"The Global Village": Teaching US History in a Multicultural Classroom

John A Donnangelo, April 2008

More than 40 years ago, describing the emerging globalization movement of his day, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase, "The Global Village." The "village" has grown rapidly since then, not only encompassing a greater part of the globe, but also touching and affecting school classrooms within it. Many high school classrooms in the United States, particularly in large, cosmopolitan areas such as New York City, now reflect—in their diverse student populations—the global multiculturalism that we see in institutions like the United Nations. What are the implications of these developments for teaching history?

History teachers will have to be particularly concerned about this question because they have to educate students about the social, political, economic, religious, and geographic development of the world as a whole. But it is not just the teachers of world history or non-Western history that have to confront this challenge. Even the teacher of U.S. history has to address the question. Indeed, given the impact of globalization, the teacher must not only seek to teach American history in a global context, but also has to deal with the special challenges posed by the growing multicultural student populations in the classroom.

As an American history teacher at Fort Lee High School in Fort Lee, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from New York City, I became acutely aware of this pedagogical reality in my classroom and worked at adapting to it. What follows is my story.

Teaching the Korean War

The student population of Fort Lee High School is approximately 44 percent Asian (although only about 7 percent of New Jersey's total high school student population is Asian).1 The predominant Asian population in Fort Lee is Korean. In fact, Fort Lee High School specifically has a Korean bilingual and English as a Second Language (ESL) program because of the size of its Korean-speaking non-U.S. born student population. In a classroom with such a significant number of "foreign" students, it is imperative to find new ways of teaching U.S. history and current events, especially by discussing such events within a frame of reference that would be familiar for the students. I discovered that one interesting way of doing this while staying within the U.S. history curriculum at Fort Lee would be by having my students relate the historical period and figure that we needed to discuss—Korea in the early 1950s, and President Eisenhower—to the current situation in Iraq.

The crisis in Korea was, in many ways, similar to the foreign policy situation currently faced in Iraq. Without recounting the entire history of the Korean War, a teacher can still point out, for example, how in 1953, President Eisenhower found a solution to the Korean problem. The question can then be asked, "What did he do, and how did he do it?" This will then enable the teacher and students to segue into an analysis of seminal secondary and/or primary source materials on the subject. One such source that we usefully considered in my class is a paper presented by James Matray (New Mexico State Univ.) at the Korean War teachers conference, "Korea +50: No Longer Forgotten," held in February 2001.2 Describing the U.S. and Chinese attitudes to the Korean War, Matray writes, "[They] had grown tired of the economic burdens, military losses, political and military constraints, worrying about an expanded war, and pressure from allies and the world community to end the stalemated war." This description could very well have been about the current situation in Iraq, and students can quickly and easily see the resonances between the two historical events. Not only does this make it easier for the students to understand the events of the past, but discussion of the similarities also contributes to making the history lesson more alive and relevant.

Matray goes on to say that Eisenhower's first inclinations on how to end the war in Korea were similar to those of President Bush's "New Strategy for Iraq," asking in particular, for the increase of U.S. military personnel and/or force. Matray states, "The armistice came on July 23 [1953], after an accelerated bombing campaign in North Korea and bellicose rhetoric about expanding the war."3

While discussing Matray's essay, I try to show that the realization—on both sides of a conflict—that the practical need for peace, should, and in Korea did, seriously lead both sides to the negotiations table.

Another way for a teacher to make history come alive, especially in multicultural classrooms, is by using role playing. Students can either be in groups, role playing nations, or, if a teacher prefers, some students can be selected to role play particular individuals, such as the U.S. president or the Chinese prime minister. The remaining students can then become the foreign policy advisers to each of the individual actors. Having non-native students in my class, Korean in this case, add their own knowledge of Korea's history, particularly with regard to Japan and China, added to the content and interest of the discussion. The possibilities are seemingly endless, and all students in the class can benefit from such role playing. Even the "native" students in the class, for whom the United States is the first frame of reference, can learn, along with the rest of their classmates, how to make comparisons and analyses across national and ethnic boundaries and across time periods.

