Why TCK Researchers and American Ed Reformers Should Talk

In my previous post, I referenced a book that I’ve been asked to read in preparation for graduate school this fall. The book is called Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms by H. Richard Milner IV.

One aspect that I appreciated most about this book was the willingness to dive deep into a conversation about the causes of educational inequity and how different systems within the United States perpetuate that inequity. Rather than positing that all students, regardless of background or specific need, should be forced to succeed within a potentially problematic educational system, Milner encourages readers, educators, and policy-makers to look at the big picture of education and how different systems in the United States interact with each other. Moreover, Milner avoids pointing a finger at any one group and blaming them for destroying public education. Readers leave the book following Milner’s own asset-based thinking, and considering how all parties involved can contribute to education.

One of the challenges for educators and policy-makers alike that presented itself throughout the book was the diversity of needs and circumstances of students. A recent study published by the National Center for Education Statistics showed that, in 2012, enrollment in public schools across the United States consisted of 51% white students, 16% black students, 24% Hispanic students, 5% Asian/Pacific Island, 1% American Indian/Alaska Native, and 3% or two or more races.[1] I’m not writing this to argue that this is good or bad in anyway—I’m citing this statistics to indicate the level of diversity present within American public schools, and the fact that, according to the same study, this diversity is likely to increase. It’s also important to understand that the definition of race extends far beyond simply the physical definition, but also includes social constructs, legal constructs, and historical constructs.[2] Thus, the implications that race has for diversity and equity in education are huge.

This diversity necessarily leads to challenges in the classroom. Teachers enter classrooms full of students from very different backgrounds than their own. The curriculum cannot encompass all of the learning needs of students from such varied backgrounds. Despite attending school in the same country, each of these students have such unique stories that a single curriculum cannot possibly fulfill all learning needs, not to mention the impact of implicit curriculum that schools construct and teach students through school culture.[3] Milner quotes A. Ede in saying that “the diverse ethnic and cultural makeup of today’s classrooms makes it unlikely that one single curriculum will meet the needs and interests of all students.”[4] Education cannot and should not be a “one size fits all” profession.

So where does that leave us? With the increasing diversity and increasing needs of students, there’s a lot to improve in the education system. And as I ventured further into Milner’s book, I could stop thinking: TCK researchers and US education reformers should really be talking.

Why? Why should a group of researchers that focuses their study of children who live globally mobile lives be communicating with researchers who are focused on education reform in the United States?

In many ways, TCK research and education research focuses on the same things. Education is more than just a transmission of knowledge; rather, it’s a development of skills necessary for a child to succeed in life. Within the past decade, there’s also been an increased emphasis on areas such as social and emotional learning (SEL) as supplemental to any content curriculum. Additionally, schools transmit culture and cultural practices. As content continues to share the spotlight with SEL, child development, and implicit social constructions within the education context, education will still need to be concerned with children’s cultural and identity development.

Much of TCK research seems powered by the same energy: a desire to understand the child and identity development of TCKs in order to understand outcomes and equip TCKs to impact their world. Especially in the past few years, there’s been more emphasis among TCKs themselves to use their own understanding of their own identity to ignite change in the world (take Tayo Rockson’s UYDMag for one example). The emphasis that education reform needs to place on understand the needs of students within their unique cultural and identity development contexts is similar to that which TCK researchers must place on TCKs.

Though I have no data to support this, it would seem that many TCK researchers are TCKs themselves. This means that TCKs have developed a certain set of skills while navigating cross-cultural transitions. Among these skills are intercultural communication, linguistic ability, mediation, diplomacy and the ability to manage diversity…”[5] With the increased diversity among public skills, it would make sense that people who have developed skills in crossing cultures and contexts be working within these environments.

Finally, much in the same way that a TCK crosses cultures between the their parents’ home culture and their host culture, creating a third culture, teachers and educators must also cross cultures. I realize that most educators probably would not equate the concept of a classroom culture to a country or ethnic group’s culture and societal norms, but I think it’s worth drawing a connection. Teachers create a set of expectations within their classroom, bridging the diversity of their students’ home cultures and the school culture. Granted, the difference is typically not as pronounced as the difference between a passport country’s culture and a host country’s culture, but similarities could exist and might be worth exploring further (or if I’m imagining the similarity, maybe we should pick a different word to describe classroom environment besides classroom “culture”).

Not that I think that working with TCK researchers would be the silver bullet for education reform and solve all its problems. In many ways, American TCKs are ill-equipped to approach education reform issues in the United States because few of them have actually experienced the American public education systems, among other reasons. But the lessons learned and approaches that TCK researchers take to further their own research could help to frame a conversation and maybe solutions for education reformers in the United States.

[1] Racial/Ethnic Enrollment in Public Schools, National Center for Education Statistics, May 2015, http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_cge.asp.

[2] Milner, 8.

[3] Milner, 57.

[4] A. Ede, “Scripted Curriculum: Is it a Prescription for Success?” Childhood Education 83, no. 1 (2006): 31, quoted in Milner, 58.

