakers, workshops, and field trips. The program offered a range of learning opportunities, aiming to outline America‘s philosophical foundations and examine the ways history has shaped American politics, economics, and society. The specific objectives for this program were: to provide teachers with an introduction to U.S. society, culture, values, and institutions through the lens of democracy and citizenship; using experiential learning techniques from a variety of angles to expose teachers to debates in major contemporary challenges facing the U.S.; introduce teachers to various partners that define the “American experience“ from different citizens‘ perspectives; encourage participants to use their home experience to put American Studies into a global context; facilitate SUSI scholars‘ research, curriculum development or on-going projects. This program aimed to promote a better understanding of the people, institutions, and culture of the United States among foreign teachers and included an intensive academic program in Missoula, Montana and integrated educational tours to the capital city of Helena, Yellowstone National Park, the Flathead Indian Reservation, Charleston, South Carolina; and Washington, D.C.
BENEFITS OF THE PROGRAM
The program was beneficial in terms of both personal and professional development. Each participant had the chance to broaden their horizons and learn about American culture, politics, education and citizenship. We were provided with digital library resources as well as plenty of materials in the seminars, lectures and workshops at the University of Montana, visiting local schools, and meeting with various public and private partners. The program contributed greatly to preparing a module for my students called “American Lifestyle: Education and Culture”. I would not have done this if I had not been provided with first-hand experience on American culture, education and lifestyle. The program was very well balanced where theory matched the practice and study tours. The three different locations: Missoula in Montana, Charleston in South Carolina and Washington, D.С. revealed the diversity of different states in terms of size, people, relationships, communities, lifestyles and attitudes. The locations were chosen wisely - from the quietestto the most vibrant and colorful. The program allowed establishing new links and collaborating with teachers from all over the world. The program team was very well organized, patient, and tolerant not to mention the helpfulness and kindness. They helped the participants with any issue or question. It was obvious that those people were experienced, very wise and smart. They deserve praising in all the situations, dealing with the most complicated problems or difficulties.
As a teacher, I have long been interested in researching cultural differences and how they influence people’s behavior and communication. Participation in the program provided me with the possibility of meeting people and analyzing how social, educational and cultural background influence behavioral models. Each time participants were leaving the University of Montana Campus for travelling or had field studies, they were paired with one other scholar to spend some nights during educational study tours or with a local family. Staying with strangers made some participants nervous but they ultimately found it to be one of the best experiences of the program. Spending so much time with people from twenty countries proved that all are different but all are equal. Each participant was unique with his way of thinking, speaking, expressing ideas and accepting other people. In this way the program helped to gain invaluable experience and material for my research. Staying in a host family gave an opportunity to get a glimpse of typical American family lifestyleand especially when the family was so special – Native Americans with their own traditions, way of thinking, their attitude towards nature, and the way of raising children’s awareness of what roots and background are.
DIFFICULTIES AND CHALLENGES
Participants of the program faced some difficulties no matter how well the program was organized and training activities were balanced. Everyone experienced cultural shock as meeting people from so different and unique cultures usually is not the same as communication with colleagues from your own country. The teachers had to adapt to the unknown environment as well as become aware of various cultures and religions in the group. Also, the condition of jet lag lasted several days before the participants of the program got fully adjusted to the new time zone. Moreover, my personal challenge was volunteering with the PoverelloCenter in Missoula, Montana which is providing a safety net for community members living with hunger and homelessness. I had to find inner powers to have lunch together with homeless people whose problems are so different from mine. They suffer as they cannot find job, they have no permanent place to live – they have no homes. This project was challenging and required effort and psychological strength.
WHAT I HAVE LEARNT AND HOW I AM GOING TO USE THE EXPERIENCE GAINED
The SUSI program was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. It allowed me to explore a broad range of issues within the fields of education and American Studies, while also immersing me in U.S. society and culture. It is important to note that the program has truly been a two-way exchange. I could not only learn but also share ideas on my work, introduce my colleagues with my country and people.
During the time in Missoula the participants of the program were expected to conduct academic research. The goal for this research was to explore an aspect of teaching or American Studies that would benefit our classroom at home. My colleagues from the USA and Iraq and I decided to start a new international project as a result of successful collaboration in a global context.
“Cultural and Educational Online Exchange: USA, Lithuania and Iraq“is an online-based project that will be facilitated by Mrs Nancy Thibo, English language teacher from Missoula, Montana with Mr. Sherwan Ameen from Duhok, Iraq, and me, Kristina Urbonienė from Siauliai, Lithuania. The participants will be students of 11th grade from the three countries, besides to the teachers of English language and some families of selected students. The project is going to be implemented during the academic year 2016-2017 starting from Big Sky High School students, teachers and families will send their videos via Google drive shared links and in return their peers in Lithuania and Iraq will reply back. Through responds, the peers will learn about the educational process of the USA from perspectives of students learning, teachers and the families’ role as well. In addition, they will share knowledge about the culture, literature, geography, values and traditions of each country more closely through questioning. As a result, students, teachers and family members will acknowledge the role of appropriate atmosphere in the educational process.The aims and objectives of the project are:
Using peer-to-peer online teaching and learning approaches, to improve the project participants’ digital, communicative and intercultural competences:
- to provide students with guidelines for individualized learning;
- to teach students how to present facts about their learning contents;
- to motivate students to learn actively using modern IT tools;
- to improve teachers’ skills on delivering the material efficiently;
- to enhance families’ means of supporting and guiding their children;
- to foster communication all around the world.
The project will serve as means of using connections made during the program in order to sustain international collaboration and this collaboration will contribute greatly to my personal and professional development.
The SUSI program has been an invaluable experience. I have learnt so much, met so many nice people, and established so many new links with teachers in the U.S. and other countries of the world. I am thankful to the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Embassy, Vilnius; the University of Montana and all the program team to make the dream come true. This program has been very successful as it showed how important it is to know your rights, to stand for them, to be a strong and creative personality with your unique social, cultural and educational background. Now I am sure that it is more important to be unique than to be perfect.