With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:
Michael Roemer is a recipient of the 2017 International Educator of the Year Award. He is currently a director of the Global Initiatives Program and a teacher at Trinity Valley School in Fort Worth.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Edu: Tell me about why the Global Initiatives Program is important to you?
Michael Roemer: As an eight-year-old, I lived in Japan for a year because my father was a professor at UT Arlington, and he had an opportunity to teach for two semesters at a university there. Without a doubt, that exposure as a child is one of the most influential things that happened to me in my life.
As a white male, it was the first time in my life and really the only time where I was definitely a minority. My sister and I were the only non-Asian kids in the town of 300,000-plus. What this meant for me now, in my current role as director of global initiatives, is the goal of the program is for me to connect our students and teachers with people around the world.
Trib+Edu: How do you do that?
Roemer: We use online exchanges, like Skype, blogs, and we also do video exchanges. We’ve been doing video exchanges with a school in Japan for five years.
This year, our students taught them about their city and their students taught us about our city. Then we would put a picture of the food or location or person they were talking about behind them on the green screen. It meant the kids had to do a lot of research. In two weeks, our kindergarten students will be Skyping with students from a school in England.
Trib+Edu: Tell me about diversity within your school.
Roemer: We’re doing a lot to make sure our students of color are feeling comfortable. We started pushing the celebration of Hispanic awareness month, LGBT history month, African-American history month and women’s history month.
I also want the students here to recognize what people here in the U.S. who have different backgrounds can bring to table, what they have brought to the table and how there have been times where we haven’t even allowed them at the table. And what a mistake that has been because we haven’t learned.
Trib+Edu: What would you tell people who say these kids are too young to understand diversity?
Roemer: I would say, you’re probably right, you’re never going to get 100 percent of kids or adults at any age to understand and fully accept that. But I think empathy is something that’s learned, you’re not born with it. The more times you practice it; the more likely it is you will grow to be empathic person.
There’s a part of me that thinks that these students who have had a K-12 experience where they hosted people, had international teachers in their classrooms or Skyped or blogged or did online discussions with kids around the world, by the time they graduate, interacting with people from different countries is just going to be normal to them. So when they go off to college and their roommate is Chinese, they’re not going to freak out.
Trib+Edu: Tell me about the reach of the program.
Roemer: In the past five years, we’ve worked with over 50 countries and actually connected with people across all seven continents. We even had a teacher who went and did science training but also ran a marathon in Antarctica.
This year, we are working with international teachers who practice here from Sweden, Netherlands, Denmark and Switzerland. We have international students who will be here from Germany and Australia.
Trib+Edu: What’s the big picture? Why do all of this?
Roemer: There are four primary global competencies we want our students to graduate with. One is self-awareness. It’s hard to know how to interact with others when you don’t understand yourself. The other is empathy and the last two are cross-cultural understanding and cross-cultural communication. We want students to learn these skills over time when they do these exchanges.
Some of these experiences are really just exposure. For example, the kindergarten Skype. The Skype itself is a one-time deal, but what takes it from exposure towards a deeper learning experience or even a transformational one for some kids, is that they then write letters to each other and do a book exchange.
Trib+Edu: Have elections and political climate affected the classroom?
Roemer: It’s completely relevant. Four of the countries on President Trump’s proposed ban of seven countries are represented in our student body. Either their parents or grandparents are from those countries. But since the Global Initiatives Program has been a part of our culture for over five years, students have some language they can use to talk about these issues. It’s much less “us, them.” They want to understand how this impacts the individual.
I actually sent out an email the Monday after the ban went into place just to remind our faculty to keep their ears out for students because our kids are young and sometimes they make mistakes and say stupid things. Either they think they’re joking or don’t mean harm, but this is a particularly sensitive time for those students who are more directly affected.
Trib+Edu: How do you navigate teaching the nuances of diversity to younger kids?
Roemer: You can’t expect children to look at someone who is different to them and not make comments, unless you give them the language that is appropriate, and sort of matter of fact. If a kid says, “Why is my skin dark and her skin is not?”, it’s fine to talk to kids about, well, that’s how our bodies are based on our parents and our heritage.
If instead you say, “Don’t talk about that,” then they think it’s not important or they get the wrong message that it’s a bad topic and that’s dangerous.