Any veteran teacher who focuses on international issues remembers the phenomenal interest that greeted the “Kony 2012” campaign. Launched by the advocacy group, Invisible Children, the “Kony 2012” campaign featured a video calling for the capture of Ugandan warlord, Joseph Kony. Within days of its release, the video had gone viral, and my students asked me if I would show the video in class and consider sponsoring an Invisible Children chapter at our school. Although I had reservations about both the video and the organization, I was moved by the students’ interest and so I set aside class time to watch and discuss the video. In sum, our discussion generated a lot of heat but little light. Through no fault of their own, my students did not know much about previous attempts to capture Kony, about why some Ugandans (especially those in the north) might not trust their government to carry out such a raid, about how big of a threat Kony and his forces currently posed to Ugandans, about why many in Uganda viewed Invisible Children with great suspicion, and about whether non-military options might be worth pursuing. In reflecting on the “Kony 2012” campaign with colleagues, I was struck by two points:

  1. The Invisible Children campaign had done a staggeringly good job of generating excitement around an international issue, and teachers would be wise to try to borrow elements from their approach.  
  2. The Invisible Children campaign stripped the issue of Joseph Kony’s capture of complexity and, in doing so, missed an opportunity to provoke students to think deeply and consider long-term approaches to resolving the issue.

Fueled by these insights, I started thinking about how I could generate more enthusiasm for studying international issues as well as how the students could channel their enthusiasm into the sort of complicated, sustained thinking that many students do not do until they reach college. Over the course of the next three years, I tried several means of generating enthusiasm: my students went on out-of-state field trips to meet with interesting guests, we Skyped with authors and activists, and we made presentations within our community. While all of these were worthwhile, they never came close to matching the excitement or emotional appeal of the “Kony 2012” video, and they never persuaded struggling students to become interested in international issues. At the start of 2016, I came up with an idea that I felt had the potential to truly motivate my students: students in my Global Issues class who were willing to read rigorous texts about global poverty in preparation for a series of meetings with professors, activists, bureaucrats, and NGOs would also get to attend the Global Citizen concert in New York City. Given that my students love Rhianna and Kendrick Lamar and that these were the two headliners for the event, I felt confident that this method could work. 

On the first day of the school year, I started the Global Issues class by telling the students that we would go on a field trip to meet with people who work on the issues that we would be studying. I told the students that I enjoyed field trips because they offered us a chance to visit new places, experience a different kind of learning, and get to know each other better. Finally, I said that I also liked field trips because I liked going to events like the one that I was about to show on the screen. When the students watched this clip of Rhianna, Kendrick Lamar, and other acts who would be performing at the Global Citizen Festival, it was clear that they did not quite know what I was talking about. So, I asked, “Don’t you guys want to come with me to the concert?” At that point, the students looked at each other and exchanged glances that essentially meant, “Is he for real?” After assuring them that I was not joking, I asked the students to take two minutes to turn to a neighbor and discuss who they were most excited to see in concert. For two minutes, chaos descended on our room: everyone spoke loudly, the Selena Gomez fans struggled to gain traction, and the Rhianna and Kendrick partisans achieved a stalemate. When we came back together as a class, I explained that the Global Citizen Festival was happening at the same time that the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) was convening and that we would be going to New York to not only see the concert but also to meet with a variety of experts who work on global poverty and were connected to the UNGA meetings. I stressed that since many of the experts worked in different areas and held divergent views, we would have to work exceptionally hard for the next four weeks to prepare for this trip.

Over the course of the next month, the Global Issues students tackled a wide range of topics to prepare for our trip: cash transfers, the Millennium Development Goals, the plague of everyday violence that often afflicts the poor, randomized control trials, the efficacy of aid, whether teaching grit actually improves the material well-being of the poor (spoiler: probably not), behavioral economics, the Global Burden of Disease project, and the merits of different tax collection systems. Importantly, the students continued to work hard outside of class: they pursued group research projects, created and refined a 25-page Google Doc full of questions about poverty, and tweeted to many of the people whose work they were encountering in class. In fact, the students got so excited about this work that they took matters into their own hands and used social media to arrange a meeting with one of the founders of Global Citizen.

Matt Cone's students meet with Simon Moss of Global Citizen
Matt Cone's students meet with Simon Moss of Global Citizen

By the time our Global Issues class left for New York on September 25, the students not only knew a tremendous amount about global poverty but, equally important, they had grown comfortable with and excited by complexity. No longer did these students think that aid was either good or bad, that what works in Honduras will always work in Zambia, that being a physician was the sole path to making a difference in the world, that saying that two factors are correlated necessarily indicates something important, or that relying on an intuitive sense of what is cost-effective is defensible.

The Global Issues students speak with staff at UNICEF.
The Global Issues students speak with staff at UNICEF.
Students discuss the Millennium Development Goals with Jeff and Sonia Sachs.
Students discuss the Millennium Development Goals with Jeff and Sonia Sachs.

Watching the students engage with guests in New York was a profound experience for me. While the motivation to go to New York had initially been about seeing Rhianna and Kendrick Lamar, over time the motivation grew to include a desire to hold powerful dialogues with experts. Given the students’ hard work in preparing for the meetings, I could essentially stay in the background when the students picked the brains of an incredible roster of speakers. The students had too many meetings to recount here, but I did want to share a few moments that stand out.  

  1. In a meeting with The Lancet editor, Richard Horton, the students and Richard discussed why schools teach in such a narrow, disciplinary fashion when, in fact, all of the key issues facing the world are multidisciplinary. Richard was so impressed by the students that he offered them 500 words in an upcoming issue of The Lancet to discuss what young people want to see happen in global health.
  2. When meeting with Center for Disease Control Director Tom Frieden, the students spoke about when laws impact the larger culture and when the reverse is true. Frieden encouraged the students to think about how they could play a role in driving cultural changes that lead to changes in the law.
  3. In a meeting with Global Citizen Festival co-founder Simon Moss, the students shared their anger about the political situation in North Carolina and brainstormed ways that they could channel their frustration into effective advocacy.
  4. Dr. Richard Besser of “Good Morning America” took the students under his wing and hosted them for two meetings and the taping of a news segment. Besser offered political analysis, life advice, and even let the students see some Emmy awards.
  5. While talking with professors Sonia and Jeff Sachs, the students asked question after question about the Millennium Development Goals (which Jeff Sachs played a strong role in developing).
  6. When speaking with professor Bill Easterly, the students were provoked to consider whether the Millennium Development Goals were a poorly-conceived, utopian planning scheme. Easterly insisted that the Millennium Development Goals ignored the lessons from the past two decades about how hundreds of millions of people have lifted themselves out of poverty. Because several of the students disagreed with Easterly’s analysis, this was one of our most engaging meetings.

At the end of three days of meetings, the students were everything that a teacher could ask for: wise, passionate, skeptical without being cynical, and humbled by how much they still wanted to learn. On the fourth and final day in New York, the students got the prize that had initially caused them to take this journey: the opportunity to see Rhianna, Kendrick Lamar, Selena Gomez, and others perform at the Global Citizen festival. At the festival, they acted precisely as you would expect: they screamed, they danced, they flirted, and they snapchatted endlessly with friends back at home. In the space of four days, they clearly demonstrated that it was possible to use an activity that generates excitement and joy to push students to become deeper, more committed thinkers. 

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily of the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Click here to learn more about the USIP Peace Teacher program.