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Making the Grade: Students gain world perspective through program

Identifying Nepal on the globe or naming the capital of Nigeria aren’t just talents for trivia games anymore. In the global society, experts say students armed with that knowledge are better prepared for the future. At the Wesleyan School in Peachtree Corners, the roughly 300 students in the lower school are among the only ones in Georgia who are learning details about the planet’s nations through a program called the Passport Club.

“A parent who thought it was a cool idea brought it to the school, and we tweaked it into a Wesleyan-style program,” said Jason Erb, the lower school principal. “We took an idea and boosted into from a classroom project into a school-wide thing that involves parents, teachers and students.”

Each month, the club presents students with information on different countries, and the number of countries, along with the level and detail of information, increases with each grade.

“We also take on one country and study it in-depth each month,” said Erb. “This month, it’s Canada; next month is Iceland. We develop videos that show kid-friendly stuff. They watch at home and fill out a worksheet about the country, so they’re studying independently, not just taking out a social studies book and reading it. I also throw some fun facts about the country into the morning announcements, and we have the food service people make foods from that country.”

At the end of the month, students present their passport cards to “customs officials” – parents who volunteer to quiz the kids on what they’ve learned. Though it is a test of their knowledge, the exercise generates considerable energy, said Erb.

“We have about 30 parents at tables with the flags of the different countries, and the kids bring their passports,” he said. “They have to show where a country is on the map or answer questions, and if they get a certain number correct, they get pins and ‘passport bucks’ they can save for the end of the year. The parents love it because they get to interact with the kids.”

Students get to spend those bucks at an international bazaar the parents stock with small items from around the globe. “We have moms who bring in knick-knacks from Asia or Africa, for instance,” said Erb. “Depending on how much the kids have earned, they have bucks to spend.”

While the bazaar is the fun side of the project, second grade teacher Laura Jensen said there’s serious learning going on before the spending starts. In fact, she participates along with her class, from studying the countries of the month to passing the “customs” quiz.

“The primary function of the program is to promote geographic literacy,” she said. “I’m always looking for ways to bring whatever we’re studying back to a country we’ve looked at. It helps students realize where these places are, why they’re important and how they might be similar to other countries.”

Though the club is voluntary, almost all students participate, said Jensen. “There’s a lot of incentive – the passport stamps, the pins for their lanyards, the world market bucks for the bazaar. But it also helps with other subjects. When we teach math skills or directions, for example, the geography is a great tie-in. They already have a sense of oceans, that Italy is in Europe and that Algeria and Mali share a border. They know where Antarctica is and why spiders can’t live there. It’s a great way to add context.”

The club also taps into the bigger picture of the world, said Erb. “It’s another way to learn that life’s bigger than Peachtree Corners, Georgia.”

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