Portland High School pairs with community to offer students Global Studies certification

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PORTLAND — A dozen students stayed behind at Portland High School Monday afternoon after their peers left with the ringing of the end-of-school bell.

The students were not held back for detention, but stayed voluntarily for a new certification program in Global Studies, believed to be the first of its kind in the state.

The interdisciplinary, co-curricular program was crafted over the last two years by teachers Sarah Shmitt, John Johnson and Julie Wise.

Students are asked for a two-year commitment and must meet academic standards within their normal school day, including taking four social studies classes, three years of foreign language and other relevant electives.

The program includes a monthly seminar series, where teachers and other community members speak to students about their travels and global issues.

“Our hope is that participation in this program will, at the very least, get a great group of kids together to think and talk about the world beyond Portland,” Shmitt said. “Portland High School provides certification on kids’ transcripts to give them a leg up when applying for college.”

As juniors, students will take an eight-session training course on cultural competence offered for free by the Council on International Educational Exchange, a Portland-based group that prepares students for studying abroad. 

Students may also attend cultural events and participate in the activities of the World Affairs Council of Maine.

As seniors, students will develop a service learning project where they either immerse themselves, or work on the behalf of, a culture unlike their own.

Sophomores Heather Cron and Alex Thompson said they enrolled in Global Studies because they like to travel.

Thompson said she is taking the class to prepare for a one-week school trip to Egypt this year. Beyond that, the 15-year-old said she hopes the course will expose her to different cultures so, in the future, she can become a well-rounded medical professional.

“I thought it would be eye-opening to learn about different cultures and religions,” she said.

Cron said she thought she might have some time to offer other students. The 16-year-old has travelled to Peru several times to volunteer with Nuestras Raices, a Holyoke, Mass.-based non-profit that promotes economic, human and cultural development.

“I wanted to be able to bring what I learned there (to) here,” she said.

At Monday’s seminar, a dozen students, all freshman and sophomores, spent 2 1/2 hours listening to a panel of six teachers who have travelled with the Peace Corps. Their experiences ranged from joining Peace Corps at the height of the Vietnam War to missionary work in Honduras in 2008.

Stephen Dyro, who teaches English as a Second Language at PHS, said he has travelled to about 39 countries. Dyro told students interested in travelling to use their down time to learn at least a few simple words in the native language.

“Language is one of those amazingly critical things when you travel,” said Dyro, who learned Japanese over a three-month period with Peace Corps. “Don’t under-estimate the power of saying thank you in the native language.”

Tom Talarico, who travelled to the Phillipines, said he feels obligated to stay and contribute to the communities he visits for at least three weeks.

“I learned early on that it wasn’t enough to just go to a place,” he said. “I need to have some sort of cultural exchange.”

Meanwhile, Alex Stankowicz, a PHS English teacher who joined the Peace Corps in 1969, said he realized that that Americans were not the only ones prone to stereotyping foreign cultures.

“People (in Ghana) were disappointed,” he said. “They thought all Americans had guns and wore cowboy hats.”

Shmitt said students will be asked to write three reflective pieces as part of the course work. Students can write about their experiences either in high school or travelling to a foreign country, provided they describe the event, their reaction to it and analyze why the events may happened the way the did.

Johnson reminded students that the reflections were not an academic exercises.

“Reflections are personal writings,” he said. “It’s your reaction. You can’t really get it wrong.”

At the end of the program, students will receive a certificate from Portland High School and have portfolio of work that to show prospective colleges, employers or volunteer organizations.

But Smitt said she hopes the program will also teach students to appreciate the diversity within PHS hallways, too.

“At the very best,” Smitt said, “it will get kids to appreciate and access the richness of Portland High School’s population, and motivate them to pursue educational, career or volunteer opportunities working with people who may not share their values, aesthetics, language or preference for Domino’s pizza.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net