The Good Life

It’s time for round 2 of “How the heck do I put 21st Century Skills into my World Language curriculum without driving my students or myself round the bend?!” (Another working title.)

The “good life” looks different all around the world, and unless our students can discuss the advantages, constraints and expectations of American culture, they may struggle to decide for themselves what civic and financial responsibility looks like.

Last time, we talked about ways that these seemingly out-of-reach skills can actually show up in our classes more often than we think, and we examined some standards in the “Career Awareness and Planning” umbrella that are actually quite applicable to comparisons we might make between students’ cultures and target cultures around the world. Today, we’re tackling the “Civic Financial Responsibility” umbrella.

Blech. (just kidding.) (kind of.)

Don’t let the name of the category fool you; you don’t have to be talking about finances for many of these standards to be relevant to your class. That’s really the theme here: we see the titles of these categories, we shrug our shoulders, and we go about our business without putting them anywhere. We can do a lot for ourselves and our classes by showing our students (and parents, and administrators, and community members) how, in addition to being a 21st century skill, languages also foster other 21st century skills. I like to think of this category as “The Good Life” category, because there are so many rich opportunities for students to consider needs versus wants and what responsibilities we have to our fellow humans.

9.1.12.CFR.1: Compare and contrast the role of philanthropy, volunteer service, and charities in community development and quality of life in a variety of cultures and 9.1.12.CFR.2: Summarize causes important to you and compare organizations you seek to support to other organizations with similar missions.

These two standards are the backbone of one of my favorite units to teach: “Comment faire du bénévolat?” I want my students to know how they can contribute to the world, who is already active in causes that are important to them, and how their personal situation affects how they view important causes and injustices. For example, the people of Vanuatu are much more alarmed by the effects of global warming than your average resident of Minnesota, and for obvious reasons. Citizens of countries that accept (or refuse to accept) shipments of trash from developed nations are concerned about the adverse health effects of living in a dumpster. Someone with a family member or friend in the LGBTQ+ community will be more invested in securing rights for that community. Some people favor grassroots work, others prefer to lobby for legislation. Everyone’s frame of reference affects how they work to effect change, and everyone has blind spots that we would do well to examine.

There’s also the question of how charities advertise their work–and how to be sure that an organization is reputable and does what it claims to do. This is such a fun unit to teach, and at the end, my students create an advertisement for a nonprofit of their choice that operates in the francophone world, and contact the head of communications asking for feedback. It’s great fun and they really get into it.

9.1.12.CFR.4: Demonstrate an understanding of the interrelationships among attitudes, assumptions, and patterns of behavior regarding money, saving, investing, and work across cultures.

Peeps, this one was made for a language class! My students are fascinated by the fact that other cultures think it’s stupid to work as much as we do. There is also lots of fodder here for a clothing unit, a food unit, a vacation unit: how much are people willing to spend on different goods? How much money does an American person spend on clothing each year versus someone in Italy? How much does that clothing cost per unit, and how long are they keeping it? Are people in France *really* buying thousand-euro bottles of wine on a regular basis? So many comparisons just asking to be made; we just have to set it up so our kiddos can knock it down. (Figuratively speaking, of course.)

9.1.12.EG.4: Explain the relationship between your personal financial situation and the broader economic and governmental policies.

This is especially easy right now (unfortunately so) because of the number of human-interest pieces related to who is struggling and how during pandemic shutdowns. I read an article the other day in the New Yorker about the five-star hotel industry and how it’s coping (or not coping). How are different countries and territories affected? There are so many countries that rely on tourism to contribute to their GDP; what is the living situation for the people who work in those industries? How have governments responded? In “normal” times (lol right?), this could be a one- or two-day offshoot from a unit on the environment, tourism or any island nation: how is their major source of income affected by one of any number of factors? How do the lives and choices of individuals reflect economic prosperity or lack thereof on a national level?

9.1.12.EG.5: Relate a country’s economic system of production and consumption to building personal wealth, the mindset of social comparison, and achieving societal responsibilities.

Any time I see the word “country” or “culture” in one of these standards, I’m all over it. How does social comparison work in a country where social media isn’t as prevalent? What about a country that makes goods to be exported to a richer country? What do people hold as the gold standard of a “good life” in different cultures? Students can contrast the original “American dream” with how it bears out for them, and how it’s regarded in other places around the world.

9.1.12.RM.4: Determine when and why it may be appropriate for the government to provide insurance coverage rather than private industry.

All it takes to get kids engaging with this standard is a few tweets from other places in the world that have health insurance for everyone. Certainly, they can debate the merits of private versus universal health insurance–but they can also examine how other people feel about the US system, and how they feel about the opinions of others. It’s a good experience for our students to be the ones under the microscope from time to time; in fact, it’s a key step on the path to intercultural development.

I think this is a good time for a caveat: no way are we getting to all of these in a year. Obviously. But they can function really well as one big unit that takes snapshots from all over the world, or as a couple of mini-units within the context of studying another culture. We’re already in Réunion (metaphorically speaking), why not take a look at their main industries and how they’re affected by climate change? The amazing thing about these topics is how well they scale. They can take a class period, a week, a month. No matter how long we spend on them, though, we can be confident that they will enrich our learners’ understanding of themselves and the world.

Plus, then we can put the fancy standards in our unit plans and smile benevolently when people come to ask us how we did it.

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