Stanford University Carries the Baltics Abroad
Most American high school students have never heard of Estonia. Some don't believe it exists. Stanford University's SPICE program is out to change all that.
“I would say there is a great deal of interest in the US in international curriculum," says Stanford University's Waka Brown. Brown is a curriculum writer for SPICE, Stanford’s Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education. “Compared with several decades ago when world history essentially just meant studying Western civilization, I believe students are learning much more about cultures and societies throughout the world.”
Thanks to the initiative of Lisa Trei, an associate communications director at Stanford, SPICE Director Gary Mukai, and members of the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies, more American high schools can offer students a course on the Baltic states.
Trei, whose grandparents' homeland was Estonia, was asked by Mukai to be the adviser on the project. In 2008, when Trei was awarded a Milena Jesenska Fellowship for Journalists to work in Estonia, she used the opportunity to begin planning the project. "Many Americans have never heard of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania," Trei said, "but I hope this curriculum, in a small way, can help change that."
SPICE, an educational outreach program of Stanford's Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, serves as a bridge between the university and pupils from Kindergarten through community college, where students can earn a two-year degree.
“The need to teach young students about international issues has never been greater,” reads the first line of the SPICE curriculum program entitled "The Baltic States: Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania."
The SPICE Baltic curriculum is four lessons mainly targeting American high school students who are approximately 14-18 years old, in grades 9-12. The introductory lesson gives an overview of the history and culture of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Lesson two focuses on Estonia, and how it transformed itself from a former Soviet republic into a thriving high-tech society. The curriculum focuses on Estonia’s e-government and e-services (the "e" means electronic), noting that “Estonia serves as a model for wealthier and more developed nations looking to enhance and expand their own technological prowess.” The third lesson covers women’s issues in Latvia, the playwright Aspazija and the life of Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga. Lesson four profiles Lithuania as an “international basketball powerhouse” and elaborates on the role of the sport in the country’s identity.
Created November 2008 and completed April 2010, the curriculum was field-tested in autumn 2009 in Terri Bramhall’s classroom at Grandview High School in Aurora, Colorado.
“As the SPICE unit suggests,” said Bramhall, “I did the initial fact finding activity and was surprised that only one student knew the names and approximate location of the Baltic states. Many of them thought that Estonia was a fictitious place from a movie we had watched a clip of entitled Encino Man. So, when we did this lesson, all but one of them were shocked that it was a real country.” Bramhall said her freshmen students (ages 14-15) were intrigued by commonalities between the cultures. “Most of them expected all differences between the cultures,” she said, “so they kept calling me over to tell me about the similarities that they discovered.”
The SPICE program has also influenced other courses, Bramhall added. “Every year in my geography course, each student receives a country to research and follow throughout the semester. In the past, Estonia was not a country that was included in my list of countries, but after completing the Baltic States review and field test, it is now included.”
Since its release, the program has been used in 50 schools across the United States. Mukai said SPICE will aim to distribute the curriculum to about 1,000 schools within the next five years. Word of the curriculum is spread through teacher workshops which feature specific curriculum units.
In addition to the Baltics, there are 122 other SPICE curricula that teachers may choose from. The three most popular are not European. They are titled, “Along the Silk Road,” “Religions and Philosophies in China,” and “China’s Cultural Revolution.” The popularity of the Asian units, according to Mukai, is in part due to their focus on commonly taught topics in American public schools, such as the Silk Road, China’s Cultural Revolution, and Buddhism.
The SPICE subjects are supplementary, and therefore can be integrated into existing lesson plans. Teachers are not required to seek permission from school boards to use them, nor do state education departments review or approve them. There are few bureaucratic barriers to their use.
The Stanford team also has made efforts to be culturally sensitive. Unlike some travel guidebooks about Estonia which featured the Russian Orthodox Nevsky Cathedral on their covers, SPICE chose to avoid the image. They did consider it. “By using it [the image],” said Waka Brown, “we had hoped to negate Russian criticism that this is a project that excludes the Russian community.” But after consideration, SPICE opted not to use it. “Some scholars who reviewed the unit didn't think it would be a good idea since the Orthodox church is a divisive issue in Estonia, and we understood that some teachers and children of Estonian ancestry might be offended by the use of that particular photo, which is something we definitely didn’t intend,” said Brown.
The Stanford team also values accuracy. They understand that Estonia is more than song festivals, folk costumes, or Tallinn’s Old Town. The images selected are balanced, and present life in the country as an evening soccer game on a beach in Pärnu, a rye harvest, dinner on a family farm, a Soviet block-house neighborhood, and black-and-white images from Estonia’s first period of independence.
“Estonia created a system that is the antithesis of the Soviet system…” reads a passage of the SPICE book. Estonia probably couldn’t have written it better itself. Not to mention that in a growing number of schools, American students now know that it is not a fictitious place.