Who Makes Our Things? Teaching About the Global Economy

T-Shirts, IPhones and blue jeans–objects most of my grade 7 students own, love and rely on. Thus, after a long New England winter, I could think of a no better way to captivate and re-charge their minds than through exploring the production of these goods in the global economy. As one reluctant learner said to me after class, “I am so into what we are studying.” Another commented, “These are things we never think about but always should.” Studying our things lends itself to high levels of critical thinking, grasping key economic concepts, making connections, and pondering one’s own place and responsibility in the world.

For the t-shirt, I relied on the 5-chapter NPR Planet Money Makes A T Shirt short video clips. The videos start on a Mississippi cotton farm,  introduce us to the workers and factories in Bangladesh and Colombia, explore the measurements and movements of the cargo container, and follow the shipment of goods around the globe. They introduce us to the humans responsible in all levels of production. At only about 6-minutes each, these videos are thought provoking, easy to follow, and cover a myriad of concepts to both engage and challenge students. To keep their minds active while watching, I asked students to take fill-in notes on a worksheet I had prepared which allowed them to capture and recall details to support our discussion.

After the videos, I exercised their listening comprehension muscles by playing two NPR stories:  Two Sisters, A Small Room and the World Behind a T-Shirt which looks at the lives of two sisters who work in a factory in Bangladesh, and The Afterlife of American Clothes which explores the second-hand clothing markets of Sub-Saharan Africa, which receive over a billion pounds of clothing from the US. The students were riveted to the introduction of the story, which mentions how one man donated his t-shirt to a Goodwill in Miami and five months later, when he was working in Sierra Leone, saw an ice cream vendor wearing his shirt. Both of these stories pulled in the attention of my students who thought critically about geography and the role of the global economy on the lives of all involved.

To help us explore the I Phone, we watched and discussed Inside the Apple Factory from ABC News, as well as NYU Student Goes Undercover in Apple Factory as well as looked at what is in an cell itself in Why It Takes 75 Elements to Make Your Cell Phone.

Lastly, to examine our blue jeans, we watched a documentary called China Blue which explores the movement of millions of villagers to factories in cities in China. The film focuses on a young girl named Jasmine who makes the hard journey to support her family and their farm. Viewers are invited into a rare look at a blue jean factory that makes clothes for the global market, and can examine the different points of responsibility from multinational companies, the factory owner, the government and the consumer. I show the film in 3 parts, stopping for discussion, and leaving room at the end of each part for small groups to discuss specific questions. The groups then share out their ideas to the larger class.

As there are so many products to explore and so many resources available, I invite your  input. How do you teach concepts of globalization? What activities allow for our youth to understand where our goods come from, basic economic principles, and what our role as consumers is to the global economy?