Some Cold War Conundrums in the Classroom

A different kind of challenge was posed in my classroom by the presence of students of Russian descent. Fort Lee High School has a significant number of such students. Generally born after (or shortly before) the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, they—and Russian students at any other high school in America today, I would dare say—do not have any palpable memories of the Cold War. Nor are they inhibited in their questions by a "red scare" mentality inherited from a Cold War past. I was made keenly aware of this fact when, a few years ago, a student of Russian ancestry in my United States History II class, which, of course, covered the post-World II era and the Cold War, asked a question about which side(s) the United States and the Soviet Union fought on during World War II? Was he perhaps asking me this question to "test me," to see if I would acknowledge that the United States and the Soviet Union had been allies during World War II? I answered his question by noting that they had been allies and by discussing other aspects of the Roosevelt-Stalin relationship during World War II, a response that convinced the student that I was aware of the shifting alliances, and that I was indeed trying to teach American history in an inclusive manner.

My situation was indeed clearly different from that of a teacher in the high tide period of the Cold War (late 1940s through the late 1960s). When teaching about America's involvement in World War II, an American history high school teacher in that era likely would not have encountered student questions concerning Stalin and the Soviet Union being an ally of the United States in World War II. In the narrowly defined high school curriculum of the Cold War period, the Soviet Union was our enemy; American foreign policy was simply "containment policy." There were the Rosenbergs, "McCarthyism," the Cuban Missile Crisis, and so on, that clearly marked American foreign policy. Today, in the "Global Village Classroom," however, teachers have to teach a much more nuanced or "inclusive" history.

One way in which I practiced pedagogical inclusivity, in relation to the Cold War period, was by having my U.S. History II students watch, analyze, and discuss the movie Good Night, and Good Luck. With a movie analysis worksheet that I developed, students clearly identified what "McCarthyism" was and what its effects were. I then asked students to compare and contrast "McCarthyism" with attitudes and actions toward Arab and Muslim Americans, post 9/11. Through this activity, students came to demonstrate a clearer understanding that racism and discrimination in America is not just a thing of the past and/or something limited to the experience of just certain groups of Americans, notably African Americans. Students thoughtfully comprehended the wisdom of the oft-quoted phrase, "Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it."

A challenge of yet another kind was posed in my classroom by the presence of students of Arabic ancestry along with a sizable number of Jewish students, especially when teaching about U.S. policies toward the Arab-Israeli conflict. Both Arab and Jewish students in my classes became more open to learning about the conflict in its totality when I pointed to President Truman's premature recognition of the state of Israel in 1948 prior to UN recognition of Israel and the creation of an independent Palestinian state at the same time. Students came to have a greater understanding and appreciation of the role of direct dialogue in solving political disputes by carefully examining the 1979 Camp David Accords when studying the Carter administration's foreign policy in the Middle East.


Now, more than ever, with the advent and spread of "The Global Village Classroom," teachers must recognize the multicultural character of their classrooms, and shape their teaching accordingly. American history teachers should become more aware of the specific cultural demographics of their classes and be sure to be inclusive of the specific cultural diversity represented within their classrooms. To aid in doing this, teachers should consult their states' U.S. history curriculum guidelines, which should address issues of multiculturalism within the U.S. history curriculum. Additionally, U.S. history teachers should consult with their colleagues concerning appropriate classroom models. For, at its best, history provides a glimpse of what various people have thought and felt in times and places very different from our own. And understanding the differences while discovering the similarities is an essential component of historical exploration in the classroom, especially in a classroom with a diverse student body.

—John A. Donnangelo, a former social studies teacher at Fort Lee High School, Fort Lee, New Jersey, is an adjunct instructor of history at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He was also a former adjunct instructor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Madison, New Jersey.


1. Fort Lee Borough, School Environment (2005), School Matters—A Service of Standard & Poor's. Online at www.schoolmatters.com/app/printfriendly/q/stid=31/llid=116/stllid=229/locid=9894. Accessed June 20, 2007.

2. James I Matray, "Revisiting Korea: Exposing Myths of the Forgotten War," paper presented at the Korean War Teachers Conference, "The Korean War +50: No Longer Forgotten," February 9, 2001. The text of the paper is available online at www.trumanlibrary.org/korea/matray1.htm. Accessed February 5, 2007.

3. Ibid.