[5] Norma McCaig, September, 1994, Growing up with a world view, Foreign Service Journal, quoted by Wendy Stultz, Global and Domestic Nomads or Third Culture Kid: Who Are They and What the University Needs to Know, http://www.colostate.edu/Depts/SAHE/JOURNAL2/2003/Stultz.htm.


Book Review: B at Home

Amidst the research being published on Third Culture Kids (TCKs) and the impact of global mobility on education, it’s sometimes easy to forget about the voices of the people we are researching and writing about—the kids themselves.

Valerie Besanceney has created a wonderful short chapter book that begins to provide words for a TCK experiences when he or she moves. The book follows the story of 10-year-old Emma through her international move from one home to another due to her father’s work relocation. It is written from the perspective of both Emma and interspersed with the thoughts of her stuffed bear, affectionately named “B.”

Through telling the story through both the eyes of Emma and B, Besanceney has been able to capture all angles of the moving experience—the impact of past moves, the uncertainty of a future move, and how Emma processes the entire situation. Besanceney skillfully brings up questions of rituals, friendships, changing schools, and creating a home, all of which are bound to run through the mind of any child who moves.

This book would be an excellent book for a parent and child to read together to help process an international move. Reading about Emma’s experience going through a similar transition will likely provide words for a TCK to begin processing a moving experience, opening up a conversation with parents. At the same time, it will remind the child that he or she is not alone in feeling this way. Parents may also glean ideas for how to make the transition easier by reading this book, whether it’s establishing a new ritual or creating a Moving Booklet similar to the one Emma receives in the story.

All in all, I would highly recommend this book to anyone with children and who is making an international move. Feel free to check it out on Amazon.

Book Review: Safe Passage

In a previous post (Visible Learning), I referenced Doug Ota’s book Safe Passage. His phenomenal book merits a little bit more of a review than simply the nod that I gave him in that blog post.

When I first received Doug’s book, I was admittedly intimidated by it–such a well-researched and carefully structured book surely represented a challenging read. I’ve never been more pleasantly surprised about the content of a  book than I was when I finally opened the front cover.

Doug Ota’s book Safe Passage: How mobility affects people and what international schools should do about it not only presents well-researched information on how mobility impacts a child’s educational well-being, but does so in easily digestible pieces. Readers feel like they’re in a conversation with Doug as he shares insights and models about transition experiences, brought to life by metaphors.

What I enjoyed most about the book–besides the nautical themes intertwined throughout–was the emphasis that Doug placed on an individual’s story. By emphasizing a child’s story, Doug affirm the value of a child’s history. Moreover, Doug refused to stop at the surface-level implications of transition, but takes the reader deeper into the psychological impact of transition on belonging and community.

Doug’s book is a must-read. It holds wisdom not only for international schools, but for all organizations that assist families with international transitions. Doug’s well-balanced advice and structured guidelines are applicable across countries. I would recommend this book to anyone involved in education or counseling of globally-mobile families, or anyone with children impacted by mobility.

Book Review: Letters Never Sent

At the beginning of March, I had the privilege of meeting Ruth van Reken at the FIGT conference. As a TCK, hers was a name I had heard frequently, but until the conference I don’t think I actually believed that she was a real person. She’s one of the realist, most authentic people I have ever met. Her honesty, sincerity, and assessment of the world were refreshing.

It’s still a little weird for me to meet the authors of books that I read. I read Ruth’s Letters Never Sent about a month after the conference. If you’re a global nomad, this book must go on your must-read list. I never knew that a person could take the feelings that so many TCKs experience and put them into words on a piece of paper. Yes, Ruth is an expert in the TCK field due to the research she has conducted, but this book reaches beyond the research and into the heart of the TCK. I started the book on a flight to Haiti and finished it on the return flight.

Ruth writes with an incredible amount of honesty about the impact that various aspects of her TCK experience had on her. The book itself compiles journal entries about experiences she had throughout her life. Some letters are addressed to her parents respectively, some to God. She captures all aspects of life—marriage, faith, community, career—and somehow puts words to act of processing each of these through the lens of being a global nomad. The fact that the book is well-written is beside the point–above all, Ruth is real about the experience and the impact that it had on her, and that in itself is powerful in a world where TCKs often feel misunderstood.

I would strongly recommend TCKs, parents of TCKs, and those who work with TCKs to read this book. While this book by no means offers a “how to” recipe for raising a TCK (because there is no recipe), it does give a glimpse into a long-term impacts that such a transient lifestyle can have on an individual. That insight can be invaluable for understanding such a person.

So if you haven’t already, please pop over to Amazon and order it—either for yourself, a friend, or another TCK you know.

Blankets and Espresso

I’ve spent much of the past few weeks looking over my notes from the Families in Global Transition conference.  So many thoughts come from those notes–so many quotes, so many ideas, that it’s hard to know where to begin writing them down.  I’ve come to realize that one of the best places to start is the experience.

I was honestly a little bit skeptical when I agreed to attend FIGT as a Parfitt Pascoe Writing Resident.  I’d never heard of the conference before last October. The online expat community ramped up FIGT to be a sensational experience. But how could I really believe these digitized faces? The words of the computer screen spoke life, depth, and connectedness, but the flatness of the computer screen made it difficult for me to believe that such a thing could actually exist from people traveling in from around the world.  I balked a little at dropping a couple hundred dollars to spend a weekend with people I had never met.

