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Making Education a Global Priority

Hiller Spires seeks to make education a global priority through her teaching, research and service. As the Friday Institute’s interim director and professor of literacy education in the Department of Teacher Education and Learning Sciences, Spires has conducted the New Literacies Teacher Leader Institute in several international locations. The institute, along with the New Literacies and Global Learning master’s program, provides professional development opportunities that improve classroom teaching. We spoke with Spires about her work abroad and relationship with the Office of Global Engagement.

How did you decide to take the New Literacies program abroad?

We took the program abroad to Beijing, China in 2010. We conducted the New Literacies Teacher Leader Institute at Beijing Royal School, where teachers and administrators were trying to infuse more contemporary pedagogies and digital strategies and technology into their curriculum. Teachers from that school have come over to the New Literacies Teacher Leader Institutes that we have done at the Friday Institute. Twenty-four of the school’s teachers have earned their master’s degree in our New Literacies and Global Learning program in the College of Education.

From there, I was invited to create a partnership with Suzhou North America High School in Suzhou, China. The school sends teachers here for training, and I take groups over there for cultural exchange experiences. In May, we took a group of  students from the Wake STEM Early College High School to work with Suzhou students on a project-based inquiry global summit.

In June, I was asked to take the New Literacies Teacher Leader Institute to Kitale, Kenya. I went with a former graduate student, Shea Kerkhoff, who had received a grant from the International Literacy Association for professional development in Kenya. I applied for a travel grant from the Office of Global Engagement and leverage that grant to invite two more faculty members from the College of Education to travel with us — Michelle Falter and DeLeon Gray.

The travel grants that Global Engagement provides are phenomenal. Those are dynamic opportunities for faculty and I’m thankful that the university has the vision to see the importance of funding faculty for international travel.

How has the Office of Global Engagement supported your scholarship abroad?

The support from the Office of Global Engagement has been so important to my work. I know that if I have an idea or need some advice, I can contact the office and they will be there to help. Before I traveled to China for the first time  in 2007, I hadn’t really considered global connections in my work, but that trip was transformative for me. I received a lot of support from Global Engagement. I told the office that after that first trip, I would convene people who were doing work in China  and create a summit, so the North Carolina Summit on U.S./China Education was born.

In 2008, we had our first summit here at the Friday Institute, and have been conducting them every two years. Bailian Li was willing to support our efforts from the beginning and he has been a great partner since.

How has the formation of campus and global partnerships improved the depth and impact of your research?

Any time you travel, you grow by learning about new cultures and broadening your perspectives. My mission is to bring what I learn back to my students in the New Literacies and Global Learning master’s program, which I direct. I also try to create opportunities for students and other faculty members to go with me on my trips. Those are two invaluable avenues for sharing what you learn.

I think back on these trips and I wouldn’t have had this global focus  if it wasn’t for Global Engagement — they are foundational to my work. Dr. Li supported me when I began the relationship with Suzhou North America High School, helping create and sustain the partnership over time. Everything I have done internationally leads back to Global Engagement.

What advice do you have for faculty members who want to take their work abroad?

Be open-minded and be strategic — you have to be open-minded and you have to look for opportunities. Align your work with the mission of the university and your college. To the degree you can do that, you can get more support from the institution. Sometimes people think that those two ideas are at odds with each other. I think that they complement each other, because if you’re not being strategic, it is challenging to find opportunities. If you’re not being open-minded and looking around, you’re going to miss something.

What are your future plans for the New Literacies and Global Learning program?

We are conducting follow-up with the Hope Education Centre in Kitale, Kenya. Peter Wanyonyi, the center’s director, will be traveling to the U.S. this fall for a symposium on the work we did there. The center is very short on resources. Before we left on our last trip, we conducted a laptop drive, and we’re going to do another one soon. Peter will distribute them to the teachers to help grow their infrastructure.

The program is also working with early childhood educators in Kenya, who don’t have a strong connection with the Kenyan educational system. They don’t receive appropriate training and are not paid very well. I’ve started a teacher action group and we Skype every other Saturday. We’re making a request to the governor of Kitale for systemic change for early childhood education in Kenya. When I conduct these institutes, I like to keep the relationships going and make sure that our efforts are sustainable.

Interested in learning more about the Kitale, Kenya and Suzhou, China programs? Join Spires and leaders from both programs as they reflect on their experiences and the impact of cross-cultural collaborations in two panel discussions during International Education Month in November.