UW–Madison School of Education extends international reach

As his final student-teaching placement drew to a close last April, Luke Kramer reflected on the experience:

“I have been a teacher in Africa for two months, and in this time I have become better in almost every aspect of my life. At deeper levels, I have discovered myself as a teacher, myself as a person, my outlook on the world, my relationship with God, and the importance of family. For this I have Africa to thank.”

Kramer, who now teaches third grade in the Middleton-Cross Plains School District, is among a small but growing number of education students at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who are taking advantage of new opportunities to gain professional and academic experience abroad.

The elementary student-teaching program in rural Uganda and a new comparative education course in China signal a renewed effort to internationalize the School of Education. Both programs are run in collaboration with International Academic Programs (IAP), the primary study abroad office on campus.

“Our mission is to integrate global education into everything we do,” says Maggie Hawkins, professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, who chairs the School’s Global Education Committee.

The committee, created last year, has representatives from all of the School’s academic departments and other units. Its mission is to ensure coordinated international initiatives and opportunities that span research and practice, and that have administrative, faculty, staff, graduate student, and undergraduate student participation.

“We want to focus on increasing opportunities for our students to have global engagement at home, by using technology and other means,” Hawkins says, “and we want to increase our program options for study abroad.”

The Ugandan connection began several years ago. While teaching for a year in Canada, Hawkins met Amos and Edith Kambere, who ran a center to assist African refugees in Vancouver, British Columbia. Amos Kambere, a former high school teacher and member of Uganda’s Parliament, had fled the country when the government fell in 1986.

In addition to helping refugees, Kambere had been raising funds to start a school back in his home village in the Kasese region of western Uganda. As a result, the Rwentutu Community Christian School opened in 2007—starting with a single grade, and adding one more per year. This year, the school will graduate its first class of seventh graders.

“When I came back to Madison, I wanted to connect the university with this school,” Hawkins says.

The first UW student teachers went to Uganda for 10 weeks in the summer of 2010. The School of Education now sends two groups of students each year—during the fall and spring semesters—for a nine-week student-teaching placement at the Ugandan school.

Luke Kramer in Uganda
Luke Kramer in Uganda

Anyone who goes into teaching wants to have a positive impact on children’s lives, notes Kramer, who grew up in Luxembourg, Wisconsin.

“I knew I wanted to make a difference but, given the uncertainty in my life at that time, I just didn’t know where to start,” he says.
Hawkins encouraged Kramer to try Uganda. “I never envisioned myself teaching in an environment like rural Uganda, but something in me pushed me to go for it,” he says.

In Rwentutu, a poor village of 10,000 people with no running water or electricity, the primary means of sustenance is small-scale farming. The school has well water and solar electricity available for several hours per day. The UW students live 40 minutes away, in Kasese, which has food stores, a medical facility, an internet cafe, and other services.

“What I was hoping to do was to have students encounter diversity,” Hawkins says, “and, by being outside of their previous experiences, learn to be flexible in their teaching, increase their sensitivity, and broaden their experience and knowledge of the world.”

Kramer says teaching in Uganda taught him how wise children can be:

“Kids overall just have a much different perspective than adults. You can learn so much just from the questions kids ask,” he says. “For example, one day at lunch a child asked me, ‘Teacher, I want to live in the U.S. Do people in the U.S. want to live in Uganda?’ There is so much packed into that one simple question. It’s a question that can be discussed in a college lecture hall.”

He adds, “I have learned to appreciate the perspective of youth. We all could learn to grow a little younger.”

Being far away from home also gave him a greater appreciation for my family, particularly his wife, and his country.

Hawkins has observed that the experience makes students more independent and more confident in themselves and in their teaching abilities.

Because not all School of Education students are enrolled in teacher certification programs, she says the school needs to develop a variety of international programs—such as short-term faculty-led experiences and semester-long study aboard.

That led to creation of a comparative education course—a three-week, faculty-led program in which students spend one week in Madison and two in Xi’an and Beijing, China. Four UW–Madison students, accompanied by Hawkins, participated last summer in the pilot of this program, which will be offered every two years.

In Xi’an, the UW students and faculty are hosted by Shaanxi Normal University, a highly regarded teacher-training college in China. The UW students participate with their Chinese peers in a comparative education seminar taught collaboratively by Shaanxi and UW faculty members. The UW students also receive instruction in Chinese language, culture, history and martial arts.
Outside of class, their Shaanxi peers introduce the UW students to the campus and city.

“My dad has traveled to China several times for business and I have always wanted to go experience it for myself,” says Natalie Baus, a senior from Kimberly, Wisconsin, majoring in special education.

“One experience I will never forget was visiting a rural area in Xian,” Baus says. “We saw how most of the Chinese population lives. We also visited a peasant painter’s home and chose from hundreds of paintings to buy. They also fed us an amazing lunch from food that was grown on their farm.”

Baus says the program gave her a greater sense of independence: “I felt comfortable in my skills to get around in a huge city where people did not speak English.”

She adds, “I believe this study abroad trip made me grow and I hope to be able to revisit China someday.”

“These programs require building relations with folks and this takes time,” Hawkins says.

The Global Education Committee is encouraging faculty across the School of Education to leverage their international relations to create more international opportunities for students.

— by Kerry G. Hill