Which is why I was surprised when attending FIGT felt like both snuggling up with your favorite blanket and drinking three cups of espresso (this is probably an inadequate coffee comparison…you’ll have to forgive me, I’ve only just begun drinking coffee).

A favorite blanket, you say?

Yes, a favorite blanket. The one that you always grab when you’ve come inside from shoveling snow (I did a lot of that this year), and you can’t stop shivering.  It’s fuzzy, and it covers your completely, and suddenly you’re warm again and it doesn’t matter how cold it is outside.

That’s like what walking into FIGT is–no matter where you’re coming from, or whether or not you’ve been to FIGT before, there’s a feeling of familiarity and warmth that you can’t find anywhere else and that makes everyone feel like they’ve come home.  No matter where you’re coming from, everyone shares a common bond.  The bond goes beyond the understanding of what it’s like to travel between cultures and countries.  It’s a desire to understand that experience and do something with it that brings everyone together.  And when everyone’s together with that understanding, then it doesn’t matter what’s going on outside.

That is also why FIGT is a little bit like three cups of espresso.

Because the people who go to FIGT don’t stop at just thinking.  They want to do something about what they’re thinking and want to learn how to use their gifts to help others.

As a TCK, I often felt like we viewed ourselves as victims–many of us had no control over where or when we would move next.  Thus, as children, we seemed helpless to impact the changes taking place around us.  I never liked this image of helplessness that I felt like was associated with being a TCK.

That’s where we need to start changing the narrative.  As research emerges about the benefits of moving cross-culturally, we get to do something about the world.  And there are hundreds of awesome people with brilliant ideas about what we can do to start that.  Many of those people were at FIGT, and their desire to make that change is inspiring and motivating.  It spurs other people into action beyond the walls of the conference room.  It’s better than caffeine.

Long story short, you should plan on attending FIGT next year when it takes place in the Netherlands.

Bridging Worlds

Over the past couple of days at the Families in Global Transition Conference, it was inspirational to meet some amazing people who have stories similar to my own.  When I think about my life, I’m honored to realize that I’ve led a pretty cool life.  I was born in Taiwan and lived there for most of my childhood.  During those eighteen years, I traveled to the Philippines, Japan, and Thailand.  Then I received a quality education from a liberal arts college, during which time I connected with phenomenal people and lived in Italy for four months.  After that, I taught in rural North Carolina, where I met some powerful students and visionaries.  Now I get to travel to Haiti to work with teachers who have an amazing passion for their students.

Many times, rehashing my life for people results in glazed over looks and confusion.  But over the past weekend, that’s the last thing that’s happened.  Because everyone else has had a similar story.  Moreover, these people are trying to make a difference with their stories.  This weekend I met Tayo Rockson, a TCK who lived in five countries and founded Use Your Difference (http://www.uydmag.com) to encourage people to “Use their difference to make a difference.” I met Ellen Mahoney, who founded Sea Change Mentoring (http://seachangementoring.com) as a mentoring organization for TCKs in high schools and universities.  I met Ruth Van Reken and Michael Pollock, who have established and continued groundbreaking research into the impacts that global mobility has on children.

Talking to these people made me remember that I could be part of something bigger.  As mobile as we are, and however much we end up dispersing across the globe, we as TCKs have a unique opportunity to make a difference in the world due to our backgrounds and global upbringing.  The conduit for that difference may vary, and one is not necessarily better than others, but it happens.  This revelation isn’t new, but I was definitely reminded of it this weekend.

But honestly, we’re really not that special.  Pieces of our stories resonate with so many others.  How we acquired our stories may be unique, but the impacts that they have on us are similar.

And that’s where we get to start bridging worlds for others.

Because even though I’m a white female, I want to help the Haitian (or Taiwanese, or Romanian, or South African) student tell his or her story to the world through education.  Because if we’re not careful, these students are going to lose their cultural identity in the face of globalization in the same way that TCKs risk not developing their cultural identity because they never grow up in one culture.

And I firmly believe that one of the vehicles to do this is education.  Through education, we build empathy.  Through empathy, we build understanding.  And through understanding, we build the ability to listen to others, recognize, and celebrate their differences.

After the conference ended, I met up with one of my North Carolina friends for dinner in DC.  We had a few extra minutes and with them we visited a small, local bookstore.  As I was browsing through the books, my eye caught a children’s book that had the blue UNICEF brand emblazoned on its cover.  The letters read A life like mine.  I grabbed it and started flipping through it, slowly discovering that this book identified different themes of cultural identity and depicted how these indicators were manifested in different cultures across the world.  As I looked further throughout the store, I found an entire education shelf devoted to cultural response teaching and education as identity development.  Please feel free to check out their website: http://www.tfcbooks.org.

I realized that this is where I get to start bridging worlds.  Through my passion for education, and I get the help teachers give their students a voice that will further their cultural identity while still understanding others.