Spending two weeks in predominantly Muslim Indonesia during Ramadan is a pretty sure-fire way for a self-described feminist from Davis to escape her comfort zone.
Especially when that time includes teaching at Muslim boarding school outside the capital city of Jakarta — even being “dress-coded” one day for a skirt that fell to the knees and not the ankles — and living with a host teacher whose husband was not all that thrilled to have an American woman in his home.
But sometimes leaving one’s comfort zone is necessary in order to really, truly learn about the world.
Jennifer Wolfe, a lifelong Davis resident and Emerson Junior High School teacher, doesn’t exactly lead an isolated life in Davis — she’s taken her two children to Nicaragua to help build a school there and plans to return with them this summer. But she’d never traveled to a Muslim country before her trip to Indonesia this past summer, she said.
And there were definitely times that she was “acutely aware of my otherness.”
But it was all part of the process of global learning: breaking down barriers so students will have a better understanding of the people and cultures around the world.
Wolfe, who teaches eighth-grade English and AVID at Emerson, was one of 63 teachers in the United States awarded a grant to study global education through the Teachers for Global Classrooms program. The U.S. Department of Education program provides a professional development opportunity to secondary school teachers that includes intensive online coursework, a seminar in Washington, D.C., and two weeks in one of six countries chosen by the U.S. State Department: Brazil, Ghana, Morocco, India, Ukraine and Indonesia, where participants have an opportunity to learn about other education systems by actually participating in them.
Wolfe learned about the program from a colleague and decided to apply.
“I was pretty shocked to be accepted,” she said.
She also was a little surprised at the coursework required before she ever traveled.
“It was really rigorous. I was spending over 20 hours a week on it,” she said.
She later learned she would be traveling to Indonesia in July with a teacher from Chico. Together, they began preparing lesson plans for the teaching they would be doing at the boarding school.
The school, it turned out, was for very high-achieving students. They knew a great deal about Western culture, Wolfe said, and knew a great deal about President Barack Obama, who spent part of his childhood there. They also were very interested in attending college in the United States.
The teachers there, Wolfe said, “have very different cultural ideas about teaching, different values.”
They taught more to the tests students would be taking, she said, and less to develop independent thinking.
“But there was a sense of really wanting to learn about American schools,” she said, “especially about recycling and environmental stuff.”
In addition to her teaching partner from Chico, Wolfe also was with a contingent of teachers from Oklahoma and sometimes, she said, the differences between the Oklahoma and California teachers were as great as the differences between the American and Indonesian teachers.
And the similarities between the teens at the boarding school and her own children and students at Emerson were evident from the start. From their musical taste to their fashions, their curiosity and interests, teens, it seems, are very much alike wherever you go. And very evident, Wolfe said, was the ongoing struggle between the kids and the adults over the Westernization of their culture.
Upon her return to Davis, Wolfe thought the program’s impact had worked both ways — she learned a great deal, but she hoped she had had an impact, too. Truly the purpose of the global learning program.
“I never in a million years would have chosen (Indonesia during Ramadan),” she said.
But now that she’s experienced it, she’s seen the benefits, from the way she’s able to connect with a Muslim student in one of her classes to the way she’s changed her approach to teaching. Even in her American literature class, Wolfe said, she finds ways for her students to compare the world they live in to the different worlds around them.
It’s an approach, she said, “that lets kids look at their community in a whole new light.”
And it’s an approach she would like to promote in the larger community. As part of the global learning program, Wolfe has created a website for use by the school district (and anyone else interested in global learning). Visit the site at http://globaleducation-mamawolfe.weebly.com.
The timing is perfect, she said, because the district is now really launching into the common core standards, many of which focus on preparing students for engagement with the world — working with, employing and working for people from other countries.
Wolfe also is providing professional development at Emerson, helping interested colleagues incorporate global learning in their classroom strategies, and strengthening the school’s ties with its sister school in Nicaragua — the one Wolfe and her children helped build as part of the Seeds of Learning program.
Wolfe last week received a grant that will fund technology making it easier for both schools to communicate better through Skype and other sources.
She and her children plan to return to the school next summer as well.
Nicaragua, she said, is where her heart lies, though her experiences in Indonesia left their mark.
“I don’t know what kind of impact we had there,” Wolfe said, “but I know there was something.”
— Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy