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Volume 17, Number 6
November/December 2001

Making Global Connections

A conversation with Michele Forman


The 2001 National Teacher of the Year talks about teaching Arabic on the need for more world history, geography, and languages in schools

After Sept. 11, numerous education commentators called on schools to provide more instruction in world history, geography, and languages, especially Arabic. Michelle Forman began doing so years ago at Middlebury Union High School in Vermont, where she teaches social studies. Forman, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal, started the school's Arabic program in 1997. Last April, she was named 2001 National Teacher of the Year in a White House ceremony. She spoke recently with HEL about her efforts to help her students better understand the world and their place in it.

HEL: How did you come to start the Arabic program at your school?

FORMAN: As I studied the Indian Ocean trade network and other topics, I became intrigued with the Arab world and the spread of Islam. I began studying the language at Ohio State University [through the National Endowment for the Humanities] one summer and fell in love with it. The next summer, I took part in a nine-week immersion program at Middlebury (VT) College. When I began teaching phrases and greetings in some of my classes, students were very interested and asked me to teach them more. So we began meeting two mornings a week before school. I was overwhelmed by the response. We've had about 20 students each year. I returned to the immersion program for two more summers, got grants to buy materials and books, purchased an interactive computer program and got permission to it in the language lab. It finally became an official after-school program last year.

HEL: Why do you think the students were so interested?

FORMAN: Part of it certainly was the exotic nature of the language. To be able to go down the halls and greet each other in Arabic had a certain panache. But they also came to understand how important this language is. There are a billion Arab speakers in the world. Once the program began, students became close and it was fun for them. Since it was a voluntary activity, they were also motivated to learn the language. I've been thrilled to watch at least two students that I know of go on to major in Middle Eastern studies [in college]. Maybe they would have found Arabic anyway, but clearly this gave them a head start.

HEL: Why is it important for students to study other cultures?

FORMAN: We are all citizens of one world. The world is too small to ignore that. It does not mean that there isn't anything unique about being American or French or Ghanaian or Israeli. But it does mean we have to recognize that we have far more in common and more connections than we ever have before. We have borrowed and profited so much from one another, and our students must learn this. When we study U.S. history, we recognize that it is more than the history of Massachusetts plus the histories of Michigan, California, Texas, Vermont, etc. The interconnectedness is important.

Likewise, we need to recognize that world history is far greater than the history of nation-states alone. Otherwise we miss the global connections. Studying other cultures helps us understand our own role in the world so we better understand ourselves as Americans. I'd like to see more history taught and I'd also like to see more attention paid to languages. Languages open doors to other cultures in a way that allows us to build respect and to conceptualize things differently. They are essential and just because English has become, in many ways a global language doesn't excuse us from learning other languages.

HEL: As a social studies teacher, how would you suggest we remedy the lack of civic involvement by young people?

FORMAN: There are many contributing factors to why people in general, not just kids, aren't as involved as they should be. Cynicism comes from different places—for example, from politicians acting in ways that are detrimental to the common good or for self-gain. Students need to see models of integrity in politics. I celebrated when [U.S. Senator] Jim Jeffords from Vermont made an ethical decision to leave the Republican Party. That provided my students with a model of someone making a thoughtful, conscientious decision and being willing to pay the consequences. That's not to say you have to bleed to be great, but you have to act ethically on behalf of the common good. That's what excites kids about politics. The job of the teacher is to instigate the kind of inquiry that will lead students to think deeply about what is good in our country. It's important for high school students to develop a critical faculty, to assess what it is they're told, what they read and hear. That's the very root of democracy.

HEL: How did your experiences growing up in the South affect you as a historian

FORMAN: I grew up in Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia in a working class family. The Civil Rights movement happened all around me and made a deep impression. It helped me develop a sense of justice and to define what it is to be American. I became idealistic because my models were people like Fannie Lou Hamer, people fighting for justice and for what was right. History is part of who we are. It's the lens by which we try to make sense of what's happening now. As one of Faulkner's characters [Gavin Stevens] says, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."