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America as 100 people: 'Village' concept used to teach

Susan Notes:

As a great fan of If the World Were a Village, I thank Greg Toppo for this background information and for news of the new book, which I just ordered.

By Greg Toppo

Nearly 22 years ago, David J. Smith, a middle-school social studies teacher in Cambridge, Mass., had a brief conversation that would change his life.

A student came to him with a simple question: Would it be smarter to take French or Spanish in seventh grade?

Smith said both were important languages, so the student asked, "If our classroom were the world, how many people would speak English, how many would speak French and how many would speak Spanish?"

It was a revelation: What if teachers, Smith thought, could help children understand the world by reducing it to a small group of people? Kids may not be able to wrap their minds around a number like 5 billion, but they can understand 100.

It was an appealing way of helping kids understand not only an abstract idea like a percentage, but, more important, how people live â what they do, what they own, how they worship.

He had long been developing an innovative geography curriculum called Mapping the World By Heart, which teaches students over the course of a school year to create a complete world map from memory. But the conversation took him in a new direction. He spent the next decade trying to craft the "100-people" idea into a book.

Two publishers liked it but neither could find an illustrator to match the material. Finally, in 2002, Kids Can Press, a small Canadian publisher, found the right illustrator, and If the World Were a Village appeared.

It was a huge success, with half a million copies sold. Schools nationwide have built entire geography units around it, and teachers in two schools have written original musicals, with 100 students shuffling across stage to represent villagers.

All of which delights Smith, now 65 and retired: "It's the most rewarding work I've ever done."

Now he has written a follow-up: If America Were a Village ($18.95, Kids Can Press), which reduces the USA to the same-size 100-person village.

In it we learn that 50 of 100 live in just nine states (12 of them in California). The combined populations of five rural states â Alaska, Vermont, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota â amount to just one person. (Each "person" equals more than 3 million people.)

It also tackles economic inequality, noting that:

â¢Five people share more than half the USA's wealth;

â¢One person controls more than 30%;

â¢The 60 poorest share about 4%.

The poverty figures, Smith notes, are actually rising, and like other stats will likely be updated in the next edition. "A lot of people are really shocked by the fact that 'people living in poverty in the U.S.' is increasing."

As for the student, his name is Kelefa Sanneh, and he ended up taking French. He became a journalist and now works as a staff writer for The New Yorker. He has fond memories of Mr. Smith, but absolutely no memory of the seminal conversation.

— Greg Toppo
USA Today



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