The Global Youth Academy

Date: 1994-09-01

September 1994 | Volume 52 | Number 1
The New Alternative Schools Pages 20-22

The Global Youth Academy
Alfred Alschuler and Stephen Myers

The students at an international traveling school bring back home to family, school, and community the lessons of global citizenship.

In Zimbabwe, 32 American teenagers on a worldwide learning and service tour cleaned the Harare bus depot. The crowd laughed at the foreigners, but then, one by one, they joined the students and stayed for talks about cultural differences in the nature of service. It was a naive, idealistic, and surprising experiment— the precise conditions for authentic learning about global citizenship.

The idea for global learning began with simple impulses: “What if we put a school on wheels,” and “Let's try it.” In 1972, summer bicycle tours began. In 1982, Steve Myers said, “Let's travel on a bus and make it part of a public school curriculum.”

The Santa Cruz, California, public schools were home to the Traveling School for eight years, three times receiving the California School Board Association's highest honor, the Golden Bell Award for innovation and excellence.

In 1991, the idea for a school-on-wings world tour was born. So, in 1992, the Global Youth Academy began as a low-cost, private school dedicated to teaching global citizenship to its own students and to foreign students whom it recruits en-route. Since 1972, the school has completed 38 program tours in 25 states, 8 Canadian provinces, and 28 foreign countries on 5 continents. Every semester students spend five to 10 weeks on tour. Each year groups of students from other countries also attend the Academy.

Currently, 30 students attend the Global Youth Academy. They reflect Santa Cruz's population—mostly white, socioeconomically and academically diverse. These 7th to 12th graders range from the exceptionally bright, who are bored with the traditional curriculum in their public schools, to the at-risk students, who are victims of various forms of abuse and neglect. Tuition is approximately 60 percent that of area private schools, and no student is refused if unable to pay. More than half the students stay through their high school years; some return to public schools or graduate early.

Build the Curriculum into a Tour

The general formula for planning is simple, open, and creative: build the curriculum into a tour, integrate academic and personal growth, and have students give as much as they get. Instead of taking subject matter from logically sequenced texts, our itinerary suggests learning from primary sources: activities that involve getting behind the scenes, pictures, and words, and then applying what one has learned.

Students learn geography from the terrain they see, history from books and lectures about the places they visit, composition from journals they write, and literature from local plays they attend and regional authors they hear speak. For example, before going to a Shakespeare Festival to see The Merchant of Venice, students read the play and participated in a two-day workshop led by actor Patrick Stewart. The students explored the complexities of antisemitism in Elizabethan England compared with modern America and discussed how language shapes attitudes.

In Westport, Ireland, Brian Keenan, just released from captivity in Beirut, spoke with our students. The meaning of freedom and the values of democracy were indelibly impressed on them as they listened to stories of terrorism and imprisonment in a distant part of the world. When the students asked Keenan how he survived five years as a hostage, he spoke softly about singing Irish songs and collecting candles from his captors.

On a tour to Santa Fe, New Mexico, students spent several weeks reading about the Nixon years in preparation for their interview with John Ehrlichman. After giving an open account of his career as a presidential aide and his time in an Arizona prison, Ehrlichman answered the students' questions.

“What did you learn from the Watergate affair?” a 9th grader asked. Erlichman's reply was blunt. “My mistake was being loyal to the man, not the office. I learned the Constitution comes first.” The students took this lesson to heart when they created a governance system for their own group, an exercise in democracy that is part of the yearly curriculum.

While traveling across Canada by train, students balanced their book learning about the Separatist Movement with discussions of the cultural and political differences that motivated their peers in a French-speaking school. It was a powerful lesson in practical politics.

Link Academic and Personal Growth

A second core belief of the Global Youth Academy is that personal growth stimulates academic learning. The “self” is a topic for study, just like history, science, and literature. Students learn how to collect information about their behavior, feelings, and thoughts in order to identify patterns that they have in common with others and patterns that are uniquely their own.

