By Susan McCabe
For Vashon Island School District
During the pandemic, McMurray Middle School teacher Becky Blankenship has led her students on a trip around the world — all launched from Zoom.
For Blankenship, who was recently named as Fulbright Scholar and will travel to Korea in the spring as part of the program, it’s all part of a plan to also help her students see the world and feed their minds.
“We want students to be able to collaborate in multiple cultural contexts both locally and around the world,” Blankenship said. “You don’t have to leave Vashon to get a globally diverse experience; you don’t have to get on a plane to encounter different cultural experiences.”
The Fulbright U.S. Student Program was signed into law in 1946, by President Harry Truman, to fund the “promotion of international goodwill through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture, and science.”
Today, it is the largest U.S. exchange program offering students and young professionals opportunities in international graduate study, advanced research, university teaching, and primary and secondary school teaching worldwide. The program awards about 2,000 grants annually — to only 20% of applicants — in all fields of study and in more than 140 countries.
Fulbright alumni include people like Bose Corporation founder Amar Bose, actor John Lithgow, composer Philip Glass, opera singer Renee Fleming, economist Joseph Stiglitz, and now, of course, Blankenship.
Blankenship, who is fluent in Russian language and culture, applied for and won one of Fulbright’s Global Education Fellowships in late 2019. With that, she joined a cohort of 70 other accomplished American teachers whose goal is to work together to develop their leadership skills and assure that students are prepared to participate in our increasingly global world.
She has been taking her McMurray seventh-graders on international adventures throughout the school year, with the help of technology.
In November, Blankenship, McMurray administrators, teachers and librarian Julie Jaffe collaborated to get every student in the school to a virtual Latinx Kid Literature festival, that included a session on equity and social justice that incorporated drawings created on the spot by four different illustrators.
“The kids got to question professional writers and illustrators directly about how each got into the arts,” Blankenship said, adding that students appreciated the experience so much that many wrote to McMurray Principal Greg Allison, asking for more.
Blankenship’s students have also participated in Zoom exchanges with kids in New York City, India and Sweden. Topics have ranged from Sweden’s Waffle Day to navigating religious differences in India, to Vashon kids discussing aspects of island life.
The conversations were enlightening. And while her students found common interests with their international counterparts, they did notice that most students in other countries were bilingual — some in languages that aren’t as common in the U.S., Blankenship said.
These exchanges, she also pointed out, taught kids some of the more subtle aspects of diverse cultural experiences. She taught the kids how to communicate with people for whom English is not their primary language, stressing the consequence of using idiomatic language and that jargon must be explained when it is used. She also shared her knowledge about reading faces, and how not to make assumptions about what people know or don’t know about the U.S.
“We want every student who leaves the Vashon School District to feel comfortable anywhere in the world. We want to empower all of them to make the world more equitable,” said Blankenship.
Global education, Blankenship believes, teaches empathy in that it makes students realize that people experience the world in different ways.
While her Fellowship will continue to run through August 2021, her experiments in global education will continue and be shared with her VISD colleagues.
Blankenship will attend a virtual Fulbright conference in Washington, DC this January. In the spring, she’ll go to South Korea to work with teachers, administrators and local governments to share best practices and bring back ideas to Vashon. She’s already been invited to present at the 2022 Fulbright conference.
Fulbright requires that she shares everything she learns with her colleagues in the District. She’s currently writing a column in the weekly teacher bulletin about how to apply global education in classrooms.
“We have great teachers in the district,” Blankenship said. “The opportunity for me is to share these practices with them so they can amplify what they’re already doing.”
The Fulbright Fellowship provides indefinite access to resources. It is a family of the people in her cohort and alumni who has been developing innovative educational ideas for decades.
“I really believe there is power in hearing other people’s stories,” said Blankenship. “Global Ed is about connecting our kids to everybody’s stories, giving them the confidence to look at those stories and share them in every circumstance – that’s the real opportunity for our students.”