Sherri Michalowski, this week’s Educator of the Week, believes in helping her students develop their own voices as global citizens. Her impactful and well-received lesson about where t-shirts come from was inspired by a question she herself didn’t know the answer to. Sherri is a teacher consultant for the Wisconsin Geographic Alliance and teaches 8th grade social studies at Wisconsin Hills Middle School in Brookfield, Wisconsin.
For your Nat Geo Educator Certification, you created a project called “Where did all this STUFF come from?” How did that question come about?
It was so simple. One day I was going through my own kids’ closets, which were overflowing, and I felt slightly overwhelmed and in shock. The question, “Where did all this stuff come from?” flashed through my mind in that moment. And that inspired me to develop a project for my students.
How did you translate that question into a classroom project?
The 8th grade social studies class I teach is on current world issues, and my question fit right in with our study of globalization. I asked students to take photos of their closets, bring the photos into class, and tell us about their stuff. When I asked them where their items came from, they answered with things like, “the mall, my aunt, or H&M.” When none of the students gave an answer I was hoping to hear, that was the first lesson.
That sounds like a powerful way to introduce a unit. What did you do next?
I asked my students to wear their favorite t-shirt to school, and we looked at the tags to learn which countries they came from. Once they read the tag, they wrote down the origin on a notecard. We put all the notecards on the board and created a chart of the origin countries. Students were surprised that many of the shirts came from countries in Asia and Latin America. We’re from an affluent school district in Wisconsin, and before the lesson, most students hadn’t really thought about where their things came from.
We then watched a video series from National Public Radio called “Planet Money Makes a T-Shirt,” which is about how a t-shirt is made. To our surprise, we learned that the cotton is sometimes made and produced in Wisconsin. This was an a-ha moment for many students—we learned that there are hothouses right here in our state where cotton is grown!
Did students study the geography of any other objects?
After looking at T-shirts we took time to see where student shoes and pencils were made using the lesson from National Geographic called “The Geography of a Pencil.”
Next, students went back into their closets for a second time. I had them use Nat Geo’s Global Closet Calculator to determine where their stuff comes from, observe it on a map, and find patterns in which products tend to originate from which regions.
The final activity for students was to identify the geography of their favorite possession. Students researched and shared the geography of many of their favorite items, including their phones, sporting equipment, clothing, candy, and games.
What do you think was the takeaway for your 8th graders?
I think this project really changed their perception on their belongings. They learned to peel back the layers and trace the steps of production. They became much more aware and curious.
Through the lesson, they also really started to develop their own voices. One of the things we talked about was child labor, and they became quite impassioned with this subject. They developed their own opinions—not their parents’ or their communities’. Eighth grade is an opportune time for students to start thinking about what they value, and to develop their own belief systems. For me, it doesn’t matter which specific opinions they come to—it matters that they take multiple perspectives into consideration and understand the ripple effect their choices have on the world.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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The Educator Spotlight series features inspiring activities and lessons that educators are implementing with their students that connect them to the world in bold and exciting ways.