Eleven theme days form the backbone of the personal-growth curriculum. On the day the theme is “Support,” groups of students rotate playing games, while the others practice being a good audience. The audience learns to focus on jumping and cheering, not on winning or losing the games. Most students discover that they will withhold their support for others for reasons of comfort or safety. After several hours, most students finally let go and give 100 percent support. Many tearfully describe how they got past their blocks and assisted others in reaching new levels of performance. Later, when students are stuck on academic problems, solutions come easier because students get support from classmates for transcending their personal limits.

Another theme day focuses on “Parents,” including biological parents, step-parents, guardians, foster parents, and group homes. In the discussions, students often volunteer stories about tragic events. One boy saw his mother shoot his father. Some students have suffered physical or sexual abuse. By comparison, other students realize their own good fortune. Members of the staff use these examples to help students see how each creates his or her own life story. The unconscious morals in these life stories are at the root of the students' attitudes and behaviors that either limit their growth or empower them. By becoming aware of those subconscious morals, students realize that their stories can have other, healthier morals, and that they can create untested possibilities for themselves.

At the end of the theme day, students write to their parents to acknowledge their parents' contributions and often share secrets. This authentic communication helps the students to open relationships, start healing processes, and begin to explore those untested possibilities. It is also a striking way to practice effective communication with peers and parents through speaking and writing, a traditional academic objective.

Other theme days focus on self-expression, commitment, peers, drugs, sex, bodies, schools, and community. Each theme also has a meta-message: understanding our common humanity is the beginning of authentic global citizenship.

Theme days for students are held at the same time parents participate in Family Wellness training. Workshops to strengthen the family are necessary to support the changes that students initiate. During weekend retreats and in monthly meetings, two professional counselors help students and their parents practice effective communication and healthy ways to resolve family conflicts. Participants learn how differences in assumptions shape what one “hears.” Because each family has its own culture, understanding family differences also helps students to appreciate different cultural assumptions and to improve cross-cultural understanding.

For example, after the world tour, a group of 30 Thai students came to the Global Youth Academy for a three-week exchange. The American students knew Thai assumptions and acted accordingly: they left their shoes at the classroom door; hung a picture of the Thai King and a Thai flag on the wall; and showed special respect for the teachers and elders. The American parents said that they hoped the Thai students would stay forever.

Integrate Democratic Living and Community Service

Experiences in democratic living and community service round out the curriculum. Despite extensive preparation, effective democratic living requires trial and error. One semester a group of students created a dictatorship so they would not be burdened with the tedious process of meetings. They chose a budding zealot as dictator and soon grew to resent his leadership. At first, they only complained. Then these students visited the now defunct Rajneeshpuram, a failed Utopia built in the Oregon desert by the followers of Bhagwan Sri Rajneesh. Finding a slick modern city in the middle of the desert impressed the students. Then they heard the other side of the story from a local rancher: “Those people were no different from the Nazis who blindly followed Hitler.” A day later, the students set up a democracy to set and enforce rules, plan social events, and conduct fund-raising.

Our students want to give as much as they get. Each student provides weekly service by donating time and talent to organizations that help people, animals, or the environment. One group project involved collecting more than a ton of food, clothing, and books for drought-stricken children in Zimbabwe. On tour, students worked with Peace Corps volunteers in Lesotho, planted a habitat to protect Koala bears in Australia, and worked in orphanages in India and Thailand.

Does it Work?

Pre- and post-test scores on the California Test of Basic Skills show an average one-semester gain of 1.9 years in math and 2.4 years in language for students at the Global Youth Academy. The same students in the public school the previous semester had average gains of .7 years. There has been a 97 percent graduation rate, and 87 percent of the seniors have gone on to college.

Global citizenship is harder to measure. More than 30 percent of students on the world tour have returned independently to Africa, Asia, and India to perform additional community service. Most important, however, the Global Youth Academy has demonstrated ways to increase global awareness, promote cultural understanding, and stimulate international service.

Alfred Alschuler is Professor, Reich College of Education, Appalachian State University, Boone, NC 28608, and Chair of the Global Youth Academy Board of Directors. Stephen Myers is Director and founder of the Traveling School—Global Youth Academy—329 Nobel Dr., Santa Cruz, CA 95060.

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